Some cathedrals have stood for nearly a thousand years. Notre Dame in Paris comes close, many of Englands finest cathedrals are still standing. What is it that allows us to walk inside them and marvel today? Craftsmanship. They were well built by people who had spent their lives perfecting their individual craft. Then all of these individual skills were brought together, and working with each other from the foundations to the highest spire, to the smallest statue they built a thing of beauty. Something that we can marvel at, that can inspire and move, not only because of its aethetic beauty but because of the knowledge of all the sweat, skill and patience that went into the placement of every stone.
Allow me to wander off down a metaphor for a while...
A musical is a cathedral. Some songs are the stained glass windows that illuminate it, throwing light upon its inner chambers. Other songs are the paintings and statues that adorn it walls, sometimes they are unexpected, hidden away in a corner and they are beautiful precisely because they are unexpected and surprising.
All of these things, the windows, the statues, paintings make the cathedral a beautiful, entrancing and surprising place to dwell. But without these things the cathedral still stands, although it is a place bereft of the incredible beauty that could fill it. The cathedral stands because its foundations are deep. Deep down in the ground the architect designed an unshakeable foundation that could not be broken. And that is where everything begins.
If our songs are the stained glass and statues, then deep beneath the stone flags of the cathedral lies the story. The story is the thing upon which everything else stands. The beautiful window would lie dark on the ground without the cathedral wall holding it up to the light. The statues, though beautiful in their own right, would not have the same ability to surprise and excite without the alcove of the cathedral, or the giant pillar upon which they sit.
So just as the foundations of a cathedral allow it to stand the test of time and maximise the beauty of the things within it, so a musical stands or falls on the strength and craft of its story.
The cathedral metaphor is mine (stolen and expanded as everything is! I'm sure its been done before) but is directly inspired by something that Claude Michel Schonberg (writer of Les Miserables) said in his masterclass (curated and organised by the wondrous folks at Mercury Musical Developments) yesterday. He said a building is a musical, the statues are the songs. It really spoke to me and made alot of sense so I decided to think on it some more, hence what you've just read...
To say the masterclass was quietly revelatory is an understatement. Linda Walton and I presented our songs from Abolition, a musical exploration of the dismantling of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and then Mr Schonberg, who is a softly spoken, thoughtful man, peeked at us over his glasses with a contemplative silence and said "What did you think you were doing?" with his eyes.
I don't mean that he asked that question directly, but his thoughts and comments made you ask it of yourself. And not in a mean way. In an interested I'm here to help you be better kind of way.
What was I trying to do with this song? Moreover, have I been working so hard on chiselling away at the statue that I've forgotten that the cathedral is crumbling around me? Then he went bigger with almost all of the writing groups, his questions were huge (although sometimes he went into delightful detail) Why are you trying to write this musical? Do you have an implacable reason? Because a cathedral is a hell of a thing to build, it takes a long time. You better damn well know why the hell you're doing it.
It didn't matter if a song was beautiful, well performed or got a big applause, he was interested in the problems, not the good things. There was a huge amount of songwriting talent in the room, beautiful melodies, clever and moving lyrics abounded, but Mr Schonberg takes that as a given. And so he should, he made the excellent point that anyone who has the presumption to write a musical, should have a pretty fine idea already about how to write a good song. So take that as read.
Those technical points aside, what did he think a song had to do?
Essentially it had to be concise and follow the character's logical thought through to its inevitable conclusion.
I'm taking liberties with what he said, but that was the essence of it for me. That doesn't mean it won't be surprising for our audience but our characters should follow their own logic. As with the cathedral and the statues, the position of a statue can make all the difference, the placement of the stainglass will either catch the light or remain in darkness depending on where you put it (maybe it will illuminate one of your statues in a different way if you get it just right).
Just a few other pearls of wisdom from CMS below. There were many more but these were the ones that stuck for me... I hope that I remember to apply at least a few of them when I am writing:
What audience do you write for? You write the show you would want to go and see. Don't worry about the audience. Write for yourself.
What performers do you write for? You write for the best performer imaginable. Let others step up to the mark and show you what they can do. Never write down to someones ability, let them step up.
The last bar of any song should be in the first bar.
Let the audience know when a song is finished. Give them a button (if that's what you want them to have).
You have to make your audience forget that your characters are singing.
Think about what is happening on stage. Things other than your song are happening. Know the environment and how it influences you.
Remember that music can do a hell of a lot without lyric. Let the music be your tool. Let it work as hard for you as it can.
Instead of thinking when does it feel wierd that music comes in, think the opposite, when does it feel wierd that music doesn't come in.
All in all, it was a day of small revelations that will ultimately see the building of some stunning cathedrals one day. It's going to take time and it's going to take collaboration (the architect didn't do it on his own), but if the foundation is strong then you're 90% of the way there, you just have to keep going.
I hope that this is useful for some other writers who are about to take on the challenge of building a cathedr- I mean... writing a musical. But make no mistake, they aren't built overnight. And if I learnt anything at all. Build your foundations STRONG.
Enormous thanks go to Claude Michel Schonberg for an incredibly enlightening day and also to the fantastic team at Mercury Musical Developments for putting together such a fantastic day. And of course also to all the writers who were brave enough to present their work to us for critique and for withstanding that stare over the glasses. It was a little bit like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.