Category Archives: musicals

“Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or a novel, we almost never do anything alone. ” — Kait Kerrigan on collaboration.

I don’t know how large the Venn diagram circle overlapping section is between lovers of crime literature and lovers of musicals, but it includes at least two people—myself, and Stephen Sondheim, who I include only because among his lesser accomplishments is co-writing the screenplay a mystery film, The Last of Sheila, in 1973. 

The first real writing I did, actually, was as a lyricist and librettist, and I had some mild successes, notably with a “jukebox musical” called Breaking Up is Hard To Do; a bunch of kids musicals; and one very adult musical called Slut (yes, that’s what it was called) which had a decent run Off Broadway, what now feels like a million years ago.

Among the many very smart people I met working in the world of musicals was Kait Kerrigan, who with her partner Brian Lowdermilk have written a half dozen musicals, that have produced all over the country; in fact, we recently got back in touch because my five-year-old son was taken on a field trip here in Indianapolis to what I later figured out was a Kerrigan & Lowdermilk show. They also have a legion of fans online, who watch their charming YouTube videos, buy their sheet music, and generally love them. 

I’ve thought a lot about how doing theater is different than doing fiction, but—as has been my strategy throughout the Reverse Blog Tour—I wanted someone smarter than me to actually write about it. Thus, here’s Kait:




Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan are so talented they don’t need any color on their walls.

Writing a musical is not like writing a play and, from what I can gather, it’s not like writing a novel. The closest corollary I can find is writing for a television show. In both cases, most of the writing process isn’t actually writing. It’s talking in a room until at least two people can find a shared vision.The major difference is that in writing a musical, no one else has your job. In narrative television, everyone’s coming from roughly the same vantage point: they eventually have to turn the idea into dialogue. With a musical, when you walk out of the room, you go back to your tiny desk and you are once again solely responsible for the music or the lyrics or the book. No one else will punch up your dialogue. 

Writing a musical is about collaboration, execution, and rewriting. I teach a libretto-writing class and I tell my students that one of the main differences between writing a musical and most other kinds of writing is that they’re expected to do their thinking outside their brains. If you write a play, you work through the idea from the beginning to the end of your idea alone. You overwrite, you meander, trying to find the story. Then when you have a draft, you bring in collaborators. They react to the draft. 

In a musical, you bring collaborators – composers, lyricists, directors, producers – into the process at the very start and you synthesize to accommodate a composite of ideas. 

In the best of worlds, it can create something much bigger and more ambitious than any one brain could have made. It can kick sand over the fact that it was made at all. When it’s finished, it can appear to have always existed – West Side Story, A Chorus Line – where does the written work end and the production begin? They’re inextricable. 

In the worst of worlds, it looks like a game of telephone where everyone enunciated very poorly and no one listened very well. 

One of my favorite moments that I have ever experienced in a theater happened during tech. I hate tech. I’m useless during tech. By now, the director and all the designers are  executing. If we all did our jobs well, this is when the magic happens, if we didn’t, this is when it all falls apart. But no matter what, they need time to execute but because of the nature of the beast, I’m allowed to sit in a dark room and watch them execute. Tech is like writing a writer write. It’s boring and it’s often ugly before it’s beautiful. 

But one day, I walked into tech and I saw two people I’d never met. One was the assistant to the costume designer and the other was part of the scenic team. As usual, I was feeling useless and bored and I listened in on their conversation. They were discussing a how a character’s outfit would interact with the set. The tenor of the conversation was getting heated. The costume designer’s assistant felt strongly that the costume needed to convey something specific to the audience and the set was getting in her way. The set designer had something he needed to accomplish in the exact same beat. It was a good argument. No one was right or wrong. The fight simply had to be negotiated out. 

Here’s the weird thing. I had made it up. The story? The character? The environment? None of it was real. But two grown adults were arguing their way towards collaboration on this entirely made up thing that had initially started in the brain of a composer, passed through me, and a director, and made its way into this argument during tech between two people I’d never spoken to. 
As I see it, there’s no world in which you can create anything without collaboration. People can’t do that. Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or even a novel, we almost never do anything completely alone. Recognizing that collaboration is the most likely road to creation makes it easier to collaboration. None of this means that you don’t fight. You do. You should. But you have to fight for the right reasons. 

Here are some things I think are true about making things through collaboration: 
1. If you feel strongly about something, you’re probably right. 
2. If someone else feels strongly about something, he or she is also right. 
3. This is true even when you adamantly disagree. 
4. It’s most important to understand why the other person is also right when you disagree because it allows you a path forward to making what matters to you work with what matters to them. 
5. If you don’t have a strong instinct, follow someone else’s instinct for a little while. 
6. Realize that the most likely possibility is that you misunderstood. 
7. When feeling stuck, change location. Seriously. Go outside. 
8. When feeling stuck, lower the stakes and try dumb.  
9. It’s easy to think that it’s the end of the world. It’s not. 
10. Do not use passive aggression. Ever. 

Thanks, Kate!
Speaking of this business we call show, I am going to be guest blogging at The National Alliance of Musical Theater on July 21, part of my ongoing blog tour  in support of World of Trouble


Bread & Jam for the Apocalypse

I just took a few minutes to reorganize the pages of this site, to separate out my published works as kids stuff vs. adult stuff, as opposed to plays vs. books, which just seems like a more useful distinction. (Especially since my newest book, Literally Disturbed: Tales to Keep You Up at Night, is poetry.)51Qxcz2+qOL._SY346_

But anyway, sometimes I get uneasy about the fact that my career has progressed along two such different tracks—like, how weird it is that I’ve written (on the one hand) a horror novel about bedbugs, and (on the other hand), a jaunty musical about Paul Revere, including a song about the Boston Tea Party called “Something’s Brewing.” Then I remind myself of the careers of people like Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein, who found success (and did good work) in both milieus.

And most of all, I remember that when I was reading a ton of apocalyptic fiction to prepare for writing The Last9780253212344Policeman, my very favorite was a masterly and disturbing depiction of England, thousands of years after a devastating nuclear war leveled all civilization, a brutal adventure book written entirely in a sort of pidgin English, because the characters had reconstructed the language from the fragments of their ancestors.

It’s called Riddley Walker, and I got to be obsessed with that book—and the fact that the author, Russell Hoban, is (much) better known for writing Bread and Jam For Frances and its sequels.


I learned that fact and said fantastic and tucked it away to hold in my palm like a diamond. It’s like a ticket that says, basically, “oh, just write it.”

on writing; or, the lively art of self-delusion

I think most often this blog will deal with writing.

So here’s the process I go through, when I think of an idea for a book.

First I get tremendously excited. I feel like I have come up with the best idea of all time. In my mind I skip past all the complicated and difficult work and imagine the finished product. I imagine the astonishment that will greet the book, the critical praise to be heaped upon it. I am certain, in this first flush of possibility, that the book resulting from this new idea will make my name—my career—my fortune.

Then, second—this is usually between half an hour and a couple days later—I chastise myself for such baseless enthusiasm. How stupid, how narcissistic, how frankly ludicrous, to think so highly of oneself, and especially to think so highly of this bare wisp of an idea still requiring hours, weeks, months, years of effort. That is if I don’t discover in the meantime that someone else has already written such a book. And that’s all before this (still purely theoretical) book has to navigate the marketplace, crowded as it is with lots of lots of very very good books that have sprung from ideas much better than mine. Your audacity (I tell myself in this second phase) is obnoxious and counterproductive. Most of your ideas aren’t that clever, and even the clever ones don’t usually make it all the way to being full-fledged finished projects. You vainglorious dipshit. 

But then, in the third and final phase, I chastise myself for having chastised myself so severely in the second phase. Because here’s what I’ve realized over however long I’ve been trying to make art: at a certain level, you have to think it’s amazing. To get started, and then later to keep going, with something as a) difficult and b) uncertain as writing a book-length piece of fiction, your own insane belief in the merit of what you are writing is a necessary component of writing it.

Once we were in rehearsal for a musical for which I had written book & lyrics, and I got annoyed at an actor, because I was trying to give him new lines, and he kept arguing to keep the old ones. My composer and co-lyricist, Stephen Sislen, always wise in such matters, pointed out that that’s the actor’s job when he’s creating a role: to fall in love with the words and commit to them.

So, too, with writing. You’re allowed—encouraged!—to consider your new idea as a  shining pearl that has emerged from the mysterious depths of your self-conscious. Time will tell whether that’s true, but only your love will keep that idea alive long enough to find out. It’s your job. 

P.S. Totally unrelated: I’ve got an AMAZING idea for a new book.