Wednesday, 25 February 2015

"It Doesn't Work"

Rob Hartmann here again.

 “It doesn’t work.”

 How often have you heard (or said) that about a show, a song, a scene— your own or someone else’s? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot — and one that I always like to question when it comes up.

 What exactly do you mean when we say, “It doesn’t work”? That’s what I ask. Does it mean “I don’t like this [for whatever reason]” “It’s not clear to me” “I don’t think it will connect with our audience.” When you’re getting notes on new work from someone else, sometimes it means those things. Sometimes — and this is what happens to me with my own work — it’s just a gut feeling that what’s on stage isn’t clicking the way we want it to.

 The sign for me that something isn’t clicking is that I find myself unable to look directly at the actors onstage — I can only stare at their shoes. It’s agonizing, really (although oftentimes the audience seems to be enjoying that moment just fine… while I am admiring the costumer’s shoe-prowess, unable to face the actors.)

 In trying to discover why a moment isn’t firing on all cylinders, something I’ve found useful is to look at “the thing before the thing.” The song might be fine in isolation — but in the show, is the moment before the song setting it up properly? Often, strengthening or clarifying that moment before a song allows the song to do its job.

 It’s also good to drag a friend in who hasn’t laid eyes on the piece before — sometimes you discover that everyone in the rehearsal room has become too familiar with the piece, and thus hasn’t realized that, say, some crucial bit of information isn’t coming across clearly which then muddles up the “non-working” moment or song. Fresh eyes and questions from a new person can often lead to the lightbulb “a-ha!” moment when you realize what it is that isn’t coming across. And again, it’s very often a hiccup in the “thing before the thing.”

 Something to keep in mind, too, is that musicals live on the stage. I have been reading musical scripts for years and years and years, and still, musicals are very difficult to assess on the page. Many times when you read the script of a show which is strong onstage, what’s on the page seems thin compared to a play. When you think about it, it’s obvious why that’s the case: a musical’s power comes from the words wedded to music and movement. Just reading the words alone isn’t going to give you the entire sense of what the created world of this musical really is. You’re seeing just a shadow.

 Even once a show is up on its feet, you have to ask yourself — is this a repeated phenomenon (is the scene dying an agonizing death every night) or did it just happen once? Authors can agonize over audience response to a reading: why aren’t they laughing??!! Maybe they didn’t laugh at that joke because someone in the room coughed exactly on the punchline. I’ve seen that happen — and I’ve seen writers intent on throwing out a good joke because “it didn’t work in the reading.” Well, it didn’t get a laugh on this day in this room in front of these people. Tomorrow, with no stray coughing, it will probably be just fine.

 I had a show running a couple of years ago in which the second act opener was fine (ish) but I knew it wasn't delivering what we had intended. I watched that song every night of the run (I had the shoes memorized by then of course.) It wasn't until the end of the run that I realized what the issue was: it was indeed the "thing before the thing." We had tried to write a comedy number for a particular character; but by letting the character so easily shrug off the events of the show in Act One right away so she could sing something funny, we had inadvertently destroyed the stakes for the character. The action stopped. We had been stuck on the premise of putting something comic in that spot — it was always our assumption that we should. We had to examine every assumption, every preconception.

 It’s not surprising to me that theatre pros who are called in to help a show when things don’t seem to be working are called “show doctors”. A musical is a living, breathing, moving creature. Diagnosing what ails a musical requires a keen eye, a good “gut sense” and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions. “Oh, you can never do [X], that never works.” (You can’t write a show about a barber who murders people and has his lady love bake them into pies, come on, that never works. And so on and so on.) Every groundbreaking piece was a crazy idea before it became a standard.

 So when you’re puzzling over why a song, a scene, a joke, a dance isn’t giving you the energy on stage that you intended, before you pronounce that “it doesn’t work!”, take a step back. Defining what “works” means first … that usually works.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Walk It Off

Hello! I'm the new guy around here -- Rob Hartmann, a writer and composer. Currently I teach in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University, but come the fall I'll be with Jenifer Toksvig in London, running our new MA in Writing Musicals at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

I wanted to jump in by writing about the writing process: various sorts of things that I've found have helped me when I'm deep into writing a show (as I am right now, as it happens.) And the first thing is: taking a walk.

When I first began writing music, I did what so many of us often do: propped the scribbled lyric on the piano, and started improvising. That served me decently well … but I'd find at times that I became too focused on creating patterns on the piano, and would fall into the same-old-same-old progressions that were familiar to my fingers.

I had picked up an old book which talked about the writing habits of classical composers, and was surprised to find that many of them did their musical creating while walking. So I got up from the piano, and began to walk.

There's something about a steady physical rhythm in the body which engages the "logical" part of your brain, and allows you to enter that other creative state. It's the same sort of thing which can lead you to come up with new ideas while driving or cycling or doing the dishes -- distracting one part of your mind while allowing the rest to float.

So, I was the guy marching around the neighborhood, clutching the scribbled lyric, humming quietly (or not so quietly.) Or singing. Well, singing in that funny little "I'm not really singing!" voice. Yeah, that guy, doing that.

But the words found a rhythm and the rhythm shaped itself into a melody. The melodies that took shape felt more organic -- more connected to the voice and the body. The melody went where it needed to go emotionally, bringing the lyrics to peaks and valleys, giving the song dramatic shape. If a melody managed to stay in my head for the entirety of a good long walk, then that meant it likely had some vitality to it -- it was well-built all on its own, without accompaniment. Then I'd head back to the piano and then start to give the melody some harmonic underpinnings.

More often than not, I'd find that conceiving the melody away from the piano took me to places I never would have gone if I'd stuck with improvising on the keyboard. When I'm in a full-throttle writing mode -- like in the crunch time of finishing a show -- I find that walking is an absolute necessity to keep my mind alive over the course of a long writing day. I like to be at the keyboard/computer for about four hours at a stretch -- then I can feel the brain fog setting in. That means it's time to get up and move.

Currently, I spend about half my time in New York and half in Washington, DC. I'm near the National Mall in DC; much of my current show has come to me while tromping from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and back again. The sights are inspiring but familiar enough to allow my mind to open up to that place where music takes shape and melodies form.

And right now, mid February 2015, New York is experiencing a stretch of cold, cold weather -- this morning it was 9 degrees F / minus 12 C. That level of cold, at least to someone used to the normally milder New York weather, makes walking (wrapped up in layers and layers and layers) is just unpleasant enough that you can't get easily into the creative flow -- too much attention focused on not slipping on the ice and slush.

I was trying to get a song finished and found myself in that kind of irritable, itchy mood, where the creative energy is being blocked for some reason. I realized: I hadn't been for a good walk in over a week (and was substituting sugar for quick energy in place of the walking.) I bundled up, and headed straight out. Eventually, the cold didn't seem quite so bad, and I got back to that creative, flowing mental state.

So if you find yourself stuck -- a way to change your thought pattern is to change your environment. Get something new in front of your eyes. Get a rhythm going in your body. Let yourself get into the flow. Go for a walk -- and you'll come back with something new.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

We're back!

We've been preparing some big things since you last heard from us. Now we're back with a more active profile, and ready to announce some great stuff this week.

Say hello to Rob Hartmann, who is going to facilitate The Larder with me. Rob is a composer, lyricist and bookwriter who has had more than a dozen musicals produced in theaters across the United States, including in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, Nashville and others. Rob received his masters degree from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1999.

The Larder is a central hub for a community of musical theatre writers and composers: a place where you can come and tell us, and other fellow writers, what you need. The goal will always be to help you help yourself, especially when it comes to developing and producing your own work. We can organise anything from a blog post to an event if there seems to be a demand for something in particular, and we can also work with you as an individual writer, as and when you need a hand.

So don't wait until someone happens to offer the thing you've been waiting for: get in touch with us and the rest of The Larder community, and together we'll figure out how to help you get what you need when you need it.

It's free to connect with The Larder, and you can do so through our blog, Facebook page, mailing list, via YouTube, and on Twitter. For all the info on how to find us, just go to

There are already some useful posts on the Blog with info about things like formatting scripts properly, how to acquire rights for adaptations, writing for young performers, and more. If there's something you want to know more about, give us a shout via email ( or hook up with us on Twitter @AnotherNibble and we'll do our best to help you out, even if that's just to point you in a useful direction.

And keep an eye out this week. We've got some great stuff coming up!