During my first forty years on this planet I had made numerous stabs at being a writer and had given up in frustration each time. I could not touch type. Nothing would choke off the flow of ideas like having to stop every eight or ten words, roll the paper up, and erase or white out the dumb mistake I just made. The cry of anguish usually came when I rolled it back down and typed another mistake right across the remains of the first one. Everything I wrote ended up with holes erased through the paper or blobs of White-Out every other line.
But then someone or some group of people invented the Word Processor. Hallay-freakin-looyah! Like the most understanding of lovers, a Word Processor will always say, “I forgive.” Until they put up a Temple of Gratitude somewhere, I will continue to put rosebuds and gumdrops on my personal homemade shrine to the Word Processor.
When I first moved to Chicago in 1987 I took with me a gaggle of ideas for a Musical Play called Charlie and Cinderella. The basic idea was that a young would-be writer is sitting in the audience of the play Cinderella with a notebook making changes to the story. And the play goes all wonky because anything he writes, the characters have to deal with. So the Fairy Godmother casts a spell, goes out into the audience, and drags him up on stage by the scruff of his neck. She tells him he has to deal with all of his own changes himself and still make the story come out with a happy ending. As I started assembling the pieces into a script (I had a computer called an Amiga with an “amazing” memory of 256K) I went looking for a Composer.
A friend of a friend knew a musician named Elizabeth Doyle who was interested in writing songs for the stage. She read some of my work, I listened to some of her music, and we decided to give it a go. Using what we had done together on Charlie and Cinderella as an audition, we entered the New Tuners Musical Theatre Workshop as a team. After we completed the Introductory Program we were asked to pitch an idea for a new production that New Tuners would put up. The catch was that it had to be a brand-new post-Intro Workshop idea, and therefore Charlie was out.
At first we liked the idea of adapting an old drama called Death Takes a Holiday. But before we could even try for the rights, we heard that it was going to be remade into a movie. The film that eventually came out (and bombed) was Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt. So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. Elizabeth found a Victorian Era mystery novel called The Woman in White. By Willkie Collins, it is considered to be the first mystery novel ever written. The Villain was a wonderful character – a huge, charming man, he was cultured and witty and rotten to the roots of his well-manicured fingernails. But the novel moved around from one place to another so much it was practically a road movie. A play needs to be done on a limited (meaning cheap-to-build) set.
After considering and ultimately rejecting several other ideas, we came upon the faint outlines of a plan that just might have legs. “What if we took the character we liked so much from The Woman in White and dropped him into a Death Takes a Holiday-like situation?” Then another concept waddled up and sat down – “Instead of Death, what if he turns out to be The Angel of Death?” Just this simple change and the character took a big side-step further away from being The Villain. He became The Messenger.
We knew we were getting close, but we were still missing one crucial part – where to set it. Our thought was “If we are writing a show that features a visit from the Angel of Death, where do we set it?” Death takes a Holiday was in a wealthy man’s mansion. But we wanted upbeat singing, dancing, and all manner of colorful craziness to contrast against our serious subject. I don’t remember which of us first conceived it, perhaps it was a simultaneous brainwave, but we realized it had to be New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is the biggest continuous party on the North American continent. Outrageous costumes, drunken revelry, and all kinds of wildly immoral behavior go on for more than a week. All of this culminates on Fat Tuesday (the English translation of “Mardi Gras”). The next day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and six weeks of abstinence and repentance. The metaphor is unavoidable.
Elizabeth and I pitched the idea for Fat Tuesday to the New Tuners in 1992. They strongly encouraged us to get to work on it.
According to our signed agreement, Elizabeth would be the Composer and I would be the Lyricist and Book Writer. The “Book” is dialogue and plot – everything in the musical that is not a song. The other two job descriptions are pretty much self-explanatory. Each Composer-Lyricist team on any given musical has their own way of producing a finished song. Here’s the workflow that Elizabeth and I settled into. First, we would discuss where a song was needed and what it needed to do to carry the plot forward. Then we’d talk about an emotion or mood we wanted the song to convey, and then finally we’d spitball phrases or verbal hooks.
For example, we wanted a fun, upbeat rouser to open the show. Elizabeth remembered seeing the French phrase “Laissez le bon temps rouler!” in connection with Mardi Gras. It means “Let the Good Times Roll!” When the show opened several years later, the first stanza of the Opening Song went like this:
“Down there by the banks of that old muddy rollin’ river,
There’s a mighty message that the river can deliver.
Listen closely and you’ll hear it say,
Laissez le bon temps rouler.”
When we had agreed on a possible song, Elizabeth would spend some time working on a tune. When she thought it was right, she’d play the song into a cassette recorder and sing the lyric pattern as la-la-la-la. After getting the cassette from her, I’d replace the la-la-la’s with words that were clever, told the story of the song, and rhymed perfectly. Of all the different kinds of writing that I’ve done – screenplays, short stories, novels, straight plays, blog stories – the most difficult, by any measure, is lyric writing. It’s like trying to walk barefoot and blindfolded through a roomful of mousetraps. It’s slow, tentative, and painful.
How difficult, or easy, is it to write the music? I haven’t got a clue. I am a man who has many talents. I can grab hold of my toes and hop over a line on the floor without letting go, I can touch the end of my nose with my tongue, and I can make a mean potato salad. But I’m a musical moron. I take cold comfort in the fact that a huge majority of human beings on this planet are just as musically illiterate as I am.
Here’s my theory – I think that on a certain late summer morning a very select number of young kids are awakened by a tapping at their window. They open it to find an owl holding a letter for them in its beak. They are invited to Treble Cliff, a secret school that will train them to be musicians and composers. They learn to perform magic while the rest of us Musical Muggles are left with a few Ocarina lessons in sixth grade.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate my point. One day Elizabeth and I were sitting together in the Workshop listening to a discussion about someone else’s project. During the break we had talked about a point in our show that was crying out for a song. A group of people, strangers to each other, have gathered in the lobby of a small hotel in New Orleans. They have all come to Mardi Gras, each with his or her pressing reason. Then a huge ebullient man wearing a top hat, cutaway coat, and diamond stick pin breezes into the room and bids them all welcome. He announces that their hotel bills have all been paid, that they are his guests and that a costume, in the correct size, has been selected for each of them and is hanging up in their separate rooms. He disappears into an elevator, leaving them with their mouths open in disbelief.
“If that happened to you what would be the first thing you’d think of?”
I answered, “Who in the Hell was that guy?”
Later, in the workshop, Elizabeth’s eyes took on a faraway glaze, and she quickly opened a loose-leaf binder and got out musical notation paper. She would close her eyes; arrange her fingers on the edge of the binder; and play what she was thinking, then write it down. Or her fingers were making the notes come alive in her brain. Like I said, it’s just freakin’ magic. The resulting song, “Who in the Hell was That Man?” became one of my favorites in the production.
Anyway, just because a song is finished doesn’t mean it will have a place in the show. Elizabeth and I wrote something like thirty five songs to get the fourteen that Fat Tuesday opened with.
In February of 1995, Elizabeth and I flew down to New Orleans and spent two or three days in the French Quarter during the height of Mardi Gras. We felt that it was ridiculous to write a full Musical about the event without ever having been there. We put on costumes (I had a long gown, a feather boa, and a wig – all of which set off the full beard I was wearing nicely), we caught strings of beads, and we watched young girls on balconies pull up their tops and wave their breasts at cheering crowds of men down in the street. Many of the things we saw and participated in made their way into the show.
After three years, we had our musical written. Singer/actors were found and we did a reading of the show in front of the Decision Makers at New Tuners. The good news was that, yes, they wanted to produce Fat Tuesday there at the Theatre Building. The bad news was that they felt the show needed a Page One rewrite. In other words, “Throw out pretty much everything you’ve written and start over.”
After taking a few days to absorb the blow (and me wondering why I ever gave up drinking), we got back to work. We had about nine months to do what had originally taken us three years. We tossed out whole scenes, changed character’s motivations, and rewrote dialogue and lyrics as we went. We wrote several new songs and plugged them in. We grieved as many things we were quite proud of were made to walk the plank. By February of 1996, when the show was to begin pre-production, our tentatively approved script and score were ready. We could sit back, relax, and enjoy the process. Or so we thought. We were invited to sit in on auditions, watch rehearsals, and give a few notes to the Director. Then during the last week of rehearsals, we were summoned to a meeting with the Producers, the Director, the Music Director, the Choreographer, and several other people who had something to do with the show (I wasn’t sure what that was) and who had an opinion. By the time we reeled out of that meeting we had a list of requested changes three pages long, single space. It wasn’t a Page One rewrite but it was close. And we had a week to complete it.
Some of the things on that list were, I thought, awfully nit-picky – “Shangri-La” doesn’t perfectly rhyme with “Mardi-Gras” so that whole verse has to be replaced. While others were of the “That’s so obvious, why didn’t we catch that long ago” variety. One problem still bothers me to this day. A character is forced to tell the woman who has loved him for years that he has an incurable disease and is likely to keel over at any time. But he also has the strength and agility to dance and sing right up to the time of his demise. What affliction could he be suffering from?
I took most of that week off from work and wrote furiously. Since most of the notes we got were Book or Lyrics-related, Elizabeth could only watch and cheer me on. The Producers even hired another writer to help me out on a few things. Even so, all the way up to Dress Rehearsal we were bringing in new pages. Finally, mercifully, the show was locked.
Fat Tuesday opened on April 10th, 1996. The reviews were, as the saying goes, “mixed.” The critics loved the Music and thought the Lyrics were okay, but most of them didn’t care for the Book. Despite this, and due to New Tuners’ publicity efforts, the show played to mostly full houses for the next six weeks. A musical is a very expensive thing to produce and only turns a profit if Public Demand is strong enough to keep it running for a long time. Six weeks is not a long time. Because we had a Contract that stated that the Creative Team got a small percentage of the box office, Elizabeth and I got about $825 each. I think the Producers lost money.
My wife Michelle and I had both decided, even before Fat Tuesday went up, that our road did not run through the theatre community of Chicago, but through the film and television business of Los Angeles. Two months after the show closed we packed up a U-Haul truck with our two cats and everything we owned and headed west.
If you live in Chicago or if you are planning to visit there, I would urge you to find out where Elizabeth is playing and singing and go take in her show. She writes a wonderful blog – http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/blog/ – and in it lists all of her upcoming gigs as well as tips on restaurants, books, films, and whatever strikes her fancy.