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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Theatre For Thought, August 13, 2011

It's been done...?
joel fishbane

For months now, Bennett and I have been trying to write a musical. Given my obsession with the genre and his own not-insignificant talents with a piano, this seemed more or less a fait accompli. Like most would-be duos, we started off by arguing over whose name would come first (I’m sure Rogers and Hammerstein had the same fight). Then we started combing through public domain material, looking for something to adapt. Musicals are almost always adapted from other sources; the idea of people breaking into song isn’t really something that tends to provoke original thought.

Bennett yawned. “It’s been done.”

After weeks of reading bad plays and terrible books, I was struck with a moment of fevered inspiration. “Bennett!” I said. “Why don’t we adapt this?”

“This what?” 

“Our lives. We’ll write a musical about trying to write a musical.”

Bennett yawned. “It’s been done.”

...the ability to recognize a good idea and not being quick enough to do anything about it. 

And so I was introduced to [title of show], the post-modern metamusical that started at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, continued onto Broadway and will soon be appearing in Montreal as part of CETM’s Next Wave Theatre Festival. [title of show] is almost exactly what I thought I had come up with: a musical about how hard it is to write a musical, or, to use a trite phrase, the importance of not giving up on your dreams. Unless your dream is to write a show about how hard it is to write a show. Because if that’s the case, apparently you’re out of luck.

I suffer from the Mary Poppins syndrome. Let me explain: in the early half of the 20th century, various composers tried to musicalize P.L. Traver’s popular books about a magical British nanny, including Stephen Sondheim and Kay Swift (otherwise known as the first female composer to have a show on Broadway.) Both composers abandoned the project long before the Disney version ever came out, but I imagine the success of the film (and the 2010 stage version) might have made them both clench their fists and say “I knew it!”. The Mary Poppins syndrome, quite simply, is the ability to recognize a good idea and not being quick enough to do anything about it. 

My one solace is that I usually learn I’ve been euchred long before I’ve started playing the game.

To wit: years ago I read Peter S Beagle’s novel A Fine and Private Place and thought it would make a good musical – but when I inquired, I learned someone else already had the rights.  I’ve long wanted to do a show about Andrew Jackson, the eighth President of the United States…and just last year,  Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson took New York by storm. Back in 1999, I got it in my head to write a book that would combine all the fairy tale characters into one, enormous story. Then Shrek came out. Then its imitators came out.  

My one solace is that I usually learn I’ve been euchred long before I’ve started playing the game. Such was not the fate of poor Maury Yeston, known better as the composer / lyricist of Nine, a great musical which was made into a terrible film. Mr. Yeston has a fine track record of shows in his repertoire, one of which is a musical based on a novel by Gaston Leroux – Phantom of the Opera.

... the stigma of an also-ran.

As the story goes, Mr. Yeston was working feverishly on the show when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version suddenly dazzled the folks in the West End. When Webber announced plans to bring the show to Broadway, Yeston’s own producers backed out. Phantom, as the Kopit / Yeston version was called, was shelved. It’s been produced since, but given the phenomenal success that is Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, Yeston’s version may forever have the stigma of an also-ran.

A similar thing happened with Joseph Moncure March’s poem, The Wild Party, which was adapted into two musicals, one by Andrew Lippa and the other by Michael John LaChuisa. Both versions debuted during the 1999 – 2000 theatre season, but LaChuisa’s got the glory because it was on Broadway and had a high profile cast, including Toni Collette. 

...this often leads to legal battles, even though plagiarism has been notoriously hard to prove.

Although prevalent, I suspect the Mary Poppins Syndrome is usually confused with plagiarism. In the litigation-happy U.S., this often leads to legal battles, even though plagiarism has been notoriously hard to prove. Copyright law is all too specific: you can’t copyright an idea, merely its expression. The result is that writers are notoriously stingy about their ideas. After all, the best offense is a good defence and the best way to combat plagiarism is to never advertise your thoughts: that means never write a grant, talk to a producer, contact an agent or have any friends. In other words, be a recluse like J.D Salinger. No one ever stole his ideas – but then I’m not sure he ever had anyone to kiss come New Year’s Eve. 

I’m not sure I have Salinger’s stamina. I don’t mind applying for grants and my friends would (hopefully) be annoyed if I stopped returning their calls. Still, Salinger’s lifestyle is a tempting bit of forbidden fruit. As the story goes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is always writing two books: the one he’s writing and the one he tells people he’s writing. I’ve started adopting this theory too, which is why if you see me on the street I’ll tell you that my next novel is about the production of Porgy and Bess that was allowed behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the Cold War. 

I know, I know. It sounds like something I would write. That’s because it is. I started working on it in 2006. I thought it was completely original - which it is, so long as no one reads Truman Capote’s novella  The Muses are Heard.

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