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.

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.

Sunday 24 May 2020


Dedicated readers of this blog--good Sunny Sunday evening to you, Uncle Chilli and Aunt Pep--will know of my admiration for the moral stakes put before us by Charlotte's Web. What Charlotte and Wilbur do for each other puts them in the top one percent on the holiness scale.
But wait a minute. Charlotte does go to a lot of trouble for Wilbur, knowing that if she doesn't, Wilbur will be slaughtered by Christmas. And Wilbur, in turn, saves her children by taking them home, while she lives out her last days and dies, alone. But that egg sac he takes so carefully home, and attends to so lovingly as time goes on, would have done just fine where Charlotte left it--attached safely to an out-of-the-way corner at the Fairgrounds. The spiders could hatch there as safely as in the doorway above Wilbur's pen at the farm.
Are the stakes, then, not quite so exalted as I claimed? Maybe Wilbur's not so noble, just lucky. But then I realize it's not the fact that matters--the fact that he didn't actually save her children--it's what it means that matters. He's maxed out his nobility, in other words, as Charlotte has. In his mind, he's saving her children, which is why when 511 out of 514 of them literally drift away when hatched, he's a little disappointed. But three stay. And some of their children will stay too, and Wilbur will live a long life in the company of Charlotte's daughters, and he'll be sure to tell them all about her.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Work Continues

This afternoon in the park, looking at scene 11, dubbed "The Trick," of my Wilbur and Charlotte (or is it Charlotte and Wilbur Not yet sure), Charlotte's revision of her web to say "Some Pig" appears. It's diving revelation, of a kind. 
Pretty much the entire scene, I was thinking in the park, would be sung in a song called "Upon First Looking Into Charlotte's (Revised) Web" in which everyone responds to what the morning light has revealed. 
Forgetting for a moment the details that the novel delivers at this point in the story, I imagined my own family, gathering for a reunion. There's combing of hair, washing of cars, trying-on of a new hat. Somebody brings a pie, a thermos of tea.  A ball and a couple of gloves. Somebody pulls out a cribbage board. A Mountie shows up and salutes! etc.
The point is, what Charlotte has written jolts this community. It's language used as they've never seen it. And the first thing every new passer-by, every rubber-necker, has to do is read.
This would be an ensemble piece, obviously. I imagine a wagon pulled on, loaded with costume/prop bits the performers can zip on and off as they work through the company of characters responding to what is written. (The Mayor in a ceremonial sash, a line of schoolkids holding hands, the editor of the local newspaper, the county cop, etc.)
And if that's not enough to get a song lyric composed, I can draw from my own response, these last few months. to Charlotte's Web itself.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

One of those Small Breakthroughs

I'd been wondering how to deliver how much Fern loves Wilbur. The bottle feedings four or five times daily. The way he falls asleep in her baby carriage. His long lashes, and the rest of it. This we have to know so that what happens later in the story hits us hard. The stakes are high for the characters in this story. That's what every scene must build.
Anyway, this is what I came up with: One day at school Miss B. assigns an essay. Tell what you love about someone you love. Fern's classmates disappear into darkness. She sits alone at her desk with her pencil and scribbler and begins, "What I Love About Wilbur," by Fern Arable. Her essay, printed in a sure but early hand, will say, in the end, Every day is a happy day, and every night is peaceful.
This monologue--will it be sung?--will bump up against the big old world of pork production, in which Wilbur's got to be sold. He's eating scraps, not just warm milk, and I'm not (says Mr. Arable) willing to provide for him any longer. 
Fern is in anguish but, in one of the story's wise-parent moments, she and her father arrive at the solution: she'll sell the pig to her Uncle Homer for $6.00. She can go down the road to visit Wilbur any time she wants. 
And Wilbur finds his home in Zuckerman's barn.

You know how the rest of it goes. The fact that Wilbur is a pig means the butcher is never far off. He avoids his pig destiny only through the writerly intervention by his dear friend Charlotte. 

But not to get ahead of myself. For now, maybe, Fern's monologue/essay shows us the devotion we must feel with her, which, in turn, enriches what she and her father achieve in the Zuckerman deal.

Friday 1 May 2020

As I Was Saying

(I think that's the title of my next memoir fragment . . .)
I was talking about that guy who comes out in the blue patterned sports jacket and slacks, shirt and tie, looks across the stage at the tableaus of three or four fairy tales, and says, Once upon a time . . . 

This cues the famous 16th-note lead-in, more of a kick-off, to an orchestral vamp that underscores the stories we're about to experience.

Since we last met, dear reader, I did begin to lean on imagining how my Charlotte's Web adaptation might begin. Before, I had Mr. Arable with the ax cross once and disappear. The various characters take turns stepping into the light just long enough to give us a taste of what they're about, ending with "Where's Papa going with that ax?" Now, Mr. A strides intently across the stage at every transition from one mini-preview to the next. And our narrator plays most of the speakers--the cow, the sheep, various humans, the rat--donning a prop or costume piece appropriate for each speaker. These would hang on a series of hooks as if just inside the barn door, or back porch. (While I'm at it here, what if one actor played all the voices AND Mr. Arable with the ax. That would leave Charlotte, Wilbur and Templeton. A cast of four. (Absolute minimum.))
And so on. I'm pretty sure my work on this show in the next little while will be about, somehow, if and how this narrator figure could work.
Yeah, four is too few. The three main characters and an ensemble--each person playing multiple voices--of five, for eight altogether. We'll see. 

Friday 24 April 2020

Back to Sondheim

Dedicated readers of this blog--and a spring good evening to you, Aunt Hail and Uncle Rain--will know of my admiration for the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I go back to his work all the time--the filmed stage versions of his plays (well, two of them: Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods) and his splendid two volumes of annotated lyrics called Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (I keep going back to everything I like--The Crown, for instance, or Brooklyn, or the core 25 books on my shelf. And Sondheim.) I go back because there's always more to see and learn.
There's always something different I need from them, something new I'm ready for. In the case of Into the Woods, I'm thinking about Act One. It's a mash-up of fairy tales including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. Though the pace is occasionally frenetic and the poly-vocal structure complex, the piece stays true to the elemental simplicity of the tales: happy ever after. But that's only Act One.
Anyway, there's a narrator who pops on- and off-stage. I'm back to my Charlotte's Web, wondering if I could use a narrator to simulate that function that appears in E.B.White's prose. In Sondheim's play, the narrator pops out stage left or right, dressed like a contemporary older man, casual business style. Everyone else is in their fairytale costume. How, I wonder, might this work in my Charlotte's Web.
The other note I've made is about the cow. 
Charlotte's Web, of course, is full of animals. The one certainty I have about my adaptation is that the animals CANNOT be mascots. That is, they must be able to move like real animals, live the lifestyle of real animals, submit to the destiny of real animals. But they're played by human actors. So what do they wear, what do they look like? I know I will find a designer to answer these questions, but for now, Into the Woods presents a useful notion via the cow.
The cow, about the size of a real calf, is a rigid creature, milky white in colour. Little attempt at naturalism with this design. When the cow must move, it is pushed forward or backward on its teflon-coated (I'm assuming) feet. If the movement must be quicker, the actor can simply grab the suitcase-like handle fixed to the creature's spine and carry it away. This gets a laugh from the audience. But not enough to take them out of the story. That business-casual narrator is like that too. It's a bit of a cheesy choice, but it's not overdone and it works.
A lot of things can be done. A lot of things work, though the abyss is ever at hand. The thrill, the challenge, is to risk and find solutions.

Friday 10 April 2020

Getting Near the End

Well, here's a puzzle. At the Fair, in a long-ish scene Wilbur is awarded a medal for being so radiant. For his people, it's the greatest moment of their lives. Wilbur himself is proud and happy. This takes place in the judges' booth in front of the grandstand.
Charlotte, meanwhile, is back in Wilbur's pen, being too weak to move. She's created her egg sac and will soon die. But she can hear what's going on at the medal ceremony over the Fair Ground loudspeaker.
When things calm down, Wilbur and Charlotte are alone in the pen. Wilbur is beside himself with agony at the thought of Charlotte not returning to the Zuckerman barn with him. She tells him to settle down. 
With the people soon returning to pack up for him, Wilbur has to act quickly. He gets Templeton, the rat, to climb up and snip the egg sac from its mooring on the ceiling and bring it to Wilbur. Wilbur will carry the sac home in his mouth, having already learned from Charlotte that the sac is waterproof and strong.
Mouth firmly closed, all he can do to say good-bye as he's loaded onto the truck is wink to Charlotte. All she can do is whisper a weak good-bye. Soon the Fair Ground will is deserted. Charlotte dies alone.
The puzzle is how to stage it. If we see Charlotte and only hear the loudspeaker, we don't see much action. If we see the scene in the judges' booth--which is full of important plot elements involving mostly the human characters--how do we sense Charlotte's fading vigil over her last hours. Could we see both at the same time somehow? Maybe it's two scenes--in the novel, White gives them a chapter each. I imagine, however, that the action at the grandstand and silence and stillness of Charlotte will make for a powerful juxtaposition. 
Of course, the matter of designing the egg sac, and showing Templeton climb up to get it, and showing Wilbur put it into his mouth--well, the theatre pros will take care of all that. Somehow.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Being Wilbur

First and foremost, he's a real pig. Who can talk. He prefers sleeping to all else except eating. He craves and creates love.

The danger would be in making him sound like me or some character or anyone other than himself. So to understand Wilbur I'd have to study pigs, as E.B.White had done. I'd have to watch them, smell them, listen to grunts, feed them. And let Wilbur's voice go from there.

As for Charlotte . . .

[photo of page on which Charlotte, chairing a meeting of barn animals, mutters and glares.]

That's as cranky as she ever gets. Her purpose in calling the meeting is to generate new ideas for her web and thus save Wilbur's life. The sage counsel of the oldest sheep is to appeal to the rat, Templeton, who can bring back bits of text from the dump. She convinces him to do so by appealing to his "baser instincts."

Thursday 19 March 2020

Both Wilbur and Charlotte

A while back I got an idea that continues to land as fabulous-plus: have a woman I know play Wilbur, and man I know play Charlotte. Both are veteran actors. They're married to each other. He's taller, more angular, more like a spider negotiating a web or descending on a thin, spun line. She's stronger, more compact, better at rooting and rolling and snuffling at scraps. 
These two would understand/create perfectly Charlotte's love for Wilbur, and his for her.
When I pitched the idea--more a casual lob than a pitch--she said, "Did you mean to cross the genders?" 
"Absolutely," I said. "Charlotte and Wilbur are beyond gender." Which I leave at that.
In making the pitch, I sent an alphabetized list of what both Wilbur and Charlotte do. Here are the first five items:

Act quickly when it matters most
Adore a little girl who believes in you
Aim to please
Be center of attention
Be grateful

Accept what is sure to come, but reach for more
Admit you’ll never get home again.
Be generous without limits, but impatient when necessary
Be invisible at times
Be matter-of-fact about who you are and what you do

Both Wilbur and Charlotte
Ask and answer questions
Be alone together
Be open to new words
Discuss stillness

In my imagination, the two actors and I would build the show from 

the actions out. Start with what the actors do, how they move. Let 

the story come from that.

Monday 16 March 2020

As I Sit Here in the Ugly Red Light of Rainbow Cinema 8 for Sorry We Missed You

I'm thinking of Charlotte's Web (Gerry's version) as fable for a troubled time. No need to allude much to Covid-19. The story already has that sense that current conditions, though lethal, will not last, or, that they mark one of those transitions we're heir to as citizens of this planet, this universe. 
I mean lethal: significant death, much of it harshly experienced.
It must be so, if the corresponding explosion of joy or realization is to reach us. 
Taking precautions, or not, vis-a-vis Covid-19 is not unlike the world of CW. There is threat, uncertainty and volatility in the novel and, as I sit here in the ugly red light, in today's world.
If so, Templeton, the amoral rat, likely gets a new title: Bearer of Disease. (He would say, bring it on.)
The intent of this version of CW might be for everyone viewing it to re-think our contemporary world.
And, as noted, it wouldn't take much to tip the audience that way. A line for Wilbur, one for the rat, a word from Charlotte or fragment of gossip at the Zuckermans' supper table might be enough.

Monday 2 March 2020

Daily Schedules

Ben Franklin:
5:00     Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness.
8:00     Work.
12:00   Read or overlook my accounts, and dine.
2:00     Work.
6:00     Put things in their places, supper, examination of the day.
10:00   Sleep.

Jay Gatsby:
6:00     Rise from bed.
6:15     Dumbbell exercise and wall scaling.
7:15     Study electricity, etc.
8:30     Work.
4:30     Basketball and sports.
5:00     Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it.
7:00     Study needed inventions.

6:30     Breakfast. Skim milk, crusts, middlings, etc.
7:00     Breakfast finished.
7:00     Have a talk with Templeton, the rat. Not that interesting, but better than nothing.
8:00     Take a nap outdoors.
9:00     Dig a hole or trench and possibly find something good to eat buried in the dirt.
11:00   Stand still and watch flies, bees and swallows.
12:00   Lunchtime. Warm water, apple parings, meat gravy.
1:00     Sleep.
2:00     Scratch itchy places by rubbing against the fence.
3:00     Stand perfectly still.
4:00     Supper. Skim milk, provender, prune skins, etc.

Friday 28 February 2020

Wilbur and Charlotte: Song for Chapter Three

[outline of content for first verse]
Lonely and bored, Wilbur's got no place to go. "That's where you're wrong my friend," says a goose. Wilbur squeezes past a loose board in the fence. With nothing between himself and the big world, now what? The goose replies with 14 different verbs and a main idea: 
          The world is a wonderful place when you're young.

Wilbur has about ten minutes of free-time. Mrs. Z spots him from the kitchen window. She calls the men. The geese hear the racket. Pretty soon all animals know Wilbur's out and cheer him on. If this is what it's like to be free, Wilbur would rather be penned up.
          The world is a wonderful place when you're young. 

 [action-packed chorus]
A cocker spaniel sneaks up from one way, hired man from the other, ready to head Wilbur off if he broke for the garden. The goose shouts orders, the dog springs for his hind leg. Screams, scrambles, dodges, grabs, cheers.

It is too much. After all, Wilbur is only a very young pig. He wishes Fern were there to comfort him. When Mr. Z approaches with a pail of warm slops, Wilbur feels relieved. He steps back through the fence. They nail it shut. "He's quite a pig," they say.
         The world is a wonderful place when you're young.

Wednesday 26 February 2020


This morning I noticed in the Globe & Mail word of the revival of Oklahoma! coming to Toronto. This would be a touring edition of the Tony winner of 2018. I have the cast recording--a gorgeous acoustic rendering of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein score. 
The show promises to be popular, says the Globe, with those who like their musical theatre classics given a fresh treatment. What matters in such a treatment is what the singers and musicians do. In this revival, they do beautiful, committed work. Sure, it's stripped down, but the pipes on those singers . . . man, they're trained, they're at peak power, they believe in what they're singing.
I've heard the staging is radically updated--including, eight shows a week, fresh cornbread prepared and served on stage. The original staging (1943) was already radical. Until then, musicals began with overtures. (Who knows, maybe this was because Broadway audiences were notoriously slow in settling into their seats, like Dodger fans or Canuck fans.) Oklahoma! opens with a cowboy, Curly, saluting the day.
Here's a taste of a later song . . . performed by Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

Saturday 8 February 2020

For the Audience

Dial M for Murder, the stage play, is set, almost entirely, in a single apartment room. For his movie version, an interviewer suggested, Alfred Hitchcock would "open up" the piece, wouldn't he? "No," said Hitchcock (according to the Peter Bogdanovich DVD commentary). "You don't open it up, you just shoot it." Of course, "just shoot it" is something one can do only after thirty years of film-making.
Anyway, how would I stage the ending of my Charlotte's Web. The book is note-perfect: Charlotte and Wilbur are alone the day after the big climax at the Fair. Soon it's time to go back to the barn at Zuckerman's, but Charlotte knows she won't make it. Wilbur is heartbroken but acts quickly when they come to load him into the truck. He gets the rat to snip Charlotte's egg sac from her web and deliver it to Wilbur for safe-keeping in his mouth (the sac is waterproof, we already know) all the way home. Their final good-byes consists of a wink by Wilbur, a weak waving of a few front legs by Charlotte. The truck drives away, the Fairground empties, and Charlotte dies alone.
There's one more chapter. Wilbur cares for the egg sac all winter. In spring the 514 eggs hatch and all but three of Charlotte's daughters drift away on their little silk balloons. (He hears their weak "Good-bye, good-bye," the poor guy.) These three build webs around Wilbur's pen. They pledge friendship to him and he to them, and he tells them about their mother.
There is no reason I can think of, at least for now, to open this up. 
How I'd love to be part of presenting this moment to an audience. 

Friday 7 February 2020

Charlotte's Hour of Triumph

happens to somebody else, of course. She's been moody, tired, "languishing" making an egg sac. In "Hours of Triumph," the last-but-two chapter in the book, we don't even hear of her until after a dazzling sequence involving Wilbur, Mr. Arable, Avery, Mrs. Zuckerman, Mrs. Arable, the loud speaker, Mr. Zuckerman, Fern, and Templeton. Then Charlotte, "silent and alone," front legs embracing her egg sac, taking courage from words of praise for Wilbur she hears over the loud speaker. That's all we get from her in this chapter (except for a brief indignation when she hears that "spiders cannot write").
If it helps to imagine the staging and design of a scene when writing it, then yes, go ahead and try it! 
We're at or near the climax of the piece, or one of them. We're at the Fair, the ultimate moment of joy and release for every character, human or animal. Charlotte is going to die, but somehow her egg sac will make it. Wilbur will find out what comes after the spotlight. Fern and Avery have left/lost their childhoods. The Arables and Zuckermans will go home and put their work clothes on.
I wonder if a turntable would help. To literally bring the voices around for their moments. This might help reinforce or create the sense of order this story implies which is, I'm tempted to say, that things happen again and again for familiar reasons. And that nothing can go on beyond its logical limits. 
Except Charlotte. How would we make this happen in the scene?

Tuesday 4 February 2020


The other day I saw Frozen 2, a Disney animated film that manages to both set its hero a choice for which the stakes are high--she must sacrifice her own city for the greater good, which she does--and let her avoid any actual sacrifice. What's the good of that?
Give me Charlotte the spider any day. While she's waiting for a plan to save Wilbur, she's moody, distracted. She kills a horsefly or two. A second later she's smiling sweetly at Wilbur, singing him to sleep. Charlotte, for all her qualities as mentor, organizer, elder, friend, protector, and magician, is a skilled killer. This troubles Wilbur, but that's just Wilbur.
The rest of us need not turn away from death, as Disney tends to. Whatever joys and education and inspiration we get out of life can be fully realized only when the facts of death are respected and observed. 
That's Charlotte's Web, as I see it anyway.

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.