Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Few Thoughts On The Secret Life of the American Musical

Confession time: I love musicals. Always have. I think they are a vastly underrated part of the literary canon. As both a pseudo-alpha male and English teacher, musicals shouldn't matter nearly as much as they do to me, but I am unashamed of my love for them and a staunch defender of their importance. With the advent of HAMILTON into our collective consciousness, musicals are significant in many ways again. And I started thinking about how and why they work. I also wondered what could I learn about writing, especially my own, from musicals.

I've made no secret of my obsession with discovering, unpacking and analyzing the process, techniques, routines and rituals of writers. During my present reading tear, I devoured Stephen Sondheim's lyric books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT. I became obsessed with Sondheim a few years back when HBO played a documentary called SIX BY SONDHEIM and I was entranced not only by the man and his music, but the painstaking process of writing the songs that he was writing, the context of both the time and setting and his meticulous attention to detail. I also read the "Hamiltome" last year, fascinated by the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and the work that he created. HAMILTON is my closing argument to the question of writing an epic fantasy musical. It can be done. (And I believe that eventually I am the guy to write it...but not now!) So, poking around for more books about musicals I found THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel and checked it out of the library. It was enlightening to say the least.

The book is split into parts, discussing and dissecting the component parts of the American musical. Structure is a big deal in writing. I've always thought of myself as a structure guy but I've spent a lot of time in the last few months studying writing and noticing that maybe I'm not as structured as I think I am. I just finished research projects with my seniors and tried to instill this new found belief in structure to them since they often ramble and wander in their essays, and while it is true not all that wander are lost, my students are in their research papers. But I'm not here to talk about that, I'm here to talk about the structure of the American musical and what it has to do with my writing.

Viertel stipulates that American musicals follow a formula and his analysis, with great examples, proves this to be true. The parts are:

  1. The Overture
  2. Opening Number
  3. The I Want Song
  4. Conditional Love Song
  5. The Noise
  6. Bushwhacking 1: Second Couples
  7. Bushwhacking 2: Villians
  8. Bushwhacking 3: The Multiplot and How It Thickens
  9. Stars
  10. Tent Poles
  11. Curtain Act 1
  12. Curtain Up on Act 2
  13. The Candy Dish
  14. Beginning To Pack
  15. The Main Event
  16. The Next-to-Last Scene
  17. The End
Viertel's explanations of each and how they fit into the story reminded me a bit of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT. They work when you apply them but you can't help but wonder if it's intentional or something deeper. There's a very Joseph Campbellian slant to many of these studies of narrative structure that I understand because of my personal acclimation to Campbell's ideas. When applied to the American musical, they work. So, how can the apply to fiction. I don't know, but I'm going to see if it does as I write this.

The Overture: Doesn't apply to story structure, more about tone.

Opening Number: If I get nothing else out of this book, the opening lines of the chapter on Opening Numbers will stick with me forever as a writer: THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. Nothing else could possible encapsulate what a writer needs to understand in the opening pages of your book or story. The audience is lost and clueless. They need to be saved and it's up to us, as writers, to save them. 

The I Want Song: Reminds me instantly of Snyder's Theme Stated. It's the part of the musical that rather heavy handedly tells us what the protagonist(s) are thriving for.

Conditional Love Song: There's a lot in here about the idea of the love story, but it's not just a love story in the sense of romantic love as we've come to understand it. It's talking about any relationship that seems necessary in stories, whether that's a romance between two characters or the relationship between companions and friends (a familiar concept within my work). Again, there is a parallel between this and Snyder's "Love Story."

The Noise: An inverted version of Snyder's Fun and Games. A burst of energy in the middle of the first act to give the audience a break from the work they've had to do so far and something they don't have to think to hard about, just listen to the noise and enjoy. Big chunks of narrative in a novel are the "noise."

Bushwhacking 1-3: This is subplots that are woven together...we know how important subplots are to a good story. Meeting are villain is important as are secondary characters, especially giving them something to do and adding some depth to the story. Again, I go back to Snyder and his "B Story," which by his reckoning is often the "love story." A lot of these concepts are slower to develop in a narrative work where in a musical there is the finite space of one song per concept.

Stars: This is about the star of the musical, where they are given a song to shine based on their particular talent. There's a place for this in narrative, how do we make our MC sparkle and shine. This is where you would do that.

Tent Poles: A high energy number that helps the audience reach the big finale of Act One. Really it's sort of the opening number of what would be Act Two of a Three Act structure.This sort of blends into Fun & Games/ The Noise for most narrative, though an event happening in the narrative might be just what a reader needs to.

Curtain Act 1: The big closing number of the first act. Defying Gravity. Non-Stop. La Vie Boheme. A mini-peak in the narrative, I find it's more of a musical thing as it's often the most memorable number of the musical and one of the most important. I'm not sure how I could get this to work in a novel, it'd be sort of the Mid-Point in Snyder's Save the Cat structure.

Curtain Up Act 2: Action plunging us back into the story. Often time has passed. Intermission doesn't exist in novels, though I could see a tipping point happening in a novel that sets the entire second half of the story in motion.

The Candy Dish: A problematic part of musicals...and novels. How do we get from the midpoint to the beginning of the end. How do we get there? What can we do that is going to keep the reader interested in what happens next? Are there too many threads to tie up? We've addressed so much, what else can we address without adding too much new to confuse the reader? This is character development and plot thickening time. In a narrative, I think this is longer than one number in a musical.

Beginning to Pack: This start happening. Someone's pulled the drain. Snyder's Black Moment. Pretty obvious this is a necessity in novels.

The Main Event: The big moment. Everything had led to this. The battle. The showdown. The big game.

The Next-To-Last Scene:The resolution. The hobbits seeing the decrepit Bilbo again. Sam returning to the Shire.

The End: Duh.

So, can we structure an entire novel this way? Not entirely, but there are things to use. As I said, the book was worth the read if for no other reason that reading the line THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. That is a quote I will think about every time I write a novel from now on.

I'm going to do a follow up post on this looking at one of my novels that I've written to see what applies and how. I have a feeling it's going to be a stretch, but we'll see.

For now, keep your eyes out for the epic fantasy grunge rock opera THE GRUNGE LORDS coming to Broadway in the next ten years!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Few Thoughts On: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I'm on a monster reading tear since giving up social media for Lent and I finished the book DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK by Mason Currey. It was a fascinating book and I have some thoughts about it.

I've been reading more writing books than usual this year as I'm trying to nail down what I need to fix in my own writing. I'm going to try and take notes as I read then put them together into something that's a coherent discussion. This is the first of those books.

Creative people are fascinating creatures with even more fascinating habits and rituals. I study them, dreaming of a day when I can have my own writing rituals as a full time writer. As it stands now, my ritual is sporadic and streaky at best. But I've lamented about this before and I won't do so now. I want to make some comments about reading this book and what it left me feeling about creative people and their rituals while comparing them to mine.

A quick note: if I have a gripe against this book it's that there is very little in the way of contemporary writers. Most of the writers in the book are long gone and come from a different time. A time when there was either a patronage for the arts or you could actually make something of a living from working as a writer. So, anyway, some thoughts.

  • Lots of smoking and coffee. I mean a lot of smoking and drinking. It made me feel like I should be doing a lot more of both. I do drink chai lattes from my Kuerig (Dunkin Donuts on occasion), but no coffee for me. 
  • Benzedrine too. Every other entry seemed to mention the almost necessity of drugs to help fuel their creativity. I am not interested in drugs to fuel my creativity. As I'm typing this, I'm getting over some major dental work while refusing anything heavier than Advil. 
  • Many worked for short periods of time, 2-4 hours maximum. This was surprising. There were writers that worked for longer periods of time, but for the most part, they'd work for only a few hours a day. There is an massive expenditure of energy that comes with being a creative person and the more I think about it the more I realize that it makes sense because even on a good day, I might spend a grand total of four hours on a good day of writing. So I got that going for me. 
  • Morning work time, often 5-6 am or at dawn. Many writers stuck to working in the early AM before they had to work OR that was just when they wrote, often finishing up before noon and having the rest of the day to do whatever. I'd love to do this and tried to this weekend, but for some reason I just couldn't get out of bed earlier than 8 am. And weekdays, I get up between 6 and 6:30 for work. I just don't think I can get up earlier than that. And I mean physically. The interesting thing about this is that where it didn't make sense to me when I was younger, now that I'm in my mid forties I totally get it. I used to be a write at night kind of guy, but the energy isn't there anymore. After everyone goes to bed at night (an ordeal in and of itself), my brain just doesn't want to write. It wants to watch stupid videos, catch whatever movie is on HBO, TCM or whatever and just cycle down for the night. It's something I think I have to change.
  • Naps. Lots of naps. I can get on board with this, if I could convince my wife I would become a famous writer. This might help with the brain at night, but again, without a note from the home office, I don't see this one floating.
  • Did I mention coffee and cigarettes? Good God, the amount of coffee and cigarettes consumed by authors of some repute is just astonishing. 
  • Exercise. This doesn't surprise me in the least. I see a difference in my writing when I'm exercising then when I'm not. From a simple afternoon walk (which I intend to start doing when the weather gets a little nicer) to swimming (another one that makes perfect sense to me) to gym workouts (my preferred source of exercise when my not 21 year old body isn't betraying me). I've been doing better with this and I'm hoping it reflects in my writing in the coming months. 
  • Solitude and assistants. I can clear the air about assistants. I'll never have one. I'll never be that successful. But the importance of assistants to some writers is fascinating. Many writers never typed, leaving that up to assistants. Yet, despite this reliance on them, writing is a solitary affair. Actually, most creative endeavors require a soul crushing amount of solitude...and most dealt with it my including massive amounts of social time in their day, whether that was with their families, contemporaries or friends. It's a weakness I have and I recognize. I've become, as was recently reported online, one of those middle aged men without close friends. I'm trying though, reconnecting with old friends and trying to make new ones. I often wonder if I have developed a sort of social anxiety disorder. I've made some great friends over the last few years through school and my writing, but I often find myself completely unable and unwilling to meet them in person because I just can't manage it. I've been trying to fix this, but it's hard to change, there's a lot of code to rewrite.
  • Coping with jobs and families. Again, there was some of this, but I think that since many of the examples written in the book were from days gone by, a lot of them were dated. I certainly spend more time and doing more stuff with my kids than I remember my dad growing up and the book supports this, especially since many of the writers were from the 20s to the 60s, when gender roles were very different than today. To be honest, I found more in common with some of the women writers that were mothers than the male writers that were fathers. 
  • Architects are some weird people. More so than painters, composers and writers. I'm talking weird stuff like nudity, sexual depravity and general weirdness. 
  • Coffee and cigarettes. If I got one thing from this books it's that most of the creative works people love owe a lot to coffee and cigarettes. 
The book left me with some interesting ideas that I think I realize that I'll never implement. I'd like to, but it won't happen. Maybe slowly over time. I think the first one I want to do is waking up earlier. Baby steps. 

The next writing book I'm going to talk about: THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL. No, seriously. See you then.