Spotlight: Michael Patrick Walker & Caroline Underwood

July 13th, 2015

Michael Patrick Walker

How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
I officially began writing for musical theatre while I was studying at Carnegie Mellon University. I became heavily involved in a theatre group there called “Scotch’n’Soda”. At the time, one of their primary missions was to produce student-written plays and musicals. In my freshmen year I wrote and contributed a few songs to the spring production and wrote more and more in successive years. Now, I began by saying “officially” because I did write a bit before this, but never for something as organized as a musical and, frankly, never something I’d want people to hear today!

What are you working on at the moment?
Dog and Pony, which I wrote with book writer Rick Elice, is in development. We had our world premiere production at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego last season and, as you always do, we learned a great deal from that early production. We’ve done quite a number of rewrites and the show is moving forward. In addition, I’m finishing up a draft of a show called being theo for which I’m writing book, music and lyrics. Since I’m very much in the eye of the storm on that one, I’m doing a table read in about 3 weeks to see what I have and what I don’t have! Finally, I’m putting the finishing touches on a show that is somewhere between a review and a traditional musical – a song cycle I suppose you’d call it, except that the characters are consistent throughout. This has had about 4 different title in the last 6 months but, for now, I’m calling it 365.

Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
I wish I could say “yes” to this – and heaven knows I try. When I’m doing things the way I want to, I write first thing in the morning – usually getting up early and working until noon. Then I take a break and deal with “life” before, depending on how demanding “life” is that day, getting back to work for the afternoon hours. That’s the ideal world and, I’d say, I achieve this ideal about 50% of the time. The rest of the time it’s a rather “fit it in when possible” schedule which is no way to write a musical!

When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
It really depends on the idea and the show. As a rule, the first thing I do is think character and plot outline. This varies if I’m working by myself or with a collaborator and based on the subject matter. As for first drafts, I rarely write until I have at least a bullet point outline of the show – even if some of the bullet points are “then something happens”. As for writing the score, I tend to jump around based on what moment inspires me and is the most “ready to be written”. The outline is very important because of this – I really can’t write a song or moment until I “know what it is”. That being said, if I first choose to write a song in the middle of Act 1, it can morph and lead me to change things earlier and later in the show based on what I write, so the entire process is still very fluid.

What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
The white piece of paper. Starting any new writing project is a challenge but, with a musical, it can be very daunting. There are so many things that are unknown – often ALL of them are unknown! But, as I keep learning and re-learning over and over, you have to have something tangible to work on and rewrite and improve so it becomes about jumping in and starting. I often think of a first draft as a rickety, tall structure of naked iron girders with some tattered pieces of cloth attached to it. It may not be pretty, it may not even be safe, but it’s a starting point and you can’t get anywhere without that.

What do you do when writers block strikes?
Another “learning and re-learning” situation. It’s taken me a while to figure out when to push through it and chain myself to my piano or desk and when to go do something else and let my mind roam. I still often choose the wrong option. Generally, if it’s writers block of the “I have nothing and need to have something” form, I will take a break – but a “quiet” break. That is, no music, no TV, no internet – maybe wash the dishes or walk somewhere I have no need to go and then walk back. I have sometimes come up with the best ideas (I think) while doing something totally unrelated. If it’s writers block of the “I have part of a song and am working to finish it”, well, then, sometimes the best call is to keep banging away at it.

What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
I’m not sure any of us are fit to give advice since we all write in such different ways – and with different resulting styles. That said, the advice I keep giving to myself is to keep focused on the story-telling. You can tell a story in an infinite number of ways but the shows that succeed – in my estimation – and are the best – are the ones that are always focused on telling their story in their way. Whatever that is. The minute a show does something – anything – for a reason other than telling the story, the odds of it going off the rails is exponentially multiplied.

Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?
Difficult to choose – and it changes day to day and year to year. I suppose it’s a mix between Bill Fin and Stephen Sondheim, but more because they both wrote shows that spoke to me deeply as an audience member and as a writer.

If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change in the sector?
It’s almost a cliché I suppose, but I would wave my magic wand and make it so that people – writers, producers, audience members! – took more chances on new, original musicals. There is nothing wrong with source material – some of the classic musicals are based on something – and there is nothing wrong with adapting the right movie into a musical, but the “take every film and jam songs into it” approach we’ve seen lately is not something I enjoy. I also think this magic wand wave of mind would help the industry see better shows – of all types. I am convinced that many of the shows we regard as the golden age of musical theatre would never have gotten produced if they were being written in today’s climate.

What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
This will sound crazy (perhaps), but I don’t do much ipod listening. So much of my day is about music and lyrics that, if I’m working, I can’t have an ipod on. And when I’m not working, the silence is often quite refreshing!

What is the best thing about MMD membership?
I joined MMD because I’m always trying to connect with other writers in musical theatre. Sometimes to collaborate, but also just to have a sort of “support group” around us. What we do as writers is often so solitary and, even when we collaborate, it is often a composer, a book writer and a lyricist who all have writing in common, but do different things. I love the idea that writers can work on their own things but support each other and have a community. It’s something we don’t see much of in the States!

Caroline Underwood

What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board? And how long have you been a board member?
I’ve been Chair of MMD since about 2000 when The Mercury Workshop and New Musicals Alliance merged to form Mercury Musical Developments. I was a Trustee of New Musicals Alliance, the organisation founded by Chris Grady, and I was involved in the discussions to bring the two organisations together. I was put forward to Chair the merged organisation and accepted!

How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members?
The MMD Board is a very useful group of people because, between us, we cover just about every area of business that is relevant to musical theatre. But it’s not just about musical theatre. The Board consists of good business people which is invaluable regardless of whether they work in the musical theatre industry. I used to be a music publisher and found those skills and that experience very useful on the Board. I’m now a literary agent representing musical theatre writers and many of the skills are the same. The other areas represented on the Board are law, finance, publishing/licensing, production, press, direction, property and, most importantly of course, writers. We currently have four writer Board members. It’s essential that the writer’s voice is heard on the Board when we’re an organisation that exists to support and promote musical theatre writers and their work.

How has MMD changed since you joined the board?
It has changed enormously. Fifteen years ago we had very little money available to us and no public funding. The organisation did what it could with a lot of goodwill and hard work on everyone’s part but this meant that there was a limited amount we could do for the writers. Since 2012 when we started to receive public funding together with the additional funds that our previous Executive Director Neil Marcus was able to attract to MMD, we have been able to offer more opportunities and services to the writers. Of course, there is always more that we can and want to do and our team – new Executive Director, Victoria Saxton, Martin Jackson and Sarah Crook – are working hard to expand our activities even further.

What are your hopes for the organisation?
I hope that we continue to attract more writers to MMD as they see what the organisation can offer them and that we are able to offer more and more opportunities for the writers’ work to be developed and seen, whether that’s through The S&S Award, the Cameron Mackintosh Composer Residency, the Stiles & Drewe Song Prize, the partnerships with drama schools or the increasing number of other outlets that MMD is made aware of and is, therefore, able to make the writers aware of. Specifically, I co-sponsor The S&S Award with Warner Brown. It’s grown very quickly in the last four years and MMD now partners with Curve for the winning show’s development week. We’ve just done the development weeks for last year’s winner “Stay Awake, Jake” and the 2013 winner “Forest Boy”. Having seen how useful these weeks were to the writers – with no pressure of a presentation at the end of the week – we would love to grow the Award even more over the next few years and help more writers develop their work this way.

What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?
Probably “Annie” at the Victoria Palace. I think it was the first West End musical I saw and I remember loving it.

Who are your heroes and why?
I have a few. My songwriting heroes are Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter. I think they are masters of what they do. I never tire of hearing a Hart lyric or a Porter song. In the world of music publishing, my hero was a gentleman called Len Thorpe who used to run the Copyright Department at Warner/Chappell. Len is sadly no longer with us but he taught me so much about copyright and was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. From a personal perspective, my heroes are my parents who brought me up on a diet of musical films and Frank Sinatra and I’m sure that’s where I got my love of musical theatre and the standard repertoire from, and my partner Warner Brown who constantly challenges me and questions me about what I do and how I do it.

When you were growing up what did you want to be?
I wanted to work in music administration. I did a Bachelor of Music Degree at King’s College, London and a post-graduate business studies course and then joined Warner/Chappell Music. Nearly 23 years later, most of that time spent running the Standard Repertoire and Musicals Department, I moved from music publishing to become a literary agent for musical theatre writers at Alan Brodie Representation.

What’s your favourite musical?
Very difficult. Probably “A Little Night Music”. It was my introduction to Sondheim and his world of musical theatre writing.

If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the sector?
I would love producers to do more entirely original musical theatre work rather than so much being based on source material. There are some great ideas and wonderful writers out there but they and their work rarely get a chance to be seen and heard because it is such a risk for producers to put on a show which isn’t based on something.

Why would you encourage writers to join MMD?
Because MMD offers writers invaluable opportunities to develop their work and hone their craft and because it is a great place to meet other writers, compare notes and support each other. Writers continually tell me that there’s nothing like MMD and that makes me very proud.