My loyal supporters,
It’s been five days since our final faculty critique, and I haven’t done an update. I think I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. I’m sure you’re all waiting on the edge of your seats…
Before I get to the faculty critique, I’ll tell you a little about the week after the thesis reading. My reading was on Tuesday, April 17th, and on Thursday, the 19th, I had to begin stage-managing one of my classmate’s readings. We all have stage-management duties. Stage-managing is a huge undertaking, and is almost as much work as being in your OWN rehearsal process. Plus, a lot of the work is mindless—keeping watch on the clock, photocopying replacement pages, taking notes on the cuts, etc.—so you disappear into your own head a lot.
The week after my thesis was tough. I had quite a case of postpartum depression. It’s very strange: you have one day that is the culmination of all of your efforts for an entire year, and there’s all but fanfare for your accomplishment. Then, the next day, it’s over. Your family’s gone. Your actors and director are gone. Your suit is back in the closet. Immediately, the musical theatre factory that is the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program begins spitting out three new ones.
Also, I made the mistake of asking for feedback from my peers way too soon. I approached three classmates whose opinion I respect very much to tell me what they thought. They had some wonderful constructive criticism to give. I wasn’t prepared to hear any of it. Instead, all I heard were the little monsters that live in the dark corners of my insecurity: “No one is interested in this story.” “No matter how you revise it, people just don’t care about the two main characters.” “What made you think you could write book?” "Why are you in New York?" “No one is commenting on the lyrics, because they don’t know how to tell you they weren’t good.” Have you ever see lionesses take down a zebra on the Discovery Channel? Well, in my head live lots of vicious lionesses. All the while, I was stage-managing and putting on my most supportive smiley face… I couldn't let my friends know that I was crumbling inside. Luckily, last week I went out for dinner with my good friend Julianne whose thesis also was on April 17th. She was going through a similar transition, and was also feeling insecure. Apparently it’s common. That helped me to quell the demons and get them back in their cages.
I'm doing OK now. I've gotten my bearings and am standing upright again. The feedback from my friends was all really helpful in the end, once I had enough distance to digest it. When we went into the final faculty critique, we had some concrete things to say about how to make our show better.
The critique went well. The faculty had many constructive things to offer, but were very encouraging and supportive. They all felt like the reading was an accurate and enjoyable presentation of what we were trying to create. You can’t really ask for better then that. They liked our ideas. They felt unanimously about a number of things:
• The show should be longer than 90 minutes. We have a lot of room to expand the show. Maybe add some plot twists, and maybe even add some characters.
• In the rewrite process at the end, we lost a lot of the humanity of the character of Anetta. They approved of the new direction we’re going with her, but they all felt that this “new” Anetta needs to be more developed.
• They all felt that while individual consecutive moments were a pleasure to watch, the connections between the scenes—how one scene leads to another—were often questionable. One of the faculty members said that there were all these beautiful moments, but they felt strung next to one another on a clothesline, instead of following a clear narrative.
• And lastly, and most surprisingly, they all felt that we’d actually written AN OPERA, not a musical! This was not a criticism. They were actually very excited about this discovery.
An OPERA?! How could I have written an opera? I HATE opera! Yes, it’s true that we wanted to borrow some elements from opera, especially with the sound and style of the music, but we set out to write a musical. Musicals and operas function very differently. And, I feel that opera is an inferior way to tell a story. But, when they presented the idea to us, the faculty had some great points. I realize that while opera may be an inferior way to tell A story, it might be the best way to tell THIS story. Their points are as follows:
• In Broken, the gestures and emotions are all very grand and heightened. The musical numbers in the piece live in over-the-top emotional earnestness. They make sense that way. Despite the fact that the dialogue (which I’m very proud of) is well written, it is very nuanced and subtle. The scenes feel at odds with the musical numbers, and not in a pleasing way.
• In our cast, we had one operatic baritone. On his voice, the music just soared. The other actors were all great, but it really sounded “right” on Dave’s voice.
• In the opera world, we would be able to find two men in their late 60s who can sing the two main parts. In the musical theatre world, that’s probably not the case.
• There is currently a movement towards a hybrid form—opera meets musical theatre. This new grey-area is championed by two of my teachers, Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon (neither in the group that gave us our final critique). This new form is growing rapidly, and opera AND theatre companies are looking for new works in this vein.
• There is a built-in audience for Broken in the contemporary opera-going world. It is a small niche, but a loyal, educated market (with lots of money). These patrons would instantly know that our characters are based 2 composers that they know and love. Mel Marvin, a faculty member who has written 2 operas, thinks this community of opera-goers would eat Broken up.
So now, Kevin and I are taking this idea very seriously. It will mean a LOT of work. Much of the show will need to be restructured. Much of the dialogue will have to be pared down and turned into recitative. (Recitative—aka. “recit”—is basically sung dialogue. It’s how scenes are “acted” in opera.) I’m not a fan of recit. It feels very artificial to me. So my challenge will be to create a language of recit that feels natural, while maintaining the integrity of the dialogue that it is replacing. Also, there are formal considerations. For instance, currently the show begins with a grand opening number called “The Piano”. The character of Vic sees his old piano and is flooded with memories. He sings a trio with the ghosts of himself and Enzo. The music is huge and sublime. When the number ends, a short comic scene between Vic and Anetta gives us some exposition. In dramatic musical theatre, the standard is to begin with a big opening number. In chamber opera, however, the standard is to begin (usually) with an overture. Then, an expository bit of recit usually follows the overture, and THEN you have your big number. So, to make this happen, we would probably want to add an overture, then switch the places of the scene and the song.
The trick to opera is that the music does the acting, not the performers. The music is what tells the audience what the characters are feeling and what the situation is. However, in this new grey-area that is emerging, all this is changing. Opera singers are getting acting training. Musical theatre actors are training their voice classically. Still though, the expectation in the world of opera is that the music carries the drama.
Anyway, I've got lots to think about and lots to do, but I’m back on track. The insecurities are mostly gone, and I’m looking forward to how this piece will grow over the summer. Then, at the end of the summer, we’ll be applying for awards and festivals.
In other news, I’ve launched my website!!! Take a second and check it out:
I haven’t uploaded any sound files yet, but they’re coming. Soon, I hope to get these updates in a list serve, so your emails aren’t flooded with my nonsense, and then only those who care to look will have to read my ramblings.