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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Chasing Mozart

When I wrote the libretto of Mozart! I did what I always do when giving a character a voice: I tried to inhabit him. This turned out to be extremely difficult. Wolfgang Amadé escaped. I can't find another expression for what happened. Whenever I thought I got him, he was somewhere else. Trying to catch him was like running through a bright forest. He mocked me, peeping out behind a tree trunk, and whenever I approached he was behind another tree already, laughing at me. It was quite funny until I lost my hope ever to be able to write his part and despair set in. At last it struck me that his behavior told me everything I needed to know. That Mozart was a trickster and shapeshifter, elusive, evasive, baffling. I don't suggest this has to do with the fact that he was also a musical genius. I'm a writer, not a musicologist.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mirror Men

"Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. It's like actors, who try so pathetically not to look in mirrors. Who lean backward trying—only to see their faces in the reflecting chandeliers."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Writing From The Inside Out

Dramatists inhabit their characters as they give them their respective voices. It doesn't work any other way. It happens quite often that I don't know a character I invented well enough to understand him from the start. This I usually find out during the rewrite. He or she tells me. It's almost as if I am being corrected. Sometimes the character almost talks to me, often with protest ("no, no, I would never use such words") or even indignation ("you have no talent, but I hoped you had some brains "). I do my best, of course, to "listen up" and please them all. This is very similar to the work of an actor who tries to play his or her role from the inside out. I am allowed, however, to "play" all the parts. One of the reasons I love what I'm doing.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Shit



“Frankly, I don't feel the fire anymore from the youth. I miss my era when motherfuckers were fighting for shit, spitting fire in their lyrics.”
Ice-T

Friday, April 26, 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rap

It seems obvious that contemporary rap music could become an appropriate element of the musical theater. After all it is as close to speaking as it is to singing. So why isn't it used more often? As far as I am concerned, I don't use it because it is still too contemporary. A character that expresses him/herself by performing a genuine rap song would immediately be compared to the stars of that scene. This could work well in a show on the recording industry or on people who we believe talk like rap gangsters, as in the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights. If the story fits to rap, I will certainly use it. Apart from that I have to wait until rap becomes obsolete. Then, fast, rhythmic talking on stage, well written and well performed, will be a great addition to the traditional forms of stage music.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Pencil

Before I use my Mac's keyboard I work with a notepad and a pencil. I never was fond of ballpoint pens. If you use them you can't erase what you've written, and that can be seriously demotivating. After all you don't want to look at your idiotic first scribblings while waiting for inspiration. There was a time when I loved 2B Faber-Castell pencils, having a soft rubber and a good sharpener at hand. Being busy erasing and sharpening gave me the feeling I was still working even when I was totally blocked.  Years ago I changed to using mechanical propelling pencils and never needed a sharpener again (the indispensable eraser comes with it). The pencil lead must be very soft, however, 2B at least. Sondheim, by the way, uses Blackwing Pencils. I would never dare to emulate him.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How To Start A Writing Career

Michael Hauge's advice for budding screenwriters is also useful for aspiring librettists or playwrights. Just replace the word "screenwriter" by "librettist" or "playwright", and "movie" by "musical" or "play".

Monday, April 22, 2013

Michael Hauge

Unfortunately I never met him in person. Nevertheless I regard him as one of my drama structure teachers. Michael Hauge is the author of a well-known and very useful book on screenwriting techniques. It's called Writing Screenplays That Sell. The book (a perennial bestseller and still in print) is much, much better than its idiotic title. I owe some of my drama musical principles to Michael Hauge, such as Character growth occurs when the hero recognizes his own similiarity to the nemesis and difference from the reflection and Theme emerges when the hero‘s similiarity to the nemesis and his difference from the reflection are revealed. Admitted, that sounds a bit academic, even if you know that reflection means a subplot character who has the same problem as the protagonist. I find that both rules are excellent working tools.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Art


The shortest, nevertheless most accurate, definition of art was phrased by Stephen Sondheim in the second volume of his Collected Lyrics (Look, I Made A Hat, New York 2011): "Art is edited truth." Edited to give it shape, rhythm, color, speed and punch.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Irony

A perfect example of a misunderstood song is Endless Appetite from "Dance Of The Vampires". Although the late Steve Barton, our original Count von Krolock, did his best to express my intentions, the audience refused then and refuses today to hear the irony in the pathetic sentimentality of that soliloquy. Why do they love the song anyway? I suspect their subconsciousness understands more of the ambiguity of Krolock's character than they realize.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Subtext

Clarity is one of the principles I learned from the great Stephen Sondheim. Lyrics written for the musical stage, he teaches, must be easy to understand, non-intellectual, concrete. That applies also to other song lyrics, especially to pop songs. What good musical songs additionally need is a subtext. There must be something between the lines, something that remains unsung, or else the audience may become bored after a few bars. It's important to let them sense another truth behind the words we hear. By far the best subtext is irony. It has three disadvantages though: Irony is difficult to write, hard to perform and rarely understood by the audience.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

How JCS Started


40 years later, Andrew talks about the beginnings of Jesus Christ Superstar. "It isn't a Broadway or West End show. It never was!"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jesus! What An Achievement.

Which musical influenced me me the most? Without doubt Jesus Christ Superstar. I was never very fond of musicals. Their style was just too old-fashioned for my musical taste formed by Elvis, Jerry and Mick. But when on a car ride from Munich to Stuttgart a friend of mine put a cassette of Jesus Christ on I was fascinated and overwhelmed. Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice proved by that album - it was not yet a stage musical then - that it was possible to tell a dramatic story using Rock music. The moment  I heard it I knew that I wanted to do this myself. Looking back I would say that JCS changed the genre. Listen to Les Miserables, Chess or Jekyll & Hyde. None of these nor any of my own shows would be what they are without Andrew and Tim's first and successful attempt to create a real Rock Opera. I have the greatest respect for them, and I'll be grateful forever.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Oscar

When I am asked if there's anybody I regard as a model for my own work I usually mention Oscar Hammerstein II. Most people are surprised to hear that. Oscar may be the most successful librettist and lyricist of the musical theater, but he is also the most underrated one. It's so much easier to admire Larry Hart or Stephen Sondheim who seem wittier and more original. I believe that it is indeed admirable to be witty, but it's even harder still to be smart and simple at the same time. It is a great achievement to write something like: "A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it, A song's not a song 'til you sing it, Love in your heart wasn't put there to stay, Love isn't love 'til you give it away!".

Monday, April 15, 2013

That Cursed Blessing

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck(1892–1973) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, but she is not a household name anymore. That's a shame. Her novel The Good Earth is still a wonderful book, and helps anyone interested to understand China. Miss Buck phrased my favorite quote on the blessing and curse of being born write, paint or compose: “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” Very true, Pearl.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Makes A Genius?

A genius has every right to be extremely self-confident. Some geniuses - such as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche or Orson Welles - were almost megalomaniacs. I sometimes wonder what comes first - the tremendous achievement or the huge self-confidence. The latter seems often to be the pre-condition of greatness. Would a humble Wagner have dared to defy the rules of the classical theory of harmony? Would a modest Nietzsche have declared the death of God? Would a shy Welles have been able to co-write, produce, direct and star in his very first film, Citizen Kane? I don't mean to say that immodest people are bound to become great. Most are not, although they usually succeed more easily than others. You do have to have great talents. On the other hand I've met very talented people who just were lacking the self-confidence to assert themselves against mediocrity, tradition and arrogance. Maybe they just would have needed a bit of megalomania to become great.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Strong Soul


Yesterday the Theater news site Playbill.com published another article regarding the Broadway plans for the musical Rebecca. Producer Ben Sprecher told Playbill reporter, Adam Hetrick, that he and his team have "identified an additional $2 million" in funding, bringing their current standing to $8 million. Sprecher expects to produce the show for $15 million; however, investors have authorized him to capitalize the lavish production for up to $16 million. All funding must be raised by the end of June in order for Rebecca to officially open on Broadway by December. The team is currently working to raise the balance and Sprecher is confident the production will open. The goal is to begin rehearsals in October. Sprecher confirmed that the creative team and previously announced principal cast are still attached to the production. The set and costumes for the musical, which have already been constructed, remain in storage. That reminds me of a quote from Thomas Carlyle: Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities is what distinguishes the strong soul from the weak. And aren't the strong souls entitled to win in the end?


Friday, April 12, 2013

Gus



Reflecting about the theater, I can't help but quote another highly respected expert:

“Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His name, as I ought to have told you before,
Is really Asparagus. That's such a fuss
To pronounce, that we usually call him just Gus.
His coat's very shabby, he's thin as a rake,
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.
Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats —
But no longer a terror to mice or to rats.
For he isn't the Cat that he was in his prime;
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in his time.
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree —
He has acted with Irving, he's acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.
But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.” 
T. S. Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Theater Is A Medicine

One of the greatest theater personalities of the 20th century was the Hungarian-German-Jewish George Tabori who died in 2007. His opinions may sound a bit old-fashioned today, but that just emphasizes their importance. This is my favorite Tabori quote: "Every society, so far, is based on a set of lies, commonly referred to as civilization. The function of art is to name these mendacities and evasions; to tell how it is, not the way it appears to be. Art is as therapeutic as medicine. Man, alone or in society, is by nature pathological; the cause of every sickness is some untruth. If we are telling the truth, we cannot help helping people - whether, as Brecht, we want to change the world, or, as Beckett, we do not. The particular glory and terror that makes the theater endure is the fact of its uniqueness; of all the art forms it is the only non-reproducible. It is tonight only, for the first and last time; it will survive the horrors of quantity." That's a consolation. My tv-set receives about 460 channels. Aren't today the horrors of quantity more terrifying than ever?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Listen To John!


John Truby explains why it is important that "heroes" have weaknesses they have to overcome in the course of the story.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

John Truby

It would certainly surprise John Truby that I regard him as one of my most influential teachers. There are not many librettists among his students. He is a sought-after story consultant in the film-industry, and his disciples usually become screenwriters. Attending the lessons of Truby's scriptwriting class, Great Sreenwriting, in Los Angeles I've learned a lot about story architecture which I use for my drama musicals. Truby taught me to focus on the hero's "moral" and emotional growth, "moral" standing for his or her relation to other people and the community he lives in. Protagonists, that's the ceterum censeo of this great teacher, have to grow in a meaningful way in a well-told story. The choice the protagonist has to make, typically near the end of the story, betrays your - the writer's - view of the proper way to act in the world. That makes every good story unavoidably a very personal statement of the writer.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Character Change

"The protagonist of a play," says the great Maxwell Anderson,  "cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve, and he must come out at the end of the play a more admirable human being than he went in." I could not agree more. Isn't the purpose of any story worth being told to show how the protagonist learns to overcome his flaws and become a more decent human being?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Tribute To Michael Hirst

One of my favorite television-series is The Tudors, created and written by Michael Hirst who before had written the screenplays of Elizabeth and Elizabeth - The Golden Age.  I deeply admire Hirst's ability to turn history into breathtaking entertainment. The Tudors series tells the story of King Henry VIII and his six wives as well as the rise and fall of his advisors and chancellors Wolsey, Cromwell and More. What happend then is so dramatic that Robert Greenblatt, the head of programming of the producing Showtime Channel, couldn't believe that it was all true. But everything the series shows is based on historical research. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Nevertheless it takes a first class writer like Michael Hirst to turn it into such a television highlight.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Don't Think!

My darkest hours as a writer are those when I am unhappy with what I've written some days before and try to improve it. I rewrite, erase, rewrite again, erase once more, start anew. After some paragraphs I find that the new writing is worse than what I had. Then I ask myself: Have I lost all my talent? And if I lost it, why can't I at least fake being a writer after all those years of experience? Wrong questions, wrong answers. I'm best when I write from my heart, and what you write that way can't be improved by smart thinking. It took me a long time to understand Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, who warned me: "Don't think! Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It is self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Internet Choir

My friend Marc has sent me the link to this video clip which I find exciting. Now I dream of an internet choir of singers from at least sixty nations performing an oratorio in real time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Kabuki

Last January I used a visit to Tokyo to see a Kabuki performance at the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater. As you may know Kabuki is a traditional form of acting, performed exclusively by men. It involves elaborately designed costumes, eye-catching make-up, outlandish wigs and Japanese music played by a small band using traditional instruments. I didn't understand a word of what was said but I was spellbound by the acting. The movements of the actors are highly-stylized, the tone and color of their voices has a meaning that the Japanese audience understands immediately. Nothing is realistic. I remember the scene of a mother - played by a white-faced man - who discovers that her child died. The actor used gestures and strange vocal tones to indicate extreme pain. No hysteric cries, no sobbing and sighing, just very high-pitched nasal sounds. Those gestures and sounds told the audience My heart's breaking, which was obviously meant to trigger in the spectator the memory of some own agony. The underscoring music was not dramatic at all. The effect was nevertheless overwhelming. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Future Of The Musical

Do I believe in the future of the musical as we know it? No, I don't. If there is no innovation, the genre will get more and more stale and boring and someday soon lose its fans. Most producers believe sticking to a certain formula reduces the risk they are running. They will have to learn the hard, expensive way that the greatest risk is taking no risk. Do I believe in popular musical theatre? Absolutely. A story told on stage with music and words will always have an audience - as long as the story is good and well-told and the music supports it. But we must never forget the three most important show ingredients: Surprise, surprise, surprise. Those who create and produce shows should dare reinventing the musical every ten years or so.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Audition Advice

As a member of the leading team of a musical production you attend the final auditions held to find the cast for your show. Each time I sit there watching the applicants present themselves I sympathize with each of them. Naturally you want to find the perfect cast, so you put your hope in every new guy or girl that enters. That hope is often disappointed, but really depressed I am by candidates who clearly have talent and ability but nevertheless fail. This happens when the respective actor/actress choses the wrong material to present him/herself. Wrong is anything that goes to the limit or beyond the limit of someone's ability. Dear casting candidate: I know it is not easy to show in ten minutes what you have to offer. But, trust me, you don't have to show everything you can. I strongly advise to prepare two songs that are a piece of cake for you. I perfectly understand that you wish to impress me, doing something you find admirable yourself. But that is the surest way to miss your chance. Do something you know you do well. That you can do with the necessary self-confidence telling me and the other members of the team that there's much more in you.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Not Poetic, But The Wright Idea

Although the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright from Dayton/Ohio invented and built the precursor of today's powered airplanes, they were not the first to fly. Actually the construction of their aircraft's wings was based on Otto Lilienthal's flying machine. Lilienthal didn't see - or refused to accept - that a motor-driven propeller would solve the problem of human aviation. His thinking was very poetic. He admired the storks and believed that man would just need perfectly copied artificial wings to be able to fly. Individually, not jammed into a machine! The Wright brothers, affable and very sympathetic characters, gave full credit to Lilienthal's preliminary work.