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Stephen Schwartz on Collaboraton in Musical Writing

Question. How do I find collaborators?

Stephen Schwartz: There's a feature on ASCAP's Website called Collaborators' Corner. It's sort of a matchmaking service for musical theatre writers, in which composers looking for lyricists or book writers and vice-versa can hear about and contact one another.You might want to try visiting and/or listing yourself on that (free) site to see if you turn up a potential collaborator.I would also recommend contacting the BMI Musical Theatre workshop to see when they are having showcase nights that feature their new writers; you might spot a potential collaborator at one of those.


Question. Can you copyright the concept of your own show so that you can then work with other people or share the idea?

That's a very good question and it comes up a lot. It's more complicated in the theatre frankly than it is in the movies because what you do in the movies is you register the idea with the writer's guild. You can just register two sentences and in fact you are well advised to do so before you pitch it to studios. There are very famous cases of people who have gotten big judgments against studios because they pitched an idea and about three years later the movie came out. With theatre it's more complicated because there isn't that situation like the writer's guild. You don't have a union that has that kind of punch with the industry.

The best advice I can give you, you can copyright things but there are other things you can do as well. There's the old thing of sending yourself a registered letter so it's dated and sealed and the date is on the seal and you don't open it. That is actually valid and useful in a court of law that says here's evidence I had this at such and so a time, but remember that you can't copyright an idea, you can only copyright work. For example if you had an idea to write a show based on the people featured in Playback Magazine, you can't protect that idea but if you'd written a song for it you could copyright a song.

As you get further away from actual work, like premise, that gets tough. It's tough to protect that as intellectual property because it's an idea. Having said that, to tell you the truth I've never worried about copyright in my life. And it's never jumped up to bite me. In movies they tend to steal ideas. They don't actually do that too much in theatre but that's not to say you shouldn't try to protect yourself, I just wouldn't be too crazed about it. I don't think it's an orange alert situation.

Q. Could you talk about the relationship between writer and director and the boundaries that may sometimes get blurred in the beginning of a production?

Good question. The musical, particularly in contemporary musical theatre, that's actually THE question. And it's a very fuzzy line. That's a minefield. You have to find because the sort of " I think they're used to be a time when it was like, I've written this, you put it up there. Maybe with plays that still exists to some extent but musicals being so collaborative and so much of about process. Musicals are not something where you sit in your room and you're like, "Well I've finished my play, here it is, I'll see you opening night." It just doesn't work that way. The collaborative back and forth discussions between writers and the director are very important and that's a very supportive relationship and at the same time inherently adversarial. So one is constantly trying to find the balance between doing things to, you know if the director says I don't know how to stage this or what if you do that? Knowing when to fight for things, saying well no if I do that it actually changes my entire intension or when to say, well we could try that, without being a doormat. It's a constant nuanced relationship and I think you get better at it with experience, I know I certainly have gotten better at it with experience.

I think it's important not to be threatened by the director but also not to be so in awe of the director that you will just do anything that the person says. The most important piece of advice that I can give you is to have sufficient discussions with a director before you really go forward with him or her. Make sure that you want the same show. What's the show about? What's the tone of the show? Why are we doing this? What do we really care about? Those sorts of big questions I think are very important actually to air out because you can get in something and suddenly discover that you want two completely different shows and if you're there in the middle of stuff, that is not a fun time.

But it's a really good question and I don't have a particularly glib answer for you. It's interesting because I'm working with a very good director on Wicked, Joe Mantello. I know he and I and my co-writer Winnie Holzman I know that we really want the same show. And it's not like we ever fight, we never yell at each other, but every meeting is a negotiation and a tussle. We go over something and Joe will say something and we'll be like well no that wouldn't work because of this. Sometimes he's like "Oh I see. You're right." And sometimes he says, "No no no, but think about it this way." And we'll say, "Oh now that you've said that, yes we could do that." You kind of have to go on a case-by-case basis and have trust in one another that good will, that all of you really," you have to see if you can avoid and hope you have a director who will avoid finding fights just to prove who can win. And that's easy to say and believe me it's hard to do even under the best of circumstances. So I guess just making sure you want the same show to the extent that you can talk about this as articulately as you can and then just dealing with specifics as much as you can and being open to things.

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

Read about George and Ira Gershwin's collaboration in Fascinating Rhythm Fascinating Rhythm : The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin

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