We asked multi award winning Australian
to answer the following question...
Why write musicals anymore? Don't they all suck?
by Sean Peter
So, why on earth would anyone want to write
musicals anyway? They all suck. Nobody likes them, well except for a few
show queens and teenage girls. And in Australia of all places? I mean
thereís no infrastructure or market for it.
Professional opportunities are rare. Commercial producers would
rightly put their bet on whatever has proven itself on the great white
way, or the west end, before developing or gambling on a new Australian
work. And our few subsidised companies that put on musicals usually do
the same. The rest of the subsidised theatre companies are either
inexperienced, under resourced or uninterested.
And why would they be? The theatre fund donít want to know about you
Ďcos youíre music, and the music fund donít want to know about you Ďcos
youíre theatre. And while thereís a growing number of music theatre
graduates from WAAPA and VCA coming into the workplace, thereís no
specific training or networks for those that would write them a job.
And thereís that very same cultural cringe that pervades itself
across our film, and TV Ė if Aussies do it itís just not as good as the
Americans. Or the Brits if youíre the managing director of the ABC.
And more to the point, why would anyone want to write that horrid
heart bleeding on your sleeve wide voweled yankee emote-fest that just
makes you want to wash yourself after youíve heard it?
I mean theatre by itself is cool. It can be anything from a play to
dance to a comedy to weird-arse performance art . Like any artform,
thereís plenty of dross, but when itís great, itís great. It becomes
this magic commune between the performer and audience, each pushing the
other to new highs. Musicals are a part of that, and in fact they should
try to be the best parts of all of that. Dance, drama, comedy, and even
weird arse performance art.
And music itself is cool. Possibly the coolest. Have you ever met
anyone that didnít like some kind of music?
Music can be anything from a plonky C chord four to the bar, to a
symphony, or metal, or sample mash or anything else. I think a good
musical has to acknowledge all of those genres as it looks for the best
and most original way to tell a story, and communicate with and move the
Originally musicals were all about making a show from a collection of
songs of the day. They were the Video Smash Hits of their day. That was
how you promoted those songs, and lets face it; some of those songs from
musicals are pretty damn good. They make up the vocal jazz standard
repertoire for a start. I honestly wonder where the new standards going
to come fromÖ
But as great as they were, if youíre making a new musical, hopefully
itís not some nostalgia fest, and not some forced plot around a
singer/songwriterís back catalogue. Itís got to be something more vital,
and dangerous, and immediate. Itís all about synergy.
Making something that combines hopefully the best of all those things
into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Musicals are about that place where character and story and music
interact. About a pieceís dramatic demands forcing you to write a song
about something you would never write a song about. Like how to do phone
sex, or dropping a chandelier, or even just learning solfege. Itís
trying to find ways of answering these challenges that keep me coming
back to writing musicals and music theatre.
And for me whatís exciting, (and finally getting to the point) is
that trying to write music and musicals has made me a better musician
and songwriter anyway for all of the other types of music I make to try
and pay my mortgage.
Consider this. A good music theatre lyric has to be understood on itís
first, and often only listen. You canít rewind a live play. Doesnít mean
it has to be simplistic, but it needs to be focused and clear. And
A good music theatre lyric tells you more about the singer than just
the content of the words. Itís about character, and attitude, and
achieving much with less. A good lyric should do the same for any song,
in any genre.
And it forces you to be aware of what any piece of music is doing to
you emotionally. You listen across all the genres looking for the way
thatís going to communicate your original idea, rather than just
arpegiating your piano through some weird chords. Good composers borrow,
and great composers steal. I try to steal from everywhere. The essential
difference is that when you steal it, you have to make it yours.
And so suddenly you have to try and make a good country song about
how no-one does the dishes, with a taste of reggae, and bossa. With only
a cello and piano. And three singers backstage. Thatís fun to me.
And as fun as they are, and as much as they can teach you, why write
them when they all end up sucking anyway? I guess I hope that maybe
music theatre can remember again to be current, and vital, and take
risks. And it can be more than just a grey headed matinee diversion. And
then maybe musicals wonít suck so much.
© 2008 Sean Peter
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