Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing lyrics is HARD

This week I began my libretto writing class at Primary Stages ESPA.  Why?  Why aren't I just focusing on the rewrite of BREAKING PAIRS?  Why dive into a whole new realm? (I keep asking myself these questions).   The main reason is this: musical theater is the art form that has most excited my passions ever since I saw Patti LuPone perform Evita when I was 7 years old.  As a musician, a singer, and now a writer, it would seem a shame not to try my hand at this most challenging and yet ultimately transcendent art form where I can put all of those skills to use.  I also have an idea for a musical which I think is a pretty great one, but don't really have any idea how to begin writing it.  So, here I am, studying the basics of  writing a libretto with Kait Kerrigan, a woman who has already (at age 30) reached the highly enviable position of making her living as a musical book and lyric writer. 

We had an assignment before the class even began, to turn something we had previously written into a musical scene (complete with lyrics, if possible).  The only lyrics I had ever written before were a few lines of parody lyrics for my cabaret shows.  I was more than a little intimidated, but I wanted to give it a try.  After all, the point was for the teacher to see where we were starting from, so who cares if it sucked?

While the lyrics were no great shakes, the scene didn't completely suck.  I knew a few things instinctively -- there is a lot less talking in musicals than in plays, so I had to severely condense the dialogue (a great exercise in economy of language, which is important in playwriting too).   Also, the most impassioned, important parts of the scene need to go into the song -- after all, whatever they are singing about has to be important enough that merely saying it didn't suffice.  This is an even more extreme exercise in economy of language, as you have to get at the crux of what the character wants/feels in just a few short lines, while following a rhythmic structure and (ideally) making them rhyme.   I didn't get to the rhyming part yet, but I did manage to keep the lyrics in a rhythmic structure, thanks to the insipid little tune that popped into my head as I began writing them.  (Next time, I will try what was apparently Oscar Hammerstein's trick: using the tune of an existing song as the structure for a new set of lyrics, just not telling the composer what that song was.  At least then I'd have an interesting song in my head.)

It was much, much harder and took much longer to put the characters' thoughts into lyric form, and I'm not sure I'm great at it.  But while I did find it very frustrating, I also found it kind of fun -- I like working within constraints; I think it can foster more creativity when you have to make something work within a given set of parameters rather than just being free to do whatever.  Perhaps as I learn more about this, I'll get better at it so I can enjoy it more. 

We shall see where this takes me.  I just hope I can organize my time such that I can complete the homework for this class and get my rewrite of my play done by the end of April.  Wish me luck!
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