Everyone knows the classic image:
A queen arrives in a carriage at a royal ball, it’s been raining outside, the carriage driver (obviously with great contempt for the aristocracy has exercised what little power he has and parked the carriage right next to a massive muddy puddle). The queen looks at the puddle and waits for a gallant knight with a strong jaw and shining Pantene locks to step forward and throw his cloak down into the mud for her to walk across, safe in the knowledge that her expensive footwear will remain mud free.
All appalling gender stereotypes aside, let’s have a look at it from the perspective of show creation…
The Queen is the story, all must bow before her, all must be given in service of her, for she is all powerful. The gallant knight is the writer, often on a fools errand, with less money than sense and ever seeking the way to his queen’s often changeable heart. Leaving the carriage driver aside (as the peasantry often are whilst they wait for the revolution) what is left?
In my mind there is one final key element in this moment. The cloak. The one thrown down in the muddy puddle, covered in stains, that allows the queen to pass over the grime and filth untouched and elegant, whilst the knight takes all the glory.
So who is the cloak in story terms?
Ever heard of a Dramaturg?
Unless you work in the industry not many people will have. But they should. It’s one of the most vital roles in story creation. The dramaturg is often the unsung (and underpaid) artist that can mean the difference between a gorgeous elegant story filled with meaning, humour and purpose and a pile of shit-stained first-class arsery.
So I write today in praise of the Dramaturg. And though I refer to myself as a composer & lyricist make no mistake, I am not being selfless, my role as a demanding and relentless dramaturg feeds deeply into every project that I become involved with. Just ask my collaborators.
What does the dramaturg do? It’s easily summed up in one sentence.
They interrogate the story.
They poke it, they squeeze it, they scratch it and identify the cracks when they appear. It is not necessarily the job of a dramaturg to supply the answer to a problem, indeed, if they do (and they are not also one of the writers) their solution will not necessarily be the final correct one. Their job is to identify the problems, the flaws in your writing, the moments where something doesn’t feel quite right. The role requires courage and sensitivity. You have to be able to speak your mind, but you have to do it in a way that recognises the pain and irritation that your words are likely to cause to the one whose work you are critiquing.
A good dramaturg will notice fundamental flaws in structure and moments of tiny detail that should be corrected, they will recognise inconsistency in character and laziness on the part of the writer. They will identify dead wood. They must be ruthless and demanding and the writer should be able to trust them.
In the world of musical theatre it is not enough to be a composer or a lyricist, or a book writer, or a director. You must also become an expert in the art of storyography. You must learn the essence of drama and comedy, of character and story structure. And you must learn how to articulate yourself in a way that it is possible for others to understand. You must try not be defensive (except I always am) and you must have the courage of your convictions (which sometimes I do). You must also have the belief that your critique is simply the beginning of a conversation, it is never the answer itself.
When a composer sets a song, it is the job of the lyricist and book writer to interrogate the setting. When a lyricist writes a lyric, the composer and book writer must do the same. It is often thought that a composer is purely the music guru.
For work to be dramatically strong I think that this is not the case.
A composer must be no less an expert in story than all of the words people. They are, after all, still a storyteller, they simply use a different canvas to paint on. And lyricists and book writers should not be afraid to critique music, if you feel like you don’t have the skill linguistically to talk about what you mean when it comes to music, educate yourself, talk to musicians. Make the time. It’s important. Make it your business to know and your work will be the better for it.
It’s one thing to read all the books in the world on how to write musicals. It’s an entirely different matter when working on an actual show. Musicals are unwieldy beasts, if you think you’ve figured them out I can tell you now… you’re wrong.
Every musical is different. It places different demands upon it’s writers. The biggest mistake you can make as a creator of musicals is to think that just because you’ve written forty musicals you know exactly how to write your forty first. Yes, of course you learn things, you figure stuff out and of course a person who has written 100 musicals is more likely to know what they’re doing than someone who is writing their first. But don’t be fooled. A show will attempt to trip you up at every turn and it is the assumption that you know exactly what you’re doing that will be the reason you fall.
Dramaturgy and story making is a matter of practice and time but it’s also a matter of humility. Think back to the cloak in my first little analogy. A cloak has no agenda, a cloak does not care if it is spattered in mud or soaking wet, there is no glory for the cloak. A cloak is simply a cloak. It is made for a simple purpose (in this case to prevent a queen from getting her feet wet). A dramaturg is simply a dramaturg. You will not be given credit for all of your brilliant feedback, thoughts and ideas. This is difficult to reconcile because we are human, but reconcile ourselves we must.
It is not that a dramaturg shouldn’t care about the work, that’s part of what makes them useful. It’s that they should not care too much for receiving credit for their part in the works success.
So, I write in praise of the dramaturg, I write in praise of all those writers, directors, actors and producers who are also skilled dramaturgs. Your work matters, more than any audience will ever know.
Avoid the narrative icey-berg
Become a decent dramaturg
Without this skill I surely think
Your story ship will surely sink
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be part of The Musical Theatre Dark Room. A new musical development programme run by China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, MMD and MTN. I was there as part of a project called On Hostile Ground, a new musical in development about the consequences of the Tory Government’s hostile environment policy which has had disastrous effects on the UK’s immigrant population. My collaborators (Juliet Gilkes Romero - book writer, Charlie Westenra - director/dramaturg and Mike Henry - Composer) were one of three projects selected for the Dark Room’s one week residency in Northampton and curated by two of New York’s musical theatre gurus (on the faculty at the famed Tisch School of the Arts) Fred Carl and Robert Lee.
Despite lots of lovely preparation emails and meetings with China Plate’s Rosie Kelly to discuss our project and it’s needs, I came up on the Monday morning train really not quite knowing what to expect, both from Fred and Carl and from my collaborators… You see this is a brand new collaboration team, we had only been in the same room once before for a meeting and had been working remotely since then so we weren’t entirely sure how the whole collaboration was going to work. I had worked with Charlie many times as we continue to develop The Wicker Husband together, and I had created a new piece of musical theatre for the RSC (The Day of the Living) with Juliet early in 2018, but I had never worked with Michael the composer before.
“What? Composer?” You say. “I thought you were a composer & lyricist.”
Well, dear reader, yes indeed, you would be right, I am such a one, but on this occasion I am only responsible for the lyrics. This will be my first full length project as solely lyricist. Was my ego bruised a little when I was asked to only do the lyrics? You might think so. But if it was, it was actually only for a tiny moment. What it actually did was give me a bit of a boost of confidence for my lyric writing. And I immediately was infused with a sense of freedom.
“Good Lord” I thought to myself, “This means I just get to write words without worrying about music right?”
And it was made all the better by working with Mike Henry whose approach to composing and indeed style and musical background was so vastly different from my own. Michael writes music I could never write, infused with Jazz and classical influences as well as wicked beats. And as such I find myself concerned only with the drama of the words, safe in the knowledge that Michael will do something unexpected and wonderful with it. I won’t lie. I have rhythms in my head when I write the lyrics, sometimes even tunes. But I have kept these entirely to myself throughout the process and every time Mike has set them in a way that I would never have thought of (apart from a couple of pleasing mini moments that he set exactly as I had imagined. Good laughs.) Needless to say it’s very exciting.
Aside from learning about MT from our New York gurus, we’ve spent the week learning how to collaborate with each other, as you will have noticed from my other blogs one of the greatest skills you can learn when it comes to creating musical theatre is how to collaborate. For some writers, they only write with one or two other people. And for good reason. When you find a writing partner that you can make good work with, you hold on to them for dear life. Fortunately for me, I have a few of these now, and each relationship is special, unique and completely unlike the others. With each one I learn something new about the art of communication. It’s different with every team.
So back to the actual substance of the week…
We applied as a foursome to be part of the Musical Theatre Dark Room and were fortunate enough, along with two other writing teams to be selected for the residency. We spent a full week up at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, our travel expenses, per diems and a writing stipend were all paid for. It was great to have the financial needs of writers recognised in this process. The residency put us up in lovely nearby apartments just a five minute walk from the venue, which after a couple of weeks of four hour rehearsal commutes was a welcome change. In the mornings we would gather in the foyer for conversation that (for me at least) ranged from lunch to the economic reality of being a creative in the UK, to in fact the very nature in which we as creatives relate to money and economics. Then we would have a three hour session led by Fred and Robert that looked at a different aspect of musical building every day as they related to the particular shows that we were all making. Day one was “Character and Appetite”, Day two was “Community and Environment”, Day three was “World Building” and Day four was “Score concept”.
The sessions all involved looking at key songs and musicals and deconstructing them with that the particular thereof the day in mind.
I’m not going to go through in detail what was said, instead I’m just going to sum up the key points that I took away from each session:
2. Community and Environment
3. World Building
PLEASE NOTE: By Day 4 my brain was completely overloading with information and my understanding of things began to get a little incoherent… therefore I can’t really remember what was said in Day 4’s session. Sorry about that!
The afternoons of each day of the week were writing time and we would sometimes be in a room together talking about what we wanted to do and other times we'd all disappear into the various nooks and crannies of the Royal & Derngate... I'd be somewhere writing a lyric, Charlie would be researching, Juliet would be writing a scene and Mike would be writing out music. Then we'd all come back together, mash it up and see what we had. It was thrilling to hear the work people were doing and how it might all speak together to make this piece of musical theatre.
The final day unfortunately I can't talk about because I wasn't there as I had to open a show in London. But I'm told there was a sharing of everyone's work which was utterly inspiring.
One of the biggest takeaways of the week for me was to trust your own process in building a musical.
There are many ways to do it and each is valid if it works for you. The most important thing however is that music is one hell of a wayward beast and it will take you in directions that you would never expect…
So sitting down and planning out a musical without making any music as part of that plan might be a costly adventure in terms of time. This is obviously not the case for everyone. But certainly for me, I will be letting the music take me a little way into the forest before I start cutting out a path. After all, it’s the unexpected that makes life a joy and if everything is planned out before you even begin… well…
Where’s the fun in that?
It just remains for me to thank China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network and Fred Carl and Robert Lee from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York for giving us all an extraordinary week of insight. I'd also like to thank the fellow participants on the course. Thank you for making the week so interesting and inspiring, for the drinks, for the conversations, for the fellowship.
I've talked alot about how important community is in the building of a career. And now, the participants of the Dark Room have a Whatsapp group. Welcome to the future!
If you’ve wanted to be a professional musical theatre writer for a while then you probably have a picture in your head of what it’s going to be like… This is what my Ego Jasper Mountbatten III (who has remained pretty much unchanged since I was 23) still thinks it should be like:
“Yah, yah. Right. So. Basically it looks like this mate… picture a massive villa yah? Maybe somewhere in Tuscany or the South of France or a seaside villaaaage near Valencia yah? Inside this villa there’s a massive grand piano and a sort of studio yah? And you like, own it outright yah? And basically what you do is just spend all day writing music & lyrics (and it’s really easy and fun) and then as if by blooming magic your bank account just fills and fills with huge wodges of awesome moolah due to how bloody brilliant all your songs are yah? And of course you know you’re married to a beautiful, fun, intelligent woman and have a bunch of kids all running about the place like lunatics and yah, you also have time to be the perfect husband and dad. Because songwriting only takes up like 80% of your time so you still have like totally 60% to spend on being an awesome father and partner. Oh and you totally have shows running on the West End and Broadway and you’re basically the king of everything. That’s what it’s going to be like yah?”
As you may have guessed. Jasper Mountbatten III is not particularly bright and bears a strong resemblance to a character from Made in Chelsea. That’s ok. Jasper’s meant to be a bit of an idiot. He’s my ego after all. But what he describes is about as far from reality as you can possibly get:
True there are people who have achieved this, but they are the 0.001% and a bunch of them have worked their entire lives towards it. For most of us, or certainly me, I’d like to put to bed a particular illusion that some people hold about the reality of the working life of a career composer & lyricist in the theatre here in London…
THE WRITING ILLUSION
When you become a professional musical theatre writer you will spend the majority of your time writing musical theatre.
I have not found this statement to be remotely true.
Here’s the reality of my working life as a writer of new musical theatre… below are the things that I do day-in day-out that are part of my job as a writer as I attempt to build my career in this industry:
Competitions - I spend time entering these, filling out forms for them, emailing the administrators for them, recording demos for them and swearing at the guidelines when I realise I’m not eligible for them because I’m considered too old to be a new writer (most new writing competitions are for the under 30’s and I didn’t start writing musical theatre properly until I was 31). And if you think entering competitions isn’t a worthwhile or even necessary use of your time as a writer, think again. It’s one of the only ways (beyond putting on a show) to gain any industry interest in your work. And believe me, generating industry interest is an absolutely essential part of your job as a writer.
Auditions - When you are just starting out with your shows, you will be undoubtedly be involved in arranging them, finding performers to attend them, hiring pianists to play for them, hiring venues for them to happen in, setting up Spotlight accounts in order to get the best people to them, then dealing with the huge amount of administration that comes with casting as a result of them.
Meetings - I spend a huge amount of time attending them, rescheduling them, planning pitches for them, finding out who I should be having them with and putting them in my diary. And bear in mind that a single meeting will rarely end up in a commission. It is the beginning of the building of a relationship which will grow and develop over months and years that will eventually lead to paid work.
Research - I endlessly trawl the internet doing this. Searching for information and stories, characters, period, situations and watching films and documentaries. I arrange to meet and interview people (cue: arrange venue, recording equipment, diary scheduling etc…).
Recording Demos - I spend a good proportion of the Darren Clark Time Pie Chart arranging the music for these, getting the actors to sing them, finding the funding for them, arranging a venue to record them, borrowing recording equipment for them, arranging for people to film them, arranging for someone to mix and master the audio for them (or in my case spend 10 years learning how to do it yourself).
Pitch Documents - Endlessly writing them, coming up with ideas for them, researching them, finding appropriate images for them, writing copy, putting them together as a snazzy looking PDF that people can’t ignore and figuring out how to do all of these things in the first place.
Invoices - This is a real bugger. I spend a good part of my professional life creating them, chasing them up and asking my agent about them. This is simply a reality of life as a professional. But as a writer you will inevitably also end up having to pay invoices (musicians, singers, arrangers etc.) You will also need to set up a record keeping system for them.
Contracts - Learning to understand these is hugely important and extremely time consuming. But it’s a vital part of being a freelance writer. You can’t just leave things to your agent to sort for you, they’ll never know all of the precise details or questions you have in your head, that’s impossible for them or at the very least takes considerable investment and time in the agent/writer relationship. So at first you’ll need to take some time to learn about them.
Selling music online - Setting up of Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and iTunes accounts together with associated costs. Administration of arranging payment as well as associated advertising time spent on social media.
Profile and brand building - Building and maintaining profiles on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote your work. The building of a brand, logo creation (commission of designer to design logo etc.) Replying to enquiries from public regarding your work. The building of a website for your work, administration and payment for website maintenance (or learn how to do it yourself - cue a few months of trial and error). Maintaining an up to date CV, biography, headshot. Spending time actively building your profile in the industry in a manner of your choice. In my case, I blog. My blog takes up about 2-3 hours a month of time.
Supporting fellow writers - This is important to me and it takes an investment of time that is well worth it. Going along to their shows, their showcases, meeting for drinks to help each other out. You will always come away invigorated and it vastly helps you keep focussed on the main reason you have to do all the other stuff above.
CONCLUSION ON THE WRITING ILLUSION
So there you go. That’s what I spend a lot of my time doing out of necessity to build the kind of profile that is necessary to be in line for commissioned musical theatre works in the UK.
Then of course, somewhere amongst all of this I get to have the pure unadulterated joy of actually sitting down and writing music & lyrics for shows.
In order to maintain a living from writing (not teaching and not musically directing) I am currently at work on 15 different shows at different stages of development. For the record, last year I made £21,000 or thereabouts. And about £16K of that was from writing. The rest came from an administration job in higher education that I do roughly four days per month.
This is my reality as a composer & lyricist for the theatre working in London. I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Of course I’d love to spend more time writing but if this is the cost then I don’t mind paying it. I don't mean to disccourage all the budding writers out there, but it's good to be prepared for a slightly different reality than the one that might be inside your head.
It's still a fucking AWESOME way to make a living people.
My experience won’t be the same as anyone else's. But if you are a composer/lyricist sitting somewhere out in the internet, imagining twiddling at the piano in that house in France all day if you could just be a professional writer, be under no illusion, you’re going to be doing a hell of a lot more than writing…
And you better be ready for that.
So, during the run of Benjamin Button (only one week left at Southwark Playhouse - please come see!). We have received so many lovely comments on the piece and what it has meant to people. One of the things that has been absolutely universal has been the audience's response to our extraordinary cast.
They have commented on the multiple instruments, the incredible performances, the puppetry work, the dancing and the close harmony singing... but most of all they have commented on something that is slightly more difficult to define and certainly something far harder to learn.
People have said, (and I'm paraphrasing using quotes for simplicity!) "They all seem to really care about each other." "You can see them supporting each other while they are performing." "You feel so connected to them all because they seem to be giving something of themselves to each other and us as the audience."
And everyone is absolutely right, and I know their secret, and I'm going to tell it to you now. All casting directors, directors, MD's and makers of theatre listen very close:
It sounds simple doesn't it? But really that's all there is to it.
This cast and creative team and crew (and so many of my casts for my other shows) are genuinely kind and generous people. When I was asked at a recent MMD event what my one piece of advice for any people trying to put on their own musical was, I said:
"Work with people who are kind."
There is a mythology in show business (and sadly one that is perpeptuated in reality, that in order to be successful you have to be difficult). This is simply not true. Don't buy into it. Yes, this can be a tough business and you have to be able to hold your ground and stand up for what you believe in, but that doesn't mean you can't be kind whilst doing that.
This is just a short post really, because there's not a huge amount to say beyond that. Surround yourself with kind people, practise being kinder yourself (yes it is something you can get better at!) and even if your show ends up being a pile of bollocks (which it won't) at least you'll have had a bloody good time and met some fine fine friends.
How do you get commissioned to write a musical?
Since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opened at Southwark last week, I have had a few young/new composers asking me how I came to be involved in the show.
Quite simply this was a direct commission. Or in other words I was hired to write the music and co-write the lyrics for it. The production/show was not my idea. The producer (Jethro Compton) approached me and after talking about the project and doing a sample submission of one of the songs I was hired.
This implies another question… perhaps a more important one.
How did the producer come to know about me?
I’m afraid the old adage is extremely true. It’s all about who you know. If you want to be a professional in this industry then it’s very much time to stop pretending that your talent will shine through and you will be recognised and lifted up to the place where you belong. Yes, talent, skill and craft have a big part to play. BUT I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in the genesis of any commercially successful show, you can go back through all the interactions and find somewhere in there a little story about one person telling another about this show that they loved.
It would be very easy to think that this is unfair, that it is purely talent and ability that should be the ultimate decider in who and what is successful, and if our industry was called “SHOW”, I would very much be inclined to agree with you…
But it’s not.
It’s called “SHOW BUSINESS” and a business rises and falls not only on the quality of it’s product but the way in which that product is discovered by the general public.
So is it all about who you know? Or rather is it who knows about you?
For example, in this particular curious case… Last August/July I was going about minding my own business when I received an email rather out of the blue from a producer who I had come to know over the last couple of years. They had seen my work on These Trees Are Made of Blood at The Arcola as well as the showcase of The Wicker Husband at The Other Palace, had enjoyed my work very much and had said as much.
This producer, had recently been contacted by an old friend of hers from her earlier days producing. He wanted to produce a musical of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and set it in Cornwall with music influenced by the folk tradition. His original composer was no longer involved in the project and he was looking for a replacement at short notice. He had emailed his producer friends in the UK and asked if they had any recommendations for such a commission. Our mutual contact, having seen The Wicker Husband (which is, at it’s heart a folk musical), recommended that he get in touch with me and she did an email introduction for the two of us.
And that was that.
I met Jethro and we got on very well, I offered to write one song so he could see how we might work together (Interestingly that song did not make it into the final show). The show is now on at Southwark Playhouse.
The point is this:
If you want to be hit by a truck, you need to get yourself to the road. If you want to catch a train you have to get yourself to the station. This is not about selling out. This is about selling your work. Whether you like it or not, any success in show business means YOU have become a business yourself and you need to treat both yourself and your work in that manner.
In the shoe business, you make a shoe, great. Then you put that shoe out in front of people who can sell it for you. This doesn’t mean your family and friends. They are essential, they will lift you up when you’re down, make you feel better when you feel like shit, but what they won’t do is make your business successful.
Other people do that. Three types of people in particular:
1. MAVENS: These are people who are absolutely obsessive about their enthusiasms, for instance people who’ve read every single book about Sondheim or musicals, and talk about their obsessions in a passionate way to anyone who will listen, but usually only in a one-to-one session or in small groups with other obsessives.
2. CONNECTORS: We all know people like this… they are the social butterflies, they know everyone who is anyone, and anyone they don’t know they make it their business to find out about. They establish impossible connections with vast numbers of unrelated social groups. They are the hubs to which all roads lead. They will inevitably be one of your six degrees of separation.
3. SALESMEN: These folks can sell anything to anyone, they have business smarts, they have intense charisma which will charm the scales off a snake. They will make you feel as if you’ve never heard such a brilliant idea and they’ll make you feel as if you are missing out if you aren’t part of it. They are masters of FOMO.
So why are these people important… they are all important individually but it’s when you put them together that the magic starts to happen…
When a MAVEN talks to an interested CONNECTOR, the obsession and enthusiasm of the MAVEN disseminates to a huge array of disparate social groups, which in turn can be picked up by other connectors or Mavens. This is hugely useful but it’s when an interested CONNECTOR comes into contact with a SALESMAN that the magic happens. A CONNECTOR is like a scatter gun, pumping the bullets of your idea in a million different directions in the hope that a bullet will hit something. And you can only hope it’ll hit a SALESMAN…
So how do you become a known quantity?
I feel utterly ridiculous trying to answer this as I am hardly a known quantity in the industry myself, although I certainly am better known than I used to be. DOWN JASPER!!!!
But, I think one answer lies in becoming aware of the peculiar gifts of your friends. This does not mean you’re using them or taking advantage of them. In my group I have chatted with many of them about what sort of person they are, we’ve found it interesting to talk about and funny as well as informative. Some are obvious Mavens, other’s are clearly Connectors or Salesmen. Some are a combination of two, and there are even those rare folks who are all three. Have a beer and a chat with your friends and family, your colleagues and peers, talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Tell them why you’re interested. There’s nothing underhanded in it, it’s simply becoming aware of your social circles natural inclinations. Is there someone who is always out and about, always the social hub of any party, maybe they are a CONNECTOR? Is there someone who just loves talking about details, and is expert at the minutiae in a given field, maybe they are a MAVEN. Have you someone in your life who seems to be able to command attention just by walking into a room, that people are naturally drawn to and people really listen when they talk? Probably a SALESMAN.
It’s great to get to know a little but more about your mates, but what you might not have is connections to people in show business.
So how do you meet them? How do you become a KNOWN quantity?
Well, it’s all a matter of time, work and exposure. For one thing, write quality work. But once it’s written, don’t sit on it…
Get yourself along to open mic nights, scratch nights etc, events, talks, enter competitions. And make sure you don’t just stand in the corner. Get up, perform something, give people something to talk about. Get your work on, produce it yourself at first or with a collective, get it to a festival. Make it happen, this is how it starts. Get some training, get better at your craft, make sure the work that people are seeing is of the highest quality.
It’s all well and good going up to people at events and talking to them about your work… But it’s far better if they have seen something you’ve actually DONE rather than heard you talk about something you SAY you’ve done. When it comes to proving the quality of your work, talk is extremely cheap.
So, how do you get your first commission?
1. Get out there and make the work to start with.
2. Go to events in the industry and get your work seen/heard by people.
3. Repeat steps one and two approximately 1000 times.
Then people will start to find you, and one day you might find yourself receiving an email out of the blue from a seed that was planted years ago…