On a cold, crisp November weekend, fifty-four composers, lyricists, and bookwriters from twenty different states descended upon Northwestern University’s lakeside campus in Evanston, IL for a Musical Theatre Intensive.
This intensive, hosted by the Dramatists Guild Institute, with additional support from Northwestern’s American Musical Theatre Project, was the latest in the Dramatists Guild’s series of mini-conferences across the nation. Last spring’s intensive, held in Portland, OR, focused on playwriting. The intensive in Evanston was the first to hone in on the specificities of writing for the musical theatre.
According to Chicago Regional Rep Cheryl Coons, “Chicago is known for its edgy, ensemble-based theatre artistry, however in our community of more than 250 theatres, there are fewer than a dozen primarily focused on musical theatre work.” The intensive, therefore, offered local and visiting musical theatre writers a rare opportunity to focus on what it takes to create a new musical. "It's wonderful to think about the impact that a weekend like this might have on the next generation of musical theatre creators," Coons added.
“This intensive is my mini investment in my own craft.” explained Laura Stratford, a lyricist, librettist, and founder of Chicago’s Underscore Theatre.
Participants ran the gamut in age and experience from seasoned theatrical writers to recent graduates, such as Northwestern alum Frankie Leo Bennett, a performer and writer who describes himself as “a self proclaimed beginning musical theatre writer.” Bennett came to the intensive with the goal of getting to “hear other perspectives about jumping into the pool” that is writing musicals.
Playwright Sherry Bokser flew out from New York in order to participate in the intensive, which she viewed as an opportunity to advance her dramatic as well as musical writing skills. “[I want] to get a basic understanding of musical book writing, and to see if there are any concepts that I can use to broadening my playwriting and musical theatre writing both,” she said at the Meet-and-Greet on Friday evening.
The intensive featured four main sessions, each highlighting a different aspect of the musical theatre writing craft, as well as the opportunity to see two musicals (a campus production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home and an American Musical Theatre Project presentation of Emily Gardner Xu Hall’s new adaptation of Cherry Orchard), and the chance to network, mix, and mingle with fellow intensive participants and DG staff members.
The first craft session, on Making the Contemporary Musical, was taught by Northwestern Professor and musical theatre writer Dr. Masi Asare. After noting how musical theatre is “a grand tradition and a flawed tradition,” Asare posed the question of whether “we want to reproduce those conventions [of racism, misogyny, heteronormativity] or do we want to try new things?”
Using clips from recent musicals including A Strange Loop, KPOP, and The Band’s Visit, Asare demonstrated out how it can be useful sometimes “to throw away the rules and see what happens.”
Asare asked the intensive participants, “what kinds of musicals excite you?”
“I want to understand something in a new way, either emotionally or intellectually,” replied Gloria Bond Clunie of Chicago. “I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to feel. I want a story.”
“Lean into the feeling you know you must express,” agreed Asare, “because it will not let you down.”
Asare presented several provocations throughout the course of her session, which Bokser viewed “as challenges for me to rise to.” These provocations included trying to incorporate an instrument you don’t play well into the orchestrations of the musical and making sure that there is some diversity offstage in the creative team, if not onstage in the show.
Bennett found it “immensely refreshing” to hear from a female musical theatre writer of color right at the top of the intensive. “I think it allowed Dramatists Guild members who feel their voices are not always heard on a larger scale to talk to someone who is currently working in the field.”
The next morning, Pulitzer Prize winner and DG council member Marsha Norman led a session on musical theatre bookwriting. Using elaborate and inventive metaphors, ranging from ski lifts to strings of pearls, Norman illustrated why “you can’t just sit down to write; you have to have a plan.” Much of the nuts and bolts of her talk will be included in her upcoming book on writing for musical theatre.
Norman also spoke about the importance of being on the same page as your collaborator(s). “If you want to go for a bike ride and the other person wants to go for a swim, those are incompatible goals,” she explained. “You can’t do both at the same time.” Writing the book, lyrics, and music to a new show operates on a similar level; everyone has to be committed to telling the same story. To that end, Norman advised everyone to go to the Guild’s website and get a collaboration agreement. “It’s a prenup,” that enables you, in the worse case scenario, to still “walk away with your material.”
New York City composer and singer Roosevelt Credit found the class to be “very enlightening,” adding that he appreciated Norman’s specificity.
“I think the biggest reminder for me is that the songs and the dialogue do different work that is equally important,” staid Stratford on her takeaways from the session. “I know I’ve felt in the past, as just a bookwriter you can get frustrated, when you get to the cusp of the really exciting thing, and then the songwriter takes it.” (But songs eat book.)
The afternoon session, fittingly, explored the importance of songs in musical theatre. Composer, lyricist, and music director Rona Siddiqui used her own work, as well as material from A Strange Loop (which she MD’d in its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons theatre) to track and analyze The Character Journey Through Song. After a group discussion, she gave out an exercise for a character from “a project where you’re not quite sure how to get them from point A to point B.” Siddiqui asked everyone to outline the structure of the song, and then write several lines concerning why that structure could move the character from where they were (mentally or emotionally speaking) to where they needed to be.
“The exercise that Rona did helped me sketch out a new song,” said Arizona writer and composer Cle’, who found the session to be very useful.
On Saturday night, DG staff members held a Town Hall for all intensive attendees, answering questions about copyright, self-producing, director/dramatist relations, and more. Deborah Murad, Director of Business Affairs, encouraged members who are ready to think about estate planning to look into the new Dramatists Guild Copyright Management program (DGCM). DGI Executive Director Gary Garrison told the audience how he had been inspired to found the Dramatists Guild Institute, in order to provide a space for training and community. “The DGI is here to help you,” he said.
Todd London, Director of Theatre Relations, talked about how the theatrical and cultural climate of new American play development has changed over time. “At the time the American nonprofit theatre started investing in new plays, political was sometimes a dirty word. Now politics are essential-- to the plays but also to the process, as well as to the mission of the theatres,” he explained, advising playwrights to “partner with companies that match both their aesthetics and the level of civic and political engagement they're comfortable with, that's appropriate to them as artists.”
The next morning, intensive attendees were encouraged to think about the relationship between their work and the world at large through a different lens. Ryan Cunningham, Associate Artistic Director of the American Musical Theatre Project and a Creative Director at Broadway advertising agency AKA, led the final session of the weekend: “Finding Your Hook: Using Broadway Methods to Market Your Show.” Cunningham shared insights from his experiences working in the world of theatrical advertising on campaigns for Broadway musicals including A Bronx Tale and Matilda. He then provided examples of how he uses information he’s gleaned from the advertising world to more effectively market his own plays and musicals.
“What do people already know about you or your property?” he asked the participants. “Who are you talking to? What makes your show special?”
Cunningham showed that creativity goes a long way when it comes to marketing one’s own work; you don’t need a multi-million dollar Broadway advertising budget in order to effectively spread the word about your musical.
“Mr. Cunningham was amazing,” said playwright and producer Angela Dunlap of Michigan, who took enthusiastic notes throughout the session, writing down informative tidbits that her fellow participants stated as well as the advice given by Cunningham. In general, Dunlap described the intensive as “life-changing” and “full of nuggets that I can apply immediately.”
“The intensive has lived up to my expectations in so many ways,” Cle’said. “ I have received takeaways which I can use to apply to my new works, such as being unconventional within the traditional structure of a musical, how to make sure that even a music-heavy work still provides story to the audience, and to always make sure that I am staying true to my character’s want and journey.”
“I think the intensive has also proved that rules are meant to be broken,” Bennett added. “I’m excited to start break them.”
DG members, where should we travel to next? Do you want us to hold a DGI intensive in YOUR hometown? Let us know!