Since last we met, I have gone through the play a few more times and made a list of possible places for songs. This list is definitely subject to change; I just wanted to get my first impulses down so I’d have something to work with. I don’t usually share things until they’re finished because I am a pathological control freak, so this will be an exciting life lesson for me!
We’re three posts in, and I’m already encountering Issues. Right now my biggest problem is my desire to mess around with the format of the play. The point of this exercise is to learn how structure works, but I’m reimagining a five act play in a two act world. I don’t really want to write a five act musical. Do you want that, Gentle Readers? Let me know if you want that.
Another issue I’m facing is the antiquated sexual politics of a Shakespearean romantic comedy. I’m not sure how to resolve the fact that one of our leading men humiliates his fiancee at their wedding because he thinks she’s damaged goods - and then we’re supposed to cheer at the end when they marry after all? Personally, I think Hero deserves better.
The show is also looking really Act One heavy so far, which I might need to adjust. The thing is, most shows are Act One heavy because they need to give introductory songs to all the fucking characters. Much Ado has so many fucking characters. I am strongly considering combining Margaret and Ursula into one person to pare things down a little bit. Antonio is similarly not long for this world
Finally, the villain of the piece (one of the more interesting characters) just sort of...vanishes. I’m going to need to work out something for him to do in the second act, because to have your primary antagonist drift away is profoundly unsatisfying.
Without further ado (har), here’s the song list so far. This is gonna take forever, isn’t it?
Benedick and Beatrice Do Sexy Banter Part The First:
A Big Song For Stupid Claudio:
A Trio for Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio:
A Big Song For My Boyfriend Don John:
A Big Song For Beatrice:
THE PARTY SCENE:
The Hatching The Plot Song!
This part is hard because Hannah the writer really wants to throw the guards in here to give the principles a damn break, but that’s not how the play goes AND WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE STUDYING STRUCTURE SO. Instead, we cut right to:
A Big Song For Benedick:
The Great Sexual Tension Caper:
50 Shades Of Mistaken Identity:
A Song For The Worst Security Guards In History:
Act One Finale:
Act Two Opener:
A Big Song For Hero:
The next sequence (Act V, Scene I) gets a little tricky for me. There's no clear place for a specific song, but a lot happens in a short amount of time. A solo moment for the grief-stricken Leonato could work. I also think it might be a good place for a reprise of the “trio” from the beginning of Act One, as the Prince and Claudio are pretty lighthearted at the beginning, and Benedick once again comes in with a completely different Mood. Then we need to integrate Dogberry being inexplicably good at his job, and the reveal of Hero's innocence. More on this story as it develops.
Benedick and Beatrice Do Sexy Banter Part The Second:
A Small Song For Claudio:
Maybe A Duet For Beatrice and Hero:
The Finale Finale:
This gives me anywhere from 20-25 songs to work with, and an awful lot of work to do. I suppose I’d better get started.
Here are some things I wrote down while re-reading Much Ado About Nothing for the first time in twenty years after three glasses of wine. Like what you see? You can support this project by throwing the money from that weird jar next to your bed at me via the link below:
It may not look as if I’ve been doing a lot of work on this project, but actually I did SEVERAL things that were not quite Thing enough to post. None of them panned out and I forgot to do any more work on this project because I was quite busy having multiple depressive episodes and anxiety meltdowns. You know what helps with those? Small achievable tasks. Like making a decision and then telling people about it. You know what doesn’t help? Binge drinking. Just FYI.
The thing about me is, I’m always having Great Big Ideas for things and then not quite following through. I keep wanting to work on this project, I keep wanting to write, but then I get bogged down with “but I don’t know how to DO this” or “this probably isn’t going to be very good.” Those of you who are Makers Of Things are no doubt intimately familiar with this process.
However, the entire point of this project was to learn a new skill, so chances are it probably won’t be very good at times. Surely the chance of failing publicly will be a very good lesson for a lifelong perfectionist with a sun in Gemini and a moon in Virgo. Yes? Yes? Sure.
So here goes. As you may recall from several months back, the first assignment for the project is to musicalize an existing play, one you think is good, so you can learn the structure of a play that works. My immediate instinct was August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. I absolutely love this play, and it has a larger-than-life quality that I thought would suit a musical adaptation. There are nuanced female characters, interesting conflicts, and best of all, a dramatic scene where the entire cast talks at once. Musical numbers where every character is on stage singing a different song are my all time favorite thing in musicals. Alex Lacamoire calls those “all-skates” and he and Lin-Manuel Miranda did one of the best ones in history, so:
I went on a quest to try to get the rights to write an adaptation of August: Osage County and made it ALL THE WAY TO TRACY LETTS’ AGENT only to be very politely shut right the fuck down. I still really, really want to write this musical. My new plan is to somehow befriend Tracy Letts and ask his permission myself, and I’ll report back as soon as that happens.
I also submitted to a fellowship of sorts for female musical theater writers. I wasn’t accepted, which is mildly disappointing as these things always are. When I applied I was in a place where I really needed to DO SOMETHING, and I’m glad that I did. Also the idea that I proposed was my original idea for Musical Number 3 of this project (a show based on a source material that is not a play), so I’m fairly certain I will still end up writing it at some point. Watch this space!
So I got a little discouraged and a little distracted, and while I didn’t forget about this project entirely I did focus my attentions elsewhere for a few months. Then I took a scene study class, and one of the pairs was assigned a scene from August: Osage County. Oh yeah, I thought, I was going to do that thing. I should still do that thing. Only I’m gonna need a play I can actually get permission to adapt.
So we’re taking it straight back to the archives of the public domain and doing some motherfucking Shakespeare. Originally I thought I would try Richard III, but after some consideration I realized I don’t actually care about what happens in that play after Lady Anne gets engaged in front of her husband’s corpse. I couldn't even fight my way through the re-read, and I figured in order to do this project well I'd need a play I really felt strongly about. If banter-based sexual tension is something I’m drawn to musicalize, then perhaps it’s best to start with the Shakespeare play with which I am the most familiar.
Oh man, did I ever love Much Ado About Nothing when I was a kid. I went through a period in college when I watched the 1993 movie every day, and I’m fairly certain I have every one of Emma Thompson’s line readings committed to memory. My mom had an antique book of this play when I was a kid which I straight up stole when I moved out. I like a lot of Shakespeare plays, but I have yet to read one that grabbed me the way this one did. It taught me the valuable lesson that if you’re better at making jokes than boys are, eventually one of them will fall in love with you. Any minute now.
I’ve never done the show, or even seen a production of it staged, so I’m able to come to it with a relative lack of outside influence. I honestly think this play has everything you need for a really fun musical: dueling lovers, gossiping servants, a compelling villain, and a happy ending, however problematic by modern standards. You may have noticed that I don’t really have much of a plan here - I’m pretty much making this whole thing up as I go along, so our collective mileage may vary. This play has lived in my head for most of my life, however, so I think it will be a good challenge and an excellent place to start.
You’re going to cast yourself as Beatrice aren’t you? That does sound like something I would do.
Foolish girl, what makes you think you can top the sexy banter of THE IMMORTAL BARD? How dare you, I am excellent at sexy banter, as evidenced by my Several Boyfriends. Seriously though, I am worried about trying to do Shakespeare for this exact reason. Do I try and write my own jokes, or just rethink the witticisms of the original text? The Savage Insult Flirting in this play was unfortunately an important part of my sexual awakening, so rest assured I will at the very least treat it with the reverence it deserves.
OMG I LOVE THAT PLAY CAN I BE HERO PLEASE? Really? Hero’s your choice? You don’t want to be Margaret or maybe Michael Keaton? If you’re sure then fine - Hero doesn’t have a lot going on and when she does it’s because everyone is kind of a dick to her. I’m going to try and give her SOME agency in my version, so you’ll have something to do.
Hannah, I don’t have any proof of this in front me right this second, but I am confident that someone somewhere has already made a musical of this play. Live footage of me giving zero fucks about all that:
I don’t know why it took me until age 24 to decide I could write music. Teenage Hannah spent the better part of the late 90s blasting Jewel, No Doubt, and Alanis Morissette on cassette tape and it never once occurred to that bitch to pick up a guitar. I was so focused on becoming *an actress, on the stage* that I didn't even consider other possible paths. By the way, if you didn’t read that last sentence in the voice of Debbie Reynolds’ character from Singin’ In The Rain you might want to skip the rest of this post. There’s nothing here for you.
My delayed entry into the world of songwriting is even more bizarre when I consider the fact that my all-time musical theater hero wasn’t a diva but a composer. Anyone who knew me as a kid will attest to the fact that I was fucking weird about Stephen Sondheim. I had every single one of his cast recordings, multiple casts in some cases (don’t talk to me about the Merrily OBC versus the La Jolla version, I will fight you). I read every backstage history and every lyric analysis book my mother could get into the library at the university where she worked. I used to spend hours at the copy machine in the grocery store making highly illegal photocopies of his scores. You know how the rest of you were super into Pokemon? This was my Pokemon. I had to catch them all.
There aren’t a lot of famous female musical theater writers. They're out there, and they're bad ass, but if you were going to make a list of "people who write musicals" it would be a lot of dudes. It’s a field known for great actresses, but those actresses are almost invariably singing songs written for them by men. That’s one of the reasons why I stopped doing theater; I didn’t like how little control I had over the kinds of women I played and the feelings they got to have. I loved singing, I even loved singing Vamp Tunes, but I didn’t love singing exclusively Vamp Tunes. For more on my thoughts about type casting, please listen to the three minute punk song embedded below:
When I did finally start writing music, I still thought of myself as a singer first. My interest in composing was not rooted in “I have things to say” but rather “I have to have a sample of my singing on my website and I’m too lazy to figure out copyright laws.” So I wrote a silly little folk song about a one night stand and my guitar teacher helped me record it. Then I realized something: I liked writing songs. Also I was pretty good at it. By creating my own material I wouldn’t be limited to someone else’s (again, usually a dude’s) idea of what a woman could feel. I could sing patter songs, I could sing ballads, I could be fierce or vulnerable or both in the same verse. I could choose my own words.
So I spent the last decade with my words, in my voice, on my terms. I love performing and always will, but in the last year I’ve realized that I want to branch out and stretch myself as a composer. I see myself as a writer first now, and I want to get better at it. I want to tell stories that didn’t happen to me. I want to learn how to write songs for other vocal ranges, for multiple voices, with instruments other than the guitar. I want to find a way to integrate my insanely talented friends into my work. I want to create stories where the women aren’t just waiting around to belt an 11 O’Clock Consolation Song which serves as a life-altering catalyst for the male lead who’s been giving them mixed signals since the overture. Seriously honey, just leave him.
I want to write a fucking musical. And because of my youthful obsession with one of greatest musical theater writers in the history of the genre, I know exactly what to do.
See, when he was a teenager, Stephen Sondheim lived in the same neighborhood as Oscar Hammerstein - their families were friendly. When he was nineteen he rolled up at Hammerstein’s front door with a musical he’d written, thinking it was the Greatest Thing The American Theater Would Ever See. Hammerstein told him it was hot trash, but took it upon himself to become Sondheim’s mentor. Here’s Sondheim’s account of the Oscar Hammerstein School For Kids Who Want To Write Musicals Good from an interview in the Paris Review in 1997:
“First...take a play that you like, that you think is good, and musicalize it. In musicalizing it, you’ll be forced to analyze it. Next, take a play that you think is good but flawed, that you think could be improved, and musicalize that, seeing if you can improve it. Then take a nonplay, a narrative someone else has written—it could be a novel, a short story—but not a play, not something that has been structured dramatically for the stage, and musicalize that. Then try an original.”
We have arrived at the point of this essay: I’m going to do these four assignments. I’ll be documenting the whole process here on this blog, and posting videos and demos of the songs as I go. I’m currently working on getting Appropriate Permissions for Project One, and deciding on which Shakespeare play I’ll be doing if said Permissions aren’t granted. I already have plans for Projects Three and Four. I have an idea for Project Two that I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO FIND OUT.
Now to your questions:
So are you quitting the band then? No, don’t be ridiculous. I have to have a place to vent about boys or I will explode and die. Band stuff will still be happening over at the band site, I just plan on being very, very busy.
Can I be in it? Yeah probably, when there’s an it for you to be in. DM me your vocal range and I’ll get back to you. Unless you’re Kayleigh, in which case you know you don’t have a choice so why are you even asking?
Hey you should do this play/you should do my book/what about a Scarface musical/can I help you write it? No. Go away. Two of those aren't even questions.
What are you calling this thing? The Putting It Together Project. Chromolume #1 coming your way in 2018.