Guild member Rosemary Frisino Toohey’s plays have been produced hundreds of times and are included in the collections of dozens of libraries from Harvard to the University of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa. But until recently, Rosemary had never written music (apart from a song or two in college) or a libretto. This summer, Judy and the General has its world premiere in Baltimore. I spoke with Rosemary about her creative process and lessons learned along the way.
Amy Bernstein: I must start with the classic question: Which comes first, music or lyrics?
Rosemary Frisino Toohey: Music, in most cases. But when you’re writing both, it’s easy. If I need an extra syllable on a line, I can just add another note.
AB: What is the inspiration for Judy and the General?
RFT: It’s the story of Judith and Holofernes, taken from the Old Testament. A powerful Assyrian general, Holofernes, has done a ‘Sherman march to the sea’ through much of Judea. Judith saves her town by seducing him and then cutting off his head with his own scimitar.
AB: What lead you to believe this material would work as a musical?
RFT: Writing a musical was just an itch I had to scratch. The story—woman uses her wiles to take down a powerful man—seemed like a natural. I had written a short, funny version of it but when I applied for a grant to turn it into a musical, the reviewers didn’t think I knew how to write music. That galvanized me.
AB: Do you have any musical training at all?
RFT: I studied piano for about a dozen years, but I have no training in composition.
AB: What is your process for composing?
RFT: A melody comes to mind as I’m taking a walk and I play with that on the piano. I took a songwriting course at the Peabody Institute a year ago. That’s where I learned how the “bridge” works in a song. And I use a rhyming dictionary.
AB: What have you learned about composing a musical?
RFT: The song is the emotional hot point. If two characters fall in love, they don’t say ‘I love you,’ they sing. If there’s a big argument, that must build to a song. Working out the timing of the notes is my biggest difficulty. I struggle with whether it’s an eighth note or a dotted sixteenth. I’ve gotten better at it.
AB: Did you have collaborators?
RFT: The melodies come to me but not always the accompaniment. Michael Tan arranged the music and helped me find the right style for each song . He’d say, ‘This sounds like a tango,’ or ‘That sounds like a hymn.’
AB: What are some key lessons learned?
RFT: You have to give yourself permission to mess up. I bought a big pack of score paper. You tear off a sheet and throw it away, it’s no big deal. Mostly you need to be open to what talented people tell you. If my arranger says a song is too long, I cut it, even if I’ve slaved over four more stanzas.
Michael Tan, a Baltimore-based music director and vocal coach, served as the arranger for Judy and the General.
AB: What advice would you give a Baltimore-area playwright who wants to write a musical, but isn’t sure where or how to begin?
Michael Tan: Find a collaborator with the skills and experience that complement yours. Talk to others who have been through the process. Analyze your favorite musicals. Look at the structure. When do songs occur? How do they further the narrative? Where is repetition built in?
AB: Do you think Baltimore’s theater community is a good place to produce or try out a new musical?
MT: I think Baltimore is a great place to develop and produce new musicals. The city has a long track record with the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which has produced some musicals. Baltimore has many small venues and theatres that are great for trying out new works, whether as a rental or as part of their season, such as Stillpointe Theatre Initiative and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS). Bottom line, the Baltimore area is rich in resources, talent, and support for new musical works.
AB: How important is collaboration in writing a musical? How can a playwright used to writing alone prepare for the collaborative relationships needed to make a musical?
MT: Even if a playwright is used to writing alone and has the musical skills, it helps to have another set of eyes. I would suggest that a playwright find a collaborator with whom they work well. The rhythm you wrote may look right to you, but having someone unfamiliar with the music read and play it can be an eye-opener. Be prepared to take constructive criticism and make changes accordingly.