With Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers did it first. When it came to Oscar Hammerstein, he usually waited until afterwards. WS Gilbert made sure he had everything nailed down before Sir Arthur Sullivan even got a look in.
So which is the right way to do it – words or music first?
If you’ve never written a song with someone else, it may seem like a spurious question. In my own experience, I’ve usually written music to existing lyrics, or else the two have emerged seamlessly together, either sparked by a musical idea or a catchy phrase or line.
But this is new territory. For a start, my main focus is the musical’s book – although my background fortunately allows me the advantage of thinking musically as I write. Secondly, we’re working with source material that is not only extremely well known and loved, but also richly textured and full of wonderful imagery, courtesy of Mr T Hardy (see Part 3 below).
And perhaps most significantly, neither I nor (I think I’m right in saying) my composer Michael has ever written a full-length musical before. I’m sure he’d have mentioned it if he had...
So guess what? We’re trying it all ways round. Maybe we’ll find the way that works for us. And first out of the starting gate (to use a metaphor from a sport I know absolutely nothing about) is our heroine’s big Act One introductory number, about ten minutes into the show. This song has been dubbed The ‘I Wish’ Song, courtesy of Julian Woolford in his book How Musicals Work.
Now I don’t want to go off on a digression about the merits or otherwise of How To... books and blogs. That would seem a little perverse and self-defeating. Suffice it to say that Mr Woolford’s tome has much useful advice on the subject, although we have opted to cherry-pick the bits that work for us. I advise you to do the same. The fact that he has had musicals professionally produced and this is our first attempt should have no bearing on the respective value of the advice proffered. No, really.
Anyway, the idea is that your protagonist needs to lay out their goals and desires nice and early, so the audience has a clear notion of where they think they’re heading, even if this later become subsumed, reversed or otherwise trampled in the dirt during the course of their journey. So far, so scriptwriter-theory-ticked-off.
For Michael and me, it presents a challenge: this is the number that will be teeing up much of the subsequent action, not to mention many of the musical ideas that will also be reprised, reversed and otherwise trampled as the show proceeds. So it’s important. (Of course, every number is important in its own way, but you know what I mean.)
And for me, there’s an additional challenge: Michael’s already written the music. Bastard. Not only has he written it, he’s arranged it, structured it and developed it in such a way that its immaculate construction, tying in with themes that will be explored later, will stand little or no tweaking on my part. Double bastard.
Now, this should feel like a constraint. In fact, it’s a liberation. Why? Because my composer has already done the hard work of prescribing the tonal shifts, character growth and overall shape of the song, leaving me with the relatively straightforward job of expressing the same in the accompanying words. (Incidentally, if you ever catch me using the phrase ‘relatively straightforward job’ in relation to any part of this project again, you are at liberty to mock, ridicule and mercilessly taunt to your heart’s content.)
So, having applied the aforementioned words to Michael’s sumptuous melody, it’s then a case of negotiating with him the changes I’ll need in order to make the lyric work. This is an interesting process, wholly reliant on mutual respect and admiration, which results in him adjusting a couple of quavers and me completely rewriting the lyric. I guess respect and admiration can show up in various guises.
The rewrite is necessary, though it pains me to admit it. And it actually leads to few more (albeit minor) modifications on the musical side, all of which refines the number and improves it considerably. I also know there’ll be a time when I’m telling him, in the nicest possible way, that some tune he’s dreamed up just doesn’t cut it for that pivotal moment in the story, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
And now we’re going to try it a different way. I’ve got a pretty clear idea for the shape of another number elsewhere in the show (the benefits of thorough planning are already paying off), so I’m going to write the lyrics in isolation and hand them over to him. See how he likes them apples.
So Lesson Four in How Not to Write a Musical? There’s no right or wrong way to do it. We’re still experimenting, and I imagine we’ll go on using a combination of different approaches throughout the entire process. What’s essential is a shared vision of where we’re going, what we want to create and how it’s going to look by the end. It’s a kind of mutually understood destination, I suppose. It’s just that on our way there, sometimes we’ll use the sat-nav and sometimes we’ll look at a map.
Next time... Shiny things and other distractions.