A while back before I started working professionally as a theatre maker, some circumstances led to me wanting to be the master of my own universe. I had experienced something that alot of people in the industry have experienced at some point in their career, if they've stuck at it long enough. It was this:
A Difficult Collaboration... DUN, DUN, DAH!!!
I won't go in to the details of it here, suffice to say the experience led to my decision to write a novel. Something that I would have complete control over. I am a control freak in many ways, as I suspect alot of creatives are, it almost goes with the territory. And I thought that writing a novel, alone, with just me, my brain, my laptop and several gallons of diet coke for company would be the perfect antidote to the difficulties that I had experienced in the theatre. And so I set about it, working on my novel Raven Boy, every day writing away by myself. I enjoyed this for a time, no one demanding anything of me, no one telling me what to do, no one critiquing my ideas... and then it happened... I started to miss it.
It was like 'Being Alive' for those of you who know Sondheim. The very thing that we believe we don't want are the very things that perhaps we need.
I missed people demanding things of me. I missed being able to solve problems that came up. I missed no one telling me what to do as I'm notoriously lazy. I missed people critiquing my ideas because inevitably their critique made my ideas better. So what happened? A lovely director friend of mine approached me about adapting my book into a theatre show... I said of course she could do it. As long as I could write the music.
So much for getting away from collaboration. It turns out, that for me, as much as I want to run away from it and that it terrifies me. It is also one of the things that I love most about my job. The magic that happens in the meeting of minds.
It's not easy this collaboration malarkey. I think some people really take it for granted. Because essentially what you and everyone else has to do is put aside your ego. And basically that's like telling the T-Rex from Jurassic Park to "Just please get back in your cage." It's difficult. It requires a honed armoury of emotional weaponry. And when you add your T-Rex to everyone else's meat-eating lizards, you get a hell of a play-time. And it's not going to end well...
Essentially, the one thing that makes collaboration impossible is the illusion of control.
We are all desperate to have some measure of control over our lives and our work, we believe that this is in our best interests. Sometimes we believe that we know best at the expense of others. We can't help it, after all, we are human. But the cool thing about being human is our intrinsic longing for connection and communication...
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Well, I can only say what I've learnt from my own experience and for me, it's all about letting go.
That's not easy. It's about as easy as someone telling you "Why you can't you just decide to be happy, and then be it." It is at once, the simplest thing and the most difficult thing in the world. It's one thing to say it, it's a whole other thing to actually do it. To be an effective collaborator, you have to relinquish control. Here are some points that I have in favour of this letting go business:
1. Any control you think you have in a collaboration between equals is an illusion. Therefore holding onto such an illusion is taking a step away from reality and that can only end in pain.
2. if you let go, you can feel the shift in energy in the room. It's liberating and exciting and others (maybe not all) will hopefully begin to follow suit.
What's the old adage? "Everyone's faking it, no one really knows what they're doing." I think there is real truth in this. I have had a little success with my work now and I still definitely don't know what I'm doing. The trick is to really own it.
In my experience the best collaborators have been the ones who are able to just let go. They relinquish their control of a situation. They put their hands in the air and say "Look I don't have all the answers. But with your help I think we'll find them." And that's a brave thing for someone whose standing in front of a bunch of hungry T-Rex's to do.
Relinquishing that control is one of the most challenging and important aspects of making theatre. And sadly it is one of the most rarely talked about. How to be vulnerable in a rehearsal room and in the writing process should be embedded in the musical theatre community, and unfortunately it isn't.
WHY IS IT SO HARD?
It's basically like being Superman, then rolling on the floor with your belly exposed to the sky and saying, "Hey this is me. There's some kryptonite just over there. Use it against me." So that's difficult because you're giving someone the means with which to destroy you. If for example, you stand up at the beginning of a rehearsal period and say "Hey guys I'm not really sure what I'm doing. But I'm going to try and figure it out." Then any person in that room can turn to the producer later down the line and say "I knew they weren't any good. They admitted it to all of us. And look the show is shit!"
That's why it's hard. You're giving a stranger a loaded gun and you are trusting them not to use it on you. That's terrifying.
HOW DO WE DO IT?
Someone clever said something about love once. That love is not something that you feel. It's something that you do. And you have to decide to do it every day.
I think the same is true of letting go. It might sound like a passive release. It's not, it's the opposite. Letting go and relinquishing control is an active state. If you think of it like a mountain, then "Letting Go" is balanced delicately right at the peak and gravity is constantly trying to slip you up and send you screaming down the slate escarpment into the valley where the meat eating dinosaurs (Your Ego) roam.
Letting go is a decision you have to make in every aspect of collaboration every day and in every minute of the rehearsal room and writing process.
We put up walls around us and hire guards to stand watch protectively. All to keep us safe. But they can't keep us safe, not really. All they can do is give us the illusion of control and stop us from achieving our potential. Fortunately for us, when we take down the walls and retire the guards, our fear begins to go away and we are a more open, generous and creative version of ourselves. Just think, if we put all that energy that we spend protecting ourselves into the work instead... think what we might achieve...
TRAITS OF GOOD COLLABORATORS
The best collaborators I have known have the following traits:
1. They are happy to admit when they are wrong
2. They are happy to try anything
3. They will not try to force or coerce
Note that I don't mention "talent" here at all. All the talent in the world can't save you if you can't learn the art of collaboration. You're better off writing a novel (although, indeed, turns out that's pretty collborative too, friends, readers, editors, publishers... you can't escape!!)
For those of you interested in the science behind all of this, there are brilliant people out there called Vulnerability Researchers. Brene Brown, in particular sums things up pretty well in her TED TALK here:
Enjoy and happy collaborating!
For those of you who have heard of it you'll get what I'm talking about, for those of you who haven't read on... For those of you from New Zealand 'Hamilton' is not a musical about a little town/city in the middle of the North Island (famed for being the shooting location of the shire in Peter Jackson's take on Lord of the Rings). This excellent piece of musical theatre takes its name from one of the lesser known founding fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton. Most of us will have heard of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but for some reason Hamilton's story never really stood alongside them in popular consciousness... until now.
When Lin Manuel Miranda (Tony Award winning composer/lyricist of In The Heights) was on holiday he picked up a biography of Alexander Hamilton by a fellow named Ron Chernow. By all accounts he was instantly drawn to the story of the impoverished immigrant child who, through sheer determination and the force of his writing, lifts himself up from the gutter to become a hero of the American revolution, and one of the founding fathers of modern America. He was drawn to the fact that the young Hamilton wrote a poem about the the hurricane that nearly took his life as a boy, and that poem was his way of saying he would not be defined by his circumstances. Miranda, himself the son of immigrants has said he is aware of the strong parallels of the story with his own life, and it's a story he is clearly passionate about telling. Not only did Miranda write the music, lyrics and the book for the show, he continues to perform the lead role every night on Broadway,
So why has everyone gone nuts for 'Hamilton'? I can only tell you what I think.
People have said that the show has broken new ground in bringing hip hop music into the theatre. People have said that it has broken new ground with its colour blind casting (the cast is predominantly African-American in the show) and such is the power of the music and the performances that occassionally I have to remind myself that in reality they were white men.
People have said these things, but for my two pennies I don't believe this is the reason why the show is so successful. After all, hip hop music has been in the theatre before (Into the Hoodz - London), and colour blind casting has been done before, actually the term has its own wikipedia page where the history of colour blind casting is well documented. Of course what the production team involved in Hamilton have done is push these two elements slightly further than before.
I have heard the British theatre industry bemoan the lack of innovation in musical theatre in the UK. They seem to be constantly looking for the 'thing' that has never been done before, that is going to blow everyone's minds away with its originality. What they don't seem to get is that true innovation is the result of painstaking incremental changes.
Think of it this way... somewhere, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a tiny fissure in the earth cracks open, allowing some of the earth's molten core to rise to the surface, the water cools the lava and the seabed rises in a tiny mole hill. Repeat that process, cut forward a few million years and that tiny mole hill finally hits the surface of the Ocean... shit, we'll it doesn't look like much to the people in the canoe then, but give it another few million years and a few larger eruptions and one day the descendants of those people are rowing in the same spot as their ancestors and they're looking up into the sky at a massive volcano. Well, shit. Where'd that come from? They stare in amazement.
But that volcano didn't just appear. It was being built for a damn long time before people turned up and started sacrificing virgins into it.
The same is true of any innovation in technology, in music and of course in theatre. Everything is built on top of what already exists... that isn't to belittle the achievements of those who make us see something new, but as theatre makers we would do well to be aware of all that has gone before us in order to better understand where we are headed.
This is something Miranda understands all too well, he has paid homage to the debt he owes to past musical theatre heroes on numerous occasions. He is aware that his work stands on the shoulders of giants, and deservedly so. If you listen carefully to the extraordinary score (and I recommend you do so immediately if you haven't cos it's frickin awesome - buy it here) you can hear the brilliant homages he pays to his predecessors in the music and the lyric (Even W.S Gilbert is given a moment "The very model of a modern major general"). Miranda is clearly not afraid of telling people that he knows, loves and respects the musical theatre canon.
One of his favourite shows is currently playing next door to Hamilton, the classic revolutionary story of Les Miserables which Miranda describes as his first show. And again, you can hear the influence in the structure and the use of recurring themes, indeed the fact that the show is sung-through takes alot from both Les Mis and Jesus Christ Superstar by Rice and Lloyd Webber. In fact, look closely at Superstar and Hamilton and you will find several remarkable similarities. The first person we hear from in each is the man who was friends with the hero and then ended up killing him. Both Judas in Superstar and Aaron Burr in Hamilton are jealous, tortured souls, both deeply human when faced with a heroic/tragic figure whom they can never truly understand.
I'm sure Miranda would be the first to admit these similarities, but this is not plagiarism, this is taking an idea that works and applying it to make something new, that is innovation.
INNOVATION AND THE UK MUSICAL THEATRE INDUSTRY
I am particularly interested in the matter of innovation. It's a real buzz word in the industry in the UK at the moment and yet I believe it's processes are being gravely misunderstood by those who should know better. Whilst in America it is clear the musical theatre makers of the present venerate, love and respect the work of their predecessors (even if they don't say it you can hear it in their work), it is my humble opinion that there is a shadow on the UK musical industry that does the opposite. All too often I hear new musical theatre writers pissing on Andrew Lloyd Webber... that's fine, piss all over him... but I'd be very careful of completely disregarding the influences of him and other giants from the past (Gilbert & Sullivan for example) too quickly. Lloyd Webber is one of the most successful musical theatre composers of all time and yet I often hear people belittling his contribution and that of his collaborators. But we don't innovate by taking something that has been hugely successful and disregarding it. We innovate by listening to something that is hugely successful and building on it's strengths by increments until there is an eruption that everyone sees.
Musical theatre is ALL about structure and storytelling. What Hamilton does so brilliantly and the main reason I believe it is so successful and will endure is because it's structure is rock solid. It's storytelling is clever, heartfelt and strong and within its powerful walls, Miranda has populated his cathedral with beautiful/funny/brilliant adornments. But he didn't do that by going, 'I'm going to come up with a completely new way to tell a story." No he built a structure based hugely on the well known 'Hero's Journey', based on the "Les Mis' style of storytelling with elements of Jesus Christ Superstar and the fast, clever, political wordplay of W.S Gilbert and he did it with an established and popular style of music in hip hop. What Miranda did was to take all these elements, tried and true, put them in his melting pot to make a new dish.
He didn't use any strange, wierd ingredients no one had ever heard of before... he just combined good old ingredients in the same soup. And voila... the result is delicious!
I would encourage anyone looking to 'innovate' in the UK musical theatre industry to look back at the work of our brilliant predecessors, to be inspired and excited by the amazing canon that populates British theatre and use those ingredients to make your soup. Apply the strong principles of structure that Hamilton uses, steal some of the tunes that Lloyd Webber uses (some were by renaissance composers anyway), and go and tell a story to an audience.
We need to celebrate our past musical theatre history, reference it, pay homage to it in our writing and then maybe one day, one of those critics who doesn't really know what the word means, will go "At last! A truly innovative new British musical bursts on to the scene."
But all they've done is look up from their canoe and suddenly seen the massive volcano in all its splendour and glory... and that's ok. Because we'll all know the truth... that the volcano was there all along, slowly growing on top of a thousand other volcanoes.
So, our industry needs to think about that... if we want a British 'Hamilton' we need to stop worrying about whether we are innovating or not... after all, we're all creative people. We can't help but innovate... one small step at a time.
I realise that the title of this blog is somewhat misleading now that I've finished it, but in reference to my own writings I'm going to leave it as it was at the time that I wrote it... after all everything I wrote afterwards started from there.
During my relatively short time in the theatre industry I have learnt one absolutely mind boggling thing... that not alot of people really know what a theatre lyricist actually does...
In almost all original contracts I am sent I am referred to solely as composer. Despite the fact that music is only half of my job, and to be honest, for me the music is the far more enjoyable and easy part of my job than the lyric. I would say that when I'm working on a song I would spend 90% of my time working on the lyric and 10% of my time working on the music. This is just me. I have enormous respect for lyricists who can't go and hide in their music for 10% of the time, and spend literally all their time battling for the perfect way to say the perfect thing, then make it rhyme in an interesting way and fit music. Sound easy? It's frickin not.
I suppose what is bothering me is that for some reason the theatre industry at large seem to think that good lyrics just happen magically along with the music. I can understand where this misconception comes from in the UK. Who is more famous?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe (Lyricists of Phantom of the Opera)?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Don Black & Christopher Hampton (Lyricists of Sunset Boulevard)?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice (Lyricist of Joseph, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar)?
Elton John or Bernie Taupin (Lyricist of almost every Elton John song you ever heard)?
And don't even get me started on opera. Ever heard of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Look them up. They wrote half of La Boheme. Ever see their names on the poster beside Puccini?
Of course, I'm painting broad brushstrokes, but that's only because the majority of us do. It's how we make sense of the world. The simple fact seems to be that England romanticises its composers and practically ignores its lyricists.
I'm sure people are going to be shouting STEPHEN SONDHEIM and STEPHEN SCHWARZ in my face. And yes, absolutely the "Stephens" are clearly venerated for their work in lyric as well as music... but the important difference is that they are American. And in America the theatre industry clearly values the work of the lyricist in the way it should be valued, ie highly. In England however, the state of play seems to be vastly different.
America has produced brilliant writing teams (composers & lyricists): Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb and more recently the force that is Lin Manuel Miranda. England has the brilliant work of Stiles & Drewe (Mary Poppins, Honk) but I would be hard pressed to name any other writing teams that have had the same success that they have.
In my conversations with people in the industry it seems to be a pervading thought that anyone can bash out a lyric; as long as the music is good, it'll be fine. Simply not true.
An Art Form On It's Own
The work of the theatre lyricist is an art form all on its own. In the same way that painting differs from sculpture, play writing differs from screen writing, bookwriting differs from poetry. And indeed, the most common misconception is that a poet can easily be a lyricist, surely they are just rhyming words? Again, not true. Poems are as different from lyrics as a Big Mac is from chicken nuggets. Sure, they are both available from McDonalds at a reasonable price and they are both (arguably) food. But the similarity stops there.
Asking a playwright with no experience of lyric writing to write world-class lyrics just because they have written world-class plays is simply madness. It's like putting Ronaldo on an Olympic Games hockey pitch with a stick, telling him "You're good with balls. I'm sure you'll be fine." and then have your eyes widening in surprise when he fails miserably on the world stage. Sure, he might be able to run fast and have an instinct about being in the right place at the right time, but does he have the technical ability to wield and control the ball with a stick in the same way that he does with his feet? Probably not. And certainly not as well as someone who has been doing it for years.
What Does a Lyricist Do?
Yes, playwrights and poets use words, just as lyricists do, they have a way with words, they have rhythms and turns of phrases and beautiful images. But, that is only a very small part of the lyricists arsenal. A lyricist needs to turn dramatic moments into music. I use the word music because a lyricist is just as much of a musician as a composer is. I don't mean that they need to know how to write music or play an instrument but they need to understand the musical rise and fall of a lyrical phrase. They need to be utterly precise in their use of scansion, they need to be succinct and clear but also have a fascinating perspective on things. Their choice of words needs to not only reflect interesting and musical rhymes but the sound of every word and where it falls in the music. What words sing well? What words don't? What words can I hold on a long note, what words lend themselves to fast patter. How to make a joke land not only lyrically but musically. These are just a tiny part of what a good lyricist needs to be able to do and above all they need to be a strong collaborator.
Of course a playwright or poet can learn these things, give Ronaldo five or six years of training and he'll be a decent hockey player I'm sure. But why is our industry ignoring those who are already trained in this most precise of art forms.
So What's Going On?
There are organisations that are stalwart supporters of Musical Theatre and champion the work of lyricists in the UK,including the brilliant Mercury Musical Developments and BML (Book, Music, Lyrics - a practical training programme for composers and lyricists that has literally changed my life). But it seems that at the very top of our industry that the theatre lyricist is not being taken into account as it should be.
It is even presumed (and reasonably) that pop songwriters (music & lyrics) should be able to write a decent musical, they use music and lyrics and have succeeded on international levels with their songs. Again, not true. The pop song or studio album is completely different to the lyrical attitude required to write for the theatre. Often pop songs focus on an emotional centre which is great. What they don't do (and what is the hardest thing for even a trained theatre lyricist to do) is move a plot forward or change someone's mind so that the person singing them ends up in a different attitude from the one they started in. Also, vitally, they are the singers thoughts, pop writers are not trained to write from character perspective, another vital difference.
Of course pop song writers can be trained to do that as well, but why not take a chance on someone who already knows how to do it. I'm not talking about myself by the way, I have been extremely fortunate to have been offered some brilliant opportunities throughout my career, but I suspect this is principally because I am a composer AND lyricist, so I am often hired because it makes alot of economic sense to producers.
Cole Porter once famously said upon encountering Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein at a party: "What? It takes two of you to write a song?"
Now, I love Cole Porter's songs, they are wonderful pieces of work. But If I'm honest, Mr Porter's musicals leave ALOT to be desired. They are essentially vehicles for his brilliant songs. The historical record speaks for itself... Carousel, Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma.... all acknowledged classics of the canon. All by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Kiss Me Kate, High Society by Cole Porter In my opinion brilliant songs, but have always left me cold. And certainly not even closer to the heights of the former.
Why Is It a Problem and What Do We Do About it?
My thoughts on the problem are this:
A composer can compose music and it can live by itself.
A poet can write a poem and it can live by itself.
A lyricist can write a lyric but it cannot live without music.
Therefore it is very hard to give any awards to lyricists without also awarding their composers (which is only right as it is a collaboration), but it is my belief that at the very top of our theatre industry, anyone wanting to create world class musical theatre, needs to know that theatre lyrics aren't just something anyone can do.
There needs to be a shift so that our top theatres start budgeting for brilliant theatre lyricists (and they exist here, of course they do, it's just no one's ever heard of them) and billing them equally with composers and playwrights. Some of them are already starting to do it, but it's a conversation that needs to be started and heard at the very top.