Research: This musical might be longer than I thought…

There have not been any posts since my book review because, at this point in the process, I have switched gears from “learning about the artform” to “learning about the topic.” As part of this early dive into research, I’m reading Thomas Coffey’s Agony at Easter, which is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of the events of the Easter Uprising in Dublin in April 1916. A more full review will come once I’m finished with it, but I will say that I’m very impressed both with the amount of information present in the text, as well as how it’s written. At times, it reads less like a historical account and more like a novel; Coffey states in the foreward that “[t]he events and conversations [in the book] are related exactly the way careful research indicates they happened. The precise wording of quotations has been used wherever it could be established, and even when the precise words were unascertainable, the sense and tone of each conversation was preserved.”

In fact, this careful attention to detail might be a little too informational: as I’m reading through the book and taking notes on what I might or might not include in the musical, I’m getting the feeling that I might have to readjust how I approach writing this thing. There’s so much that is important to the story that, at this point, I’m not sure what I would have to cut.

As my plans stand now, the general arc of the story was going to be Act I being all of the stuff that happened before the actual uprising — an overview of the events that would lead to the Irish people wanting to rebel against the British, followed by the events leading up to the Uprising, including planning, arguments, recruitment, and the tensions that rise from the high amount of stress that comes from figuring out how to fight against an entire British military system. Act I was going to end with the night before the actual occupation of the General Post Office, with Act II being all about the events of Easter Week.

But I’m starting to rethink this plan. Maybe Act I ends with the end of Day One of the occupation of the GPO? If you’re “supposed” to take an act break on emotional uncertainty and tension, based on this book alone, the Volunteers are pretty confident in themselves after Day One. They fought back against the British Lancers (a cavalry unit meant to break up the occupation almost immediately after it started), they raised the new Irish flag, they’ve occupied several strategic locations throughout Dublin, and they’re getting new soldiers every moment (most of them arriving late due to various reasons). “My God, we might actually do this!” they cry! Act Break, with Act II being all about how they eventually get their ass kicked by the British Army, and many of the leaders are executed. Curtain.

But it’s not just the structure of the musical that I’m rethinking; there’s information that I’m learning that I just never suspected in my basic understanding of the Uprising that I briefly learned about on my trip to Ireland last year. For example: Did you know that the GPO occupation was not well-received by the general public? Patrick Pearse and his militia were openly mocked when they took over the GPO. Usually when you hear stories of revolution, they just kind of gloss over any public outcry against it, as if everyone was on the same page. And I’m debating whether I include much, if any, public resistance in the final product, because I think it tells a truer story than trying to deify these men and these events.

A note that I made about how to incorporate this comes after a song idea: Pearse and potentially others sing the official proclamation that Ireland is an independent nation, and as this major event reaches it’s climax, have someone as a citizen (potentially even someone in the audience), shout “feck off!” at the stage. It’s an idea that I will fight hard to keep in the show, but I ultimately have no idea if it will actually stay in.

Speaking of Patrick Pearse, there are also a lot of people involved in the Uprising. My main character list as it stands now include Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Joseph Plunkett, as they are the Commandant Generals of the Volunteers that occupy the GPO. They are in charge, so it makes sense to focus on them. But there are also so many other characters involved, each with their own stakes and their own beefs with everyone else, that if I wanted to go with emotional tension, I’d have to include all of them, which is virtually impossible. There are seven main conspirators when it comes to these events — Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, as well as Michael Collins, Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, and Thomas MacDonagh. With them, there are several other leaders within the Irish Brotherhood (where many Volunteers came from), including Michael O’Rahilly, Desmond Fitzgerald, and Bulmer Hobson.

Ten people. And that’s not including other soldiers, British soldiers, the women’s faction of Cumann na mBan, townspeople, etc. So many characters, and I know I’m going to have to cut and condense some, but in this preliminary research stage, I’m not sure who that would be at this point.

I know, as I’m gathering information, that I shouldn’t have these answers yet; in fact, I probably shouldn’t even be thinking of these questions in the first place. But this immediate discernment has also led to several song ideas, including six from the Monday events alone. Naturally, some of those ideas will be cut as I start writing, but it’s kind of fun to be doing this sort of planning.

Per the timeline that I created for myself, I’m in research and information gathering mode until the end of January. By the end of February, I should have my acts and scenes outlined, as well as my characters identified and sketched out so that I can dig into writing the book by March.

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Book Review: “Writing Musical Theater”

It’s a strange thing when you decide all of a sudden to do something with little prior knowledge. People don’t declare that they’re going to try out for a professional sports team without having, at the very least, knowledge of the fundamentals of that sport. People don’t decide to pursue an interest in painting without at least knowing a little bit about art and what someone can do with it.

Yet here I am, deciding that I’m going to write a full-fledged musical, without really knowing anything about musicals other than “It’s like a play but there’s a lot of singing.” The first step of the journey, then, is to have a better understanding of what a musical is, including structures and rules, so that I can have a general idea of what exactly I’m getting into.

I’m very lucky to live in an area that has a public library with access to a variety of resources (and you might be, too. Please check out your local public library, because there’s some pretty cool stuff going on in there), and was able to get my hands on a book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus.

In general, I’m a fan of “insider”-type knowledge. The podcasts I listen to are usually ones that provide insight into the creation of some of my favorite things, and any time I can read or consume something that provides more history and context to things I enjoy (such as reading the oral history of Saturday Night Live), I come away awed and inspired.

The first half of the book is “nuts-and-bolts,” going over all of the minutiae of the different elements of musicals, from what goes into the libretto or book of the show, down to the nitty-gritty of the different musical elements. Even if you’re a Broadway Superfan, I’m sure that you would enjoy learning more about what goes into the show, as well as tips and tricks for making sure that nothing in a musical goes to waste.

The first half of the book is where I learned the most about what exactly a musical is. It’s where I learned, for example, that songs and music are not simply shoehorned into an existing play, but they, in fact, serve a dramatic function in the whole story, whether it’s to move the story forward or to make a character more likable and appealing.

(If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s just common knowledge,” keep in mind that I didn’t realize there were Nazis in The Sound of Music until years after I first saw the movie. I always assumed the story ended at what is actually the halfway point.)

The second half of the book is all about actually writing a show, and, for someone about to wade into those waters for the first time, the information they provided was extremely helpful. The authors “write” two shows at the same time, illustrating the differences between adapting an existing work into a musical compared to conjuring up a new, original idea. They go through writing character sketches, scene summaries, and go through the process of “song spotting,” or identifying the optimal places for music and song to be introduced. The authors also go through the process of writing some of the songs from both of the shows, providing insight into deciding not only what character is singing, but also what they are singing and how they are singing it.

In summary, I gleaned a lot of knowledge from this book, and I took a copious amount of notes. While reading this book may not guarantee that I’m going to write a smash Broadway hit, it has given me the knowledge and the confidence to go forth and see what I can create.

And who knows, maybe if this musical does become the smash hit I hope it becomes, maybe I’ll save a couple of tickets for Allen and Steven. After all, they’ve been tremendous teachers for the last month or so.

Analysis: “Wait For It” (from Hamilton)

At this point in my journey of writing a musical, I’m finishing an excellent book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus. This is a really great book that provides a lot of insight and information into exactly what a musical is and how to write one (I’ll post a full review of the book when I’m finished).

Currently, I’m finishing a section of the book about songs; specifically, the dramatic function of songs in musicals. Because the best way to synthesize information is to teach it, I’d like to take a moment and do a song analysis on one of my favorite songs from the musical Hamilton, “Wait For It.”

Before we get into the actual song, we should first have an understanding of the context in which it appears:

“Wait For It” comes near the middle of Act I: shortly after Alexander Hamilton meets and marries Eliza Schuyler, Aaron Burr enters to congratulate Hamilton on his marriage. Hamilton and Burr have met earlier in Act I, when Hamilton first arrives to New York, and we have already seen that these two are polar opposite people. Hamilton is all about taking immediate action, while Burr prefers to wait out his adversaries until the most opportune time; as an example of this characterization, when Burr gives Hamilton the advice of “Talk less; smile more,” Hamilton rebuffs him and turns to join up with three revolutionaries he finds in a pub, which leads to Hamilton declaring, “I’m not throwing away my shot!”

After congratulating Hamilton on his marriage, Burr confesses to him that he is having an affair with the wife of a British officer. Why does Burr tell Hamilton this, especially after Hamilton just got married? My guess is that it’s because Burr is pretty proud of how subversive he is in this action. Burr and Hamilton are on the same side of the Revolution, they just have two different approaches to it. Hamilton doesn’t see it that way, however; he tells Burr that he should take a chance: “I will never understand you. If you love this woman, go get her! What are you waiting for?” Hamilton departs, and Burr sings.

Of the different types of songs outlined in the Cohen and Rosenhaus book (ballad, comedy song, rhythm song, list song, charm song), I believe “Wait For It” is a charm song. Charm songs are meant to humanize characters and make them likable to the audience, and Burr definitely needs some likability. Burr is established as the villain in the beginning of the musical, singing the line “I’m the damn fool that shot him” in the opening number. But in the several reviews I’ve seen or heard regarding Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been praised for how “human” he makes these historical figures; no one is a saint, and things don’t just “work out” in the end. Even Hamilton is a flawed figure, and he’s the star of the show!

How does this song work to humanize Aaron Burr? I’ll start with a brief quote from Miranda in an interview with the New Yorker:

Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward…. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’

The lyrics to “Wait For It” begin with Aaron Burr discussing his current affair with the British officer’s wife, and it’s obvious that he would love to take Hamilton’s advice (“He can keep all of Georgia; Theodosia, she’s mine.”), but he prefers to hold back. The second verse, Burr speaks about his upbringing (“My grandfather was fire and brimstone preacher…, my mother was genius, my father commanded respect”) but also recognizes that there is no “right way” to go about protecting and honoring their legacy.

The choruses in this song more directly speak to the emotion that Miranda spoke about in his New Yorker interview: the feeling of being left behind, of watching all of your friends find success while you feel stuck in a rut…

Sidebar: maybe this is why I relate to this song so much? My friends are all getting married and earning graduate degrees, and I’m kind of “stuck” as a single guy, wishing, even though I love my job, that I could do more with my life?

… as Aaron Burr philosophizes about life, love, and death. In each of these cases, Burr says that they “don’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and it takes and it takes,” but also sees that “if there’s a reason” things seem to be working out how they have for him so far — with Theodosia, “if there’s a reason I’m by her side/while so many have tried;” with life and death, “if there’s a reason I’m still alive/when everyone who loves me has died” — then something bigger must be on the horizon, and he’s willing to wait for it.

The song takes an interesting turn when Burr starts speaking about Hamilton. Burr begins this section by identifying his life philosophy (“I’m not standing still, I’m lying in wait” — which might also be a reminder to himself as he watches Hamilton get all these accolades and promotions), and then starts speaking about Hamilton, and how he must have “something to prove” with “nothing to lose.” At first, Burr seems to be frustrated or angry about Hamilton’s quick rise to power, but as the music comes to a crescendo, Burr all of a sudden reins it in and asks, “What is it like in his shoes?”

That line tells us that, however Burr might be feeling that Hamilton has all of this success, he still very much admires the man and wonders what makes him tick. Is it because Burr is hoping to glean any sort of information to apply to his own rise to power? Or is it simply curiosity?

Burr finishes his song by discussing his disbelief at Hamilton: “… he exhibits no restraint/he takes and he takes and he takes/and he keeps winning anyway/he changes the game/he plays and he raises the stakes.” In Aaron Burr’s worldview, this sort of reckless abandon should have failed Hamilton years ago. It should have prevented him from achieving any sort of success in New York, much less being named Gen. Washington’s right hand man and marrying the daughter of a successful businessman.

The final line of this chorus, however, is curious to me: “And if there’s a reason he seems to thrive/when so few survive then goddammit/I’m willing to wait for it.” It’s curious to me because, while I think I know what he’s saying, I’m not exactly certain.

What I think Burr is saying is that Hamilton must be a fluke. Hamilton is having all of this success, despite being an impulsive brute with no foresight. He’s not doing it the way it should be done. And if he’s having all of this success by doing things that are against conventional wisdom, then by following conventional wisdom, Burr should be able to find much greater and more meaningful success.

By the end of the song, there is no doubt that Aaron Burr is still the antagonist of Hamilton. But we also get a glimpse inside his head, and we can see that Burr still wants the best for this fledgling country called America; he just disagrees with Alexander Hamilton about how it should be done.