Tuesday, 19 January 2021


 Yesterday I read Charlotte's Web again and, for the first time, the adaptation by Joseph Robinette. 

E.B. White's novel presents the darkness and light of human experience from birth to death through the hours, days, seasons, years. Its presents ways of knowing beyond science and religion. It honours language by making Charlotte a writer and everybody else a reader. It illustrates the constraints we live within and the wonders that can release us. It offers characters of mystery and depth and profound simplicity. It does all this with wit, with love, and with exquisitely quiet prose that utterly rehabilitates the worn-out sentiments of trust, friendship, terror, hope, and despair.

I want to adapt the story not to change it, but to present it in a new way: sung, danced, staged. My assumption, as I've said in this blog before, is that the power of White's novel would be enhanced by the power of musical theatre. 

There's little magic in the Robinette adaptation. It reads like a mediocre sitcom, or mediocre MGM drama circa 1948. It attempts to accommodate as many moments from the novel as possible. In doing so, it flattens the magic.

If I'm going to pursue my adaptation and, say, apply to an arts granting agency for funding, I would make my case along the lines sketched in this blog entry. I would say "adapt" does not mean simply "change the story." In this case, it means change the medium in which the story is presented. (Even at that, changes are made: selection of details, revising dated racial or gender references, inserting bits of my own brand of wit and wisdom (if any).) It means making the case for musical theatre which, for me, comes from this simple realization: that the deepest emotional engagement I feel while experiencing any form of art comes as a musical theatre audience member. As an artist, what I want most is to create such an experience for others.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Hiatus Hiatus

 Dedicated readers of this blog (good sunny morning to you, Uncle Satchell and Aunt Paige) will have deduced that my work on Charlotte and Wilbur, a musical adaptation of Charlotte's Web, has not been happening lately. (True, though an All Terrain Theatre production of "Wilbur's Tale," a different adaptation, for one actor, of the same book, is underway for the Tic Toc Ten Short Performance festival in early April.)

Now it's time to either extend the hiatus, give up on the project altogether, or get back to work on it. To help me decide, I've been listening my way through a stack of musical cast recordings, an excellent podcast series called "Piece By Piece" (not the Kelly Clarkson single), and my own piano stylings via songbooks from the library. Today I'll read Charlotte's Web again to gauge the current status of my commitment to it. 

There's one other item that has been haunting my work on this project for a year: the Joseph Robinette musical called, yup, Charlotte's Web. This is the version that has been around for a couple of decades. I've had a copy for months but until today have refused to open it for fear of (1) copying it subconsciously and/or (2) finding it so good that how could I possibly attempt something better.

If I'm going ahead with my own musical adaptation, I must come to terms with why, especially since one already exists.

Today I'll decide.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Phone Book, the Musical

 It's often said of great singers that they could sing the phone directory and make it work. If they were pros, they could.

But why not make the directory more singable for them with, say, a story. There would be songs about numbers, about the alphabet. Voices would speak with varying purpose. The fate everyone faces is extinction. Someone, or maybe two, would emerge from the anonymity of listings and define a new form.


Thursday, 22 October 2020


 I just watched Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, a film of that show's closing night. I've been touting the pandemic appropriateness of Charlotte's Web. After Rent, set amid AIDS in NYC, I'll renew my efforts to deliver the complex solace of Charlotte's and Wilbur's story. 

This work has taken a new turn: a one-woman version I'm creating with Sarah Bergbusch while my Charlotte and Wilbur musical is in hiatus. 

Whatever the version, whatever the story, it must give us life exposed, threatened, affirmed--characters in the light of the stage darkness.

Monday, 28 September 2020


It is common knowledge, in the narrative of musical theatre history, that Oklahoma changed everything. No longer was a collection of clever songs enough. Now they had to serve the story. The story for Curly is to attract Laura. This is his pitch: 

When I take you out tonight with me

Honey, here's the way it's gonna be

You will sit behind a team of snow white horses

In the slickest gig you've ever seen

So goes the intro bit. 

Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top

Consider the rhyme. The repetition of "surrey" works because we get the tag "with the fringe on top."

Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppen strutters
Nosy pokes will peek through their shutters and their eyes will pop!

How gorgeous is that. We get the three -utters, then the tag that closes the -op rhyme.

The wheels are yellow, the upholstry's brown
The dashboard's genuine leather
With eisenglass curtains you can roll right down
In case there's a change in the weather

Oscar Hammerstein had the knack for making the rhyme seem natural, effortless, perfect for the moment of the story.

Two bright side lights winkin' and blinkin'
Ain't no finer rig I'm a thinkin'
You can keep your rig if you're thinkin that I'd keer to swap
Fer that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top

Winkin, blinkin, thinkin, thinkin "that I'd keer to swap."
And now we're ready, having been cued back to "pop," for the closing "top."

Would you say the fringe was made of silk?
Wouldn't have no other kind but silk
Has it really got a team of snow white horses?
One's like snow, the other's more like milk

Here we're back to the intro melody. In the most recent revival of Oklahoma, the potential self-consciousness that might scuttle the silk/milk rhyme is avoided by drawing out the mmmmmm-ilk. By the time it lands, we're into the rhythm of the next verse.

All the world'll fly in a flurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top
When we hit that road hell-for-leather
Cats and dogs will dance in the heather
Birds and frogs will sing all together and the toads will hop!

Again, a-a-a-b, c-c-c-b. The natural world falls into line.

The wind'll whistle as we rattle along
The cows'll moo in the clover
The river will ripple out a whispered song
And whisper over and over

With that, permission to repeat:

Don't you wish you'd go on forever
Don't you wish you'd go on forever
Don't you wish you'd go on forever
And you'd never stop?
In that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top

Heading for lullaby now . . .

I can see the stars gettin' blurry
When we ride back home in the surrey
Ridin' slowly home on the surrey
With the fringe on top
I can feel the day gettin' older
Feel a sleepy head near my shoulder
Till it falls kerplop

The sun is swimming on the rim of a hill
The moon is taking a header
And just when I'm thinking all the earth is still
A lark'll wake up in the meader

Hush, you bird. My baby's a sleepin'
Maybe got a dream worth a keepin'
Whoa, you team and just keep a creepin'
At a slow clip clop
Don't you hurry little surrey
With the fringe on the top

The rhyme always gets where it needs to be.

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.