Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Trade Secrets: Guiding Principles Inaction

Part of the development of a young artist is to form a theory under which to create. Because that theory is formed during the maturing process, it inevitably will change to fit new learning, new understanding, or simply from experiencing more of life and maturing as a result.

Finding the articles that formed my recent blog entry “Ancient Texts of 2000” worked to remind me afresh of some of the guiding principles I have since lost along the way, a refining from the result of seeing newer works, analyzing what gets produced on Broadway, and facing some truth about my beloved (but oh-so-flawed) first work.

Much about my own ideas of the modern musical has since changed, primarily because the genre changed when I wrote my second musical, a comedy. The rules that guide a show like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Parade cannot be the same rules that guide Kiss Me, Kate or Bells are Ringing. All of those shows have their strengths, but they are pretty much cut from different cloths, stylistically as well as structurally.

Times have changed since I wrote the first draft of that first show, a musical play. I will take a moment to add that I did submit that draft to a developmental program headed by a major Broadway producer, and while my work was not ultimately selected, I was actually seriously in the running and lost out to people with major production credits on both coasts (I was twenty-three, and this was my first major attempt). As far as I know, I have worked more to get my work seen than those who were finally selected; the very promising show they created has seemingly dissipated (which was too bad; it had a lot of potential).

Despite the change in times—musical plays are no longer really en vogue—finding those articles brought me back to my roots and reminded me of the guiding principles that shaped that first show.

So, I present to you, guiding principles inaction:

1. I wanted to write my show to have a break-out song, one like “Someone Like You” or “I’ll Forget You” that could conceivably be re-recorded by a pop singer to air on the radio. Lyrically, the song would require a few alterations to make the character-specific lyrics more general for radio play, but it would essentially remain the same song. In fact, I even had a music video worked out for it that would include the two original Broadway stars and their understudies as additional promotion. My theory was that not only would it promote the song in a romantic, MTV-palatable fashion, but by centering the story of the video in the theatre, it would bring additional attention to the show. The Broadway actors who starred in the musical would become recognized from the video, and nobody who saw the video would be disappointed when there were understudies performing instead of the people they saw on the television. I’ll stop short of sharing the actual concept here because I still have my high hopes, but I still think this is a great idea.

Frank Wildhorn, who inspired me on this, got lambasted for such outlandish notions, but the truth is that the great contemporary vocalists of the Golden Age gone by used to always get hits out of songs from stage and screen musicals. How Wildhorn’s experiment failed, however, was that he selected a merely fantastic voice to record the songs. No one cansing a Wildhorn song like Linda Eder, but he should have been courting Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or Christine Aguilera, names that could have made his pop songs popular outside the pageant set. With the corporate influence on Broadway today, I’m surprised no one has used that to their benefit, by courting, say, whatever pop stars Universal has an interest in to record a song from a Universal-backed show.

There was some talk of someone, was it Patti LaBelle, recording a song from The Color Purple, but it never happened. Why not, I don’t know, but it was an ingenious idea. Producers Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones must have had some pull to get this done with any number of singing stars, at least with Fantasia (whose rendition of “I’m Here” would have been by far the best song she’d recorded before or since “Summertime”).

2. In one sense, dramatic musicals are the most profitable genre of musicals. I don’t mean musicals lacking comedy entirely, but musicals that tell moving and emotional stories with great heart and popular appeal. A show like The Producers; Annie; and Hello, Dolly! can have tremendous runs, but when it comes to the mega-runs of shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, or Miss Saigon, comedy just can’t do it. You’re only going to laugh heartily at Bialystock and Bloom so many times before it’s not that funny anymore, particularly as replacements come in and do things differently from how you remembered it before.

I saw Les Miserables at least five times on tour, even seeing it twice during one stop, and you know, it never failed to move me tremendously. I saw some Eponines who were better than others, Fantines who could knock “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the park and others who only hit a double, but I always exited the theatre greatly affected.

Les Miserables made all those millions (or even billions?) because it was a darn good show and because it communicated emotions that could always be felt. We’ve had a string of likeminded shows that haven’t been very good—The Woman in White and The Pirate Queen come to mind—but there are risks in investing in any show. A man who invested $100,000 in The Wedding Singer probably lost about as much as a man who invested $100,000 in The Woman in White. But the man who invested in the latter show historically has a better chance of hitting the mega-jackpot because even the best comedies will never have such a tremendous run as a Miss Saigon.

There must be a variety of offerings for audiences because too much of one thing will lead to audience fatigue. In the end, what angle you take on your show should be driven solely by the needs of the story. Miss Saigon never would have worked as a musical comedy, while The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee never would have worked as a “pop opera.” There is room and a need for both.

3. Actors are all the spectacle you need. It seems odd to praise shows with helicopters and turntables then turn around and praise actors as spectacle, but this is a principle that has guided my work since the beginning. It may have come from the anti-climactic nature the chandelier and the helicopter had on me by the time I saw their respective shows (the helicopter was so small, and the chandelier was so slow), but what you ultimately leave the theatre with are the emotions you felt—be it great joy or emotional release—and those will always come from actors.

That’s not to say that there may not be a need for a chandelier. It’s just that the presence of it should be determined by the needs of the story (which I would say is needed in The Phantom of the Opera). But no matter how thrilling, no spectacular effect will ever rival a Carol Channing, a Norm Lewis, or a Judy Kaye.

4. I wanted to bring a new level of literary depth to the Broadway musical. I wanted my musicals to be like other great pieces of literature, a work with a driving theme that was intelligently developed throughout the work, like Arthur Miller did in The Crucible, F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, or Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter.

In my first musical, this took several forms. First of all, I aimed for a certain depth and nuance of character, taking time to develop a history for my most significant characters and deliberately choosing others to be flat characters. In even some of the smaller supporting characters, though, I was still creating depth, attempting to give the actors some meat to bite into, even if they appeared in only three scenes.

I also developed the relationships between the characters so that they were real and motivated by character. The daughter’s and father’s relationship, for example, was shaped not by plot necessity but by their histories and differing viewpoints. Similarly, the two main characters fell in love because of specific reasons, not because she was pretty and he was dashing.

Depth also came into play in the developing of a theme. I had a spine with characters and events that fed into that central theme. This wasn’t as complex as, say, The Scarlet Letter, but it was stronger than what one typically finds in a Broadway musical.

This is something that I didn’t abandon in my comedy, which has a less complex theme but one that is introduced early and follows the characters and events through to the end. Someone could actually write an analysis essay on it.

5. Above all, story, characters, and popular appeal is the most important element. While I enjoy a variety of different plays and musicals, I am most interested, at least I was then and am now, in telling stories that delight and transport people. If I had to sacrifice depth for enjoyment, I would, though I don’t think a fascinating or engaging story has to be empty.

Part of the development of a young artist is to form a theory under which to create. Because that theory is formed during the maturing process, it inevitably will change to fit new learning, new understanding, or simply from experiencing more of life and maturing as a result.

Or maybe sometimes it changes for all the wrong reasons.

the Broadway Mouth
February 6, 2008

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