“How does it work? What comes first, the music or the lyrics?” is the age old question all of us musical writers hear at least occasionally, if not every time we mention what we do. For those of us – like me – who have long distance partnerships, the question comes even from those familiar with the messy dynamics of putting a musical together.
In the last three years, I’ve started three musicals with three different collaborators, all a great distance away from me. One of them is finished, one nearly finished, and one is in the early stages. Each partnership has played by slightly different rules, and each of them has had a long list of challenges, but there is one thing long distance collaboration does better than in-person collaboration (out of necessity): efficiency.
My first foray into this world came when Giuseppe Ritorto, a friend from graduate school, had moved from New York, where I am based, to North Carolina, where I am from, to take a professorship at a college. He was offered the chance to present an original musical and came to me to partner with him. We were familiar with each other’s work, but needed to develop a partnership quickly in order to make our deadlines. I was firing off random lyrics and scenes, some half-completed. I’d send emails with one line like “what if there was a dream ballet based on the hallucinations of someone strung out on diet pills?” Giuseppe sometimes responded, and occasionally sent material, but he was much more cautious. I had at one point sent him 4 lyrics and hadn’t heard a single note. When he did send me something, it was completely and totally formed, notated to perfection, and orchestrated. And, as it happens, sometimes I hated it. It didn’t feel the way I thought it should. Half the time it was a lyrical issue. My attempt hadn’t been careful and so I had to go back and rework the lyric with the restriction of fully formed music. Some of the time, it was a misunderstanding of what tempo/style should fit the moment. I begged him to send me un-formed thoughts. “Just the hook!” I begged, “a noodle! We can go from there!” But he was a perfectionist and struggled to send me something that could only be considered an idea. We found our way to the middle eventually, with me sending more complete thoughts and him sending less complete thoughts. Then everything started gelling much better, and our musical, entitled 3XL, was very successful in its initial run.
After taking some time to write a solo project, I saw a post from MMD asking for a bookwriter for a project about middle aged women’s lives and loves and interactions. The post was from Helen Goldwyn and she needed someone who could take a trunk of songs and craft a narrative around them. I wrote to her immediately, sending her a script I had written called Over the Hill, and told her that if she didn’t mind a cross-Atlantic collaboration, I was on board. She said it was exactly the type of dark humor she was looking for and we could make it work via Skype. Initially, we met often to discuss potential characters and plot lines. As time passed and more pages were written, we’ve been able to scale back the Skype sessions and work mainly via email. Since the songs for the musical were already finished by the time I came on board, Helen’s work was mostly done. She has a tremendous stake in the development of the story, obviously, but started so far ahead of me that the rest has been mainly on my timeline. The first full draft is now complete and hopefully we can find the proper place to do the first presentation soon. And in that case, we might actually, finally get to meet face-to-face!
Halfway through the collaboration with Helen, I got an interesting email from Victoria Saxton. She was recommending me to Tony Greenlaw, who was just beginning to write the true life musical of a 1950s Southern American business woman. Given that strong, Southern women are something of my specialty, Victoria told him to speak with me. The timing could not have been worse given that I was already involved in a project, dealing with drama in my “day job,” about to travel to Italy, and planning to move. I told him if he could wait six weeks to speak to me, it might just work. Thankfully, Tony has a job as stressful as my own as well as a family and other artistic commitments, so he could not have been more understanding. When we finally began writing together at the end of December, the material started flying out. We Skype for 1 hour per week and trade pages at least once, maybe twice, via email in between. We’ve found a very natural rhythm together, and although both of us wish we could spend a day by a piano together to noodle through some of the major moments, we have produced a lot of excellent material in a very short amount of time.
It wasn’t intentional for me to do back-to-back-to-back long distance partnerships, but as someone who not only values efficiency, but must work efficiently in order to be able to write while still maintaining an intense day job, it has actually been the ideal thing for me. Now let’s all hope together that the magic of the internet never goes away!