Back in the day, there would often be three guys who wrote a broadway musical: the composer, the lyricist and ‘the book’. So for example, with Fiddler On The Roof you’ve got music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein.
OK, so to laypeople (like me for example) the music and lyrics are pretty obvious but ‘the book’ may not be. The book is essentially all the bits that occur between the musical numbers. As followers know by now, I’m always looking for analogs between opera and Broadway and I think a good way to think of this is that the music/lyrics are the arias and the book contains all the recitatives. As with opera, the music/lyrics describe the characters feelings and the book drives the story. Or to put it in the context of Hollywood, the music/lyrics are the action and love scenes while the book is all that dreary ‘setup’ and ‘expository’ stuff which I love and which producers are always leery of because it tends to put people to sleep.
As with recitativo and expositions in opera and movies, the guy who writes the book tends to be overlooked. After all, people remember ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’, not all the talking in between. But without that story, there is only some pretty songs. Pretty meaningless songs in fact.
I absolutely loved Fiddler On The Roof as a kid, but it wasn’t until I did the show Fiddler On The Roof that it dawned on me that the story is about my grandmother’s situation: a Jewish family stuck in the pogrom’s of Tsarist Russia, trying desperately to escape; having almost no hope for themselves but praying that they can find a way to make life better for their kids. It wasn’t until that struck home that I started appreciating what a masterpiece is Fiddler On The Roof—and how important the book is to making it as moving and as funny as it is. (You can’t have this level of humour without this level of poignancy, but that’s a rant for another day.) And I had been listening to the thing for over a decade and playing the thing with a full band before that realisation came home. If it took me that long, no wonder producers freak out about too much exposition in a movie!
As I work on Detroit, what’s currently kicking my heinie is the book. See here’s the part I don’t get and number 4,801 on my List Of Things To Ask If I Get To Heaven (you know, that thing where you can find out anything you ever wanted to know—who really killed Kennedy, why gas is 20c more expensive in some neighbourhoods than others.) Where was I…oh yeah: “How does The Book work with The Composer and The Lyricist?” See I know how a lyricist could work with a composer. But I have no idea how the book writer works with the others. I mean, does he write the book first with little bits that say <insert sad ballad here> Or does he come in after the songs are done to try to tie it all together. Or is there a truly collaborative situation where the songs and book develop holistically. Obviously it isn’t 100% any of these options, but there must be a general modus operandi that seems to work best for the great shows and I sure want to know what is!
Now, it’s not a question of multiple personality disorder. I can’t divide myself into three separate functionaries, even if I wanted to. But I sense that having some better understanding of this process will make a far more organic end result. And as I’ve written before, the last thing I want is a show that is disconnected. It all has to mean something. To that end, I’ve been doing all manner of things, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to learn how to approach the problem. One thing I’ve been doing is leveraging my love of movies to give me some insights. Namely, watching all the deleted scenes from movies on DVD.
Almost all DVDs now contain a “Director’s Commentary” and when you watch the deleted scenes you can get their thoughts on why the scene was cut. The interesting thing to me about that is how the overwhelming majority of these scenes are not crappy; in fact they are often the most elaborately staged bits of the show. But at some point, the Director realises that the thing just doesn’t work. And here’s the really interesting part: nine times out of ten? They have this realisation very early in the process. In fact, sometimes they have this epiphany during shooting but carry on anyway because they’re so emotionally invested in that gag. In the end however, when you’re alone in the editing room and realise that there is a bigger picture involved (no pun intended)? Every good director has what it takes to make that cut. Maybe the ability to leave things on the cutting room floor is just as important as the ability to film, period.
So… exactly what are you trying to say?
What I’m saying is that, right now, I have lots and lots of material. I have an overall arc to the story. I have the main musical and dramatic themes as well as some pretty snappy tunes if I do say so myself. I’m seeing these as organs in the body like in one of those “The Visible Man” models. But what I’m not seeing yet, just like none of us see when looking at an MRI (or The Visible Man) is how it all connects—how the various tubes and wires communicate to make a bunch of parts into something that builds great things and types out stupid blogs like… er… well…
My biggest fear at this point is losing that “big picture” because there are so many details. I can easily see how one could finish something like this and feel very proud at the technical achievement, but still feel that nagging voice which says, “you wrote a bunch of songs and some words and called it an opera.”
I’m putting all my money on one simple bet: In every great show, It’s The Book that is the glue that binds together a great work of music drama. Or rather, it is the circulatory systems and vital fluids in the body that give purpose to the immediately visible organs. Without that healthy dialog between the big numbers; the what of the story that makes it possible for the arias to explore the deeper why, all you can possibly have are some pretty tunes. And not that there is anything wrong with that, except that pretty tunes ain’t opera, pal. So I’m hoping that by studying the books of many great musicals—as well as recitatives and movies, some sort of inner guidance will sink by some manner of osmosis and give me a bit of that inner sense of structure that good film directors seem to have. Until then? I’m just gonna continue to live by the words that have always stood me well as a musician: Fake It ‘Til Ya Make It! Because even more important than that last sentence is this one: Inspiration? Inspiration Can Kiss My Ass! Just Keep Writing Every Day.