MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I was just thinking it might be fun to talk about what everyone loves about pens. Of course, if you’re a pencil person, I don’t want to alienate you from the conversation. But is there something in particular that you enjoy about pens? What is it about writing by hand that is different and special and exciting?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: If I’m ever feeling disconnected from a character or I’m not getting to the truth of a moment—if I can write pen to paper then I can get there. I’m not this separate entity anymore. I’m the one working in service of the story, of the characters, of this moment and there’s something about that deep connection that you get that you just don’t get with a keyboard. The second thing that I love is that I always do cuts and edits in pen because I commit to them more that way. I can’t erase them, and if I want it back, I have to type it back. So I always do my cuts in pen.
Stephen Flaherty: I totally relate to that statement because I’m an artist as well as a composer, and I’ve found that, in my art training, if we were drawing in pencil, it was so easy to smudge a line, but if you were working in ink and you did a strong line, you were less likely to second guess yourself. And so, as a young writer when I first started out, I wrote in nothing but pen because I figured I would have to make a bold choice. Whether it was a good choice or a not-good choice, it forced me to make that bold choice. For years and years, I did nothing but ink manuscript. Only later, as we were going through various drafts of projects and I was working with Lynn [Ahrens], I would go back to pencil a lot of the time. There were just too many changes! [Laughs]
But I really felt comfortable with pen because I loved the feeling of ink flowing. I had to come up with a name for my publishing company a while back, this was probably in ‘97, and I came up with the name Pen and Perseverance, because I thought, “What are the two things that you need to be able to have a career in the theatre?” I thought you needed something to capture an idea and you needed the belief that there would be more ideas yet to come, a continuity, that you could find a way to go on. And so, in the year when Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and all of these other double-word-titled period drama films were coming out, I chose Pen and Perseverance because I thought they were the only two things I needed to forge ahead.
Christine Toy Johnson: So good. I do feel that there’s a really strong connection between brain to hand to paper. There’s something that’s different when you think about it and write it by hand than when you think about it and type it. And I realize that I also use pen and paper when I’m doing an outline. But when I’m doing lyric writing, when I get the sheet music with the dots on the page and no lyrics, I always write in pencil, because lyrics are going to change for me more often than anything else.
Stephen Flaherty: Sometimes I use colored pencil and then red ink, and I just love the physical way that a piece of music evolves and how that looks. You can just look at it and you see so many things about not only how you were feeling when you were creating that passage but what it took to finally wrangle those couple of measures into something that you thought were really solid.
Christine Toy Johnson: I’m fascinated by that. If you start writing music in one color and then you revise it in red, is that confusing at all?
Stephen Flaherty: No, no. It’s just sort of my color-code way of identifying material. And it’s funny, because the very first musical that I ever wrote was when I was fourteen years old and was performed at my high school. I wrote it with two friends; they wrote a libretto, and they had a series of twelve lyrics and twelve scenes, and it was set in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. And they said to me, “Would you like to write the music?” That was the first time that anyone had ever asked me to do that, and I had never really thought of it before. So, I jumped at the opportunity. In the script each song was set in a different neighborhood of my town, so for some reason I thought, “Oh, there are twelve songs, there are twelve neighborhoods, so each song should be a different genre or style of music. I wrote each song in a different color of ink and my fourteen-year-old self thought that was so clever. It was very color-coded and it was my way of processing. Of course, my piano teacher said to me, “You can’t use colored ink. No one will ever take you seriously! Do you think Sondheim uses colored ink? He only writes in black.” I’m thinking, “How do you know that?” And years later I found out that Sondheim’s sketches were mostly in dark pencil.
Christine Toy Johnson: That’s fascinating. You should have that in the Museum of Lynn and Steve, the first musical you ever wrote in all the colors. I would pay good money to see that.
Stephen Flaherty: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t know. Are you a pack rat? I tend to keep earlier drafts and obviously the more digitized we get, that becomes easier. But in the building where we live right now, I have five storage spaces filled with scores and orchestral parts and orchestral scores. Usually whenever I finish a project, I just put it in a box and move it down to that basement. One of these days I’m going to have to go down and figure out where everything is!
Christine Toy Johnson: Oh wow.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I want to wander in your basement.
Christine Toy Johnson: Yeah, the archives committee will be in touch. [Laughter]
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Over the past few years I’ve been much more aware of saving my notebooks. Do you all save your notebooks, or do you pick and choose what will be seen in the archives after you're gone?
Christine Toy Johnson: I’m definitely addicted to Moleskine notebooks. I love them. And I do keep them. I find it hard to throw them away. I also have a lot of legal pads that I use when I get notes on stuff and I put the pages in a folder. It’s hard to throw those away, too, because I always think I might need to know what I wrote down at some point in the future.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I love this, because I keep my journals. I also create dramaturgy packets for my plays. So, I’ll have the journal, I’ll have the notebook that holds the script, any kind of fun notes that came from the dramaturg, actors, or director, and the dramaturgy packet. And then, Stephen, when you were talking about your scribbles, I’m a doodler, so when I’m in rehearsal I just doodle non-stop because I want to constantly be rewriting. I’ll hear an actor say a line and I immediately know how I want to adjust it, but I have my dramaturg telling me, “No, no, no, let it sit. Just listen all the way through,” because you don’t know if you want to change it. Maybe in this moment you feel compelled, but maybe if you go back and read it you may not want to make that adjustment. So the way to sort of keep myself present and engaged is to doodle with my pen either on the journal or on the script itself, so I loved hearing you talk about the scribbles as you were talking about your artwork.
Christine Toy Johnson: I think I’m more willing to throw out an idea that doesn’t work than my books of notes and things like that. When I ride the subway, I always travel with a soft, lined Moleskine, and whether I’m writing down just freeform thoughts or working on a lyric or a character, I think I have this attachment to the books because they’re so…they’re full of some garbage but also some inspiration.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: It does make me wonder about the lucky person who gets to go through those notebooks without you there to tell them what to look for. I write all sorts of nonsense alongside what I’m working on. If someone looks at this notebook later, how do they interpret it?
Stephen Flaherty: You mean when they read “Buy a loaf of bread” in your shopping list next to your Scene 3?
Christine Toy Johnson: Exactly, yes.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: And then, you know, two pages of me practicing my autograph, which is very important.
Stephen Flaherty: How’s that going? [Laughter]
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: It was like the second or third grade when I decided that my penmanship needed an uptick. I knew I wanted to be an author. I remember making this very clear decision that I wanted my penmanship in my homework to look like print in books. I decided I was going to write very carefully. My -year-old brain was thinking, “This will make people take you more seriously.” I don’t doodle much, but I will practice my penmanship. It’s something that I can’t explain; I’ve always done it since I was a kid.
Christine Toy Johnson: I don’t think they even teach cursive anymore, right?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: They don’t.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: No.
Christine Toy Johnson: I think that’s sad.
Stephen Flaherty: Back in the day I was taught by nuns for eight years, and learning cursive was so important. It was part of the legacy of Catholic schools, and we were taught to do very beautiful cursive writing. We had to repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, and then, bit-by-bit, it became your writing. And I—this really ages me—but I started in this biz before there was digital music notation. I think the first score that I did digitally using music notation software was Ragtime, which we began in ‘94. Before that, I had done more than a decade of writing, and all my college work, by hand. If I have to be honest, when I look at a digitized Finale score versus a handwritten score, I just love the handwritten so much better because it gives you so many more clues. You can tell when a passage was written really quickly or was written in a more thoughtful manner. Sometimes the most important word or phrase on the page might be written a little larger or some of the notes might appear bigger, and you realize that that’s the climax. You can’t get that by digitized means. So, wherever I am, I always try to go to museums or archives that have handwritten music. I live on the same block in Manhattan as the Morgan Library, so if I ever get stuck or am feeling disconnected from what I’m doing, I just go in that door, where there are so many music scores, plays that are written by hand or on old typewriters, and it’s great. The British Museum is fantastic for all of that, The Library of Congress is amazing, so all of these places are sort of little pilgrimages that I enjoy that keep me going.
Christine Toy Johnson: I love that, wow.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I also love reading historical handwritten letters, and I love finding the handwriting of authors, because we read their book in text, but I’m so curious about their actual handwriting. I was doing some research on Ida B. Wells, and I got to read her diary in her handwriting, and it feels like you’re getting a real intimate sense of who the person is. To sit down to write a letter, there’s really focused time there, so it feels really…I don’t know. I’m glad we got to the conversation around handwriting in this because there’s something really beautiful about it.
I think about the handwriting of formerly enslaved people. More and more we’re finding their stories as written down in their own command of the English language as either taught to them by themselves learning how to read and write or in school, so I love getting that sense of history and knowledge through the actual written word.
Christine Toy Johnson: I’ve been working on a new musical with my collaborator Jason Ma. It’s a commission for Village Theatre, and it involves Nü Shu, which is this ancient writing system that was created in China in a specific town in the Hunan Province during the Qing Dynasty. And basically, it was created by women for women, because they were not allowed to be formally educated in reading and writing. They created a way to document their own dialect so that they could express themselves and so that it could be read, but again, just for each other, and it’s really beautiful. I find it fascinating that people will find a way to write down what they want to say in whatever way they can.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Are you incorporating the writing into the world of the play?
Christine Toy Johnson: Well, you know, it’s for an American audience, so we envision it being part of the scenic design and want to also convey musically what the language feels like. It’s been a fascinating journey to research the impetus to create a writing system, your own writing system.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: That’s really exciting.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Yeah, it’s really stunning and, you know, I don’t take for granted this ability to read and write. There are moments when I’m in practice of this craft, and I think, “There was a time when this was illegal for me.” This was illegal for people who looked like me to do this very thing, and I’m just struck by that, because it is powerful. It is a powerful thing that we do to set down truth, to record history, to envision a world anew. It is so incredibly powerful this thing that we do, so, Christine, hearing about this history that you’re going to be able to bring into life and then, Stephen, hearing how you go next door to find this inspiration and the writing of this craft, oh, I just really want to sit with that for a moment, because when I first got the email about pens I was like, “Okay, I use this pen,” but what are we going to talk about? And there’s so much in this work, so thank you.
Christine Toy Johnson: Honestly, me too. I was like, “Okay, well, how long are we going to talk, because I use this one pen, this little pile of pens,” but you’re right. It’s fascinating to think about how we as storytellers find a way to put it down on paper so that it can be documented and can be saved and seen later.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I really love that you brought up letter writing because that’s something that I love. It’s kind of like when Christine mentioned cursive being phased out of school. I feel like letter writing has gone away. It’s an art, and it used to be so important. Letter writing is such a beautiful thing, and it’s been instrumental to me as a writer. It’s actually a device that I use in a lot of my plays to get inside a character’s head. I think about someone like Jane Austen sitting at her tiny pizza-sized table by a window and writing. I think about how much information is in a letter, how much personality is there. We don’t necessarily put that same thought and energy and emotion into an email or a text, and that’s sad.
Stephen Flaherty: I remember whenever the digitized world started taking over the do-it-yourself by hand world, and I totally understood it because it does make it easier to edit. But for all of the things you get, I think that you lose some, too. And in terms of editing, I was fascinated by that.
I just have to tell a quick anecdote. I became acquaintances with one of the librarians at The Library of Congress, and he knew I was coming down to DC to do something for ASCAP at The Kennedy Center, and he said, “Oh, you should stop by the library. What would you like to see?”
So, I gave him this shopping list: original sketches from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and anything from Bernstein, maybe some later Stravinsky and some early Mozart. I just threw all of this at him, as almost a joke or a dare or whatever. So, we went there, and sure enough he brought the boxes out. In the first box was Act I of Porgy and Bess written in Gershwin’s own hand in pencil, and it was the piano/vocal sketch for that opera. What was interesting to me, besides what was there on the page, was you could actually see the eraser marks; you could see where he had reconsidered and revised his ideas.
It was also interesting to see the Mozart was done in ink only with no revisions, and that sort of made me want to just quit, because we all talk about the importance of rewrites and this was an artist who didn’t need to rewrite. It came out perfect the first time. And then at the other end of the spectrum was a Stravinsky score from the final box, a very late serial score also done in ink, but his corrections were in Wite-Out! I was thinking about the pens and ink and corrections and rewrites this morning, and I had to look up when Wite-Out was invented. Depending on where you Google, somebody says it made an appearance in France in 1966. Some say it was invented by the mother of Mike Nesmith of The Monkees in their family garage in ‘68. So, whether it’s ‘66 or ‘68, it’s amazing to think that Stravinsky, who died in ‘71, was using new techniques with his ink and his pen during the last three years of his life with something that had just been invented. This is a man who was constantly evolving as a person and as an artist, so why shouldn’t he be using Wite-Out!
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Right.
Christine Toy Johnson: That’s amazing. I do love getting to a stage where I print out the draft and then I get a pen and I start doing rewrites. I think, Jacqueline, you mentioned doing rewrites in ink, too.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Oh yeah.
Christine Toy Johnson: There’s something really satisfying about printing it out, even though we’re trying not to use too much paper but printing it out and then getting your pen. I don’t really do a red pen because I think that would make me feel like I was in school, being graded.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I totally do that, too. You look at a script differently when it’s printed and sitting on the table in front of you than you do when it’s on a screen.
Christine Toy Johnson: I also enjoy doing revisions on my iPad with an Apple Pencil, but it’s not quite the same.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I might be the only one who has more than one, but what’s your favorite pen to write with?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I use this Pilot Varsity, you can’t see it, but it’s got this –
Christine Toy Johnson: Oh, it’s like a fountain tip.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Yeah, and my dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke introduced this to me. Oh yay, Mel, you’ve got it. I love it. I love this pen.
Christine Toy Johnson: I have a Pilot, too, but it’s a plain one. It’s this Precise V5 rolling ball. I just don’t know what it is, but I love the feel of it, and always black.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I have that one, too.
Christine Toy Johnson: It’s exactly that one, twinners.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Do you have a favorite pen, Stephen?
Stephen Flaherty: These days, I just use a simple Sharpie Ultra Fine, which I actually like because you don’t have to use as much pressure. You can just sort of glide across the page. But back in the day, I had a more graceful pen that used ink cartridges that I believe was called Scripto. And if you really want to go back, I remember the days when we would write on onion skin. We would do orchestral parts on onion skin, and it was all done by hand. I met Emily Grishman, who’s pretty much the Queen of Music Copy here in New York, in the mid ‘80s, and we’ve been using different ways to capture music for decades now. In the early days we would be in this little cellar workroom she had with bare light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling, and we would be copying music like we were mad monks. I sort of loved that, but it took quite a long time. You knew you’d have to really buckle down and commit to it and then, at the end, you’d have a beautiful score.
Christine Toy Johnson: Oh wow.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I actually do collect fountain pens. This was handmade for me by a person I found online. It’s hand-turned on a lathe.
Stephen Flaherty: Beautiful.
Christine Toy Johnson: Wow.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I get myself a pen as a present when I have a show open.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Oh nice.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: If I’m able to go to rehearsal, I love to say, “This pen belongs to this show,” and use that pen for that play. I try to pick a color and a personality for that pen that goes with the play. And I may or may not have a drawer full of bottles of ink.
Christine Toy Johnson: That’s awesome.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Because the ink has to match the pen.
Stephen Flaherty: That looks so substantial. Does that have a nice weight to it?
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: It’s acrylic, so it’s actually not heavy. I prefer the acrylic ones because they are lighter. What you were saying earlier, Stephen, about Sharpies…they glide. That’s actually the nice thing about a fountain pen; it doesn’t require any pressure. I love that the ink is liquid as it goes down and it takes a second to dry as you write. I just love to watch that.
Stephen Flaherty: Beautiful.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: And it’s incredibly light. It looks thick, but that’s actually good ergonomically so you don’t squeeze it too hard, and it’s very nice to write with for a long time. So yeah, that’s my obsession. Or my passion.
Stephen Flaherty: That’s great.
Christine Toy Johnson: I feel a little bad that I only write with this –
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Oh no, don’t, not at all.
Christine Toy Johnson: I feel a little inadequate now.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I should be happy to write with a pen that doesn’t cost me X number of dollars. Yet now I have a collection that I probably shouldn't have.
Christine Toy Johnson: No, it’s beautiful. It's beautiful.
Stephen Flaherty: For whatever reason, a lot of people give me blank books as presents. I have quite a few of these little ones, which I think are probably around the size that Christine was talking about using. Several were given to me by assistants, who know that I enjoy sketching things out quickly, so I have quite a collection.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Oh, I love that.
Stephen Flaherty: I fill them up and seldom go back to them, but maybe at some point it’d be interesting to revisit them, just to see how my thoughts were coming out during that period.
Christine Toy Johnson: Recently, since we haven’t been traveling as much, I’ve been getting the larger books, and I do like the expanse of the page that you can write all over, but I’m going to have to go back to carrying them around.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Right, right.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Yeah, I feel like if I forget my notebook, if I leave the house without it, it throws my day for a loop. It’s like leaving the house naked.
Christine Toy Johnson: Yeah.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: This is reminding me…for my play The Inferior Sex, I had a workshop with some students at UNC Wilmington, and they gifted me with a notebook and they each filled a page with their thoughts, their experience, and what they learned. I mean, I don’t want to write in it. Sometimes they’re so beautiful you’re like, “No, I’ve got to save it for I don’t know when.” But this notebook, it’s filled with who they are and what this experience meant to them. It’s beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined going in that room, and I thought it was just so beautiful that they did that. It was the last day, and they just handed it to me when the show went down. I just cried and cried and cried.
Stephen Flaherty: That’s a beautiful reminder to all of us that what we do is really about the process. For me it’s always the getting there and how, once you get there, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s very meaningful to see how the work has affected everybody that’s been either in the room creating or in the audience witnessing. I’m always grateful and moved by that experience when you hear that kind of feedback because, when writing, you’re always thinking about this particular character in this particular scene and you’re never thinking of the larger reverberations of that.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: That’s really beautiful.
Stephen Flaherty: When I think of a pen, I think it’s about the capturing of the idea. It’s not the idea itself, but it’s how can I find a way to capture the idea that’s my own way of capturing the idea and is an expressive gesture in its own right even if it’s not the idea itself. Today everything tends to go faster and faster, so it’s all of these little moments and how can I hang onto them.
Christine Toy Johnson: I love that. There’s magic in here…
Stephen Flaherty: That’s right.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Yeah.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: I love that different people can use the same pen, and it does feel like magic. Part of it is handwriting; part of it is verbiage and how you build your sentences. A pen is a tool that is the same for all of us, and yet does so many different things.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: That is beautiful.
Stephen Flaherty: Well said.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON
is member of the Plan-B Playwrights Lab. She is a 2018 recipient of the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters. Mel is a playwright and also the DG Regional Rep for Utah.
is a Tony Award-winning composer. Among his most popular works are the Broadway musicals Ragtime, Once On This Island, Seussical, Rocky, Lincoln Center Theatre’s A Man of No Importance, and the Fox animated film, and later Broadway musical, Anastasia.
Christine Toy Johnson
is a Tony and Obie award-honored writer, actor, and advocate for inclusion. Treasurer of the DG, chair of the Guild’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Access Committee, host of the Guild’s podcast TalkBack on the Broadway Podcast Network. More at christinetoyjohnson.com
JACQUELINE E. LAWTON
has taught theatre residencies and professional development workshops to adults and teachers wanting to integrate arts into the classroom. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.