Consider Rewriting. No, Seriously.
The process of rewriting in musical theatre (or anything for that matter) is a tedious one. You finish a draft of this monster you’ve been crafting for however long, you’re super jazzed about it, you think it’s ready to approach The Broadway, but then. Well. Something is wrong. The dots aren’t connecting. The ending doesn’t jive with your overall point of view. Your protagonist is (gasp!) annoying. How did this happen? Where did you go wrong? Nowhere. You did nothing wrong. You’re just not done.
This tends to be a tortured moment for musical theatre writers. You have an opportunity to be overly precious, to ignore the necessary rewrites, and to forge ahead with a half-formed idea. Or you have the opportunity to diagnose your weaker moments, go back to the drawing board, and get your piece to its standing ovation. It may seem obvious to rewrite, but surprisingly, more and more MT writers are becoming increasingly protective over songs and scenes that, though enjoyable, do not service their plots in any real way.
As someone who is unabashedly in favor of rewriting, I’m offering you five questions to consider if you’re ever struggling with this Oh-So-Shakespearean question, to rewrite or not to rewrite?
1. Are you making sense? I'm dead serious. Sometimes we'll get so focused on finishing a piece that we don't even notice that we stopped making sense light-years ago. Sometimes I’ll go back and look through one of my musicals and actually be astonished with myself. Not in a good way. More like I Ended Act One With Celeste Calling Alexandra On An iPhone And My Piece Is Set In The 1920s kind of way. Yup. Killin’ it. See, your musical should be threading together so beautifully that the audience undoubtedly believes how you got from Point A to Point B. Don't think that you can skip over the details or that that one ultra-hip song will make people forget that you've written an incomplete supporting character. Constantly ask yourself: am I saying what I want to say? Reread your work as you write. It may seem tedious to start from page 1 and read up to 99 before starting on 100, but trust me, with the previous 99 pages fresh in your head, page 100 will be much more cohesive. Remember to ask yourself the tough questions, be meticulous, be brutally honest, and try to make sense.
2. After you've written your ending, go back to your beginning. In my opinion, this is wickedly important. Despite that you may be in deep love with your opening number, it may no longer jive with how the rest of your piece has shaken out. You could've started with a huge ensemble opening, but the role of the ensemble could have become less significant as you continued to write your piece. Perhaps now it's more effective to have the Mother and her Daughters open the show as a trio? Force yourself to question if your beginning fits your ending. Chances are you wrote your opening many moons ago, so now it's time to go back and flesh out a new draft of it.
3. Check your scene length. Musicals aren't plays. I know it can be tempting to keep that scene going, because hey, scenes are fun! Dialogue is rad! However, you've chosen to write a musical, so I highly recommend getting to a song as quickly as possible. Try to limit your book when you're able, because the last thing you want is for your scene to trump your song and make your song look like an after-thought. If you’ve said everything you already need to say in your scene, your song will inevitably feel redundant. Be mindful of the fact that in musical theatre, your book is your launch pad and your song is your rocket.
4. Check your show length. This becomes personal, but for me, a show longer than two and half hours has to be really freaking good to keep me sitting there. Essentially, if you're past minute 160, you might need to cut a few things.
5. Get a second opinion. When you feel confident in your most updated draft, seek outside opinions. Choose close friends, mentors, significant others, teachers—people you trust. Do not be too proud to receive feedback, because feedback is GOLD. Solid gold, y’all. It will absolutely alter your piece for the better and force you to be a more resilient and forward-thinking writer. Ultimately, feedback typically results in rewrites, and that’s a good thing. Of course, you don’t have to agree with every piece of critique hurled your way, but if the direction has merit, consider it. Don’t blow it off because you’re too lazy to write a new version of that scene or song or both. Challenge yourself, and thank your peers who are taking the time to read your musical.
Alright! Those are my 5 big ones when it comes to rewrites. I hope they help you as much as they continue to help me. I am certainly not a master by any stretch, but I do feel I'm not crazy precious when it comes to the writing process, and that has always worked in my favor as I continue to grow. So rewrites? I highly recommend them.
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