The Writer vs. Wikipedia
I am a part of a large community of musical theatre writers who are avid fans of adapting real life events and people into music theatre pieces. When you find a non-fictional topic to dive into, you (usually) already begin with a whirlwind of perspectives, opinions, and questions about the people involved, the motivations behind the events, etc… The troubling aspect about conveying a historical person or event lives in the editing. What information do you include? What’s left out? What’s deemed unnecessary to know in order to gain a full understanding of the topic?
The first biographical musical I ever tackled revolves around Christine Chubbuck, the notorious 1970’s broadcast journalist who took her own life while live-on-the-air (“Reporting Live”). Information regarding Christine’s personal life proved to be rather difficult to obtain. While Christine’s story received national attention, it was a short lived topic of discussion (Nixon’s Watergate trial concluded only a week afterwards). There were no blogs, tweets, Buzzfeed, camera phones, and most notably, no way of preserving any news coverage outside of the news stations themselves. The people actually involved in Christine’s demise (her friends, family, and colleagues) did what they could to move on from the event. Nevertheless, with such little information available, I still found myself struggling to eliminate pieces of information about her life.
At first I believed I could include any information necessary. But the more information I included, the more the show started to feel like a musical Wikipedia page. And thus an important lesson was learned: If people want to learn the facts, they can go to Google. If people want to experience your point of view, then they should see and hear your musical.
An easy compromise can be made with what information is important for your perspective, or what can be useful on the lid of a Snapple bottle. A fabulous example that comes to mind is Michael Friedman’s score to the deliriously infectious Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Those who were lucky enough to see the emo-rock-biographical musical at the Public or in midtown were able to devour a healthy amount of critical information about Mr. Jackson while simultaneously consuming a bold perspective about the president and his actions (and some of the critical information was entertainingly transformed into a modern version/perspective of the events that took place). The song “Crisis Averted” told me more about the attitudes of Native American displacement than most history books could ever reveal, and in an incredibly hilarious/satirical way.
Bloody Bloody is just one prime example from a plethora of musical portraits of real life events, from Parade to Grey Gardens, and also the visceral portrayal of the tragedy of Floyd Collins. If you didn’t understand Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s perspective of Floyd Collins and the media circus that ensued surrounding his tragedy, then you probably weren’t sitting in the right theater. Each of these musical theatre writers did their homework, collected their research, and understood (after many rewrites) what was needed in order to convey their own personal feelings, opinions, and ideas.
An incredible amount of imagination is required from every writer, designer, performer, etc… when it comes to adapting a real life event into a piece of musical theatre. Without that imagination, then the audience might as will have committed two hours to a textbook. Unless you are in college, a textbook shouldn’t cost you more than $130. And frankly, college textbooks shouldn’t cost that much, so why should the price of admission?