I’m acutally writing this post to organise some thoughts I have been asked to contribute to a forthcoming new book on musical theatre. This post could easily become a tome comparable to the eponymous ‘White Pages’ phone books of yesteryear if I’m not careful, as the magnitude of problem for Australian musical theatre writers is sizeable indeed.
If you consider that there is nowhere in Australia to study musical theatre writing, whether as a school student or at the tertiary level in an organised, systematic manner, you get a fast walk-up to the ennui that perpetuates our educational institutions in respect to this shortcoming.
But, even if we did have organised training in place, who would teach it? Who has a track record of having written and had produced musicals on Broadway or London’s West End? Tim Minchin or Eddie Perfect? I don’t think so, even though these guys are brilliant songwriters.
You see, it isn’t about how a good a songwriter or composer/lyricist you are, it’s about how musicals are made!
And without that experience and knowledge, you just don’t know what the rules of the game are. And there are rules – a sort of unspoken code-of-practice that everybody in the industry understands but never quite articulates or clarifies to outsiders.
Just to be clear, if we are going to teach about how to write new musicals, the experienced production personnel that we do have in Australia; by whom I mean those directors, designers, choreographers etc. that have acquired their professional skill-set of musical theatre production through responsibilities in mounting the first Australian productions of successful existing musicals, re-mounts of long-standing works of the canon, juke-box musicals or adaptations to the stage from films, are not the right people to be in-charge of this teaching. Similarly, academics who teach musical theatre direction, acting or voice are, generally, equally ill-equipped.
The reason: to reiterate, because they don’t know what the rules of the game are for producing new musicals potentially able to be successful in New York or London. Frankly, it is the closest thing to a secret society I’ve encountered wherein, if you are not one of the ‘chosen few’, you are simply not in the game.
So who does that leave? According to my body count, that leaves playwrights and authors who actually write about musical theatre. Why? Because it is their stock-in-trade to know and cross-reference significant bodies of theatrical work. And it is from this cross-dimensional, comparative analysis of the canon where the roots of understanding, or at the very least, acknowledgement of the rules of engagement are derived.
Put another way, you need to know the repertoire, and, you need to know the how and why that repertoire got where it got.
To sidetrack momentarily – It is of constant amazement to me when I quizz young writers, how little of the repertoire they actually do know. My quizz usually goes like this:
Answer these 8 questions:
Who sings “Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life” in Little Johnny Jones?
Cpt. Hook’s waltz song in Peter Pan (1954) is called?
Hapgood in Anyone Can Whistle sings “Everybody Says Don’t”. What is his other major song?
“Many Moons Ago” in Once Upon A Mattress is sung by?
From what show does “A Man Doesn’t Know” come from?
Mr. Macafee in Bye Bye Birdie sings a song about children. It is called?
Potemkin in Celebration has two songs. They are?
Which character in 1776 sings “Molasses To Rum”?
Now of course, if I asked them to name any tune from Dear Evan Hansen or Mean Girls or some such, the correct answer rate would be much higher. This is because there were no musicals written, it would seem, prior to 2015.
Ah, I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth as I write by the same said people I have asserted as inappropriate to guide emerging and fledgling Australian writers. But, however much they may argue their case, if you don’t have the track record of knowing and pursuing in practise how new American or British musicals are nurtured, developed and brought to fruition, then you do not serve the best interest of the writers – who generally, at least from my observation over many years, know even less.
It’s no-one’s fault actually, but it will be a disservice to Australian writers if we mentor them through ignorance of systems and knowledge that are often hard-earned and salutory in outcome at the best of times.
And the evidence for this? 86% of new musicals on Broadway still fail year-on-year.
In Australia, there is a mindset I have seen over and over again by passionate, zealous professional-standing theatre makers who seem unwilling to make very hard decisions about what works and does not work both dramatically and theatrically. And then, they put all these faults up on-stage hoping the audience won’t notice. I’d give you a long list here, but that is not the point of this article.
In short, new musicals will likely fail if any of the following conditions exist:
• The book for the musical (the work’s structure) is in any way flawed, as this is the one element which non-creative stakeholders treat as an area in which they are well-equipped to critique (It’s not true of course, but it matters not);
• One, or more songs, don’t land (it could be a consequence of the music and/or lyric itself, or any number of associated issues to do with the timing, placement and staging of the set piece);
• The critical criterion of stage characters being well-drawn, multi-dimensional, and having attributes to which an audience can identify and attach to are, at worst, absent or underwritten;
• The story (not the plot) is cumbersome, unimaginative, staid, inauthentic and not told in a way that is authentically ‘theatrical’ (difficult concept and too long to go into here);
• If any one, single, production element is out-of-kilter with the embodiment of the work as realised by the writers – not the lens through which the director distils a ‘vision’ for the work (which can be an entirely separate issue);
• The story which you are telling is not a live-theatrical piece but something that should be done in another medium;
• The musical is staged in a venue that does not focus the audience attention (interesting this one and hardly ever given enough consideration);
• The producer hires the wrong General Management and Marketing & Promotion (inc. social media) companies who distil the concept of the client’s work differently to the heart and soul of the piece as seen though the embodiment of the work as put on-stage;
and this, perhaps the most important of all:
• If you are not mesmerised from the time you enter the theatre (or at the very least from the moment of ‘curtain-up’) to the moment when, metaphorically, the curtain comes down – THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG with the musical (or ‘somethings’ being more likely).
How then do young Australian musical theatre writers learn all of this?
The only way is by doing and, almost inevitably, failing (sometimes over and over again). They have to see it in action. They have to be able to cope with the demands of the process. They have to be guided by mentors who can, hopefully, find a way to allow the work to be further developed (if the work warrants it). They have to learn that re-writing is not necessarily always the only, or right, answer. They have to learn that failures take time to distil to isolate the real perpetrator of the problem.
The list goes on.
So I return to my initial statement that we are failing our young, and not so young, Australian musical theatre writers. I have espoused this view for over 15 years now:
We have to bring to Australia the experts who can, and are willing to, mentor our writers if only so that we can show the rest of the world just how gifted our writers are. Writers like Tim and Eddie have been recognised for their outstanding abilities, but those abilities alone don’t make a musical automatically successful – as has been aptly demonstrated – without diminishing their very considerable accomplishments to date.
Eventually, nonetheless, this is a very thorny problem we are going to have to come to grips with.