There Must Be More

“…than this Provincial life!”

Sorry, I just needed to have my Belle moment. That’s totally not what this post is about. I just adore that score.

Onward!

Over the past week I saw 3 shows - 2 Broadway and 1 Off-Broadway.

These shows were (in the order I saw them):

  • Scotland, PA

  • The Inheritance Part 1

  • Tootsie

Now, regardless of how I felt about each of these shows, or how much I did or did not enjoy them individually, they all had something in common per my experience in watching them.

At one point (at least) in every one of these shows I had the thought: “…But must we? This again? Isn’t there more out there? There must be more.

Allow me to explain.

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Enjoyment vs Analysis

Just a quick side note before I dive in.

I think it’s important here to know that I do not think that enjoyment and criticism are mutually exclusive. In fact, I personally believe they go hand in hand.

When someone asks why you didn’t enjoy something, most people are ready with their criticisms handy to defend their positions. But when someone asks me why I did enjoy something, I feel the same way. I like to know why I enjoyed it and be able to explain that to people.

And nothing is perfect. Nor is it a requirement to explain your likes and dislikes. But for me, enjoying something - or even loving something - does not mean that I find it to be perfect or above criticism.

I adore Back To The Future. One of my favorites growing up. But the movie’s got issues, both artistically and socially issues (ie soooo, we’re saying a white man invented rock’n’roll???).

Anywho. Onward!

 

Blindingly White

Okay. I know. I’m aware.

Most of the writing spaces and head artistic positions for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are occupied by men. Generally white men. Generally cis, white men. Often even straight, cis, white men.

But in the world we are living in today, does that fact need to translate directly into the stories being told on the stage? At the very least, does it need to feature as prominently across the shows listed in the back of the Playbill as it currently does?

All three shows I just saw focused on cis, white men. And for two of them it was straight, cis, white men.

Now, is this necessarily a problem? No, not necessaaaaarily. But it says something. Actually, it says a lot of things.

Especially considering that the 2 shows featuring straight men were specifically about under-achieving straight, cis, white men who learned relatively shallow lessons and didn’t really end up changing - a genre that has filled our canons of literature, theatre, film, and TV for a very very long time.

Let’s be more specific.

 

Scotland, PA

A musical parody adapted from a movie parody of Macbeth.

Main character - Straight, cis, white man.

The guy is an under-achiever according to his wife, even though he’s happy with the life they have and it’s also clear he has aspirations for more, if the opportunity were to present itself.

The wife is played by a black woman and, similar to the Shakespeare play, she exists mostly to prop up the ambitions (or lack thereof) of her husband - even though she is the one who actually wants more and has the stomach to chase after it.

And then she’s scapegoated.

And goes insane. And regrets everything, but isn’t given the capacity to fulfill that character arc. So she must die instead. Of course.

Classic women, am I right?!

No. You are not.

So, as this man rises and takes more we are meant to root for him, even though we know he’s doing terrible things. But why? Why this story? Why this story again? Why this story again now without some sizable changes for more relevance? Is it really that interesting today?

It’s not a bad story - it wouldn’t endure otherwise - but there must be more.

 

The Inheritance Part 1

Full disclaimer: I loved it. I wept. I think it’s doing great work for this generation.

Main characters - All gay, cis, white men. And there are up to 6 main characters in this first part, depending on how you classify the term main character, and all of them fall into this category.

Now, this show is really about interpersonal struggles and relationships, and how that echoes across generations - particularly for the marginalized group that is gay men. It’s also a story about growth, change, hardship, and love. I really do think this play is doing beautiful work.

The remainder of the non-main character cast is mostly non-white, which is really awesome to see. However, so far in this play, the conversation amongst all of these people and characters is about the lives, stories, and struggles of the gay community as seen through white gay male eyes and experiences.

There are black and Latino characters on that stage, but we aren’t even touching their extra layers of struggle and experience. Meanwhile, the play is discussing the future of gay men and where they are potentially headed, as a group with its own vibrant culture. A culture that they even acknowledge to come from appropriations from the drag community, which appropriated from the ballroom community, which consists almost entirely of queer men of color.

This seems like a pretty sizable issue.

The play is focused on worries of continued and intensified marginalization, but it simultaneously has left out a gigantic piece of the conversation about marginalization by leaving out the additional layers of struggle for non-white gay men.

And this is not even to mention that - although other letter of the LGBTQ+ world are mentioned - the focus is entirely on gay men. What about the rest of the community? Isn’t it all the same history? The same inheritance?

Gay men can claim Stonewall all they want (and they do), but transwomen of color threw those bricks.

Gay men can claim the AIDS epidemic, but the affects of that disease were highly striated amongst sub-groups and especially men of color.

I loved this play. I cannot wait for Part 2. But I just kept thinking, “there’s more here.”

There must be more.

 

Tootsie

Okay, let’s do it. Let’s talk Tootsie.

I’m not going to go too in-depth here, mostly because there is a lot about this show that is well-crafted and plenty of people are enjoying it. And perhaps, for some people in these audiences, this show really does push the envelop in their minds. But we do have to say it…

This show probably should not exist. Not today, anyway.

Main character - Straight, cis, white man who pretends to be a straight, cis, white woman to book a job.

This man is apparently (objectively) talented too, which means he has many a leg-up in the world in comparison to the majority of people around him.

So, what’s keeping him from getting work?

  1. He’s an angry and uncontrolled human who acts out and gets fired, which means he doesn’t retain contacts from his jobs since he burns bridges. And…

  2. He’s getting older. (Like, 40? Is this one really a problem for men in the business? I remain unconvinced.)

Now, here are some merits about this story (stick with me):

  • A story of a straight, cis, white man who ruins his own chances at a steady and productive life because of his anger…this is relevant. This is extremely relevant. And if the show were about that particular person, their growth, and their personal journey to leave that toxicity behind, well, then we might have a good story here that is relevant to today.

  • His alter ego - for she does seem to be a character unto herself and completely disassociated from her male counterpart - Dorothy is actually quite a badass woman. She fights against sexism and ageism in a world rampant with it. And if this were a story about an actual woman fighting for these things in this world, this would be an excellent and relevant story.

But alas, this show is ultimately neither of these things.

Here’s what it actually contains:

  • The man learns lessons - but not enough.

  • He changes - but does he?

  • His alter ego is wonderful - but she doesn’t exist.

  • There’s a fight for and positive messages for women and feminism - but it’s led entirely by a man in a dress.

  • There’s a fight against ageism - but led by a man, and men don’t seem affected by this in the capacity that women are.

And not to mention the fact that there are some really cringy moments in this show that parade as feminism, ageism, and trans-positive moments, which really aren’t any of those things. Instead, they are part of a plot for this out-of-work man to get - and then retain - his job.

Is this show moving us backward? I don’t think it is. It could have become that, but it didn’t. And for that fact - adapting from a source material “of a different time” - I will tip my hat.

But is it moving us forward? Nope. Not at all. Not in the least.

So, I again ask: “Why this story? Why now? Is there really not more???”

There must be more.

 

There Is More

Okay, there is. So much more.

But it’s not being put out there into the commercial consciousness. And when it is, it’s not happening fast enough or as prevalently as it needs to.

And I don’t mean to rail against these particular shows - they had the bad luck of being the 3 newer shows that I happened to see within the same 4 days.

There are plenty of positives for them as well:

  • Scotland, PA had some awesome music.

  • The Inheritance Part 1 is beautiful and saying some very important things.

  • Tootsie made me laugh more than most musicals ever do.

But there is still more.

And we need to find it and put it out there. We need to continue moving forward and stop treading water. Let’s celebrate more people - other people.

There are countless good stories to tell, so let’s find them and tell them to the world with the prevalence that has been given to white men. We can, we should, and we will.

You're Allowed to Call "Hold"

For those of you who are not aware, in the theatre we have this thing where you’re allowed to call “hold.”

What does that mean…?”

Excellent question!

During the tech process of a show, it is common practice that anyone in the room is allowed to call “hold!” and stop the rehearsal process. This could be due to a safety concern, a missing element (prop, costume, light, etc), something that went wrong onstage or backstage, a person missing an entrance, needing to fix a technical moment, a mis-fired cue…or for so many more reasons.

Basically, you can call “hold” for anything major that goes wrong because everything is a priority.

I want to repeat this.

Anyone in the room is allowed to call “hold” because everything is a priority. And not a single person in that room will (rightly) judge you for it.

Okay. So what?

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Take It To The Chorus

What is a chorus? And for that matter, what is a verse?

These seem like fairly general music terms that we all know, but do we?

I’m pretty sure that most people could at least tell you that they’ve heard of the terms chorus, verse, and bridge before, and could most likely give you a general definition.

Well, at least as far as pop music goes.

But in musical theatre, these things have a slightly different meaning. And it has dawned on me slowly over the past several years that there are many creatives in the industry (directors, performers, etc., and yes, some writers) who are not exactly sure what these terms mean when applied to musical theatre music.

So, what do they mean?

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Hold Your Breath. Make A Wish. Count To Three.

You know how you sometimes have this dream - it could be a nighttime thing, or a daydream, or some lofty ethereal goal - but it’s something you just can’t quite imagine. It’s there and you can almost picture it, but only ever just almost.

I’ve had so many of these dreams that I lost count long ago. But I think it’s something that’s just in the DNA of artists and creative types.

Right?

Well, beginning sometime around the fall of 2016 I had this dream (the goal kind) of what it would be like, feel like, look like, sound like, etc to see The King’s Legacy - which had finally found the correct structure - come to life in a full production.

It simultaneously felt easily attainable and yet a thousand years off. I truly could almost see it happening. But it wasn’t happening - not yet anyway. So all I could do was just keep imagining and letting various scenarios pass through my head.

But I will tell you that, when it came down to the reality, it was nothing like I had imagined.

It was so much better.

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6 Years Later...

  • October 26th, 2012 - I completed the very first outline for the first version of The King’s Legacy.

  • December 6th, 2012 - There existed a first draft of a script, including a large portion of lyrics.

  • March 14th, 2013 - I had a fully realized first draft with all scenes, music, and lyrics completed.

And so it all began.

It’s been a long long road to the first ever full production of The King’s Legacy, and what a strange, magical, frustrating, and fantastical journey it has been. It’s had its peaks and valleys, but it has brought us to where we are now: Less than one day away from the first rehearsal for the premiere production. (!!!)

So how did it all start? Where did the show come from? And how did it get to where it is today?

As per usual, I’m thrilled you asked!

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*And* I Have To...What?

We often ask a lot of our performers - and directors, designers, and everyone else of course as well, but this post is performer-focused.

We especially ask a lot of our performers in a summer stock rehearsal setting.

But sometimes we ask for even a little more.

Perhaps you have a special skill that the director would like to include in a show. For example: you play an instrument, you tumble, you’re a gymnast, you can juggle, you can do impersonations…or a thousand other possible talents.

And then there are shows that ask for even more than a little more, and to do it all in 8 days.

And that, my friends, is the zany, fast-paced romp that is Murder For Two at Bristol Valley Theater!

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Love Is Alive And Well On Broadway

This past Monday night I was honored and overjoyed to attend the 4th annual Arts For Autism Broadway benefit concert!

For those of you who have not yet heard about this event, please allow me to tell you about the magic that is late June evening each year.

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Just The Perfect Blendship

One of the absolute best parts of the theater that I feel people don’t talk about enough is the people - the community.

Sure, every June as we all get ready to sit down together in NYC and across the country to watch the Tony Awards, or are preparing for one of the major benefits like Broadway Bares, or even just during Pride Month in general, theatrical and non-theatrical publications will talk briefly about how Broadway is a community. And it is! It’s a fantastic community with the same pros and cons that any community might have.

But only “Broadway” is discussed as being the community itself.

And as soon as you call something the “Broadway” community, there is an innate elitism to that term - whether geographically or in terms of production budget - which gets thrown into everyone’s minds.

But what is this Broadway community? Is it just the thousands of people actively working in NYC’s largest theatrical houses? Just those who contribute to the city’s multi-billion dollar industry?

I don’t think so, no.

I think the Broadway community is far larger than that. Personally, I would consider the Broadway community to include anyone and everyone working in theatre across the entire country. I would even consider the Broadway community to include the multitude of theatre lovers - those who don’t necessarily work in the industry, but participate through other means by supporting those who do, or even just attending all productions they can and keeping tabs on what’s happening in the industry.

In my opinion, it is crucial to consider everyone involved in the theatre everywhere as part of the Broadway community.

“But why?”

Allow me to explain!

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From The Ground Up

The term “Devised Theatre” tends to elicit strong reactions from people - whether that be eyes lighting up in excitement, a shudder in remembrance of the ghosts of devised theatre past, or questioning looks from those who aren’t exactly sure what it means.

Essentially, devised theatre is a theatrical piece including any performance elements (dance, music, lights, speech, sound, movement, etc.) that was built from the ground up by an ensemble of people without a physical, linear-plot script.

Often these types of piece are made to be experimental and off-the-beaten-path, and audiences aren’t necessarily expected to feel a sense of familiarity in experiencing the performance.

But then, other times that’s exactly what they are meant to feel. And that’s where it gets super tricky.

Tonight is the official opening night of So Happy Together: The Music of the Swingin’ 60’s at Bristol Valley Theater - for which I am the Musical Director - and that’s precisely what this show was built to be: a devised musical revue show meant to be a delightful, familiar, and joy-sparking experience for the audience.

And folks…I think we did it?!?!

But how?

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Summertime, And The Livin' Is Easy...

Well, folks. For me, summer has now officially arrived!

Hooray!

I am now settled into Naples, NY for a three-show contract that will take most of my summer between June 1st-September 1st! (There will also be a little vacation and a week-long teaching contract thrown in the middle there as well!) And it’s all going to be super fun and not crazy or exhausting at all!

…Right?

Well, not quite. It’s all extremely exciting, but it will be incredibly busy as well!

So let me tell you a little about the exciting parts while I have your attention! :-D

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Stress? Psh! Injury...? Why Would You Even Say That?!

Let’s have a brief conversation - one-sided, of course, since this is a blog post :-) - about stress and physical injury in the theatre.

This is a topic that most artists - performers in particular - avoid, and for a few reasons:

  1. Injury is scary and no one wants to think about it.

  2. Everyone has stress and no one wants to look like the “complainer.”

  3. Injury has become stigmatized as something shameful.

  4. We wear our stress, and ability to handle it, as a badge of honor.

There are others as well, but I generally see these as the biggest reasons this topic is avoided. People don’t want to talk about these things, but if we don’t talk about them they become these big scary monsters that we hope we won’t have to endure.

But we do.

Stress and injury will affect everyone at some point, so let’s just talk about it.

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The Rumor, The Legend, The Mystery

Most people - and writers in particular - are drawn to stories about larger-than-life people, figures, and times. Moments and personalities that disrupted the status quo and changed the course of history. The extraordinary.

These are the stories that live on, passed down through facts and records (contemporary and non), as well as rumor, gossip, and anecdotes that may or may not include a kernel of truth.

The people at the center of these stories are some of the most compelling, and they have attracted the attention of people throughout generations.

And writers love them.

Historians and creative writers alike love to tackle these gigantic stories filled with change and drama, as well as mystery and intrigue, and put their own spins on them. But what they never tell you is just how difficult these people and stories are to write.

I too have fallen victim to this type of alluring narrative and - despite this post’s title - I am not speaking about the great historical mystery of Anastasia as adapted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

I’m talking about one of Western history’s most debated women from one of English history’s most infamous time periods:

Anne Boleyn.

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Submit To Me!

All professions are riddled with systemic flaws that everyone knows about, and yet very little is done to fix them. For playwrights and musical theatre writers the systemic flaw that I hear complained about the most is the submissions process.

Now, these complaints are completely justified. The problem with the system is…well, there isn’t one.

In the professional theatre world - at least where play and musical submissions are concerned - it’s a total free-for-all. (and not the enjoyable kind, like a lovely game of Super Smash Bros. on the good ole Nintendo 64! …no? just me being a video game dinosaur? oh coo, cool…)

And like most problems, this one gets completely ignored and nothing is really done to change it. Well, I won’t say completely ignored. Writers talk about this all the time - how messy, inconsistent, biased, and often expensive the submission process can be (yes, many come with attached fees). But the people who have the power to do something about it (aka the Theaters and the theatrical community members who receive submissions) either don’t want to change the way they do things, don’t want to engage in the discussion, don’t have the time, or aren’t aware that there is a better way to go about all of this.

And there is a better way, isn’t there?

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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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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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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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