Writing a Musical the Hard Way

composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz

composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz

Many roads can lead to the creation of a musical. One of the most perilous and therefore less traveled is to start with the songs and then construct a story around them. Going that route requires you to reverse-engineer the story. This is not recommended. Just last month I declined to write the book for a musical for which the composer had already written many songs.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just more challenging. A few brave souls have been working for the last ten years in just such a manner, on a project titled Snapshots. In a few weeks those in the Seattle region will have an opportunity to see the results at Village Theatre.

Stephen Schwartz is one of the most heralded lyricists and composers in American musical theatre. Wicked, Godspell and Pippin are a few of his creations. He’s also one of the most generous people in the business. Some years back David Stern, a writer who mostly works in film and television, approached Schwartz about building a romantic comedy around songs from his various shows. The composer, who is certainly not naïve about such matters, found himself enthusiastic about the idea. So much so that he became willing to modify many of his songs, particularly the lyrics, to fit the story Stern envisioned.

That story is about how one couple’s relationship changes through the years, from childhood friendship to marital troubles decades later. After 20 years of marriage the couple reaches a point where they feel there is nothing left to say to each other. Or so they think until they retrieve a box of photos in the attic. (Whatever would storytellers do without boxes in the attic?) Their memories literally come to life, taking them back to the moments that built their relationship and to the opportunities they squandered along the way. Six actors comprise the cast, playing the couple at various ages.

Musicals are notorious for having a long and anguished gestation. The first version of Snapshots actually debuted at Village Theatre in a workshop in 2005. Since then there have been other small-scale productions around the country, which gave the writers opportunities to tweak and polish. There was a fuller mounting in 2013 at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, which led to still more rewriting. (Click here for a video of Schwartz speaking at Goodspeed about the process of creating this unusual musical.)

An irony of musical theatre is that the least conspicuous of the art form’s three foundations – music, lyrics and book (spoken dialog that conveys most of the narrative; called a libretto in opera) – the book is the most important. There’s many a musical with compelling, memorable songs that has flopped because of a lousy book. The book is that much harder to get right when the songs arrive first.

A ready example of the primacy of the book is Paint Your Wagon, the 1951 musical by Lerner and Loewe. (Remember the song “They call the wind Mariah?”) While not exactly a flop, revivals have been few and consensus in the biz is that a weak book is why it has never achieved its potential. The Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, working closely with the Lerner and Loewe estates, is currently rejiggering that musical, including commissioning a new book. I recently sat in on a workshop production and the new book held my attention. The 5th Avenue will be presenting the refreshed Paint Your Wagon on its mainstage next June. The hope is that the new book will now rise to the level of the Lerner and Loewe songs and carry the musical back to Broadway.

Snapshots contains 25 songs from 12 Stephen Schwartz musicals. There is at least one song from every musical of his that went to Broadway. This project has such an uncommon form that David Stern and Schwartz weren’t even sure what to call it. It’s not a traditional musical yet it’s also much more than a revue of one writer’s songs. Finally Schwartz deemed it a “musical scrapbook,” an appropriate enough moniker for a play titled Snapshots.

Snapshots opens at Village Theatre in Issaquah Sept. 10 and runs through Oct. 18. The production then moves to Everett, Washington and from there heads south to Tucson and Phoenix.

I for one am eager to see what Schwartz, Stern, all the artists at Village Theatre – and a decade of work – have wrought.

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