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“For the Love of Originality"

NYMF’s Discussion on Inventing New Stories in Musical Theatre

There have actually been only three successful original musical plays in the last decade. This dearth…has always been accompanied by a mournful cry for more fresh creation. As one who has written four originals…let me hereby warn all aspiring authors and composers to stuff their ears with cotton and pay no heed to this soulful wail. No one, neither critic nor public, is clamoring for originality. —Alan Jay Lerner

Alan Jay Lerner included the above quote in his foreword to Paint Your Wagon, which ironically was an original musical for which he invented the storyline. More recently, producer Ken Davenport noted the statistical odds against the success of “original” musicals versus adaptations, though he also encourages the industry to seek ways to minimize the financial risk in supporting worthy “original” shows.

Around the turn of the last century, original stories were fairly common in musical theatre. W.S. Gilbert invented the stories for most of the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan. George M. Cohan, too, created the plots for his musical comedies. In the mid-century “Golden Age,” however, results were notably mixed. Rodgers & Hammerstein experienced disappointing results with Allegro and Me and Juliet, while Lerner & Loewe succeeded with Brigadoon (suggested to have been based on a Scottish folk tale). Yet, Lerner’s Paint Your Wagon was less successful, as was the Lerner-Burton Lane musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Despite Lerner’s warning and Davenport’s statistics, there have been recent, successful musicals with original storylines. The original Broadway production of A Chorus Line ran for fifteen years. Other examples include Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and First Date. On August 7, the 2016 New York Musical Festival featured a panel discussion, For the Love of Originality: How to Invent New Stories in Musical Theater. (And, how to interest producers and audiences.) The moderators were Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, the team that created the score for First Date. The panelists were Irene Sankoff, David Hein, Elliah Heifetz, and Abigail Carney.

Sankoff and Hein are a husband-and-wife writing team whose first show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, was based on Hein’s mother’s true story. They also wrote the Broadway-bound Come From Away. Carney and Heifetz are the librettist and composer/lyricist of Dust Can’t Kill Me, which was included in the 2016 NYMF Next Link Project.

writers at a panel
Michael Weiner, Alan Zachary, David Hein, Irene Sankoff, Elliah Heifetz, and Abigail Carney. Photo courtesy of Carol de Giere.

Writing a show with an original story can be risky, but it also has advantages. The writer starts with a blank page, unencumbered with expectations based on an audience’s previous experience with a work.

Definition of an “Original Musical”
“Originality is not the same thing as a musical being original,” Zachary offered. While one of Zachary’s favorite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors, is based on a (“notoriously terrible!”) movie, the treatment of the story by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken was “highly original.” For the purpose of this discussion, however, an “original musical” was defined as one not adapted from other media.

Writing a show with an original story can be risky, but it also has advantages. The writer starts with a blank page, unencumbered with expectations based on an audience’s previous experience with a work. Further, live theatre can support stories that would not be as effective in other media. An example of this is The Drowsy Chaperone, whose plot concerns a musical theatre aficionado who listens to a rare cast recording, and imagines the characters coming to life in his apartment.

Zachary and Weiner discussed the genesis of First Date, which they consider to be in the same category as The Last Five Years. First Date was based on original conversations—lunches in which the writers and a friend discussed their dating lives. (In this respect, the show’s genesis is similar to that of A Chorus Line, which was based on taped workshop sessions with Broadway dancers.) Once Weiner and Zachary had their concept, they had to ask: “How could we dramatize this? Who would the lead characters be?” What events would keep an audience engaged? “There were a million questions, because there was literally no blueprint in front of us for how to create the show,” added Weiner.

Then, Carney remarked,

As much as I love musical theatre, the stories that give me the most inspiration as a writer come from outside of musical theatre. One reason I decided to do an ‘original’ show is that we were excited about doing something musically with stories that are a bit different from what you're seeing in theatre now.

The inspiration for Dust Can’t Kill Me came from research about the Dust Bowl, as well as novels about the event. “We decided to write about the Dust Bowl because we thought it would be a good way to write about the world today,” Carney continued. “Climate change is really important to me; a lot of issues we were touching on that are so relevant today were happening eighty years ago.”

Of Come From Away, Sankoff said:

We had a friend who asked if we knew what happened in Newfoundland on 9/11. As Canadians, we knew that planes had been grounded there. David and I had been in New York during 9/11, so that’s what our experience, our focus was at the time. This friend, Michael Rubinoff, was starting the Canadian Musical Theatre Project. He told us that he thought what happened in Gander would ‘make a really good musical.’ Other composing teams had turned him down, but we said ‘yes.’ Living at International House in New York in the days following 9/11, we felt the spirit of the story was similar to what we had experienced—living in a residence with students from 110 different countries who leaned on each other for support, and used music and storytelling to soothe each other as we waited for news on our friends and family downtown. We applied for a grant from the Canadian government to interview people, and it was perfect timing. It corresponded with the tenth anniversary, for which a lot of commemorations and ceremonies were being planned; people who were stranded chose to visit the people who took them in.

If you want to create a musical whose story is original, ‘Write what you know.’ Or, what you can learn by interviewing others.

No Business Like Originality
A practical advantage to original stories is that rights need not be obtained from another source—a process that can be costly and time-consuming. However, the development process with directors can be thorny in terms of assigning credit for a musical’s content (as happened with South Pacific). What did each collaborator contribute? Then, how to assign credits and royalties? It is best to establish in writing the contribution of the director (who often serves as a dramaturg) as a work for hire.

The panelists discussed the networking strategies they have employed to interest the industry in their musicals. One team had a college dean see their show, and subsequently submitted it to NAMT and Goodspeed. Another team hosted readings in their homes, then submitted their show to the Fringe Festival. Weiner remembered writing letters “to every producer” about his work.

A member of the audience asked how, in the process of pitching a show with an original story, writers can protect their ideas from plagiarism. The answer was that the process leaves an extensive paper trail, and stories unique to you are difficult to duplicate (unless based on an event such as 9/11, as is Come From Away).

The central point I took away from the discussion was this: If you want to create a musical whose story is original, “Write what you know.” Or, what you can learn by interviewing others. Festivals of new musicals—such as NYMF, Fringe, or Finger Lakes—create an environment where such works can be fostered and developed.

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I second that! (Or, to express the sentiment even more appropriately, "hear, hear!")

Humorous side note: Despite being quite a musical theatre buff, I've never seen or heard "Paint Your Wagon". So for the longest time I assumed the bit on the Simpons was actually from the show! Gotta admit it is kind of catchy:

Gonna paint your wagon,
Gonna paint it good,
We ain't braggin',
We're gonna coat that wood.

Gonna paint your wagon

Gonna paint it fine
Gonna use oil-based paint
'Cause the wood is pine