Sunday, 19 January 2020


Heeding the advice of one Stephen Sondheim--that in writing for the stage, one should imagine the staging right from the start--I see Mr. Arable, in the opening scene of my Charlotte's Web, in his no-nonsense stride toward the hoghouse, ax over one shoulder, to do in the runt piglet. If it's to be a scene I sketched in my previous post, he'd keep striding, on and off the stage, long enough for a few verses ending, "Where's Papa going with that ax?" He breaks stride finally for Fern, his 8-year-old daughter, who convinces him, against his better judgement, to spare the poor critter.
Among versifiers in this scene would be the pig himself, Wilbur, and his barn-mates a goose, a sheep, and the nasty rat, Templeton. Not sure if Charlotte would make an appearance at this point. While I'm at it, here in the earliest possible moment of this journey into a musical version of Charlotte's Web, what will these animal characters look like? I'd like to avoid animal costumes. How, then, will we know the goose is a goose and the sheep a sheep? By what they say--partly. But this book works because, in part, the animals are real animals. They kill, they die, they must eat, they must have shelter. In general, they respond to their environment in naturalistic ways. So how do we--hello, vast team I'll one day assemble!--show them as the animals they are, even though they talk (for those humans with sufficient imagination to hear them). Masks? Puppets? Simple prop/costume pieces--something tail-ish for the rat, neck-ish for the goose? Species-specific movement?
Charlotte herself--yikes. The few times she leaves her web she travels by threads which she spins and "casts" (my shorthand for her realistic spider transportation system). She's tiny but has an authoritative voice. She edits her own web, stripping it down to its structural elements to compose text within it. Text or not, her magnum opus, as she calls it, is her egg sac which, once created, signals her own death. How would we design and stage all of this?
Here I remember advice the playwright Sharon Pollock gave us all in the writing program at DTUC almost forty years ago: if you want a thousand birds to fly up, do NOT say "well, that's impossible, they could never do it." If you want it, say so in your script. Your designer and production team will make it happen.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Where's Papa Going with That Ax?

So begins Charlotte's Web
What if in the musical version, which I'll write, the line becomes a refrain in the opening song. Characters step forward one at a time to tell us who they are and what they want, ending with, "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
We'd see and hear from Fern, the 8-year-old with the imagination; her principled but loving parents, the Arables; her weapon-toting older brother, Avery; Templeton, the amoral rat; sheep yearning for freedom; geese looking for something, anything, out of the ordinary; the doctor, Homer and Edith Zuckerman, the preacher and of course Charlotte herself--they all want to know where Papa's going with that ax. 
The song ends with Papa putting down the ax, thanks to Fern, sparing the life of the runt pig for whom Fern comes up with "the most beautiful name she could think of": Wilbur. 
And we've activated the world of the play. 
Maybe, but tonight I saw 1917, a movie in which the first thing we see is a field of wildflowers. The camera pulls back and we get the characters. The characters get up and go.
Though gripped into the movie, for a moment I thought of opening Charlotte's Web, the musical, with nothing but sensations from the natural world the characters inhabit.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Sondheim and Lively (the writers, not the roots band)

In explaining his Finishing the Hat--first of two volumes of complete lyrics, with commentary--Stephen Sondheim suggests that "the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the reader may be attracted to" (page xi of his Introduction). Only if written well, I might add, which his book is, though you wouldn't know it from the above quotation.
Delving into Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively, I become that reader. I'd picked up the book, in its pressed-flower jacket design, while browsing the memoir stacks at RPL, between "English fiction" and "English essays" in the Dewey Decimal system.
I'm no gardener, but Lively's literary, socio-botanical tour of a single word, garden, caught my eye and hasn't let go yet.
As in Sondheim's book, it's the writing, of course. So skilled, so beautiful, you can't stop reading. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

The Pitch

Felt good to me. I covered my points, kept the energy up, took it to the pair of artistic directors who will decide which shows to run in their series.
One key, I'd say, is the flexibility of my Oak Floors! a Heritage Cabaret in terms of staging, casting, scoring--qualities that would come in handy for this company.
Now I leave it, this musical of mine which isn't one until it plays to an audience.

Stylistically, whiteboard:

Sunday, 1 December 2019


In a few days I'll have ten minutes to pitch my show to a professional theatre company. Let's see how the pitch goes with ten minutes of typing. Go!
It's called Oak Floors! a Heritage Cabaret. A chamber musical. Scaled down from two acts, 18 songs, now it's about 60 minutes, 10 songs.
The apostrophe is an homage to Oklahoma!
The play is set in the Oak Floors, a heritage apartment building at the edge of downtown. 
Stylistically, it's a cabaret, meaning a series of songs/scenes with a host who comments on, responds to, and occasionally participates in the scenes. I call him the Flaneur. 
Thematically, it's a play about time. How could it not be. Specifically, it's about the life of a building, which began with high hopes in 1929, endured stock market crash, depression, changes in ownership, breakdown and deterioration, renovation, possible condo conversion, etc. 
The other major theme is love in a time of loneliness, or vice versa. The seven characters--an older couple good at aging, a university student on the delayed degree plan, a janitor who loves his machines, a nurse who's a cat-whisperer, a single guy who complains, and the flaneur--try to locate themselves on the love-to-loneliness scale. Where are they? Where do they want to be? Will it change tomorrow? etc.
In terms of tone, the play is seriously playful. That is, it manifests deep respect both for heritage, which despite its occasional institutional silliness does make cities better, and for any individual's search for, or resistance to, connection.
Though written for 7, the show could be done by as few as 3 singer/actors, one of whom would be the on-stage musical director.
The songs exist as simple piano reductions--melodies by me, with harmonic layering by Carter Powley.
The play would be fun, instructive, flexible to stage.
The one set piece would be a door frame, with door, on wheels. Every scene would begin and/or end at/through this doorway. 

That's ten minutes. When I'm actually talking the pitch, I'd work in a note about resolution: a coming together of the two thematic streams, which interact throughout. Characters will accept or not the effects of time and the scars of love and loneliness. Living in the same building, they're separate but linked.
The company would hire the actor/singers, apply its resources of marketing, design and production, stage management. And a director. I'll provide the script, the charts, the images for projection (which I forgot to mention above--twice in the play historical images are projected, as a way of covering the historical narrative) and any help I can with the rest of it. I'd be perfectly happy to hand over the script and disappear until closing night, however.

Monday, 11 November 2019


The play as a whole could be performed by no fewer than three actors, though it’s written for seven. Characters can be voiced by different actors from scene to scene.

So goes the Note I'm composing for my Oak Floors! a Heritage Cabaret. What happens, I wonder, when one character is sung by multiple voices in the course of the whole piece. If that works--and I suspect it would, if performed by pros--than my chamber musical could be done by three actors, one of them the music director, all playing multiple characters.
Or have one character locked to one actor while the rest bounce around as needed. That lock would be settled on the flaneur, as this figure is still called (I'll add that circumflex accent before producing some final version of the script.) Her/His role is to take us from scene to scene in the heritage cabaret. An obvious function, I suppose. But to "take us" is not a straightforward matter. Attitude, tease, degrees of complicity with what we're about to see or have just seen--all of these the flaneur will carry. Thus the story we receive, if I'm not off course here, will land with both conviction and light. Light as in suspension, light as in play.

But give me seven to sing the Chorus role. Play the Chorus off against individuals in scenes.

So, somewhere in the above is the genesis of a Note I want to include. I like thinking about this now--the prospect of only three actors to do the whole piece--instead of later in a rush, should that ever happen.

Monday, 28 October 2019


I just spent an hour with Carousel, Act 2. For an illustration of the now-standard truth that Rodgers and Hammerstein changed musicals forever, note what has happened at the end of Act 1. Billy, the, male lead, has arrived at both his best (devotion to wife and unborn child) and worst (accomplice to a robbery).
The community is intact, having enjoyed "a real nice clambake." But that robbery scene is coming up.
Anyway, not to give any more away or over-dumb the story. My point it, it has one, and it's powerful.
Eventually we get to the famous "You'll Never Walk Alone," here sung gloriously by Renee Fleming in the 2018 revival.

Do not watch the YouTube vid of RF singing this song, unless you can stomach her dedication to "our armed forces overseas."
Instead, for best results, read and listen to the musical to this point. 
Then play the Fleming version, and its built-in pain, elegy, hope, despair, love, vulnerability, refusal, celebration, and the rest of it.