At present I am totally immersed in the writing, editing and revision process for several musical theater shows. It is exciting, depressing, grueling, tedious and ultimately the most fulfilling of all possible worlds for me. Several other writers have bared their souls on the writing process so I thought I’d share a little of my own experience.
Recently I had a director want me to write a duet for one of my productions, but it didn’t work because of a technical staging problem. The director said, “Just write it and I’ll make it happen.” For me, it’s very difficult to write a song unless I can see what is happening on stage in my mind’s eye. The music in this way is “organic” (another lesson learned from a wonderful composer friend), and there is purpose to the piece.
I have a lengthy background in learning how to visualize. Some of the lessons very good, and in retrospect a lot of lessons where I wish I could have that time back in my life. But in essence it’s this simple: See the picture and then write what you see.
I suppose that is the key: Elements must have purpose. It can sometimes be about forward motion and sometimes reflective, but it must have a definite need to be there. From this purpose, the songs and dialogue flow. I’ve found that when my purpose is off-track, that these are the times that are not engaging to the audience.
The reason a piece lacks purpose is often due to the writer saying “yes” when their inner voice says “no”. Examples would be, “Oh, you’re supposed to do this here”, or someone not in tune with the motivation and direction of your script giving ideas that are fun for the moment, but don’t serve the overall story.
THE INNER AND OUTER WORLD
I really dislike writing. I’m certainly not alone in that sentiment. The final product and performance is what drives me through the pain and agony of writing. I always try to visualize the final product. If the end product visualization is engaging then that excitement and adrenalin overcomes the painful process of writing. If the visualization and music or dialogue does not create strong engagement, then it is not worth writing in that way.
Most writers, I think, can relate to the inner and outer worlds. The outer world is when you present your work. It’s out there, it’s circulating, people are talking and giving you pats on the back or criticizing you. And you just take it all in.
Then there’s the inner world, that world of creation where you are all alone. You are in the depths of fleshing your ideas and bringing characters to life. Sometimes you feel in control and that the characters wield to your desires. In other moments you feel the characters are resisting you, laughing at you, forcing you to their own wants and desires. It is excruciating. I have never had this discussion with another writer. Maybe it’s something you don’t talk about in polite conversation. The only reason I know that so many share this agony is from reading thoughts of other writers online. And then I was so relieved to find out that this was not only my experience.
So what’s the answer? At this point, I think the answer is that “this is what writing is.” It is facing your demons, confronting your own lameness and stupidity, challenging your thoughts and baring your inner soul, and going through the dark night of the soul alone, filled with imaginary characters laughing and taunting you.
EDITING IS EASY
Recently a writer friend told me, “Editing a script is easy, writing music is the hard part.” I was very surprised by that comment. I don’t find any of it easy. I find it tedious and grueling. It’s possible I’m doing something wrong, but it’s one thing to visualize “the boy falls in love with the girl and they sing a song” and quite another to make all that happen well with music and dialogue. To do that while not boring the audience.
So you write that out and it seems pretty good. The next day you read it through and it feels very derived, or doesn’t flow, or bores you. So you rewrite it and put in a new melody. And the next week you listen to it and it falls flat to your ears. You throw it out and start over. And that is what is grueling and tedious. The first draft is fun, it’s perfecting it that drives you to the private struggles with your characters.
VULNERABILITY AND A SHIELD OF ARMOR
It takes a certain bull headed person to finish a project through, but to dig deep into your well of ideas it takes a certain vulnerability. While creating new works, it doesn’t serve the writer to put on a shield of armor and proclaim: “This is awesome”. The proclamation does not make it true. Instead, bare your soul and vulnerabilities during the creation process and always ask, “How can this be stronger, more engaging, or more fun?” And you can’t really ask those questions while being boastful of your genius. Wallow in your stupidity, your frailness, your lameness, your inadequate self – and express through that.
Then when in public, put on your shield of armor and stand by your work. As of this moment, I really think this balance is paramount to the creative process, and to seeing your works through in the real world.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
For those that like condensed lists, here is a list of elements that I currently and strongly believe are important to the creative writing and musical theater creation process:
- INNER EMOTIONS FUEL OUTWARD ACTIONS – We are engaged by basic human transformation and the hero’s journey. All outward actions are driven by internal emotions and needs. The actions are what an audience sees, but what moves an audience is not the outward action, it’s the underlying emotional need and/or transformation.
- SONGS NEED TO FEED THE SPECIFIC MOMENT – If you can take an unused song from one musical and insert it into another musical, then the song was not written specifically enough for that moment in the script. Musical theater songs are different from radio songs in that they rely on the vocal and words to either propel the plot forward or add understanding to the current plot point or character. Specifically for book based musicals, a crossover song that is meant to serve the plot and also potential radio play is not focused enough for it’s place in the plot. Of course there are exceptions to this, and it’s reasonable that a musical can have a couple songs intended for radio play, but all of the songs cannot be this way if they also want to serve the story and keep the forward script motion moving.
- EXPRESS YOUR VIEWS – In an earlier work, I spent a great deal of time trying to make sure that my own personal views were not expressed in the story. My belief was that my own views had no place. I have discovered that to be wrong. It is the expressing of our views that automatically gives our writing it’s own unique vision and pulse. By expressing our personal views in our writing, there is an inherent uniqueness that no one else will be able to duplicate exactly. In music, Sondheim said to the effect that you can try to duplicate someone else’s music style, but in the end your own style will creep out and overtake the writing. So this brings us back to being vulnerable. If you are vulnerable and open in the creation process, and express your personal views, then your work will have a unique quality to the extent that you can bare and express yourself. This doesn’t guarantee the public will like it, but we have no guarantees of that with any project.
Let me know what you think, what you agree and disagree with. Thanks!