THE WRITER’S BLOCK: The Wall
Happy November and welcome to The Writers Block!
This month, I am highlighting a song by the wonderful composer/lyricist, Michael Patrick Walker. Last summer, I had the pleasure of working with him when we performed together at a concert at the Hippodrome in London, along with Georgia Stitt.
Born and raised in the small town of New Freedom, PA, Michael began his music education at the age of 5. Though he studied piano for many years, it wasn’t until the age of 13 when he played a 2 piano version of The Sound of Music at a local high school that he discovered his love of musical theatre. At age 17, he attended Carnegie Mellon University, where he first began to compose for the musical theatre, contributing the material for several original musicals.
Michael was one of the composers for the hit Off-Broadway Musical Altar Boyz, which garnered him two Drama Desk nominations (shared with Gary Adler) for both outstanding music and outstanding lyrics and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Musical. Not long after, he was asked to compose songs for Disney Channel’s new show “Johnny and the Sprites” starring John Tartaglia. Other shows include the musical Dog and Pony, with book writer Rick Elice. His album Out of Context: The Songs of Michael Patrick Walker was released in 2011 and received wonderful reviews.
I asked Michael to help dissect one of his songs, and he graciously accepted. I personally find it fascinating talking to other composers and seeing how they approach their work. Michael picked his song “The Wall”… and this is what he had to say:
Music and Lyrics by Michael Patrick Walker
Twenty-five years is a long time
To not change a word in this scene
But here we are playing the same parts
It must be our favorite routine
We cover the same ground every time
‘Til we’ve finally both said it all
Eventually we both apologize
And we add another brick to the wall
I think it used to be different
That we didn’t start out this way
But lately, I can’t remember back then
And, anyway, this is today
It’s not about any one thing anymore
I don’t care whether you said you’d call
It’s about all of the years still ahead of us
And all the bricks we’ve added to the wall
Nobody else knows anything is wrong
They envy the life they think we share
Too bad the truth is nothing like the lie
At least then we’d pretend to care
Twenty-five years is a long time
To not change a word in this scene
But now, I’m making a change to the slate
If not exactly wiping it clean
I’m sorry to make us face it
And I’ll take the blame for it all
But we’re too far down this path we chose
The moment that we added…
And every time we added…
Another brick to the wall
I see the character as being in his 40s or 50s – though there are acting choices that could justify a younger performer. While, to an outside observer, his life appears to be a good one, he is deeply dissatisfied. He’s been married to his wife since they were both very young and, if it was ever “right”, it hasn’t been for a long, long time, but neither of them has the strength to break free. The man’s entire life has been dominated by a fear of failure, of not fitting in, of being noticed in negative ways. He’s made choices in his life – or failed to make them – because of this fear and years and years of this have left him empty and profoundly sad.
The song is a musical monologue the man delivers to his wife. With only two choices left – to give up completely or say something – he reluctantly addresses the deep divide between them. True to form, he’s not outwardly emotional, though it is the most difficult thing he’s ever done or said. If he had mustered the courage to do this years ago, it might’ve been a fight or an explosion, but the moment is ten times more powerful because he is calm. It is the difference between him loudly sobbing or a single tear rolling down his cheek.
I’ve always pictured the song happening in the kitchen of their house. It doesn’t happen after a fight, rather it comes out of a moment of complete silence which weighs so heavily on him that he is compelled to finally speak. Physically, I always pictured him seated at a kitchen table, perhaps drinking a cup of coffee or simply watching his wife do the dishes. She stands at the sink, with her back to him and the audience throughout the entire song. As he finally says these things, both he and the audience should be left to wonder if she is devastated, relieved, shocked or something else entirely.
I’ve known a few couples with this dynamic – caught in a trap they both constructed and both have the power to escape but don’t. Every day, week, month and year they wall themselves in more and more – and with each second that passes, it becomes harder to find the courage to say “I can’t anymore.” There can be power in deeply dramatic situations – a physically abusive relationship, cheating spouses, etc – but there is a depth of sorrow that I wanted to explore in this moment. The death of this marriage isn’t a loud, bombastic scream from the mountaintop, but a quiet, sorrowful statement that is barely heard but had to be said.
The process for this particular song was very unusual for me. I sparked to the idea many years ago and roughed out the melody and the first two A sections. For reasons I can’t remember now, I then put it aside. That sometimes happens with a song I’m writing but there’s usually a shelf-life issue. If I get back to it within a reasonable amount of time – usually a matter of weeks – I just need to let it rest and ruminate on it for a while before finishing it. If I don’t, then perhaps the idea wasn’t fully formed or wasn’t meant to be a song. In this case, I came back to it several years later and finished it. My own theory is that, when I came up with the idea, I had enough insight to envision it, but not quite enough to finish it. Later on, as I was assembling the songs for my album, I revisited it again and, as I orchestrated it, I added the solo viola and violin lines. Something about the beginning and end of the song having those lonely solo string lines both set the mood and helped to tell the story before a word is sung. When something like that works out, I love it and, with this song, it fit perfectly.
Suggestions to a singer:
The key to this song in my mind is restraint. This song is more of “film acting” and less “theatre acting”. Unlike some songs where you must discover new feelings as they come out of your mouth, these feelings have been deeply and silently felt for years – the discovery is in saying them out loud. The challenge then is to perform the song in line with all of that without seeming disinterested or detached. I think this song is one that, on the page, seems quite simple but, to do well, is quite a challenge.
To listen to an audio sample of “The Wall,” visit https://newmusicaltheatre.com/artists/michael-patrick-walker/the-wall.html.
Next month, I will talk to composer/lyricist Bobby Cronin! Happy Halloween and keep singing!