On Writing A Musical
by David Reiser
© 2000 David Reiser. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.
( This speech was given at a meeting of a women's organization, PEO, in Palatine, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. on October 9, 2000.)
One of my favorite writers, Stephen King, once said that people will often come up to him and say, "I've always wanted to be a writer." His stock reply is, "I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon." In other words, there's a whole lot of difference between "wanting to" and actually "being" something.
I'd always wanted to write musicals but it took until I was over 30 years old before I actually got started. In the late '60s, in a Chicago suburban High School where I taught vocal music and assisted in drama, our annual variety show had a very funny skit based upon the legend of Robin Hood. I thought, "That's a great idea for a musical--I've never heard of a musical about Robin Hood." (Actually there were two; one was the operetta, ROBIN HOOD, written in 1891, but by 1970 it had long been relegated to dusty achives--except for one song you'll hear now and then at weddings: "Oh, Promise Me". Another one, called TWANG, was written by the same person who gave us the wonderful hit musical, OLIVER, Lionel Bart. But TWANG never amounted to much which is probably why I hadn't heard of it.)
Anyway, in the spring of 1970, I casually mentioned to some of my students that I was going to write a musical and two of them asked if they could help write the script. I couldn't think of a good reason to say no, so we were off and running. Over the summer I started writing music and lyrics and, three days a week, those students and I got together around my kitchen table and we wrote the script. By the time school started in the fall we had finished it. I must say, it turned out very well and we were anxious to see it on stage.
So I asked my choir if they'd be interested in putting it on and they enthusiastically answered, "Yes," even though I told them this would require a lot of extra rehearsing outside of the school day. Somehow we shoehorned our production of ROBIN HOOD in between the variety show and the spring musical; I still don't know how we managed but--I was a lot younger then...
ROBIN HOOD, produced in March, 1971, was successful beyond our expectations and was well-received by large, enthusiastic audiences. A few years later with the Bicentennial approaching and still flushed with that success, I thought I'd write another one based upon the life of Betsy Ross. This time, though, I decided to have the script professionally written, so I approached our principal, and asked if he could come up with some money for that purpose. He found the necessary funds and I engaged an area playwright by the name of Jack Sharkey.
I had contacted him once before and asked if he'd like to collaborate with me on a musical but he declined, saying that he'd tried writing musicals in the past but had never had any success. But this time, when money was involved, Jack agreed. (Jack was always astute regarding money.) So Jack and I got started on BETSY and finished it in the summer of 1974.
This one would be an all-school production. We auditioned in the spring of 1975, rehearsed over the summer, and put it on a few weeks after school started, as Palatine High School's first Bicentennial project. Like my first effort, it was highly successful. But the best thing that came out of BETSY was that in writing it, Jack and I realized we enjoyed working together and continued to do so. Over the next 14 years we would write 18 more musicals, 15 of which were published. We undoubtedly would have written more except for Jack's untimely death from bone cancer in 1992.
After BETSY we started experimenting with small-cast musicals which would be better suited for the many dinner theatres that were starting to sprout up around the country. About that same time one of Jack's plays was being produced at an area dinner theatre so one evening he and I decided to see a performance. During the intermission Jack introduced me to the managing director, Tom Ventriss. He was very angry because he'd just learned that the a play which was supposed to have been premiered at Old Orchard was given to another theatre instead. The author had tried to soothe Tom's ruffled feathers by saying Old Orchard could have the "Chicago area premier" but Tom didn't think very much of that idea. He said that the play wasn't all that great, that he'd only booked it because he wanted the prestiege of a world premiere. Then Tom said, "For two cents I'd cancel it and do something else." So I nudged Jack and said, "Tell him about our new musical." Jack said, "What musical?" and I said, "Our new DINNER THEATRE musical." Jack said, "Oh, yeah," and proceeded to tell Tom about our 5-character show based upon the story of Robinson Crusoe. Tom must've been in just the right mood because he said, "I'll do it!" and added that he'd need the script and score in two weeks for auditions.
Well, we didn't have any script and had written only a few songs. But the next day we got started and, in two weeks, we managed to finish the entire script and score of WHAT A SPOT! It ran at Old Orchard for seven weeks between December, 1975, and January, 1976. And our first musical to be professionally produced also became our first musical to be published. Years later I got up the courage to tell to Tom how we'd gotten him to book a non-existant musical. He thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard and told that story on himself many times thereafter.
Since Jack's death I've worked with playwrights from California, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, mostly by long distance. Three of them I've never even met and one I've only seen once. But by Ma Bell, the US Postal Service and, lately, the Internet, we manage just fine. This summer I completed my 44th musical and about half of them have been published. Those published musicals are more or less in continuous production throughout the US and Canada and--occasionally--abroad. (I've had productions in Europe, Japan and Australia. I just about had one in Israel but it fell through, even though they'd gone to the trouble and expense of having the script translated into Hebrew. I might have gone there, had the production materialized; it would've been great fun hearing how my songs would sound with Hebrew lyrics!)
I've also had four modest productions in New York City. The first one we rehearsed during the summer of 1995 and had 21 performances that fall. I was a bit nervous over the prospect of working with professional New York actors and directors but they turned out to be friendly, hard-working and dedicated people. I didn't realize how much of a collaborative effort it is to put together a new work in professional theatre. The directors and actors offer lots of suggestions, some of which are good enough to be incorporated into the show. One actor--somewhat jokingly--said he thought one of his songs could be longer. (Actors are always trying to expand their roles.) But the next day I thought, "You know, he's right." So I rewrote it and, at the rehearsal that evening, I handed him his newly-expanded song; he was surprised, but pleased.
I've written musicals in a number of different ways but I prefer working with a completed script. I'll read through it and make notes as to where songs might be inserted. Then I get started.
Except when I want to creat a special effect, I almost always write the lyrics first; I consider them to be more important than the music because they have to convey information necessary to advance the plot. As I'm writing the lyics, however, the rhythmic pattern starts suggesting music. By the time the lyric is finished a rudimentary melody has formed in my mind. I complete the melody, revise the lyrics and--viola--I have a song. The process usually takes a couple of days, although I've written some in a few hours and others I've worked off and on for weeks before I'm finished. An entire musical score generally takes me around six weeks to complete.
Writing a musical score is a very consuming thing for me--almost narcotic. When I get started I find it very diffictult to leave it alone until it's all done. Even when I'm not physically involved, ideas keep running around in my head wherever I may be. Many times after I finish a song and want to relax, a germ of an idea starts itching my brain, and I'm off on another one.
There's nothing magical or mysterious about writing music. It's just like any other job; you've got a task--in this case, music and lyrics to write--and you go ahead and do it. Sure, it takes a special ability but so does backing a semi-trailer up to a loading dock. It isn't like you see in movies: a person "getting that great inspiration" and plunging into the throes of creativity. My inspiration is a good script; it's full of song ideas and once I get a song idea I consider the song already half-written.
Writing a musical is hard work and often frustrating, but very rewarding. Seeing one's creation well-preformed on stage is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.. That's why I'll keep putting lyrics and music down on paper as long as the Good Lord allows me to do so.
David Reiser is the composer/lyricist of 50 musicals, 30 of which have been published by Samuel French, Pioneer and Drama Source. His published musicals are in continual production throughout the United States, Canada and--occasionally--abroad, and nearly all of his unpublished musicals have had at least one production. Some of his more significant productions have been in New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago and London. A biography and listing of his musicals can be found here. David can be reached in email here.