Once Upon A Time, Later
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.