As We Stumble Along...

This week I had the pleasure of being part of the first NYC externship for my Alma Mater’s brand new, and now fully developed, Musical Theater Program. I had the chance to work with some lovely SUNY Geneseo Juniors and Seniors in a new musical theatre workshop - an entirely new experience for all of them - and attended the first ever Senior Showcase. The talent was wonderful, the interactions were lovely, and the entire experience got me thinking…a dangerous pastime, I know.

As a part of the workshop I had to essentially explain to the students who I am, what I do, how that’s relevant to Geneseo, and how I got to where I am. And you know what? That was much more difficult than I expected.

At this moment in my career, these are the titles that I can, and generally do, give myself:

Composer-Lyricist/Librettist (technically 3 titles?)

Performer (Musical and non-Musical Theatre)

Musical Director

Vocal Coach

Accompanist (I do this less often)

Arranger/Orchestrator (though mostly my own material these days)

One of the Geneseo students said “You do so much!” and I guess that’s true. But I think the better question is, how the heck did I learn to do all of these things?

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Broadway Standard

The one area from the above list where multiple straightforward and comprehensive paths of education exist is performance.

The theatre as a whole has always recognized that performers are necessary to train in large numbers since shows and theaters exist all over the place with roles that need filling. And performing is the most visible aspect of theatre, which makes it a great entry point for those interest in the business. So plenty of paths exist for people to become performers, and I won’t bore you with the details of mine. Everyone has their own stories on this one.

The other item on the list that is fairly straightforward, though certainly less common than performance, would be accompaniment.

***Quick PSA***: Someone who accompanies is called an ac-com-pa-nist. Not an ac-com-pa-NEE-ist, or any other version. Not a crucial thing to know, but I figured I’d throw it out there :-)

Usually the story I hear from pianists is that they were, at one time in their early life, cornered by some teacher or choral director or other and told they should play piano for a choir, jazz group, or school musical. And thus was born another accompanist.

For me, it was basically the same. My piano teacher told me I should, my choral teacher lost their previous student accompanist, and thus I was tagged for the job!

Where I diverge a little is that I found out I really enjoyed playing musical theatre songs for my friends, and started wanting to be better at it. So I made a point of finding all of the musical theatre music that I could in books and scores, sitting down, and attempting to play it. This is a pastime I continue today, and it has made my skills as an accompanist must stronger - so I would recommend this to anyone looking to hone this particular skill.

 

Barely Knowing Left From Right

My time at SUNY Geneseo ended up being quite crucial to the accidental development of two other items on that list: musical direction and vocal coaching.

Because I was already a pianist and accompanist, something that was well known by the beginning of my Junior year, I was tapped to be the Musical Director of one of our a cappella groups (and eventually the other as well). I knew from watching previous MDs that the basics of this job was to simply teach notes, but that the good ones could do oh-so-much more. And I wanted to be a good one.

(Anyone surprised? You may have gathered from my blogs thus far that I’m a little competitive about being good at what I do… :-D )

So I went to it. I learned by watching what others did, listening to my favorite arrangements and performances, and started trying things out. It was a lot of trial by fire. But soon I figured out what worked and made the music better, and what to avoid. I had already been arranging for the two groups for over a year at this point (something that I was allowed to just try and found I could do fairly well), so I had some sense of what I was doing. So I took the knowledge I had, added it to the skills I already possessed, and created a new skill set.

Was it perfect right away? Ohhhhhh no. It took me plenty of time to figure it out. But by my Senior year I was comfortable calling myself a Musical Director of both a cappella and musical theare.

As for the vocal coaching, this came from my accompaniment skills as well.

We had a club at Geneseo called MTC (Musical Theatre Club - nailing that name, right?) for which everyone would always stress about auditions each semester. So, being one of the 3-4 pianists in the club, I was often asked by people to help them prepare for their auditions by choosing songs and creating cuts. I found that I was naturally inclined toward this work - something I’d probably not have known if I hadn’t just tried it.

Then, in my later college years, I started gaining the confidence to give some vocal notes to people. I had zero reason to think I had any authority in this matter, but from what I was seeing and hearing I thought I might be able to help.

As it turns out, I was right.

With not an ounce of training (not something I’d really recommend) other than my own vocal training (which was excellent), I found that I had a natural ability to help people adjust their voices. And then of course I wanted to know more, so I began doing my own research and self-education. By the time I left college, I was well on my way to being able to do this sort of work professionally. And now, since it’s how I make the majority of my living and because it’s also an ever-changing field of study, I continue to educate myself on new techniques and styles.

But I’d never have known I could even do this if it hadn’t fallen into my lap and, more importantly, if I hadn’t decided to take the risk and try.

 

We Pull Our Bootstraps Up

And then we come to the remainder of the list: Composer-Lyricist, Librettist, Orchestrator.

It has been said that “failure is the best teacher,” and in my personal case of these above skills, I must agree.

If I had no business being a Musical Director or Vocal Coach way back then, I surely had even less business writing music or words for the theatre. Right? I mean, what experience did I have?

None. Not a bit.

Sooooo…?

I love creating. I’ve always loved creating. I had dabbled in some music writing when I was in grade school and did some light composition as part of my Music Theory class in high school - absolutely loving it - but that was the extent of my composition experience. And never had I written a play! I wrote a 5-minute piece once at the NYSSSA Theater Program, but it was pretty bad and I never tried again.

Until Geneseo, that is.

Playwriting was being offered as a class in my Junior year, so I decided to take it. I had loved my Creative Writing classes in the English Department, but I really longed to write for the stage. So I took it. And I was terrible.

Oh boy, I couldn’t write a play to save my life. And I certainly did try.

I understood the mechanics and the theory and the basics of what to do, but the best thing I could come up with was a murder-thriller spoof called Clue-less, which was actually an out-of-class pet project. It was fairly funny and had some nice dramatic moments, but it still wasn’t good. After getting a solid B- on my final assignment for the class I said that was it for me and playwriting. No more. But then I thought…

What about Musical Theatre? I’m certainly more inclined to writing music than a script…

So, to try out this idea, I decided to take Oscar Hammerstein II’s advice to Stephen Sondheim and attempt the exercise of adapting a play that I admire into a musical. Not for the world to see, necessarily, but for myself and to learn.

The play I chose? A Streetcar Named Desire. I love me some Tennessee Williams, and the high theatricality of the style seemed ripe for some music additions. And best of all, I didn’t have to write the book, just adapt.

I spent 4 weeks over the summer trying my hand at finding song moments, writing in character voices, adapting dialogue into lyrics (though without much structure), and composing a world that sounded like these characters. I tried to tell their stories, moved the action forward, and give a hint of New Orleans. And you know what? It was pretty damn good for a first attempt.

I was encouraged - musical theatre certainly came more naturally than the playwriting had. I decided to be bolder for the second go-round and write an original musical as my Honors Project at Geneseo. Due to some college politics, the project could only be approved if I wrote the book, music, and lyrics, as well as stage the entire thing in my second semester acting as musical director, director, and producer. Certainly a tremendous undertaking - and the point of this was to scare me off - but again I said yes. Bring it on.

Thus a musical - and a mediocre one upon reflection - called PICk Love was born. I did all that was asked of me, and an audience of ~300 people ended up seeing it over two performances at the end of my Senior year. I had even gone through the process of learning how to orchestrate in a direct study (since I wasn’t wearing enough hats already) and continued to work on the show after graduation.

Loooooong story short, I was hooked. I wanted to learn more, and correctly now. So I auditioned for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Writing Workshop. Didn’t get in fully, but only as an auditor. Said yes. Met some amazing people and some of my best friends. Re-auditioned the next year. Got in. Said yes again. Met more amazing people, including one of my current collaborators and best friends. Learned so much. Got a ton better. Wrote and re-wrote The King’s Legacy. Met more incredible people. Kept saying yes.

 

We Live And We Learn

Most of the things on my list are skills I received no formal education for. In fact, there aren’t a lot of ways to receive a formal education in some of them. And this thing I had no idea how to do, let alone whether or not I could actually do it, is now one of the main parts of my career. But how did I get here?

Everyone has skills, whether from natural ability or because they’ve been honed. Everyone has interests and passions, even if they’re mostly unexplored. And, if you want, these things can come come together to create new skills and pathways that you previously may not have known existed. All you need to do is try.

Try and fail. Try again. Dislike you work. Research. Watch and listen and learn. Try and fail again. Like a little of what you’ve created. Reignite your passion when necessary. Continuously hone your skills. Try again. Fail. Succeed. And most of all, just say yes.

Tune in next week for how all of these experiences translated directly into my current successes!

Medea Must Have Been An Artist

Allow me to explain.

In the art world - and particularly for musical theatre writers - we are often told that we need to be prepared to “kill our babies.” Obviously this is not meant in a literal sense. ‘Cause that would be bad. Very bad.

For non-theatre or non-artist folks, this idea might be a bit confusing. What is meant by this?

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Those Who Can...

It’s an old and cliched phrase at this point, but I do still occasionally hear people say: Those who can’t do, teach.” Which is really a misquote from George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims For Revolutionists:

“He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

Now, is there any truth to this? Perhaps for some people. Though I would bet that those who go into teaching purely out of disappointment of falling out of their chosen profession aren’t very good teachers, nor are they likely to be teachers for long.

And yet this idea persists. Why?

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Hey, Old Friend

What is a theatre writer’s best friend and worst enemy?

You might think: Writer’s block? The blank page? Technology? Caffeine? Sleep? Outlines? All good possible answers, but…nope. What applies only to theatre writers and to no other form of writing?

Readings.

DUN DUN DUN! *Insert dramatic zoom here*

But why, Michael? Why are readings both potentially wonderful and oh-so-evil at the same time?

An excellent question.

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There's A Place For Us...

I was at a networking event earlier this week and got into a conversation - one that I’ve had countless times with theatre professionals and audience members alike - where the central questions are:

Should Broadway shows be about the art or the money?”

Is there a place on Broadway for shows that are only light and feel-good? What about dark, depressing shows?”

How do you expect to get new audiences if all shows look, feel, or sound alike?”

Now, I don’t find the mere asking of these questions to be problematic, but I do find the heart of this oft-had conversation to be problematic. Whichever side you fall on - and yes, there do ultimately seem to end up being two sides to this conversation - there is an insinuation that one type of theatre should exist on Broadway and another type should not.

But my big question is: Why?

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"Snow Day (A Day Off)"

As a high school student, I had a fairly constant refrain:

We need a snow day. Give us a snow day. Please.”

Now, this was not me praying or placing a sock under my pillow or attempting to bewitch the skies to make storms appear, this was me on days when school should have been cancelled due to inclement weather even though it had not been.

Some context:

I grew up in Binghamton, NY where most of our snow came from major storms across the interior or from large Nor’easters. So when we had a big storm - even though we knew how to move snow well (it’s upstate NY after all) - we had a snow day.

In high school I moved to Rochester, NY, which sees more snow each year than Binghamton does, mostly due to constant lake effect snow. Because of this, Rochester (for some reason) prides itself on moving snow so well that there’s no reason to ever have a snow day.

Um. What?

Let’s even put aside the obvious fact that big snow storms or large amounts of black ice are dangerous and potentially life-threatening, especially when you have students driving themselves and their friends to school. There’s another big reason that Snow Days are crucial: Mental Health.

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You've Got To Be Carefully Taught

One of the most eye-opening tips I’ve ever casually received in my career thus far came while doing a show called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. It’s an absolutely delightful, folksy, and heartfelt autobiographical musical written by the Canadian husband-wife writing team (and the kindest people) David Hein and Irene Sankoff - yes, the same people behind the international smash hit: Come From Away.

It was October of 2010 and we had been rehearsing the show at JCC Centerstage in Rochester, NY in a setting where the show was being workshopped with David and Irene as we went through the script. For a new writer like me, this was an incredible experience. The show’s director and a wonderful mentor of mine - Ralph Meranto - told David and Irene after one rehearsal that I was an aspiring musical theatre writer. They immediately showed interest and asked questions. As I said, kindest people ever.

At the end of the conversation, Irene asked, “Do you follow Ken Davenport’s blog? If you don’t, you definitely should. There’s a lot of great information. We read it religiously!”

This one suggestion set me onto a path over the next few years of attempting to acquire and consume every bit of knowledge that I could about writing musical theatre. And that is why this tip was so important.

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Why Is *THAT* A Musical?

If I had a nickel for every time I was asked this question, or even asked this question myself, I would have a very large number of relatively heavy and annoying coins.

But I do wonder - How often do people hear about a new musical or see a marquee and think this question to themselves? I mean, what makes a story ripe for adaptation into a musical? Why do some musicals seem like no-brainers, while others make us scratch our heads and think, “Huh. Really? That one?”

The Lehman Engel BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop answer to the question of what type of stories should be adapted into musicals is a relatively simple and subjective one: If you think there’s more within the story that should be told, and that music will enhance that storytelling, then it is likely adaptable into a musical. But if the story feels complete in its current form, and it doesn’t seem like music will enhance the piece and its purpose, it should probably be left alone.

Despite the subjective nature of this statement, I do think there’s truth to it. If you look at the types of stories that have been most successfully adapted into musicals (and most musicals are adaptations), the use of music in the storytelling has heightened the plots and characters, and filled in some invisible hole that helps the audience interact with the material.

This is the reason, I think, that certain stories see multiple attempts at musical adaptation. For a couple of examples, we have 2 adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, 2 musicals of The Wild Party, and countless musical versions of Shakespeare’s plays (most of which have not worked well). Some stories feel as though they could be told well, or better, in musical theatre form and therefore multiple adaptations appear. Some are good, and some aren’t. Some use the original author’s intents, and some leave them behind.

Successful adaptation is a tricky process - and I know this from adapting one of the most-adapted stories in musical theatre, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Approximately 5-6 musical versions of this story exist, but none of them has had great mainstream or commercial success. Yet. But why? What goes into this process?

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"Get Your Education, Don't Forget From Whence You Came"

Lin-Manuel Miranda has often spoken about origins: His own, his family’s, his musicals’, Alexander Hamilton’s, etc. He has written about them in lyrics, including the one above from “Alexander Hamilton” and his well-noted “we were that kid” rap in the 2013 Tony Awards opening number: “Bigger.” It’s a common theme of his interviews, whether he is the interviewee or the interviewer. Clearly Mr. Miranda seems to think our origins are important.

And I agree.

Particularly when it comes to the arts and educating young people. I firmly believe that our experiences and exposures as children have an incredible and lasting impact on how we interact with art for the remainder of our lives. And this includes formal and informal educations, extracurricular activities, time experiencing art with family and friends, exposure to all forms of entertainment, financial abilities, general access, community practices, and much much more. Every experience in life involves art in some way, and every exposure is another puzzle piece in a child’s education.

So how do we best serve young people? What kind of education do they need or should they have? What if some want to pursue the arts and others just want to enjoy them? What about those who have fewer resources available or greatly reduced ability to access art? Where does it all begin?

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No Rest For The Wicked

(…and I’m not talking about our green friend over at the Gershwin!)

January 2 - March 10:

  • 67 Days

  • 3 Days Off, working 7 Days/Week

  • 2 Shows as Musical Director (Bring It On, Legally Blonde) and starting a Third (Rent)

  • 5 Casts (Bring It On) over 2 weekends

  • 70+ Cast Members (Legally Blonde)

  • 33 Weekly Voice Lessons and 3 Classes (regular work schedule)

  • I Repeat - 3 Days Off

March 11 - April 14:

  • 34 Days

  • 5 Days Off, working 6 Days/Week

  • 1 Show as Musical Director (Rent)

  • 2 Casts over 1 weekend

  • 33 Weekly Voice Lessons and 3 Classes (still)

  • I Repeat - 5 Days Off

For those of you playing at home, that means in the first 101 days of 2019, I am scheduled to work for 93 of them with a total of 8 off days.

We need to discuss work and overwork in the artistic world.

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Shut That Window 'Cause...

…it’s getting DRAFTY IN HERE!!

Yes, okay, I hate myself just a little bit for that one too. But I thought it was cute. Anywho…

Today I want to talk about the [grueling] process that is drafting. And I don’t mean in a graphic design sense (drawing is not a strength of mine). I mean it more in the sense of: sitting down to write a thing that you’ve been thinking about for a long time and have really wanted to write but haven’t had the time and/or motivation to do so but you’ve finally found the time or at least have now cleaned the entire apartment four times and done your taxes and solved world hunger so I guess now there’s nothing left to do but actually write the thing which you should want to write anyway since it’s your passion and you chose to do this with your life so why are you stalling oh wait Facebook is calling and oh look that rhymed and so I can get into a pointless argument with someone whose face I can’t see instead of forcing terrible first draft dialogue on unwitting characters oh wait they blocked me so I guess I really do have to write now. Darn.

You know. That kind of a sense.

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Sometimes I'm Down, and Sometimes I'm Up

New Year. A time of celebration, reflection, planning, and new beginnings…right?

For some people, I do believe that is the case. But it’s not the case for everyone, myself included.

Personally, I’ve never really been a fan of New Year’s Eve and all of the traditions that go with it. It seems a bit much to party and eat and drink so close to the holiday break, and the idea of “resolutions” always gives me a feeling of dread like I’m just going to fail all my new endeavors. Perhaps not the best head space to enter into a new calendar year with.

So what to do?

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"But I Can't, I'm So Busy!"

Busy-ness (not to be confused with the Business) is - if everyone is to be believed - the Number 1 Cause of Nothing-Ever-Happening. That’s right, simply being busy.

But Michael, everyone I know is busy. I mean, I know I’m busy. All the time!

I hear you and I understand what you’re saying, but I’m going to let in you on a secret that I was given which has truly changed the way I think about time and productivity. You ready?

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"Survival Is Paramount!" ***DUN DUN DUN***

Alright, a touch dramatic, I agree. But it’s true, isn’t it? We really can’t pursue any kind of career or interest if we aren’t living. So perhaps the drama is warranted?

Okay, let’s see. What are we told as children are the basic needs for survival?

Food. Water. Shelter.

And in order to acquire these things in our modern society, we require money. Which means jobs.

***HOORAY!!! PEOPLE ARE GOING TO PAY US FOR THE ART WE LOVE TO CREATE AND THEN WE CAN JUST AFFORD TO LIVE AND CREATE ART AND BE HAPPY!!!!*** Wait, no? What do you mean, “no”? I have to get a what?

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Why-Oh "The Glamorous Life"?

Ah, the Glamorous Life: The picturesque life of the Theatre Artist living their dreams in the Big City. Fun, Freeing, and Fulfilling! Right?

Well, sometimes.

As amazing as spending your life doing what you love can be, there’s so much more that comes along with living as a full-time theatre artist. And most of it is rarely or never talked about! Sometimes it’s Glitz and Glamor, but other times it’s Rejection and Ramen. So why not discuss it all?

Join me as I explore the everyday, behind-the-scenes, and real life stories of what it takes to make this journey happen. From the triumphs and joys, through the mundane and taboo, to the sorrows and frustrations. What is it like to live as a theatre artist? What kind of unique experiences do you have? What is the good, the bad, and the could-really-use-a-touch-up? Read, watch, subscribe, and come find out!

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