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Writing a Musical: Part 1

I'm in the thick of writing a musical right now, and I want to give all you an idea of my process for those of you curious, or for those few of you thinking of writing your own. It’s my first endeavor in the field, a mixture of trial and error, experimentation, and periodic successes.

Why am I writing a musical? I was never a “theater person” growing up. My one theater experience as a youth was a failed audition to Mary Rodgers’ “Once Upon a Mattress” in sixth grade. I auditioned for the wizard part and didn’t get it. I was pretty upset and subsequently quit my theatrical pursuits for a while. But I have always been a fan of the cinema and loved a well-told story. Ideas for operas and theater works always have been brewing in my head. A tentative fan of opera, I'm sometimes turned off by the lack of dramatic clarity and intelligibility in opera, which is one of my reasons for my hesitation in writing one. Similarly, I was quick to stereotype musical theater for its extroversion.

My awakening to musical theater came last year with a rediscovery of Stephen Sondheim. I had always heard of Sondheim and his music —my dad frequently hyped up “Sweeney Todd”—but it was “Sunday in the Park with George,” which I chanced upon from recommendation from my two close theater-composer friends Nevada Lozano and John Albert Harris, that did the trick for me. I resonated with Sondheim’s harmonic and rhythmic language as well as the lyrical and dramatic clarity that he establishes. It is one of the few examples in musical theater, I think, where the music has a profound operatic depth AND rhythmic vitality—musical materials return in a subtle, motivic way and establish deeply woven characters and ideas, but the music presented is extremely accessible and easy to listen to but never pandering. A strongly woven, tightly structured, and emotive, yet highly experimental and ambitious, narrative by James Lapine complements the ​​music. It is a near-perfect combination. After that, the world of the theater opened up for me, and from then on I attended plays and musicals and tried to keep up on the trends and new plays that are making a splash on the scene.

I read Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” and was hooked—his principles of “content dictates form, God is in the details, and less is more” resonated with me. The possibilities of this music-drama combination excited me. Versed in jazz and classical composition, I figured a musical theater language would be in my wheelhouse. My experience with writing screenplays—taking inspiration from my father, a documentary filmmaker—would serve the dramatic side of the storytelling. Still, my lack of experience in writing for the theater would require some help. I contacted Will Inman, a playwright at the University of Houston, and the journey began.

Our musical, entitled North Pond, tells the true story of a hermit in Maine who lived for thirty years in the woods alone and known only from legend, stealing food from the people of a local town. After the hermit's arrest, a reporter comes to investigate his story and write a feature article about it. It’s based on a GQ article I read here: The story struck me for its simplicity and drama, and its potential exploration of the innate assumptions we have about privacy, nature, and identity.

Will and I have a consistent back-and-forth process – we each send each other lyrics, scenes, and songs, alternatively – it’s an equal collaboration on all fronts. While I am writing the majority of the music, Will provides a wonderful dramatic skeleton. At this point we have finished four numbers and are moving to a fifth. We go along, sometimes chronologically and sometimes scattered, working on what we need to when we need to. That may not be everyone’s process, but we ​like it and it works well for us. It brings up the whole age-old “lyrics first or music first?” question. It also brings up several interesting issues on collaboration—what is your collaboration style? What is your process, and what do you like to have as a writer or composer?

As a classically-trained composer and jazz improviser, my tendency is to go right into writing score or improvising. I am not one for piano reductions or songwriter-style lead sheet or oral transmission, though these aren’t a bad thing (perhaps I should be doing that in this case… it would make my life easier). I compose a through-line and fragments and piece the music together, orchestrating as I go with some tweaks later. In terms of the way I am writing it and in terms of its non-traditional song form structure, the music might be considered operatic with a jazz flavor. Regardless, I am notating the music directly as I go, composing melody line while maintaining the prosody, flow, rhythm, and rhyme of the lyrics. This requires quite a bit of lyrical tweaking. My main concerns are harmony, texture, and orchestration. This is where I can allow my compositional creativity to flow.

However, I want to leave space for the clarity of the melodic vocal lines, which are often pentatonic—simple, in a comfortable, near-speaking vocal range so as to allow the performer to be heard and understood. I met with my two singers, Chelsea Helm and Michael Hewitt, to record their vocal register and hear them speak so I could write comfortable and make the division between speech and lyrics (the play often switches between scene and song, dialogue and speech, freely, so I needed these transitions to be organic and the singing style to reflect this). And, to avoid the “now it’s song time!” feeling.

The biggest challenge is the one Sondheim so deftly overcame in “Sunday in the Park”—dramatic AND musical pacing. These are issues that film composers and theater composers have dealt with for decades, and some have unquestionably mastered them. How long do you have to fade out music between scenes? How do you change from a somber mood to upbeat vibe? How do you complement lighting or an acting performance with underscore, moving the music from the background to the middle-ground to the foreground? As composers we don’t often learn about this in relation to drama, and are told to write whatever pleases us, which works for chamber music or orchestral. But this does not work in a dramatic context. You have to find a way to be interesting and contribute to the story at the same time. Find a language for the piece and be consistent. Build a world.

So, in all of this, where am I at now, and how can I update all of you on my process? Today, I finished a song about winter—an imagistic depiction of the hermit’s suffering in the tough, cold weather. I worked through a dramatic outline for the song, deciding where I wanted to start, where I wanted to go, and where I wanted to finish in terms of the hermit’s character—the song needed to move somewhere and have a directionality to it. The change of seasons provided a great backdrop to the change in the hermit’s demeanor and reactions to his environment. The song starts as depiction of the beauty of nature as well as the suffering associated with it and ends with a wish that he were back in the woods, despite the pain it caused him. To him, it’s far better than the jail cell in which he is now contained for his crimes (and, in a way, for the interview with the reporter).

Musically, I had a fast-slow-fast idea, and I wanted to pair that with the dramatic structure of the song—slow, building up to a frantic rush during winter, then returning back to spring and relative relaxation. Transitioning between these sections was a challenge, and I needed to match the words of the text, the mood, and the natural flow of the hermit’s thoughts, which I musicalized.

To add musical structure to drama, I found it easier to associate ideas with Wagnerian leitmotifs – ideas or people associated with motives. I want to also reclaim this notion of Wagnerian motives, instead of slavishly devoting myself to rigorous classical development and counterpoint. For me, a motive is not only a small musical group of notes—whether it be the “Force Theme” or “Gondor’s Theme” (in my case, “The Hermit’s theme,” or an outlined fifth, seen at left)—it is also a musical essence, a mood, a feeling of that character or idea. This can be created deep in the structure of the music, through orchestration, texture, harmony, counterpoint, etc. I create the hermit’s “world” in another song, entitled the “Rules.” This winter song takes from and builds upon that essence, spinning it in new directions. This technique is what my composition teacher calls “pipelining”—when the same musical materials return and carry different meaning in different ways throughout a story and as the drama builds. It is a subconscious reminder of things.

As an example of this, we can bring up Star Wars, of course—that Empire’s theme, originally aggressive and brassy, creeps in mysteriously and sadly with violin harmonics at Darth Vader’s death. It is haunting and powerful; we have so much association with that theme. It also allows subjective interpretation—why is this theme returning in this way, and what is the “mood?” It is never as concrete or simple as we would think, since it is felt. I'll leave you with the scene.


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