Writing Christmas Musicals

by Carol de Giere on January 11, 2017

On Writing Musicals for the Christmas Season

An interview with Duane Poole

Duane Poole, writerDuane Poole has written the book for not one, but two Christmas musicals, including a recent hit, Scrooge in Love!, staged at the 42nd Street Moon theatre of San Francisco, and an earlier piece staged in New York City. In our interview we covered a range of topics, including tips for writing this type of show, size of casts, and types of shows. He also shared his journey from idea to full production, which is instructive for showing what kind of steps are involved.

Carol de Giere: I wonder if you could begin with a quick tip for musical writers. Do you have any advice on making a holiday show unique enough that it won’t seem like just another Christmas musical?

Duane Poole: Around the holidays, audiences seem to like — to actually prefer — the familiar, so I’m not sure that “just another Christmas musical” is something bad. With the price of theatre these days…and with the desire to make sure their whole family will like it…I think the familiar is actually a plus. Grinch and Elf and White Christmas and, we hope, Scrooge in Love! all offer some expectation that the experience will be joyous and worth the time and effort and price of admission.

A Christmas Memory

CD: Let’s go back to the start of your work and learn how your two shows developed. Why did you want to write a holiday season show? How did the first one come about?

DP: After a career in television and film, I was finally in a position to write what I most wanted to write — and since my first love has always been live theatre, I set my sights on that. Shortly after my first new musical Dorian (with James Mellon and Scott DeTurk) premiered at Denver’s Buell Theater, I got a call from a friend who is a prominent theatre director. He was getting calls every year from regional theatres looking for “something new” in the way of Christmas shows. Many had grown tired of repeating the Dickens’ classic and were looking for fresh material.

He knew I had adapted and produced Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory as a television film a few years back and he also knew of my determination to move my career in the direction of theatre. So he suggested I adapt my movie into a stage musical. It took some convincing with the Capote estate, but they finally agreed to let me have a go of it.

I approached Stephen Schwartz for some advice on how to approach major composers/lyricists regarding the project. Stephen thought this was a good idea for a musical and that I should be bold in contacting anyone at all — so I got up my courage and asked him. And for a few exciting months, he worked with me on developing the piece for the stage. His input, as you’d expect, was invaluable. At that point, however, he had his hands full with a new film, a revival of Pippin for Broadway, a new opera, etc.

So I looked again at my options. I’d always admired Larry Grossman (Snoopy!!!, Minnie’s Boys, A Doll’s Life, etc.). A mutual friend hooked us up and Larry loved the concept. In fact, on our first phone call — just to say hello and start discussions — Larry had already come up with the most beautiful theme which he played long-distance for me…and which wound up as the opening number in the finished production, a song called “Imagine a Morning”.

Larry thought the wonderful Carol Hall, composer/lyricist of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, might be ideal for the lyrics and called her. She had always loved the source material as well, so we set to work.

We eventually premiered our 7-character musical at Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks. Several more high-profile productions followed, including one at NYC’s Irish Repertory Theatre with Alice Ripley in the lead. It received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination as Best New Off-Broadway Musical, an award we lost to a show you’ve probably never heard of called Hamilton.

CD: Were you able to move forward with the piece?

DP: Bookings proved unexpectedly tricky. Audiences love the piece, but it is a quiet, nostalgic, personal drama with genuine human emotions that don’t exactly have audiences dancing out of the theatre, even though it is uplifting and very much a holiday piece.

We did hear from those same theatres that were complaining about year after year of A Christmas Carol that while they loved our show, they make so much of their yearly income off the Dickens classic that they need to fall back on that. So it turned out that what they *really* wanted was “the same, but different”.

Scrooge in Love!

Scrooge in Love! 2016 42nd Street Moon photo by Ben Krantz Studio

PHOTO: Scrooge in Love! 2016 42nd Street Moon photo by Ben Krantz Studio

CD: How did the work on Scrooge in Love! begin?

DP: Given the theatres’ expressed need, I’d long had an idea…and a spec script…for a movie called Scrooge in Love!, a romantic comedy in which the Ghosts of Marley, Past, Present, and Future return a year later to take the title hero on an adventure of the heart, to reunite him with his first love — Belle, the woman he loved and lost all those years ago.

Having gotten the feedback that holiday audiences (generally speaking) might appreciate something brighter and more rollicking, we thought this might be fun and very salable. It had “Scrooge” in the title, so audiences knew it had something to do with A Christmas Carol. Yet it was clearly something fresh and new. With only one or two exceptions, it used all the same characters, so it would work in repertory or as an easily-produced alternative to the Dickens story. It felt worth a try. This time, we teamed up with Kellen Blair (Murder for Two) as lyricist for a true romantic-comedy of a musical — big and old-fashioned and hummable.

We did a reading of a partial script and score at North Hollywood’s NoHo Arts Theatre, followed by a more complete workshop at Northwestern University in Chicago. We were offered a full-production premiere at San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon in 2015, and the response was such that they invited it back for 2016, moving it to a bigger theatre and a bigger production to accommodate audience demand.

About Holiday Musicals

CD: I understand you’ve received some interest from licensing agencies. Do you believe there is a perennial demand for this type of show?

DP: Absolutely, we thought the perennial aspect was key. True, there’s only really a six-week window for something like this — eight at the most — but if we could get it into a few dozen regionals every year, that would more than equal a long, single run. We’ve definitely had licensing interest, so that certainly suggests we’re not the only ones thinking that way.

CD: What would you say are the essential qualities of a seasonal piece?

DP: These two musicals are really at opposite ends of the ‘seasonal’ spectrum. One, a nostalgic, character-oriented, heartfelt piece that reflects the more personal aspects of the season. The other, a traditional, comedy-with-heart and big, toe-tappy numbers along with some gorgeous ballads.

So the essential qualities vary depending on the project itself. Tear-jerking, uplifting, life-affirming, evocative, totally relatable…or bright, bold, comic, splashy-with-heart. Either approach can work. There’s not a checklist of holiday icons that need to be trotted out — dancing elves or a chorus line of Santa’s, for example. Oddly, A Christmas Memory has only one real ‘Christmas’ sequence, around the tree unwrapping gifts, while Scrooge in Love! is virtually wall-to-wall Christmas.

Either way, audiences definitely want to feel good about life and family and Christmas when they leave the theatre.

CD: Does it always need to be written for a larger cast so it can be performed by community theatres and schools?

DP: A Christmas Memory is for seven actors, which is perfect for most smaller theatres who hesitate to budget for a larger cast. Given the sort of show it is, that number was also ideal for telling the story and focusing on the emotional arcs of the characters.

The larger Scrooge in Love! can be done with 14, though that’s with doubling of some parts. So it can be expanded for community theatres and schools who want to get as many performers involved as possible. We added several children to the ensemble this second year in San Francisco, which brought in more families and the response was terrific.

CD: How is writing a holiday musical different from other writing?

DP: I’ve always felt a good story is a good story is a good story. Aside from perhaps being more aware of the need for uplifting moments, I’m not sure it’s all that different from any other sort of writing. With these, however, you’re always aware the audience will likely be a ‘family’ one, so you want to have something for everyone to enjoy. But structure, character, dialogue, musical sequences…they all still serve to tell what you hope will be a good story whether it’s Christmas or not.

This article has been published in conjunction with Musical Writerzine issue 36 and the related blog post: Battle of the Christmas Musicals.

ABOUT DUANE POOLE

Credits include books for Scrooge in Love! (music Larry Grossman, lyrics Kellen Blair) winning a Bay Area Critics Award for best book; A Christmas Memory, based on the classic Capote story (music Larry Grossman, lyrics Carol Hall) which received an Outer Critics Circle nomination as Best Off-Broadway Musical in 2014; Dorian for Denver’s Buell Theatre; Love Makes the World Go ‘Round featuring the songs of Bob Merrill; Beautiful Poison, commissioned by Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, score by Milburn and Vigoda; and the upcoming musical thriller, #Spellbound. Duane has also created tribute evenings to Sondheim, Schwartz, and Jones & Schmidt for the Pasadena Playhouse.

Other credits include over fifty television movies, series, and features, among which are the animated musical, Michel’s Bird (songs by Michel Legrand) and the final two screen appearances of Katharine Hepburn.

His film, Shattered Image, was an official selection at the Venice, Montreal, and Toronto Film Festivals. He has written for performers as varied as George Clooney, Cheyenne Jackson, Glenn Close, Anthony Quinn, Gwen Verdon, Jack Lemmon, Michael Feinstein, Ginger Rogers, Fred Flintstone, and Johnny Depp.

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Originality in Musicals

by Carol de Giere on January 10, 2017

This guest blog post explores original ideas for musicals as discussed at the New York Musical Festival/ ASCAP 2016 educational panel discussion. The article has been published in conjunction with Musical Writerzine issue 36.

Takeaways From NYMFs “For the Love of Originality” Panel

By Donald H. Sanborn III

As I recently reported for HowlRound, the 2016 New York Musical Festival, in conjunction with ASCAP, featured a panel discussion, For the Love of Originality: How to Invent New Stories in Musical Theater. (And, how to interest producers and audiences.)

Originality Panel at NYMF 2016

Michael Weiner, Alan Zachary, David Hein, Irene Sankoff, Elliah Heifetz, and Abigail Carney. Photo by Carol de Giere.

The moderators were Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (zacharyandweiner.com), the team that created the score for First Date.

The panelists were Irene Sankoff and David Hein as well as Elliah Heifetz, and Abigail Carney. Sankoff and Hein are a husband-and-wife writing team who wrote Come From Away that opens on Broadway this season. Their first show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, was based on Hein’s mother’s true story. (Sankoff and Hein)

Carney and Heifetz are the librettist and composer/lyricist of Dust Can’t Kill Me, which was included in the 2016 NYMF.

Definition of an “Original Musical”

“Originality is not the same thing as a musical being original,” Zachary offered. One of Zachary’s favorite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors, is based on a “notoriously terrible!” movie. However the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical’s treatment of the story was “highly original.” For the purpose of this discussion, an “original musical” was defined as one not adapted from other media.

Zachary and Weiner discussed the genesis of First Date, which they consider to be in the same category as The Last Five Years. They based First Date on original conversations—lunches in which the writers and a friend discussed their dating lives. (In this respect, the show’s genesis is similar to that of A Chorus Line, which was based on taped workshop sessions with Broadway dancers.) Once Weiner and Zachary had their concept, they had to ask: “How could we dramatize this? Who would the lead characters be?” What events would keep an audience engaged? “There were a million questions, because there was literally no blueprint in front of us for how to create the show,” added Weiner.

Carney remarked, “As much as I love musical theatre, the stories that give me the most inspiration as a writer come from outside of musical theatre. One reason I decided to do an ‘original’ show is that we were excited about doing something musically with stories that are a bit different from what you’re seeing in theatre now.” The inspiration for Dust Can’t Kill Me came from research about the Dust Bowl, as well as novels about the event. “We decided to write about the Dust Bowl because we thought it would be a good way to write about the world today,” Carney continued.

Of Come From Away, Sankoff said:

“We had a friend who asked if we knew what happened in Newfoundland over 9/11. As Canadians, we knew that planes had been grounded there. David and I had been in New York over 9/11, so that’s what our experience, our focus was at the time. This friend, Michael Rubinoff, was starting the Canadian Musical Theatre Project.

He told us that he thought what happened in Gander would ‘make a really good musical. Other composing teams had turned him down. We said ‘yes,’ because living at International House in New York during the days following 9/11 we felt the spirit of the story was similar to what we had experienced, living in a residence with students from 110 different countries and leaning on each other for support, and using music and storytelling to soothe each other as we waited for news of our friends and family downtown. We applied for a grant from the Canadian Government to interview people, and it happened to be perfect timing, because this was the tenth anniversary; a lot of commemoration and ceremonies were being planned—people who had been stranded were choosing to visit the people who had taken them in.”

No Business Like Originality

A practical advantage to original stories is that rights need not be obtained from another source—a process that can be costly and time-consuming. However, the development process with directors can be thorny in terms of assigning credit for a musical’s content (as happened with South Pacific). What did each collaborator contribute? Then, how to assign credits and royalties? It is best to establish in writing the contribution of the director (who often serves as a dramaturg) as a work for hire.

The panelists discussed the networking strategies they have employed to interest the industry in their musicals. One team had a college dean see their show, and subsequently submitted it to NAMT and Goodspeed. Another team hosted readings in their homes, then they submitted their show to the Fringe Festival. Weiner remembered writing letters “to every producer” about his work.

Challenges

During the Q&A segment, I asked all of the panelists to name the greatest challenges they faced throughout the entire process of writing and production. They replied that during the writing, it could be difficult to invent stories with (workable) arcs. The lack of a blueprint can be difficult, but there is the freedom of a blank slate. The key is to force oneself to make creative choices and finish a draft.

From a production standpoint, the panelists noted the difficulty of getting performances. However, there are development opportunities such as NYMF’s Next Link Project.

Take Aways

Writing a show with an original story can be risky, but it also has advantages. The writer starts with a blank page, unencumbered with expectations based on an audience’s previous experience with a work. Further, live theatre can support stories that would not be as effective in other media. An example of this is The Drowsy Chaperone. The plot concerns a musical theatre aficionado who listens to a rare cast recording, and imagines the characters coming to life in his apartment.

A member of the audience asked how, in the process of pitching a show with an original story, writers can protect their ideas from plagiarism. The answer was that the process leaves an extensive paper trail, and stories unique to you are difficult to duplicate (unless based on an event such as 9/11, as is Come From Away).

The central point I took away from the discussion was this: If you want to create a musical whose story is original, “Write what you know.” Or, write what you can learn by interviewing others. Festivals of new musicals such as NYMF or Fringe create an environment where such works can be fostered and developed.

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This piece, “For the Love of Originality: NYMF’s Discussion on Inventing New Stories in Musical Theatre” by Donald Sanborn III was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on December 12, 2016.

Donald H. Sanborn III writes about musical theatre for HowlRound, and he is co-editing a biography of Frederick Loewe. As a composer and lyricist, he has written a full-length musical, Robin Hood: How Legends are Made, and he contributed music for two songs from Raw Impressions’ contemporary musical of La Ronde. DonaldSanbornIII

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