Monday, July 7, 2008

I Know Things Now: An Update on the Pursuit of Production from the Broadway Mouth (and a Few Musings of Interest to Other Writers)

Wicked librettist Winnie Holzman in the bonus features for Show Business: The Road to Broadway:

“It’s very unique to have a show on Broadway. It’s hard to even describe the shock of it and the feeling of gratitude. One’s very aware of how difficult that is to have happen . . . the sense of the odds stacked against you, the feeling that you sort of pulled off a miracle. It’d hard to describe, but it’s there . . . I still can’t believe it.”

I recently followed a link on All That Chat to an article about someone who was honored through the BMI musical theatre workshop, and I was made acutely aware of the terrifying reality that I’m not the only out there trying to get a show on Broadway. That strikes me now and again when I see websites for people with shows they are developing, demos they are sharing, or, like the BMI link, pictures and names of people who are studying musical theatre with the hopes of robbing me of seeing my name in a Playbill.

There are so many people trying to make it on Broadway, what serious hope do any of us have of actually getting there, particularly if we are not connected.

Being a Book-Writer: The Blessing and the Curse
After networking, the biggest factor at hand is quality of our work. We’d all like to think of our work as undiscovered genius, but the truth is, there’s a lot floating out there that isn’t quite ready for Broadway. I actually have it easy because, as a librettist, my work can’t be accurately capsulated into an MP3 file. A book-writer’s skills are in character development and plotting, neither of which can accurately be measured in a few pages. That doesn’t mean we aren’t forced to shove our 138-paged self-proclaimed masterpiece into trivializing treatments or into one or two paragraph summaries, but I think it is easier to showcase talent as a writer than as a songwriter. How many music samples have I listened to online and thought, “What a bland melody” or “time doesn’t rhyme with kind” or “those rhymes are too obvious” or “the meter is off; we don’t say yes-ter’-day.” Judging and mis-judging a book-writer’s work isn’t quite as easy.

The flip of the coin, however, is that the librettist has the added challenge of time. I once had a producer of a favorite Broadway show say, “Send me a CD when you get the music done. That’s advice I got from Hal Prince. If I like the music, then I’ll read the libretto.” But unfortunately for me, I parted ways with the composer for his lack of work ethic (i.e. productivity, follow-through, abundance of convenient illness to explain lack of work, etc.) and no demo CD was made. It may only take an hour or two to read a libretto, but no one has the time to invest to do so. People will invest millions but not a couple of hours (though to be fair, one could spend a lifetime reading crap submitted to them, and while Cameron Mackintosh does, one assumes he has more free time since he earned untold millions in a stretch of twenty years).

When I started writing as the Broadway Mouth, I began sharing bits and pieces of my own journey to Broadway, hoping that my experiences and musings would entertain, enlighten, and, perhaps, inspire others. So, once again, I check-in with you, sharing what specifics I can about my journey.

One Year (and a Little Accomplished)
About a year ago, I wrote a column about discovering that my sister knew someone who knew someone well who was involved in the producing of a major Tony-award winning Broadway musical and how, through her, a connection was forged. In summation, the libretto for my second musical—a musical comedy—was sent off to be given to this producer-like figure with a promise that her people would read it.

Those sorts of things always take time. Producer Kevin McCollum (of Rent, Avenue Q, and In the Heights, among others) talked on the American Theatre Wing Working in the Theatre seminars (see the links to your right) about how the libretto for The Drowsy Chaperone sat on his desk for an entire year before picking it up to read it. Producers are busy people—heck, even non-Producers are busy people—and the fact that I haven’t heard anything in the nine or so months since it was hand-delivered isn’t a bad sign at all.

Of course, you can’t help but dream that by some fluke, the person loves your musical, wants to produce it, matches you up with the right collaborators, and in a year, you’re on Broadway with over a thousand people laughing uproariously at something that began life on your computer screen. Still, I am willing to be realistic and hope greatly to receive some useful feedback about my work.

As a writer, sending your play or script off to someone for feedback is always a scary thing. One friend of mine knows a stunt man in Hollywood who has done stunt work in some high profile movies, including in one of the Spider-Man movies. My friend arranged for him to read a sitcom pilot I wrote several years ago, and I was very thankful for the opportunity to send it to someone. His comments to me, though, revealed the big danger for someone writing in play or script format. Not everyone can read a script.

It takes a unique mind that is familiar with reading plays to begin to be able to visualize the images in the writer’s mind, the timing of the jokes, the expressions of the actors. I forget the specific wording, but his big recommendation was to include more in the way of stage directions to help show how things should be read and to better understand the characters’ personalities. I didn’t know how to read his comments because a writer should never be excessive in stage directions or designators, and the personalities are best shown through dialogue and actions (though how to describe characters in stage directions in a way that is clear but doesn’t rob the reader of meeting them in the way the audience will—through the dialogue and actions—may be a quandary I haven’t solved). His comments never fully satisfied me that he actually was able to understand what I had written.

I was very excited, though, when I was presented this past January with the gift of being able to send my musical comedy to an actual writer. I ended up meeting someone (a very talented artist in his own right) who knew this Broadway-produced playwright and, not-so-long story short, arranged for me to send a copy of my musical comedy to this writer, who has since contacted me and assured me that he will get to my work. After so many years of writing—and I have actually had audience reception to fuel my work—it will be life-giving to get some sort of feedback from an expert on the subject.

One Year (and a Lot Learned)
It’s amazing how much one learns and grows. I am in awe of those artists throughout history who have managed to produce art of note and lasting impression while still young—Anne Bronte, who published two novels before dying at age 29, both of which are still being read today; under-30 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deserved Tony win for his hip-hop/Latin-infused hit of the season, In the Heights; or Stevie Wonder, who released his first album at 13.

At 31, I count myself among those artists whose work required time, study, and refinement to earn attention (or, in my case, to hope to earn attention). Jonathon Larson was a genius, but not until he was 35 and watching Rent off-Broadway during previews. Writer Sandra Benitez (A Place Where the Sea Remembers) wrote an entire novel that she would later bury as a sign of death and resignation that not only would it not get published but that it didn’t deserve to be; she later wrote several other books which promise to thrive long after her passing. Amy Tan, whose books The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife I esteem among my favorites, didn’t even begin writing until she was in her late 30s.

I liken myself to Jane Austen, in that she wrote two novels that never saw publication in their original form. One was Elinor and Marianne, the other First Impressions. It would be well over ten years later those works would be revised to become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Their new titles alone suggest a maturity of style and depth that their earlier incarnations must have been lacking. Ten years of reading, studying, and maturing does wonders for your talent.

At this time in my life, I feel the most prepared to take on anything creatively. As much stress and frustration nine years of teaching gave me, I have to admit that the process of teaching writing and literature analysis to students taught me volumes that have helped me as a writer. I’ve also flourished in my ability to interpret the world and to create work that engages the heart and mind. I hope to look back on nine years (more, actually) of writing without fruit and realize that, as Maya Angelou would say, I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.

Advice to Future Broadway Creators
Starting the Broadway Mouth blog was one of the best things I could have done as an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist. One of the ways we learn about things is by writing. You could read a book or see a show and have the propensity for ideas sprouting from the experience, but writing is the most effective mode of actually giving those thoughts form and substance, forcing you to create sentences to complete your ideas.

A great example of this learning process is my recent series on “20 Great Broadway Songs from the Past 10 Years,” which began as an innocuous list celebrating Broadway. I can’t tell you how much this experience has taught me about Broadway music. By analyzing the different kids of show music (the pop Aida, the operatic Marie Christine, the comedic The Drowsy Chaperone), I have forced myself to learn more about how music affects the character development, tone, and style of a show, how pop music has one set of benefits, while the character-rich style of an Adam Guettel has another set of benefits. Honestly, I would recommend any aspiring Broadway writer to create their own list AND to write their own analysis.

Projects Bouncing About My Head
This summer, my blog has pretty much consumed the majority of my writing time (since I decided to make a point of enjoying the warmth of the summer more than ever before), but I am not without ideas for writing projects.

I have decided to spend my time now focusing on that which is most easy to secure an audience. So, in addition to the shows I’ve already written and am actively pursuing production, I’m going to take the time to turn my own First Impressions into a Pride and Prejudice. Five years ago I wrote a 350+ page novel that I always knew had great potential. As I wrote it, I would email chapters to two different friends who are avid readers, and the fact that they would eagerly anticipate each new chapter was encouragement. For a variety of reasons, I let the work sit dormant, but now that I’m older and have grown as an artist (like I mentioned above), I’m ready to sit down and revisit the work. I know how to better shape the material so that it has a chance of living up to my own standards. Books are easier to pursue publication for the simple fact that you can send them off to a variety of publishing houses and actually expect that someone will read them. Crap still has a difficult time getting published, but statistically, you have a better chance of getting feedback and an honest appraisal. Librettist Joe Smith could have the next Guys and Dolls, but no one is going to read it anyway. It’s a little easier with books.

For the past nine months or so, I’ve also been contemplating writing a show about the life of one of the most popular singers of the 1960s (who also had great success in the 1970s and 1980s). Not only was this singer extremely popular, but I know someone who has been friends with her for thirty years and would be willing to hand her a copy of my play. Face it, I’d at least get my work read, and her approval would be a huge step toward enticing a producer.

I have purposefully been staying away from Jersey Boys because I don’t want to be influenced by that show, and I think I have created a concept and plotline that infuses her big hits in a way that is fresh and dramatic. I would NOT write this work with Broadway in mind, but I do think it could be a big hit if I could make it entertaining enough.

My big dilemma, though, is twofold. Number one, it’s very hard to contemplate writing a living person as a character in a play when you aren’t sure of their speech patterns or the nuances of their personality, which would be very important should she read the play (which is part of the plan). I was hoping to meet the singer, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Secondly, it’s honestly not a project I am passionate about (though, frankly, once I start on it, I will be very excited about it). Honestly, I could write a great musical with the idea that I’ve got, but I would prefer to work on something entirely original (or at least using entirely original music).

It Sucks to Be Me / It Sucks to Be You
It doesn’t suck to be Winnie Holzman because she’s got a show on Broadway (and in Chicago, Los Angeles, and cities around the world), but you know, the reality is that at one point, it sucked to be Winnie Holzman too. We are all the metaphor of the butterfly who must struggle to escape the cocoon in order to develop the muscles needed to fly.

And yeah, there are a lot of other butterflies all trying to break out of their cocoon into a crowded world, but I guess if we don’t have the fortitude and belief in ourselves to break out of the cocoon, we would never survive in the cruel world of Broadway anyway.

To paraphrase Mary Poppins, it sucks to be us, and that’s as it should be.

the Broadway Mouth
July 7, 2008

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