Thursday, October 11, 2007

You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps

Step 1
In student teaching 7th graders, I decided to create a unit on William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. I entered the experience unsure of what I would be teaching, and as I was paging through a literature book from the early 80s, I spotted the play. Instantly I knew it’d be just the thing.

I created a fantastic unit centered on the play which focused on theatre appreciation and the theme of overcoming challenges/disabilities. I began by giving the kids notes on what makes a play—why live theatre is unique from movies sort of things—and pumped them up for enjoying the play. As part of this, I showed them clips from shows on The Tony Awards, including The Lion King and The King and I, to illustrate those points. So, for example, when we watched “Shall We Dance,” we learned how the imagination helps create the set.

I also created a bulletin board complete with photos of Broadway shows, pamphlets from local theatres, pictures of myself doing improv and the few shows I had done in college. I will admit it was a great unit. The kids were excited, loved the play, wanted to read it, and we all had a blast doing it.

My co-operating teacher was very inexperienced when it came to drama, so to him, my use of all this background and knowledge combined with my enthusiasm and the success of the unit made him impressed.

In my letter of recommendation, he wrote, “He has an extensive drama background.” I was 22. By this point in life, I had certainly developed an interest and had seen a respectable number of plays, but my actual formal education was three theatre classes in college and two literature classes focused on plays (Drama Literature and Shakespeare). I had only acted in two plays, done stage crew for one, but had been heavily involved in improv for 2 ½ years. That was it.

I now had an “extensive drama background.”

Step 2
When I interviewed for a one-year English teaching position at a prestigious arts school three years later, I advertised my artistic talent. Admittedly, by this point, I had developed considerably more in my learning and experience. I had directed high school plays, had written a ton of skits and one longer play (which was basically a gathering of long skits into one cohesive story, but nothing grand by any means), plus I had been working on my first musical (and was in fact preparing it for a local workshop reading). I had even received some encouragement from a local musical development program (headed by a respected Broadway producer) when my work (at the age of 22, pat myself on the back) remained into the second round of selection for development . . . up against some people who had had professional credits on both coasts. I had also studied musical theatre considerably to learn more and to grow as an artist.

As part of that interview, I shared all my letters of recommendation and, to my surprise, was hired.

Step 3
This was a wonderful school, and it was filled with top-notch teachers of the core academic subjects (the group of which I was a part) as well as teachers who were experts in teaching performing, visual, and written arts, including two drama teachers who were very experienced and passionate in the way you would imagine arts school teachers to be.

After I was hired, the school’s wonderful program director mailed out a “welcome back” letter to all the teachers in the building. In that letter, he introduced the new faculty.

I was introduced as the new English teacher who had “an extensive drama background.”

Gee, that was easy.

The Reality
Unfortunately, actually getting an extensive drama background under any other criteria is pretty hard. In watching the Rent 2-disc special edition DVD this past weekend, I was astounded by the fascinating documentary on the making of Rent (both stage and film), which included an extensive look at the life of Jonathan Larson and his dream of writing musicals.

Jonathan Larson labored unceasingly toward his goal. Obviously he was talented beyond belief—just look at the longevity of his show—but he still had to develop his talent. Even as his show was courting Broadway producers, the producers were acknowledging that there needed to be work done on the show. It was rough. Even today when you read analyses of Rent, it is clear people think it is a great show. But I’ve never read an analysis that points to the show as perfect, possibly a result of Larson dying before the show could be frozen to his perfection.

It appears as if Larson was learning the difficult art of collaboration. According to friends on the documentary, Larson resisted collaboration. One even suggests that his resistance to collaboration may have been why his Suburbia never got produced, that it wasn’t because he was a new talent but because it was flawed.

In my journey as a wanna-be-produced librettist, I have learned many important lessons about the art of musicals. Some of these are lessons I learned the hard way, and others I learned by reading from people more experienced than myself. However, I bring them up because in my search for collaborators in the past, I have seen many people making the same mistakes I used to make and those that even the great Jonathan Larson was prone to making as well.

Allow me to be transparent for a few paragraphs. When I started on this journey, I had a musical play I began writing. I was only twenty-three when I started it, and as I mentioned above, I did receive some encouragement on the project.

But my vision for how I would hit the Broadway scene was that I would be an all-knowing creator. I just needed to find a composer and lyricist who could take all the songs I wanted them to write (because the libretto was genius, naturally) in the style my superior judgment understood they should be. I knew exactly where the dance was to be, how I wanted it performed, and that was that.

Then I met Hattie. Hattie is not her real name, but Hattie is a very talented composer-lyricist who has a great concept for a project.

She posted online wanting a collaborator for a project, so I emailed her several samples of my work. She immediately read it, sent back a bruising email in which she strongly critiqued my work point-blank. After catching my breath, I was actually extremely thankful for her harshness because that is the only way you learn. I grew from her comments. A few of them were dead-on, a few of them not. Despite her critique, she was interested in meeting to discuss the project. Over the phone she made it clear, “I don’t suffer fools.”

As I was to learn over our next two meetings, the only fool Hattie suffered was herself. First of all, she had some great songs, but they were tripped up by forced meter and a few off rhymes, though I will say that of all the composers with whom I’ve communicated that claim to be influenced by Sondheim, she’s the first of which I said, “Yes, I can see it,” though her work has a more easily identifiable and instantly pleasing melody than the Master's.

But Hattie was much like I was. She wanted me to come in and write the libretto the way she wanted. She wanted two comedic characters much like those in another show (which, if I had ever done that, everyone would have thought it was ripping off, her idea was so blatant). She had specific plot points in mind. It was all laid out. I just needed to follow her lead.

The problem is that very few artists work alone. A novelist has an editor who gives feedback, and a playwright gets help from a director. A musical requires the typical writer/songwriter to stretch so far beyond their natural talents. I have come to learn that I need a songwriter because I can’t do what a songwriter does. I need a choreographer because he or she better knows how to make a show dance. If I am dependent upon myself to do all the roles in a musical, then there’s going to be a great book and everything else will stink. Collaboration is about individual people bringing their best talents to make the show better than any one person could do it. Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, and every other successful Broadway creator has needed collaborators. No one else is going to top these people on their own.

The problem with Hattie’s idea was that it was an awesome concept with no conflict or plot structure. It was a series of events in a man’s life—interesting events, no doubt—but there was no dramatic tension. As I tried to propose a plot that would give the story a spine and a sense of direction, she balked at the idea. And she should have balked because I was very far off from her original concept (she wanted me to incorporate all her songs but never handed me her lyrics); however, the idea as she envisioned wouldn’t work.

She said she wanted a collaborator, but when I stepped in to suggest improvements (or at least changes) as a collaborator would do, I realized that’s not what she wanted. She wanted someone who would be a puppet, someone who realized her ideas were as genius as she did.

And honestly, having been there/done that, I can say I have seen much of that in people trying to find collaborators online. They want a clone of themselves who writes the book instead of just the music or writes the music instead of just the book.

But I’m thankful for Hattie because I figured it out before it was too late. I realized that I was just like her, wanting to do everything myself to the detriment of my beloved projects.

As for Hattie, after our second meeting when she rightly rejected my ideas for the plot, she emailed me to say, “Thanks but no thanks” (which, for the record, is a really tacky/chicken/unprofessional means of turning someone down unless you’ve only been communicating through email). Her project still has not come to fruition despite her having a big-time connection to Broadway. And it won’t until she learns what I had to learn.

You simply cannot do it alone.

the Broadway Mouth
October 11, 2007

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