Wednesday, March 12, 2008

525,600 Million Minutes: How Do You Survive the Workshop Process?

How long does it take to write a musical? I (insert cocky smirk here) wrote the first draft of my first book to a musical in about a month at the age of twenty-three. And I didn’t need the help of any pesky songwriters either. Unfortunately, my show needed much work (insert humble-pie downcast eyes here) and, though greatly improved in the eight years since, it could still benefit greatly from the right collaborators (after all, a musical isn’t very good without music, or so I’m told).

I have had self-produced readings of my work, both public and private readings to gauge the success of my work. Particularly since I’ve worked alone, it’s very hard to know what you’ve got until you experience a reaction from someone as a result of reading or seeing your show (not to mention hearing the words read and the characters interpreted).

That said, the workshop process baffles me. I guess I’ll fully understand it when I’m actually taking part in one, but until then, I must wonder aloud in written form.

In video interviews on taken opening night of the exciting new musical In the Heights, various people allude to workshops of the show being produced, one person mentioning a workshop from five years ago. Five years! Considering that workshops are a relatively new invention (it all started with A Chorus Line, in case you didn’t already know), I find it interesting that work-shopping is now the norm and that all those masterpieces of the Golden Age didn’t require them. In those days, a team sat down, wrote the show—sometimes guided by a producer and director—presented the material, found backers, then their names were shining on the Great White Way. Then they’d do it again.

None of this is a knock on In the Heights or the state of contemporary theatre because what matters is not how a show gets to Broadway, but whether it’s good when it gets there.

However, I can’t help but wonder why it takes so long for a show that has an actively interested producer to find its way. It’s hard to say because with In the Heights, for example, there was a fresh new team working, which is very different from having seasoned professionals at work. By the time Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing Oklahoma!, they each had numerous Broadway credits. They had the time to refine their talents, which goes a long way in creating something new.

It’s also important to remember the change in Broadway economics. Shows no longer tour several cities to work out the kinks before arriving in New York. In the Heights, for example, only had an off-Broadway run. Perhaps the workshops act as additional stops out of town.

I still wonder, though, why it takes so long for a show to get perfected. Sometimes the workshops are more than the work of the writers; the length between workshops may be from funding problems, conflicting producers’ schedules, or the availability of performers tied to the roles.

I bet much also has to do with life commitments. When you’re in the workshop process, you’re still supporting yourself with that day job or two or three, maybe even a fourth if you want health insurance. I guess it’s hard to fix everything in a month’s time.

But five years when a team is assembled?

I used to gasp when I heard about people working on film projects for ten or twenty years, wondering how on earth they could sustain that. Naturally, I’ve learned the hard way. If someone had told me when I sat down that month to write the first draft of my first book to a musical, “You’ll make every wrong decision along the way to screw yourself up, won’t find dedicated and knowledgeable collaborators, and after eight years, will still find yourself many states away from anyone who actually cares about Broadway,” I don’t know if I would ever have started. You sustain that project because you love the characters, you believe in it, and you believe in yourself. After all, when you’ve carried yourself ten miles, ten more doesn’t seem as daunting.

When I do get to Broadway—which will happen—I just hope to God I don’t have to go through eight years of workshops first. Give me one workshop, a month to fix it, another workshop, then get me on Broadway before I get Alzheimer’s!

the Broadway Mouth
March 12, 2008

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