Tuesday, 22 September 2020

For Covid Times

In March, I was seeing Charlotte's Web as a fable for Covid times. That view has intensified. 

(Long time readers of this blog--a fine evening to you, Uncle Pete and Aunt Petite--will know what I mean by fable. Briefly, it is this: just as Wilbur and Charlotte are doomed (be slaughtered for bacon, lay eggs and die, respectively), so we must face the doom of pandemic. In this fable, we also must face the ending which if not happy is at least perfectly apt, the only way the story could end.)

With that in mind, I've written in a kind of prologue spoken by someone in the present, a speaker in a sanitary mask who wonders where our lives went. From that grim vibe, this speaker has to get us to the warm spring morning when Wilbur is born. 

Throughout the piece, the audience will recall fragments of what it was like, that time of masks and social distance. 

The last image remains unchanged, however. It's Wilbur on top of his manure pile, living a long life, and never forgetting Charlotte. Lights down on his contented smile.

It may be useful solace--this story for this time.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Caroline, or Change

 I follow the bouncing ball of what I do. In August I built videos of a dozen poems for my book launch in October. In September I go back into my Charlotte and Wilbur.

It's time to find the music. As dedicated readers of this blog know well--a warm late-summer eve to you, aunt Misty and uncle Don--collaboration on my musicals hasn't come easily. Not because I haven't wanted it, but because I've not known how to find it in ways that leave everybody satisfied, and paid for their work. 

I could attempt to write the music myself, as I did for Oak Floors!, and give it to an arranger later. Just in cause I go that route again, this morning I noodled at the keyboard and found a musical figure that sort of worked right off the top of the show, a scene in which everyone wonders, "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

Then I read the first act of Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori. Let me quote the open stage direction: "Caroline, a maid, in the basement of the Gellmans' house [in Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1962-63]. She's doing the laundry, sorting the clothes." In the scene, Caroline, a radio, a washer, a dryer, and a young boy share the function of teaching us who and where they are, what's driving Caroline's life, and what problems she, and the boy, have to overcome.

I haven't heard the music yet, but Spotify, here I come.

Which is to say, music for Charlotte and Wilbur needs a vision I'm not sure I can provide.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Latest

The book of the musical (the parts not sung) is a year away from being done. The norm in musicals for decades has been that Act One is longer then Two, and more packed with songs, as is the current version of my Charlotte and Wilbur, now on hiatus. Adjustments are required.
Just now, for the 47th time, I paused over the order of the two names in the title of my play. After the work-through with actors last month, Charlotte came first. They're her daughters at the end, she was the first to do the saving of life, and she's the one memorialized. 
Still, I kept writing Wilbur first. The argument goes like this: The utter innocence of his identity as springtime pig--i.e., slaughter by Christmas--creates the eventual salvation. His need is what drives the story.
Yeah, well, it ain't that simple.
It might come down to the matter known as "the rights." As in, who has them and must, therefore, be appeased before any adaptation of the source, in this case Charlotte's Web, can be licensed. Wilbur and Charlotte, strictly as title, suggest more distance from that source.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Upon Re-reading Charlotte's Web

A culture of sleep for the humans and animals of Charlotte's Web--of my adaptation too, since I'm a napper--could come in handy for an organic staging of the story. The actors never leave the stage, just drift to the edges and back as needed. The center of the stage is everywhere they need to be. Numerous costume and set pieces are stored on hooks and shelves within easy reach around the perimeter, as if inside a porch, shed, or barn door. Each character becomes identified with a distinct piece--minimal, portable, expressive.
There are no scenes as such. It's one continuous scene for Act One, another for Act Two. Here the culture of sleep ensures that someone, or everybody, often gets still and quiet. No character is immune. Though speech and action subside in these moments, the audience's reactions and expectations do not. One or more of the sleepers wakes up, and we're on to the next bit. Furthermore, the sleep habits of all characters offer various durations, from over night to a few minutes. As much time and space as a director might need, in other words. 
I've already noticed that the concept sketched above feels more fertile and free than composing the 24 scenes in the draft the actors worked through last Friday. Some of the scenes worked well, but in shaping them I left bits out that enrich the story.
So go the notes I made on re-reading the novel yesterday and today. Another reminder I took from Friday's session is that I don't have to be a slave to E.B.White's telling of the story, beautiful as it is. Yet here I am, implying that now I can retrieve many of his details I didn't use.
This I have to work out. Hello July!

Thursday, 25 June 2020


I've hired four actors for a five-hour work-through of the book to my Charlotte and Wilbur, sometimes known as Wilbur and Charlotte. Tomorrow from noon to five, Regina time.
General intro: who you are, how I know you, and thank you, SKarts. 
My objectives: to the hear the characters speak, to draw upon your experience as theatre professionals re script, staging, props, lighting, costumes, sound, sf/x etc.
I'll ask questions not looking for definitive answers but possibilities.
My vision for the show is a mainstage Christmas or late-season show, a musical. I imagine the stage I know best--the round at Globe Theatre, where all four actors have performed. I want to create for others what I experience in a musical theatre audience. In a word, enchantment. In two, total submission.
Why an adaptation of Charlotte's Web? Because the moral stakes are high, it offers positive models of parenting and teaching, it shows how to find love in a time of darkness, it contains humour and play, it believes that words matter, it gives us a beautiful rendering of the great theme: time passing.
All the characters are deeply embedded in their world, without irony (except Templeton, the rat). They're all fully who they are.
So we'll run each scene, pause for questions, run it again. Then each act. Then the whole show, time permitting.
And the last question will be, Should it be called Wilbur and Charlotte or Charlotte and Wilbur?

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Words and Music

Dedicated readers of this blog--yes, good sunny morning to you, Aunt Huck and Uncle Jim--will know I've been writing a musical called Charlotte and Wilbur, which I may have typed as Wilbur and Charlotte once or twice.
First draft finished, it's on hiatus for the month while I write something else.
When I say 'finished,' I mean the first draft of the book is finished, with notes for some songs and fragments of lyrics, but no complete songs.
Last night I caught an interview between Andre Previn and Stephen Sondheim from 1977. In their "what comes first, the music or the lyrics" chat, Sondheim says usually he hears the rhythm of the melody, then he finds the words. He cites Cole Porter writing "it was just [pause] one of those things" as that rhythm first, then later as the famous melody, here done by Rosemary Clooney.
So, says Sondheim, I look for two things: a title line that sums up what the song is saying, and a rhythm. "From there, melodic ideas form."
This all makes perfect sense to me, given my limited experience with such matters. 
But, as I say, I'll be getting to all that later. The interview with Previn and the wonderfully articulate Sondheim, by the way, is one of the best I've seen.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Song for Charlotte's Daughters

Here's an idea I like: the final song will be "Song for Charlotte's Daughters, in which Wilbur first discovers, then welcomes, then pleads with, then agonizes over, and finally accepts the baby spiders and what they must do every year. The memory of Charlotte sustains him. Once the work of his song is done, Wilbur can close his eyes for a snooze on top of his manure pile. I imagine a light drawing in on him, then to black.
(In saying so, I hope I'm not stuck on the image of Porky Pig at the end of those Bugs Bunny cartoons from years ago.)
The most complex bit in the last scene is when this happens: One by one, they climb to the top of the fence, stand on their head, point their spinneret in the air and let loose a cloud of fine silk. The silk forms a balloon. Each spider lets go of the fence and rises into the air. The general effect is one of bursting, incl explosion of light and music. The air fills with tiny balloons, each carrying away a spider.
A note to myself says, Let the designer figure it out! Which keys right in to what I hope for this play: that a group of professionals will build and perform it. 
Maybe the most complex bit in the last scene is that time passes first a season at a time, then in a rush over the rest of Wilbur's days. Will be tricky to pace. It is the denouement of the piece, so things speed up toward their conclusion, but must stretch out a little, too.