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:
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.