Change It, Change It, Don’t Change It

When I saw [title of show] at the very end of its run at the Vineyard Theater, so many moments resonated with me – come on, who did not cry during “A Way Back To Then”? But one particular section had me laugh-cringing – “Change It, Don’t Change It” – just that simple refrain distilled the complete paradox that is the musical theater development process. Change it. Don’t change it. Don’t change a thing. Aaaaah!

Oh, that phrase – “musical theater development process.” It’s a fairly neutral-sounding name for an experience which can be wild, insane, explosive, maddening, delicious, agonizing, and rapturous. It’s something which fascinates me – how does this all happen?

Watch this video on YouTube.

I’m a composer-lyricist-bookwriter – and also a teacher at New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program (where I was once a student.) I’ve been through the BMI Workshop (in its Los Angeles incarnation, the Lehman Engel Workshop.) I’ve been part of the ASCAP Workshop. Schools, workshops, residencies, seminars, retreats, living rooms, basements… everywhere, people are developing new musicals. Sometimes, I think about musicals as controlled chemical experiments – we’re all trying to find the exact combination of ingredients that will explode into a transformative theatrical experience. Maybe it’s more alchemy than chemistry – and we’re all alchemists rummaging around in our laboratories, searching for the elusive catalyst to create magic.

Sometimes the magic happens. Sometimes you singe off your eyebrows.

Just like this.

Just like this.

This post is the first in a short series about how new musicals come into being. I’ll be having conversations with a range of people who all are involved in developing and creating new musicals. The list of people you’ll be hearing from includes directors, producers, actors, retreat and festival organizers – from all parts of the country – all of whom are passionate about musicals, and committed to new work.

Stephen Sondheim often talks about theater as a process of experimentation – you’re constantly able to change things, rewrite, add, cut – always trying to make something better.  Here’s a PBS interview with Mr. Sondheim from a few years ago:

Watch this video on YouTube.

The whole interview is interesting, but one small thing jumped out at me –when the interviewer asks, “What makes a song successful?” and Sondheim replies, “I don’t know what you mean by successful.”

“It doesn’t work.”

Sondheim’s quick reply, “I don’t know what you mean by successful” – that’s something worth digging in to. We talk all the time about whether something “works.” “It doesn’t work. Cut it.” “A show like that can’t work.” A question I always have is – what does it mean that something works, or doesn’t? The audience’s response is the ultimate test – but audiences change. What “works” on a Saturday might not seem to “work” on a Tuesday. I remember talking to a writer just after a reading of his new show – he was dismayed that a joke hadn’t gotten any audience reaction. “That joke doesn’t work.” He was ready to cut it. But what he hadn’t realized was that someone in the audience had coughed at exactly the same time as the punchline. The audience didn’t laugh only because they hadn’t heard the line.

If the show were in a regular run, the joke probably would have gotten a great laugh at the next performance. But because it got muffed at a one-time presentation, the writer was ready to toss it out. How do you know what’s a problem with the writing – versus an issue just with this particular performance on this particular day in this particular space?

“We know we asked you for this…”

Another favorite analogy of mine: writing a musical is like building a complicated catapult – you need a whole team of people making sure the gears and levers and straps are tightened correctly before it can launch. And everyone’s got an opinion. The question is – who do you listen to? What feedback is useful? And how can you tell?

If you aren’t following the “Network Notes” Twitter account, you should: it’s made up of real feedback sent from TV executives to writers. “This section really needs to slow down and have room to breathe. That being said, it could also use a tightening pass.” “We want a work story that isn’t so work-centric.” And my favorite: “We know we asked you for this… but you don’t have to give us everything we ask for.”

Over the years, I’ve gotten great, insightful bits of feedback from directors, from actors, from producers, from fellow writers. But I’ve gotten just as many comments which I shouldn’t have followed. They weren’t obviously crazy, like the Network Notes. They were ideas from intelligent people who obviously wanted the show to be better… but which slowly began to pull the piece away from itself.

The question of feedback – how to give it, how to receive it, how to know what to do with it – is one that I want to explore in these conversations. How do you know if a change is making the show truer, better, clearer – or just “cleaner”?

The most agonizing-slash-terrifying part of “Change It, Don’t Change It” comes as Hunter and Jeff wrestle with notes they’ve been given from producers. Too many f-bombs in the show for the matinee crowd. Too many obscure jokes for a commercial audience. Maybe a bigger “name” will take over a role. It might be easy to dismiss these (like the more absurd TV notes), but smaller questions – should a song stay or go? Should it come earlier in the show? Later? – are much more challenging.

Over the next few months, we’ll be talking about new musical development from many angles, and seeing what we discover. It’s an incredible, vibrant time for musical theater – the very existence of this site is a testament to that. The fact that a live production of a musical on television can generate wars on Facebook and Twitter means that musicals are very much in the cultural conversation. I’m looking forward to diving in.

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