Arts - Winter 2005

"I Can't Believe I'm Doing It with Madame Bovary"

Learning to write musical comedy

By Jonathan Karp | December 1, 2004


Some people climb mountains. My quixotic quest has been more sedate but just as rigorous. For the past five years, I’ve been writing a musical comedy. It is my obsession, my singing and dancing white whale. It has consumed me, occupied most of my vacation time, cost me thousands of dollars in rehearsals and demos, and given me one of my greatest joys— hearing the sound of an audience’s laughter.

Why I’ve wanted to do this is still a mystery to me, since my family has no history of either theatrical brilliance or mental illness. I suppose the initial impulse came from so many thrilling evenings in the audience of great shows. It didn’t matter whether I was in a Broadway theater or a high school auditorium—when the actor playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls sang “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” I was captivated. Life seemed bigger, more magnificent, more dramatic, and certainly more melodic than it did anywhere else.

If you want to write a musical, it is beneficial to have some knowledge of music or know someone who does. Having ceased piano lessons after numerous failed attempts at performing “The Piña Colada Song” with both hands, I was virtually illiterate as a musician. But fortunately for me, I had met a composer who liked some of my lyrics, and our first song, “Why Can’t We Be a Cliché?” had been a hit with cabaret audiences. On the strength of that material, I was accepted into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, which for over forty years has provided guidance and feedback for many aspiring writers, including the composers and lyricists of A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, and Avenue Q.

Once a week for two years, a group of approximately twenty-five aspirants to the Throne of Lord Sondheim gathered in a room with a piano on West 57th Street in New York City to present new songs. Some were merely exercises— the most famous one being a ballad from Blanche DuBois’s point of view for a never-to-be-produced musical of A Streetcar Named Desire. For decades, this Blanche exercise has been assigned, resulting in hundreds of dirges about the kindness of strangers. Later in the year, we had to write a song for Willy Loman in the never-to-be-produced musical of Death of a Salesman. In retrospect, my only regret about these exercises is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to put Willy and Blanche together in what could have been musical theater’s greatest tragic power-ballad duet ever written.

We were taught that the art of the musical is supported by certain essentials of craft. For example, lyrics should rhyme perfectly. Rules can be broken, but only after mastering them. For example, in Dreamgirls, one of the opening lyrics is:

You are so horribly satanic,
The way you lead me around.
I am feeling just like the Titanic,
I’m always going down.

Technically, this is a flawed lyric, because around and down do not rhyme perfectly—that’s known as a slant rhyme. However, since satanic and Titanic are a perfect rhyme, and a funny one as well, the lyric succeeds. In addition, this lyric immediately presents the voice and character of the protagonist, a feisty young woman whose inexperience, vulnerability, and problems with men will drive the action of the story. Much is foreshadowed and conveyed in those four lines.

It doesn’t take a literary scholar to identify the boy-meets-girl conventions of many musicals, but until the BMI workshop, I had never realized how closely the great scores often adhere to a structural internal logic—an opening number that sets up the characters and themes; an “I want” song to convey the protagonist’s motivation: a “comment” song to express a character’s point of view; a big ballad in which the climax allows the stars to hit their “money” notes; and “the eleven o’clock number,” the rousing song a few minutes before the curtain call, a tune the audience will leave the theater singing. In Guys and Dolls, it’s “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.” In Rent, it’s “Seasons of Love.”

Eventually, we began to present our own work—our musicals-in-progress. My collaborator and I wrote an unauthorized adaptation of Woody Allen’s classic short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which a City College literature professor escapes his dreary marriage by hiring a magician to transport him into an edition of Madame Bovary. Our big song, “I Can’t Believe I’m Doing It With Madame Bovary,” contained this lyrical expression of gratitude:

Oh Emma,
You saved me from living a nightmare.
God bless you and God bless Flaubert.

Let me acknowledge an unfortunate reality: Many people do not like musical theater. You can prattle on about how it’s an indigenous American art form that brings music and storytelling together in a uniquely satisfying way, but I am not blind to its annoyances and absurdities. Much musical theater is, on the surface, sublimely ridiculous.

The first ten minutes of a musical are frequently jarring. Conventions must be established. Musical writers are taught that if you give audiences a rule at the outset, they will follow it for the rest of the show; but if you change the rules afterward, audiences will be less forgiving. As a result, audiences are usually asked to suspend their disbelief immediately. Books and movies can slowly seduce us into accepting the unbelievable. Musicals don’t have that luxury. Actors instantly break into song and behave in grandiose and exaggerated ways in order to create the logic of their illogical world and prepare us for the twists ahead. In Carousel , the two lovers meet and sing “If I Loved You” before demonstrating any intimate understanding of each other. A more accurate song for the moment would have been “If I Knew You.”

I still remember how much I hated the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof the first time I saw it. It seemed insulting to Jews, playing to obvious stereotypes. At the first “Oy,” I wanted to bolt from the theater. Eventually, however, the over-stated world becomes familiar. What only a few minutes before may have seemed hyperbolic suddenly seems poignant, and soon we are laughing at the whimsy of “If I Were a Rich Man” (a comment song) and even identifying with the sentiment. Another rule of musical writing is that your show must have a theme, and in Fiddler on the Roof, the oft-told legend is that director Jerome Robbins unified a hodgepodge of scenes when he and the creators realized that the theme of the show was tradition. Once “Tradition” was set as the opening number, the story took hold.

One of the truisms of musical theater is that the book writer always gets the least praise and the most blame. Rare is the theatergoer who attends a musical for the book, and rarely is the book the most-praised aspect of a show. Because I spend most of my non-show-tune hours in the publishing business, as an editor of aspiring page-turners, I came to musical theater with heightened awareness of plot structure, the contribution book writers make to the musical. Gypsy is a masterpiece of storytelling. Just when we think we’ve had all we can take of Mama Rose, librettist Arthur Laurents shifts our attention to the young woman who has been growing up before our eyes, and to her confrontation with her mother.

I marvel at Alan Jay Lerner’s work in My Fair Lady. He managed to write a faithful adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion while still creating a sublimely romantic comedy. Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins never directly profess their love for each other. They never even kiss. Their understated musical expressions of love, “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” are essentially sung in solitude, thereby avoiding the predictability of the “If I Loved You” / “People Will Say We’re in Love” moment.

When I set out to write my musical comedy, I aspired to the subtlety of Lerner and Loewe and the romantic realism of Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little,” a song that addresses the ambiguities of lovers who want to “keep a tender distance” and be “passionate as hell, but always in control.” More than just a song, “Marry Me a Little” is a statement of intent, a philosohy as socially relevant to the times (the sexual revolution of the 1970s) as the music of Bob Dylan was to the 1960s. Perhaps the most awesome fact about “Marry Me a Little” was that initially it was cut from Company, the show for which it was written. The deification of Sondheim is so prevalent that it’s become a cliché—there’s even a popular cabaret song called “Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim.” Yet it is equally true that in this instance even his outtake became a classic.

Although I started with hopes of emulating Sondheim, I wound up in the broader realm of musical comedy. While working on our adaptation of “The Kugelmass Episode,” composer Seth Weinstein and I met a gangly, red-haired actor named Michael McEachran, who has appeared on Broadway with Martin Short in Little Me. Actors talk a lot about “committing to the role,” and that’s what we saw Michael do in ways that were so comically inventive that I decided to write an entire musical just for him. Because Michael, with his facility for accents, wild-eyed characters, and physical comedy, reminded me of a young Danny Kaye, I drew inspiration from such classic Kaye movies as The Kid from Brooklyn, The Court Jester, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In all of them, Kaye played a callow young man who must find his inner courage to do the right thing. The cowardly American hero is an endangered and under-appreciated archetype, best represented by Kaye, Bob Hope, and James Garner. The skinny tenor who can admit his fear and overcome it is more interesting than the square-jawed baritone with no trepidation.

The conventional wisdom of musical writing is that it’s better to adapt from existing material than to create your own book. Many of the great musicals (South Pacific, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls) were derived from strong source material. Having worked closely with many novelists, I felt confident that I could create my own story. The plot: A United Nations tour guide becomes involved in an office romance that could lead to global catastrophe. The details: Guatemalan melons, mind reading, and a Greek chorus that sings in perfect three-part harmony.

Coming up with a title proved to be difficult. Our finalists were:

Hot Relations at the United Nations
My Love Life Is a Global Crisis
I’m Ending My Monogamous Relationship With Myself
I Can’t Say “I Love You” With Your Tongue in My Mouth
Love and Other Forms of Paranoia Slackers for World Peace and Office Sex
You’ll Love Me Once You Notice Me

And the winner:

How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes.

I’ve learned from my time in the publishing business that it’s important to make the reader a promise, and I figured any musical that offered to help people save the world and find true love without having to wait through an intermission would be irresistible. The piece really does have a running time of approximately ninety minutes. Averaged over the five years we spent writing it (and getting it produced at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival), that’s eighteen minutes per year.

The reason it has taken so long for Seth and me to see a produced version of our work is another aspect of the serious business of musical comedy. We dutifully progressed from informal readings to seated readings with scripts in hand to staged readings with more memorization and movement, but even under the best circumstances, the process usually takes years. We searched for a year to find the right director, and another year for the right venue for our production.

Meanwhile, we kept honing the piece. We cut scenes and moved others around; wrote new songs in place of those that didn’t work. It’s a horrible expression, but musical writers routinely talk about the necessity of having to “kill your babies.” The toughest cut for us was a musical monologue called “Nose Hair.” In the course of the song, the heroine notices our hero’s nose hair and has this epiphany: If she can bear something as disgusting as his nose hair, she must truly love him. This idea of a love song about nose hair was precisely the element that enticed one of our producers to commit to our show, but after numerous incarnations and performances, it became evident that the producer was one of only a few people laughing at “Nose Hair,” which, alas, was eventually clipped. We replaced it with a song that conveyed the heroine’s feelings for the hero in a different way: “Why Are All the Good Men Unconscious?”

McEachran, our leading man, has stayed with the piece for five years, as has our leading actress, Anika Larsen. The other four parts have been recast for almost every incarnation. Every time we made a change, we needed another twenty hours of rehearsal to teach those gloriously complex three-part harmonies for the Greek chorus. These actors were usually paid a few hundred dollars for their work, done in between day jobs and auditions, a pittance in light of the time and effort they were expending on our show.

Working with actors has been a new and refreshing collaborative experience for me. I’m used to dealing with writers, who tend to repress themselves in person and express themselves on the page (or in anxious e-mail messages to me). Most of the actors I’ve encountered have no such use for repression. They talk about being “in the moment” a lot. In general, they are more expressive, flirtatious, and emotionally exhausting than writers. They can also be more fun at dinner. If forced to choose, I would suggest spending Saturday night with actors and Sunday morning with writers. Or, to put it another way, life would be better for all if pizza had the nutritional value of broccoli.

To understand the logistics of getting our musical produced, I took a fourteen-week seminar with the Commercial Theater Institute, where I listened to some of Broadway’s most successful and experienced mavens describe the process of Getting It Done. I discovered the amazing similarities between the theater and publishing, beginning with the sad realization that both are terrible businesses—a combination of legalized gambling and temporary insanity—and that theater is the more precarious of the two. Major publishers can amortize their risk over hundreds of books. Major theater producers risk it all each year on only a few shows. Both businesses are increasingly reliant on famous brand names to rise above the din of too many distracting noises in our culture.

Drawing on what I learned in the seminar, I did everything I could on a practical level to write a commercially viable piece. I kept the cast small, on the assumption that our show would have a better chance of being produced if labor costs were low. I wrote simple scene transitions, so we would not need much in the way of sets or props. Everything about our vision for the piece was bare bones. All we really need to perform it are six great actors and a piano. Producers want to give audiences their money’s worth, and at one hundred dollars per ticket, it’s understandable why they lavish attention on scenery and effects; but in the end, what made me love musicals was a bunch of talented singing actors telling me a good story, and that’s what Seth and I want to emphasize.

Ultimately, our producers hope to mount our show Off-Broadway. If they do so, it will cost about six hundred thousand dollars—a vast sum, in my estimation. I’ve told my producers that I’m willing to do anything to help them raise the money, even if it means resorting to the methods of Max Bialystock, the impresario in The Producers, who wooed potential investors with the promise of sexual favors. My one caveat is that I’m only willing to do this with really attractive investors.

A typical Broadway musical costs about six million dollars, give or take a few million. The costs are so staggering, it’s hard to imagine why any producer would want to take a risk on anything unproven, and it is only practical that tomorrow’s Broadway musicals be polished elsewhere before heading to the Great White Way. Most musicals never make it to full production and those that do often fail to earn back the initial investment. To use publishing terms, I’ve created whimsical literary fiction that needs to sell like a John Grisham novel. I’m not optimistic about our prospects, but I never did this for the money, nor did my collaborators. So far, the only people who have made any money from our endeavor are the good folks at Kinko’s, who have earned a small fortune copying over a dozen drafts of our script and score.

A few months ago, I decided to learn from the master, so I caught a performance of Sondheim’s Assassins. It could accurately be described as a boy-meets-gun musical, and it’s the kind of endeavor that only Sondheim could get away with on Broadway. I was about to buy a ticket when a beautiful woman offered to give me her extra one. She had house seats and didn’t want a great view to go unused. It was as if Dionysus, god of theater, was rewarding me for my labors.

The woman’s hair was cut in a short bob, reminiscent of the flapper era, so I wasn’t surprised when I discovered that my theater companion was Susan Egan, then starring on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She asked me if I was in the theater world.

“Sort of,” I said. “I’ve been writing a musical for five years.”

She smiled and said, “You’re right on track. That’s how long they take.” Even Assassins was only then having its first Broadway production, more than ten years after its Off-Broadway premiere. One of the best “new” musicals I’ve seen, Harmony, was produced regionally in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Seven years later—thirteen years after Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman began writing it—Harmony is still on its way to Broadway. Having seen several incarnations of it, I am certain audiences will adore it once it arrives.

Why do we do it? Is it merely the challenge— mountain climbing for expressive folks? Perhaps part of the answer can be found in a lyric by Rupert Holmes from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which an incidental member of the production company finally gets to sing a big solo after years of waiting in the wings:

In time we all taste the lime in the light,
And I’ll have my night someday.

Beyond the compression and perfection of the internal rhymes and the brilliant juxtaposition of night and day, the words themselves ring true: It is something to finally have your night after years of watching and listening: to hear that laughter and applause and know that you are the cause of it, to bring an audience of strangers together through deeply felt collaborative work. It may not be everything, but it’s something, and it is more than enough for me.

Rodgers and Hammerstein are right: “Climb every mountain.”

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