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how to get NO feedback from Elise

...by NMI Artistic Director ELISE DEWSBERRY

notes from Elise

In this monthly video blog, I am going to be addressing a lot of topics that come up over and over again when I am giving feedback on drafts of new musicals. I’d like to think that if you keep these basics in mind while you are writing, you might be able to write a musical that would result in NO critical feedback from me! Let’s see if I can put myself out of a job…

Want to get involved, as a writer or producer?  See our page about developing musicals.

If you’re looking for classes, visit our sister organization, The Academy for New Musical Theatre.

avoiding feedback: Vlog 47 – The Introductory Verse

Post #47. The ‘lost art’ of the introductory verse

Enjoy!

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Today I want to talk briefly about the nearly lost art of the introductory verse.

Back in the days of Tin Pan Alley songs - the songs that were in the hit shows on Broadway were also the ones that were the hits on the radio. And everybody would rush out to buy the sheet music, and go home and play it on their piano at home. And it was very common in those days, no matter what the structure of the song itself was (often it would be an AABA song structure but it might be a Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus song structure or an ABAB or any other kind of structure) - but often it was very popular to begin the song with what was called an Introductory Verse.

That Introductory Verse was often four lines or eight lines - could be shorter, could be longer - that did not usually repeat. Occasionally, if you had a really long song, you might have another instance of the introductory verse later that used the same music. But most often it would be just at the very beginning of the song, and that particular musical structure - the rhyme scheme and the melody - would not appear again.

It often tended to be a little more talky, a little bit more like opera’s recitative, than the tune itself. It would have a little bit less rhythmic groove under it. The purpose for it was twofold: It helped transition from dialogue into music, so it didn’t seem quite so abrupt that someone who was talking one moment was singing a song the next moment - it would act as a bit of a buffer. But it also was an opportunity to set up the lyric and contextualize it in a way that can be very interesting.

I don’t by any means think that it’s a requirement for a song to have an introductory verse, but I think it’s certainly worth looking at how an introductory verse can do those things for you, and to consider using it. Often with the popular songs of that day— we no longer remember the verses. For some of them you might remember verses - but generally speaking we remember the structure of the song, and that’s what we’re used to singing, what we’re used to hearing. And we don’t remember how the song was contextualized. And then you happen to hear one of those introductory verses along the way and you think “Huh, that makes me think about that song a little differently.”

That happened to me the other day when I was looking at a particular song and so I wanted to share this with you.

The song itself is an old-fashioned but pretty well-known song that goes like this:

MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY
MAKE JUST ONE SOMEONE HAPPY
MAKE JUST ONE HEART THE HEART YOU SING TO

…and it goes on from there. So it’s a pretty well-known song, and it seems like a fairly simple idea: just make someone happy, make them laugh. And it goes on in that vein, and it’s sweet, and it’s what it is.

The Introductory Verse to that is:

THE SOUND OF APPLAUSE IS DELICIOUS
IT’S A THRILL TO HAVE THE WORLD AT YOUR FEET
THE PRAISE OF THE CROWD, IT’S EXCITING
BUT I’VE LEARNED THAT’S NOT WHAT MAKES A LIFE COMPLETE

THERE’S ONE THING YOU CAN DO FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS
THAT’S WORTH MORE THAN APPLAUSE
THE SCREAMING CROWD, THE BOUQUETS….

MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY
MAKE JUST ONE SOMEONE HAPPY
MAKE JUST ONE HEART THE HEART YOU SING TO

And etc.

What I found really interesting about that is that the song itself feels a bit pat, a bit saccharine, a bit like “oh isn’t it sweet”. But contextualized that way, as if it’s someone who’s a theater person who’s used to applause but has realized that’s not enough, you want more out of life. You want to bring happiness to one individual and make that one person smile, rather than walking out on the stage and getting grand applause from everyone out there.

For me, that suddenly contextualized the lyric of the song tremendously. It made me think about the lyric of the song very differently. And if, for instance, I were going to choose to sing that song in a cabaret act as a standalone piece, I would absolutely sing that verse because I think it would very much change how i interpreted the lyric.

That’s just one example – there are tons and tons of examples - but you get the idea. And so I would encourage you - when you’re sitting down to write a song - to think about the value of writing four, or eight, or however many you think you need, lines in a very different musical style. They tend to be very rubato (follow the voice) - with just some simple chords underneath, and not a lot of rhythm. Your song hasn’t kicked in yet. But you can accomplish a great deal to transition us from dialogue into music, and to contextualize the lyric, so that once we get to it, we are coming at it with a frame of mind, a frame of reference. So that we understand so much more the theme that we are about to get through the lyric.

avoiding feedback: Vlog 44 – TELLING A SHORT STORY

Post #44. A short discussion on telling a SHORT STORY in musical form.

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What I’d like to do today is chat just a little bit about the short form musical.

At New Musicals Inc, where I work, the people who come into our Core Curriculum (that’s our first year program for writers who are new to us), finish off the year with an assignment to write a 15-minute musical. And there are various other places where there are 10 minute musical contests, and there are other opportunities that would give you a reason to want to write a short musical: 15 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes. And so I wanted to talk just for a moment about the short form, and how it affects your storytelling.

The biggest issue that I see when people sit down to write a five-minute musical, as opposed to a five-minute play, is that they have a tendency immediately to think about sketch comedy. If you watch a Saturday Night Live sketch, or some other art form like that – you tend to have a little short scene that’s comic and ends with a silly punch line of some kind— so that the whole thing is sort of a joke, which is fun. I think we all love that sort of storytelling sketch comedy, and certainly the short form musical lends itself to comedy.

You don’t only have to go for comedy, but it certainly does lend itself to comedy because it’s tricky to tell a really detailed, robust story in such a short amount of time - although not impossible. So if you know that comedy does sort of reach out to you - and you’re writing a short musical - why not try a comedy? But I would urge you to try to remember that it is NOT sketch comedy. And let me talk to you for a moment about why I think that.

Sketch comedy has a tendency to end with a punch line that is meant to be a joke, and that works great for sketch comedy. The reason I think that doesn’t work well for a musical is because, generally speaking, at the end of a musical you’re going to have some kind of a musical moment. It might be a recap or a reprise of a song that you’ve done earlier in the piece; it might just be a couple of lines; it might be a whole new song; but likely, because it’s a musical, you’re probably going to end with a song.

And I don’t think that you can translate the punch line of sketch comedy into a song or a musical moment. Because by definition a punchline is short, and snappy, and funny, and you get it out of the way and everybody laughs.

A song doesn’t work that way. A song can certainly have laughs in it and can be very funny, and can have a lot going on. It’s even possible you could fashion a song where the very last line of the song is, in essence, a punchline. That would not be impossible. I personally think that would be pretty difficult to do, because the purpose of a song is to tell some kind of a truth, even if it’s a funny truth - to sum up the theme of your show - the journey of your characters. It’s fine if it’s doing it in a very comic way and totally intended to get laughs, but usually a punchline is something sort of unexpected, something that jumps in at the end and changes all of your expectations. And that’s why you laugh at it, because it’s not at all what you expected. And that’s great for sketch comedy – but tricky for musical theater because it’s hard for a song to do that.

Go ahead and prove me wrong! Go ahead and write a song that has a punch line at the end, and where that punch line ties up the story, and makes us feel like we’ve gone on a journey with the characters. I’m sure it’s not impossible, but I would urge you to consider - when you’re writing a short form musical that is intended to be a comedy - to try to get away from the idea of ending it with a punchline, and think about ending it with the culmination of your lead character’s story in a song, which can be funny without a doubt and can even be somewhat unexpected, but my guess is it’s not going to translate directly to a punchline.

Now to add on to that, I do want to encourage you to believe that you can tell a serious story - an extremely serious, heartwarming, important story. Something that really has something important to say. You can do it in 5, 10, or 15 minutes. You have to work a lot harder, I think, to make sure that you get enough depth out of your characters to be able to tell that in the short form, but you can. So there’s no reason to shy away from writing a serious short musical.

But if you’re writing a comic short musical, I beg of you: try to understand the difference between a short musical and a piece of sketch comedy with a punchline.

avoiding feedback: Vlog 38 – COLLABORATION – WHY?

Post #38. First in a short series on the art of collaboration. Part 1: Why collaborate?

Enjoy!

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This is going to be the first in a five-part series on collaboration, I want to talk about how musical theatre is the most highly collaborative art form that we have. And I thought it would be worthwhile talking a little bit about various different aspects of collaboration.

I want to start out in this first part with: Why collaborate?

There are people out there who do book, lyrics, and music themselves and don’t involve a collaborator. You might be thinking “I can do all three, so I’m not sure why I should be looking for a collaborator”. So I want to speak to that today.

I think that there are basically three reasons— there are probably more - but there are three main reasons that I can think of why people choose to write book, lyrics, and music themselves and not find a collaborator for their team.

One is because you have a great idea for a musical and it’s just brilliant! It was born fully formed in your mind, and you really don’t want to bring someone else in who’s just going to challenge your ideas, or try to change your ideas, or even just not be very good at executing them - not be able to bring them to fruition the way that you see them. And so you feel like the best way to bring your idea to life is to be the only one involved.

Another reason that people have is because they feel “I’m a really good book writer, I’m a really good lyricist, and I’m a really good composer, so I just I don’t need anybody else. There isn’t anybody who could do it better than me, so I’m going to just do it myself, because I can.”

And a third reason is “Well, I’d love to collaborate, but I can’t find anyone. I have no idea how to go about it. I’ve been desperately wanting a collaborator, but I can’t find one and I really want to get my idea out there, so I’m just going to go ahead and write it myself.”

So those are the three main reasons that I hear for why people don’t collaborate. So let me address each one of those individually just for a moment, with my response to each rationale.

For the first one: you want to control your idea. I get that. I’m an A type personality, I’m a controlling kind of a person, and I totally understand how when the idea is so clear to you and so strong, you don’t want to have to deal with people who just aren’t going to see it as strongly and as clearly as you are. And who aren’t going to be able to execute it the way that you want them to. So I feel for you. I understand that, but I also want you to look at the positive side of having collaborators involved with you. You have other ideas to come to the table - so that you’re not always just coming up with the first idea that comes into your head. You’re going to be challenged to come up with more ideas, or at the very least to defend your idea, and since you’re going to be presenting it to an audience anyway and you want them to understand it - if you can’t make your collaborators understand what it is that you’re trying to say, you’re not going to have a chance with your audience. So it’s a really good opportunity to be challenged to come up with ideas that make you say “Wait a minute - that actually is a better way to get this particular moment across. My idea was great for that moment, but my collaborator’s idea is pretty good for this moment.” So it just brings more ideas to the to the table, and challenges you to always be pushing for the very best idea or - at the very least - to know that the idea that you have in mind is being put across as compellingly as possible.

And then there are the other aspects of just having somebody to bounce ideas off of. It’s somebody else on the team who feels as strongly as you do, who can help you during the times where it might be hard to keep things moving, push you towards goals and deadlines, help you with the workload, meeting those goals and deadlines, maybe help with the marketing, maybe have some more connections to directors or actors. It’s just more help along the way. And of course when you do finally get to production, what happens on the day of rehearsal when the director comes to you and says you need to rewrite scene five; and the choreographer says they need 32 bars of a dance break that will be needed in rehearsal tomorrow. And you decide you want to rewrite an entire lyric to a song, and then one of the actors says it’d be better if they had it in a different key.

So suddenly, you’ve got to rewrite a scene; change a key; compose some dance music; rewrite a lyric - all overnight. If you’re part of a team, you can farm that out a little bit and you can all work together to try to get the work done. There isn’t just one person who has to get all of that done. So even though there are some drawbacks to having to share your idea with someone else, there are some major pluses as well that you should consider.

If you’re the person who says “I’m a great book writer, I’m a great lyricist, I’m a great composer, I don’t need a collaborator, I can do it all myself” – I would say that may indeed be true. Maybe you are. Maybe hundreds of people have told you, thousands of people have told you that you’re a great book writer, you’re a great lyricist, and you’re a great composer. Even then I would suggest that you dig down into your heart and think: which one of those is my weakest? Even if I’m really good at all three, I bet I’m better at one of them than the other two. Or I’m better at two of them than the third. Or at least there’s one that I’m just not quite as good at. I’m good - but I’m not as good as I am at these other things.

And then I would challenge you: why would you want to accept that? Why wouldn’t you want the best in all three areas? If you’re a brilliant book writer, and a promising lyricist, but composing you can just manage pretty well. It’s not the best you’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty good. Why wouldn’t you want to go find yourself a composer who’s absolutely brilliant - who can match the brilliance of your book - and maybe they’re also a lyricist. And so if you’re a promising lyricist, but you still need some help, or it’s an area you struggle in - maybe you want to co-write lyrics with a composer who’s also a good lyricist and is willing to co-write. I would really challenge you that the odds are that you aren’t equally good at all three, even if you are indeed good at all three, you’re probably not equally good. And so it behooves you, I think, to see if you can find someone to bring all three of the levels up to whatever your highest level is.

I would also say that that a lot of musicals come across my desk in various different forms, and I would say that that I don’t think that I have ever (maybe once - maybe once or twice in the 30 some odd years that I’ve been reviewing musicals and been in musicals, and directed musicals, and evaluating them etc.) have I run across someone who I think is really really good at all three of those. In almost every instance, I find that someone will be a really good book writer and lyricist, but their composing just isn’t really serving as well as it could. Or they’re a brilliant composer and maybe even a great lyricist, - but their book is rambling or sort of falling apart a little bit. That has been my general experience. So I would caution you against believing that you are equally good at all three. Re-examine that and figure out if there’s one area where you’re not quite as good – and see if you can find someone who IS really good and can bring the whole thing up to that level.

Then, of course, there’s the “I just can’t find anyone. I want a collaborator, but I can’t find anyone.”

Oh, believe me - my heart goes out to you. That is the question I get asked more than anything else in this business. “Can you introduce me to a composer?” “Can you introduce me to a book writer? I’ve got a great idea, but I need a book writer.” I’ve written the whole draft of this show, but I need a composer, can you help me figure out how to find someone?”

And if I had the magic bullet for that one, we’d all have it made. That’s a tough one. That is not dissimilar, and I’m sure you’ve heard it described this way before, it is not at all dissimilar to a marriage. To finding a mate that you want to spend the rest of your life with. It’s not easy. I’m not going to go any further on that one today because I’m going to devote one of my future segments to that topic. I am not promising you a magic bullet, so don’t fast forward to that one thinking “She’s going to tell me how to do it!
I’m going to have some ideas. I’m going to have some thoughts, some ideas ,some strategies. No magic bullet. But I will cover that in in one of the upcoming parts of this series.

I hope that I’ve at least given you the idea that perhaps you should consider collaborating, if you haven’t already, or I’ve just reinforced your knowledge that you should collaborate, if you already are.