How To Write This Musical, Part 2: When I Am Finished

“When will you make an end?”

These are the memorable words from the 1965 movie The Agony and the Ecstasy. They are the words of a beleaguered Pope Julius II – Rex Harrison, taking time off from haranguing Eliza Doolittle to harangue the renaissance artist Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) into completing his famous frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s equally memorable response?

“When I am finished!”

It’s a scene that my mum is fond of quoting back at me, whenever she begs to hear the new song I’m writing, whenever I sulk and pout and protest that it’s not quite ready to be heard yet.

“When can I hear it, then?” “When it’s finished!”

It’s the kind of comparison only a mum could make, that. Both an overly-generous comparison and a nudging criticism.

Still though, it’s a point that hits home – now more than ever, as my Fanatical deadlines loom ominously on the horizon, and still so many songs to revise and complete. Why do I take so long to finish a song? It’s not just how I write this show that I’m learning about, here – it’s how I write, full stop.

Sistine Chapel

How is a contemporary musical like a Renaissance masterpiece? (via Wikimedia Commons)

Practically perfect

Songs are a very compact art form. On average, they last three minutes in length; only three minutes for the musician to make a lasting impression on his audience. On that scale, every rhyme, every note counts for so much – a poorly phrased lyric or a repetitive chord change can instantly turn a great song into a merely good one, or worse. The same goes double for musical theatre songs, which have to incorporate the demands of character, plot and staging. The best musical theatre songs are intricate works of art – tiny Sistine Chapels, in which every brushstroke has been laboured over.

When that’s the standard you’re aiming for, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the pressure to create something that is “practically perfect” every time. After all, how can my actors, my director – let alone my audience – understand what my intentions are with this song if I don’t fix every detail, down to the last semi-quaver? How can I present them with a water-colour sketch and expect them to envisage the whole ceiling?

It doesn’t help that several of the theatre composers whose work I admire, such as Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown, are masters of the Sistine Chapel – trained classical musicians and accomplished pianists to boot. Poring over the conductor’s scores of their musicals, I marvel at their use of counterpoint, vocal arrangements and accompaniment figures – all of it lifting their music, creating a sound that’s fresh, honest and unique to the dramatic moment. In the face of all that, it sometimes makes writing anything less than a masterpiece feel like a cop-out.

There’s no shame in holding yourself to high standards. But aiming for perfection every time you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)? As it’s taken me years to learn, that’s a great way to ensure that you never finish a single song.

A musical theater writer's toolkit. (via Flickr / CC 2.0)

A musical theater writer’s toolkit. (via Flickr / CC 2.0)

Less perfect, more practical

This is where the deadlines of the workshop come in handy. Deadlines demand discipline. They also demand a little practicality. I’m not writing just to please myself, here – there’s a whole team of talented, devoted artists who can’t do their job until I’ve finished mine. In the movie, Pope Julius had to send armed guards to hunt Michelangelo down and drag him back to his paint pots. I’m sure my producer would rather do without the armed guards. I know I would.

As much as I admire Sondheim, Guettel and Brown, I also have to admit that I am not them. Not just admit it, but accept it – be comfortable with it, relish it even. They may be able to craft intricate chapels of music every time, but that’s not necessarily what works for me. There are a thousand and one ways to write a musical and every one of them is correct. I have to find mine.

For me, the epiphany came when I got my greasy mitts on a workshop draft of the vocal score from William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (it, um, fell off the back of a conductor’s podium). It’s always interesting to trace the changes that get made between tryouts and opening night. What struck me, however, was the simple, almost sketch-like nature of much of the music. Accompaniment figures that were no more than block chords and a bass note. Whole choral arrangements, mid-sections and endings that were missing. And I thought: well, of course. Finn was focused first and foremost on getting the story right – and quite right, too. He knew that all the filigree, all the surface detail could come later.

That’s the beauty of workshops. It’s a time to experiment, to make mistakes, to keep things malleable. It is, in fact, exactly the time to show people my unfinished water-colour sketches, and to learn as they suggest changes, add details of their own.

Besides, if there’s something else I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no such time as “when I am finished”. No matter how polished a song might appear to everyone else, there will always be that one lyric I want to tweak, that one chord I know I can phrase a little bit better. The trick is not to keep retouching the same chapel ceiling for the rest of my life. As Peter says of marriage in Company:

“Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect … the only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be!”

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