Hole-y Plots, Batman!

Over the course of my musical direction this past year I have had the pleasure of working on shows that I know well, as well as a couple that I didn’t. But one thing is for certain - you never truly know a show well until you have worked on it.

And once you have worked on a show, it becomes ingrained in you somehow. A piece of your life. A window into a specific period of time or a specific mindset. Perhaps it changed you somehow. Perhaps it was just a great time. Or perhaps it was a less positive experience. And all of this is wonderful and valid, but it’s also not what I’m going to be focusing on today.

Today I come bearing a question. At the end of the day what is more important: an airtight plot, or to move the audience?

Several of the musicals I have worked on in my life have brought me to ask this question, but I have been thinking about this yet again this year. Of the three shows I MDed this school year, 2 of them had “hole-y plots,” yet both seemed to give some sort of emotional satisfaction to the audience. And the other was absolutely airtight in plot, but was ultimately more entertaining than moving.

So which is more important? And can we have both?

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Don't Bring Around A Cloud...

…to rain on my paraaaaaaaade! (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

For those of you who read last week’s blog post - welcome to Part 2! For those of you who didn’t, check out the first part of the post here: As We Stumble Along…

Last week’s post focused on the more negative aspects of the risk-taking and the learning processes in this business. The journey is often imperfect and difficult and involves a great deal of trial-and-error, and that’s totally okay. But what I skipped over were all of the positive steps and outcomes that can result from this journey.

Every single success or accomplishment that is presently in my life can be traced back to either a risk I took, or a moment where I enhanced my personal education through non-traditional (aka classroom) means. And I am not unique in this regard.

So, the question becomes - how? Well, there are many routes, but I’ll tell you about some of mine.

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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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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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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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