The Anatomy of a Best Song

What makes a song the “Best Original Song” for a motion picture? This year is particularly fascinating.

There appears to be a clear front runner in La La Land, nominated for the maximum two songs – “Audition” and “City of Stars.” Being a “movie musical” (yes, in quotations) the songs function in a very clear and direct way, allowing their effectiveness and relevance to the dramatic whole to be more objectively quantifiable. With two nominations, however, it runs the risk of cancelling itself out.

Furthermore, historically the academy has chosen songs by famous pop artists, which gives an edge to Justin Timberlake and Sting. Although THIS year, with the massive pop appeal of Hamilton, the prize could go to Lin-Manuel Miranda. So it’s really up in the air.

There is always going to be a large amount of subjectivity when evaluating a creative endeavor. Ideally, the law of averages works it out so that the opinions of an educated sample reflect the opinions of the educated majority.

Remember, though, that while the nominations are made by Academy members who are songwriters and composers, the winners are decided by the membership as a whole. (So beware Lin Manuel Miranda – the deciding vote may come down to a tone-deaf cinematographer.)

I’ve always thought that songs in motion pictures are a difficult thing to judge, and precisely because of that they are almost always a difficult award to predict. Add to that the bizarre and ever-changing rules which govern the nominations of songs, which results in years where only two songs (???) are even nominated.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the nominations and see how to evaluate them on the principles of the Academy.

According to the voting rules of the Academy: Continue reading The Anatomy of a Best Song

How Musical Theatre Can Change the World

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the greater purpose of musical theatre. It’s been said that if you want to make a billion dollars you simply help a billion people. Now, who doesn’t want to make a billion dollars (especially if you’re an artist)? But the question then becomes how do you help a billion people?

In order to take big actions you have to set big goals. So I’ve begun considering how an artist – say a musical theater writer – can truly change the world. Here are some ways I’ve come up with. Continue reading How Musical Theatre Can Change the World

The Magical Power of Really Bad Ideas

The only way to have a lot of really great ideas is to have even MORE really bad ideas.

The good news is having bad ideas is really easy! I have bad ideas all the time. They flicker into my head all day long, usually disguised as a good idea. Then after I spend a little more time with them, their true identity as bad ideas reveals itself, and they gets discarded.

But every now and then a really great idea flickers into my head disguised as a really bad idea. You just have to get through the bad ones first.

The trick is to cultivate these bad ideas. To actively farm them, go out and get them. You won’t believe how freeing this will be. Continue reading The Magical Power of Really Bad Ideas

Eligibility and the Kleban Prize

There’s a certain pessimism that allows you to be blasé about not receiving the grants/awards you apply for as a writer. It’s the pessimism that says,  “Chances are I won’t win this, but I’ll try anyway.” Then when you aren’t selected you can say to yourself, “See, I thought so.” Or if you are, you can be pleasantly and genuinely surprised/honored.

I wrote my musical Joe Schmoe Saves the World in reaction to not winning the Richard Rodgers award one year, dissatisfied with the artists who had.  I thought of the Stravinsky quote: “The one true comment on a piece of music is another piece of music.” Resentment/bitterness/sour grapes can be transformed into something truly worthwhile.

Often I find I can learn a lot from people who receive grants/awards for which I also applied. It introduces me to a new type of work or a new way of thinking. It gives me inspiration to see other peers finally receive due attention. It forces me to pay attention to what people are responding to and strive for greatness in my own work.

On the other hand – sometimes it’s just down right frustrating. Continue reading Eligibility and the Kleban Prize

How to Write a Song for the Musical Theatre

PC: Dayne Topkin

Consistent writing with consistent quality requires consistent habit. There are always a lot of variables when you’re writing something new – new characters, new circumstances, new voices, new points of view. Given that there will always be lots of new unknowns, when it comes to your process you don’t want to have to always be reinventing the wheel.

When I’m writing a new song for a musical, I start by asking myself a series of questions. The order of the series is not important, and I will usually stop at whichever point I feel I’ve answered enough to begin writing the song. (I am taking for granted that at this point I’ve created a musical language for the world of the piece as well as the individual characters.)


1. What is the EVENT of the scene/moment? This is often but not always coupled with the second question on the list (What is the conflict of the scene/moment?) This question allows me to identify what the major dramatic event is. The story in a musical is communicated and moves forward via song, therefore Continue reading How to Write a Song for the Musical Theatre

The Donut Problem, or What’s the Matter with Ingénues?

Photo by: Thomas Kelly

The term isn’t mine, but the problem is one that lots of writers fall into. The Donut Problem describes what happens when your main character is nowhere near as interesting or as active as all the characters that surround her.

There are several reasons this may occur. Continue reading The Donut Problem, or What’s the Matter with Ingénues?

On Cultural Appropriation

A photo by Aidan Meyer. unsplash.com/photos/Q9GlzfhYgGk

About a year ago now, I wrote an article on my blog called Race and the New Generation of Musical Theatre Writers. In the article, I called out to my white colleagues to ‘stretch’ their worldview to a point where they were able to see that our communities are not just populated by white people; to step outside of our unconscious biases and take an active part in truly ‘holding up the mirror.’

This recent Op-Ed in the NY Times by Kaitlyn Greenidge struck me as an interesting extension of that call to arms. It asks the question, “Who Gets to Write What?” and examines the tightrope of cultural appropriation. Continue reading On Cultural Appropriation

When Life Hands You a Pile of Poo…

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There are people in your phone and they have something they’d like to sing to you.

That’s right – all those emojis you use to embellish or simplify your texts are people, too, and now there’s a brand new musical in the works about them. Yes, even the pile of poo.

Thankfully, their songs have music and lyrics by Keith Harrison and a book by Keith and Laura Harrison. (Yes, they’re married. And yes they’re adorable.)

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A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting an event called Musi-CAL. Presented by the Festival of New American Musicals, Musi-CAL is a bimonthly concert series featuring material from new and in-progress musicals written by Southern Californian composers, lyricists, and bookwriters.

The final presentation was Keith and Laura’s show, Emojiland. I can’t even describe the energy that filled the room with each song they presented. Everyone in attendance was blown away by the quality and production-value of their work. It was simply stellar.

I met Keith and Laura separately Continue reading When Life Hands You a Pile of Poo…

The Most Underutilized Resource in Theater

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PC: Caitlin McNaney

Rajiv Joseph is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. I remember seeing his play A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in Los Angeles and being blown away. It was political, yet personal. Surreal, yet plainspoken. It captured a place and a wonderment that I seek to find in my own writing.

In this Broadway.com interview on the occasion of his latest play Guards at the Taj, he describes a lesson he learned about collaboration: Continue reading The Most Underutilized Resource in Theater

JOE SHMOE @ Rockwell

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This June, the Festival of New American Musicals will feature songs from my show Joe Shmoe Saves the World at Rockwell, during it’s bi-monthly showcase of new American musicals in the works Musi-CAL.

Joe Shmoe Saves the World tells the story of two young women worlds apart – one an American indie rocker, the other an Iranian street artist – who attempt to change the world through their art, and end up changing each other instead. During the concert, I will share 5 songs, 3 of which will be world premieres.

I’m very proud of this show and this music, and I’m looking forward to playing it for you all. The concert is Monday June 8th at 8pm at Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Feliz. Tickets just went online – click here to get ’em fast.