Friday, March 13, 2009

From the Mouth of Alan Jay Lerner

This has been one of my favorite blogs to quote because what Lerner writes here is so relevent, even all these years later. I originally posted this on July 1, 2007.

When I wrote the blog entry “A Hundred Million Miracles,” I did so because I wanted to share something exciting I had found with the people who read my blog. I am very thankful to those who upload footage onto You Tube and Blue Gobo because it’s all about education. The more I can see of, say, Gwen Verdon from the original Sweet Charity, the more I can learn. Theatre is a living art form. You can gain much from reading about the great performances and from hearing first hand accounts, but until you see Heather Headley and Adam Pascal singing “Elaborate Lives” or see Gower Champion’s original “Before the Parade Passes By” choreography, you can never fully understand.

So below, I’ve scanned in the foreword to the published Paint Your Wagon libretto from which I quoted in my “Hello and Faux” blog entry. It is entitled “Advice to Young Musical Writers” and is written by Alan Jay Lerner himself. Reading this article really gave me perspective on a number of the current trends on Broadway.

The longer I study Broadway, how true it seems to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the Rick McKay documentary Broadway: The Golden Age and on the DVD bonus features, a number of significant theatre folk acknowledge that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway since the 1970s. In looking at this article, it’s clear that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway much longer . . . even in the midst of the great Golden Age.

So I propose that we limit complaining, continue learning, continue creating, and continue to fight the good fight of getting a great show on Broadway.

Advice to Young Musical Writers
by Alan Jay Lerner

In recent years there has been an ever-increasing number of adaptations in the theater and, by consequence, a steady decline of original works. This has been especially-true of the musical play (musical play as opposed to musical comedy). There have actually been only three successful original musical plays in the last decade. This dearth has frequently been mentioned in the press, and when it has been, it has always been accompanied by a mournful cry for more fresh creation. As one who has written four originals, the one between these covers included, let me hereby warn all aspiring authors and composers to stuff their ears with cotton and pay no heed to this soulful wail. No one, neither critic nor public, is clamoring for originality. The only desire is for something good. And to be good is quite original enough. If you create a total work that finds general acceptance, no mention will be made of what you have done. If it's unsuccessful, no one will commend you for your effort and encourage you to continue. All this I can state as a positive fact. And though it may seem edged with bitterness, I can assure you it is not. I have always been fully aware of the folly of that end of my endeavor and have often cursed the ambition that drives me. But with it all, my rewards in the musical field have been far in excess of what I truthfully feel I have contributed. No, my reasons for the above advice are sound and practical and come from one who loves his trade and has deep respect for it as a medium of expression.

The lyric theater is the one, and only one, true invention that has been made in theatrical form for many years. It is also a purely American creation; so American, in fact, is this subtle interweaving of word, song, and dance, that no other country has even been able to approach it. Because it is new, it also has great possibilities for development. And with a public that is searching for escape almost more avidly than it did during the war, there is a large, waiting audience. But there is also a problem. And this problem is a serious one. The spank in the machine is that there are very few people writing musicals. I don't believe there are more than a dozen composers, librettists, and lyricists in all who are regular practitioners and who have committed their careers to the musical stage. Not only that, but of that number no more than three, possibly four, have been developed in the past ten years. The rest have been the backbone of our musical theater since the twenties and early thirties.

There are a myriad of reasons why this should be so. The most important one, however, is economic. Although there are many struggling neophytes composing musical plays, the cost of production these days is so astronomical that investors are reluctant to trust their funds to any but the tried and true. The hazard is further increased by the fact that the cost of attending a musical has risen so that although there is a public longing for entertainment, people are unwilling to risk the price of a ticket unless they have been assured by the press that the evening will be a rewarding one. This means there is no room for the moderate success. A musical show is either a smash hit or it will invariably be a financial failure. And to increase the hazard even more, favorable notices by a majority of the eight New York critics are not sufficient. There are two of the eight writing for the daily press who must be pleased above all. Survival without their blessing is relatively impossible; even though survival with their blessing is not absolutely guaranteed. All of this naturally has immediate effects on the economic and emotional plight of the author and composer. How long can they continue writing without seeing production of, and receiving remuneration for, their efforts? Where do they make mistakes and thus learn? And how long can anyone endure without some sign of encouragement?

And so I return to my early thesis. With the risks being what they are—and I have only mentioned a few of the multitude—your chances not only of reaching production but achieving success will be inestimably enhanced if you begin with a book, a short story, a motion picture, or a play that has already been approved by public and critic alike. The value of the basic story cannot be exaggerated. There is often a general tendency to regard the book of a musical as of little consequence. This is especially true when the musical is a success. But let the opening night be a two and a half hour wake and you will read the next morning how neither the cast, the music, the scenery, nor the dancing was able to overcome the inept plot. I can tell you the book is all-essential. It is the fountain from which all waters spring. So start off on the right foot and select a story that is all prepared for you. The translation of that story to musical form is quite complex enough. Within that frame you will find more than adequate challenge to your originality and enough on which to experiment.

January 25, 1952

Originally published as a foreword to the published libretto of Paint Your Wagon

MLA Citation Information:
Lerner, Alan Jay. Foreword. Paint Your Wagon. Coward-McCann, 1952. vii-ix.

(Blogger doesn't allow for underlining, but please be aware that MLA requires titles of plays to be underlined instead of italicized.)

Please Note: I would just like to acknowledge that I am a big fan of copyrights, having ownership of a few of them myself. My intent in posting this piece of copyrighted work is solely education. I make no money from this blog. Since it has been long out of print, I trust that by posting it, I am not taking away from any earning potential from those who own the copyright.

I would be a happy camper if I got an email saying that this essay was going to be collected into a new collection of articles about Broadway over the past century, and therefore, I needed to remove it; however, since that seems sadly unlikely, I make it available. If you are the owner of this copyright and would like me to remove it, please contact me.

Broadway Mouth
July 1, 2007

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