Songwriting for a 24-Hour Theatre Project

The Invitation

In mid-March, my friend and colleague Kat Koppett asked me if I’d be involved in a pretty unique way in the 3rd Annual Capital Region / Berkshires 24-Hour Theatre Project, which premiered last night, Saturday, May 18, 2013.

In this project presented by WAM Theatre and The Mop & Bucket Company, a crowd of theatre artists gather in a big room on a Friday night. Five playwrights are each teamed with a director, a stage manager and a cast of from three to five actors, with everyone’s names (and the cast size for each play) selected out of hat/bowls. A “prompt” is given — a brief phrase — and the playwrights have until early the next morning to delver a new one-act play inspired somehow by the prompt. The five plays’ brand new companies, along with a full complement of designers and technicians, rehearse and produce the plays throughout the next day and present them in a show that Saturday night.

Two years ago, I was involved in the region’s first 24-Hour theatre project as a composer/musician, making myself available to whatever the production might need. I didn’t end up being asked to compose anything, though I did play a number of well-known songs as pre-show music and for two of the five plays.

This year, I was asked to participate as a songwriter responding to the same prompt as the playwrights, writing original songs for performance as musical interludes between the one-act plays. It was a pretty irresistible invitation. I felt that my experience in writing challenge-based songs as a past participant in the SpinTunes songwriting contest and some related endeavors, as well as my work improvising songs with The Mop & Bucket Company, would serve me well. Since it was an experimental addition to the project, I got to be involved in figuring out just how it would all go. It turns out that the situation we put into place worked out really well.

Preparing For What You Can’t Prepare For

For simplicity, we decided to leave the songwriting aspect of the project out of the random name selections, instead teaming me with two members of the Mopco improv theatre group in which Kat and I work together. Peter Delocis and All Over Albany‘s Mary Darcy are both veterans of not only musical theatre performance but also improvising songs and musical theatre pieces with Mopco, and they were both already involved with the 24-Hour project as assistant producers. Initially brought on as singers, it became natural to get them involved as co-lyricists, though we would be doing “real” songwriting, getting everything set ahead of time and rehearsing, instead of improvising anything for the very first time only once in front of the audience.

Discussing how things would go with Kat and with WAM Theatre Artistic Director and Co-Founder Kristen van Ginhoven, we decided that the goal would be, ideally, to create three songs, since three plays comprised the first act and two plays were in the second act, making for three set changes in front of the audience that could be made more entertaining with a song, like in many classic stage musicals. We also decided that the songwriters would work only on the songs for the musical interludes, as opposed to also being made available for music and/or songs for any of the rest of the production.

Mary, Peter and I met for dinner a few weeks before the event to discuss how we might want to go about things, knowing that nothing we said would be set in stone, and especially knowing that we could end up inspired in new directions once we heard the prompt. We came away from that dinner with some basic notions. The first and most basic was that it would probably be nice if Mary and Peter each had a solo, with a third song being a duet.

Another idea was that it would be neat to take three different songwriting approaches — lyrics followed by music, music followed by lyrics, and music and lyrics written together. This didn’t really suggest anything about who would do each role in each of these three approaches, since it’s possible to write music and lyrics either solo or collaboratively. So that brought us to the question of who would be doing what for each song.

While I enjoy collaborating a lot, and Mary and Peter both liked the idea of it as well, my inclination was that, given the time pressure, it probably wouldn’t be wise to try to do any full-on collaboration on any aspect of a song. The kinds of back-and-forth discussions and deliberations collaborators often have could suck up a lot of time that we just wouldn’t have to spare.

Coincidentally, Mary really liked the idea of writing lyrics that I would then set to music, Peter had long wanted to try to write lyrics to a piece of music, and I often have them both evolve together when I write. So it seemed to make sense to just break down the three songs that way, with it being natural for Mary and Peter to write the lyrics to each of their own solo songs and for me to write the lyrics to the duet.

Beyond that, the only other possible preparation any of us could really do was just making sure we were up on our craft. With only a few weeks to go — and Mary about to be knee-deep in preparing for the moment of lifetime in a one-on-one interview with Stephen Sondheim — we were just going to have to trust that whatever got us involved in this project in the first place would carry us through.

Prompt and Ideas

During that dinner, Peter noted that the prompt for the first 24-Hour event was “Crossing the Line,” while the one for the second event was “Double Whammy.” Reading that first prompt as if someone placing first in a race, it seemed like the prompts had something to do with the year of the event, and Peter predicted that this year’s prompt would be related to the number three. Lo and behold, Friday, May 17, the prompt is announced, and the connection noted to this being the third annual event: “Three’s Are Funny.”

Though the number of songs was determined by the number of breaks we needed to fill between the plays, it seemed a nice coincidence that there were to be three songs.

Many ideas were bandied about, much brainstorming taking place that evening.

Peter decided he wanted to write himself a comic song, and he doesn’t want any more specific lyric idea in either of our minds as I prepare music for him to set to lyrics. I decide that, in honor of the prompt, I’ll give him a light waltz, and I start casually pondering some musical bits that evening.

Having made that choice, I remember that the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music is filled with variations on waltz time, and so in a further nod to the prompt, I decide that I’d like to do the same with all three of our songs for the project.

One of the more general ideas I talked about with Mary was, believe it or not, the Hegalian dialectic, in which some thesis idea is responded to with an opposing antithesis idea, and the tension between the two somehow finds resolution in a synthesis. A third option transcends a duality or dichotomy. I felt like this could play out in any number of ways in our songs.

Mary and I discussed how it would be nice for there to a be a more poignant song as a contrast to Peter’s comic number, and she feels that that’s the kind of tone she’d have wanted to take anyway, so that falls into place as natural for her solo. She’ll go to bed Friday with one idea, but on Saturday morning a new idea comes to her and she decides to go with it.

A woman falls in love once but doesn’t get what she wants. She looks for someone very different but still doesn’t get what she wants. Finally, she falls for the man who was there all along as a good friend and has everything she wants. The third’s the charm. Mary adds another nice layer to the motif by having three friends who comfort the narrator each time her heart is broken, and one of those friends is the guy she’ll fall for in the end.

It turns out I’m the only one of the three of us to settle on an idea Friday night that I’ll actually stick with the next day. Mary and I had talked about how the three might not actually exist yet, that there might be some relationship with two people pondering getting a third involved. The two situations that came to mind were a couple seeking a threesome or new parents having their first baby.

Before listing any number of other such situations, though at least an hour after the ideas first came up, somehow, I made a connection. What if the song sounded like a couple debating whether or not to have a threesome, but it turns out there’s a twist ending, with the threesome they were talking about all along actually being a baby and not another romantic partner? As soon as I made that leap, I thought, this is a great idea for a song, and it may be too ambitious for this short time-frame. But I went for it.

One thing that especially pleased me about this idea was that it would end up being like a mini-musical. I’d hoped from the start that there might be an opportunity for this, since the event was, after all, a night of original theatre pieces. I was sensitive to the fact that we needed to keep the songs as songs, though, and not turn them into something bigger that would really start to seem like a theatre piece. I imagined that a duet could either be a more traditional song simply sung by two people, or that it could lend itself well to a musicalized dialogue if the right idea presented itself. This was definitely the right idea for that.

I brainstormed different kinds of things that a couple might consider about a threesome that could have a double-meaning in referring to a baby, leaving out anything that might more obviously refer to only one or the other of the two situations. It seemed natural that one person would bring up the idea with the first verse involving the idea being shot down. The second verse would change the dynamic with the dissenter bringing up more cons but each being met with a pro to break down defenses. A bridge could reference how “three’s are funny” but we can make it work, helping the persuasion along. A third and final verse would get to the heart of the matter, some more emotional reasons for hesitation, then revealing the twist ending, and in the end a decision to have the baby. I figured that, to keep up the ruse, I’d go with the man being the one pushing the threesome, since that would be the stereotype for that, even though it might not be the stereotype for wanting a baby. I went to bed Friday night with a pretty good list of raw notes, with essentially no particular ideas for how they’d end up as lyrics.

Saturday morning, hearing our ideas, Peter decides to do something very different as contrast, going meta by singing about the event itself and the role the songs play in distracting the audience from the set changes.

The Songs

My first priority when we all get together is to give Peter the music he needs as the basis for his song. I flesh out the ideas I’d been imagining, writing a melody that itself is based on phrases of three notes at a time, which goes pretty naturally with the waltz feel. Peter gets right into it and comes up with amusing results. He realizes that he could keep riffing on ideas as long as needed for a set change, but he settles on, not coincidentally, three verses. It’s soon decided that it’s the clear opening number.

As Mary gets into writing her piece, the story is fleshing out really well. We realize that the song provides a good opportunity for a verse-chorus structure, with the verses being the romances, and the choruses being the opportunities for comfort from friends. This further suggests that the song should have a title which can mean one thing at first — the three friends — and another thing after she finds her true love — the “three,” the third man. Eventually, Mary seizes on “My Three,” with the narrator always being glad to have her three at each step of the way.

Mary also had a melody in mind as she was writing. I’m really pleased that, when I hear it a cappella and then start to flesh it out with an accompaniment the way I imagine might sound nice, Mary likes the results. It’s got an upbeat 6/8 or 12/8 feel with a contemporary musical theatre sound, contrasting well with Peter’s more traditional Strauss-like waltz. Mary hadn’t had any different music in mind for the choruses, so I come with a contrast, and she develops a new melody to go with it. We all agree that Mary deserves co-composer credit for the song.

As I get into writing the duet, the first thing I settle on is the refrain — not a true chorus, but a refrain for the end of each verse that fills a similar role, giving us a hook to latch onto. We’re turning two to three, and that rhymes with “you and me.” They don’t know if the third will be a boy or a girl, and that itself could be a point of contention in either a threesome or parenting. So one person will always end up saying “Turning two to three / With you and me / And her,” and the other one immediately counters with “Or him,” and that would be followed with some other two-syllable phrase to cap the sequence, changing depending on the context and rhyming with whatever line immediately preceded this whole refrain phrase that began with “turning.” The title of the song becomes “You and Me and Her or Him.”

I also know that I want this song to have an amusing and racy feel to it, and what immediately comes to mind is a swing waltz like John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” In playing up the discomfort of the situation, I ponder some quirky melodic rhythms, and it leads me to push things toward the similar rhythm in Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” though that, of course, is in 5/4 time. So the song is suddenly constantly shifting between 5/4 and 3/4. Of course, though, this particular 5/4 really feels like a 3 attached to a 2, which goes nicely with the idea of “turning two to three.”

Then it becomes a matter of seeing which ideas fit best in each verse — arguments in favor to be rejected, arguments against to be countered, then more potentially emotional ideas (such as jealousy and concern for not enough love to go around) that will serve well to dovetail with the big reveal. Sorting goes well, and then it’s all a matter of turning it into rhyming lyrics that go with my quirky rhythmic phrases. Eventually it takes shape, with a handful of nice punch lines throughout, and hopefully enough of a setup at the beginning to keep people’s minds squarely in the gutter until I let the cat out of the bag near the end. Though there are no recordings as of yet for any of the songs, I have posted the lyrics to the duet.

Discussing the order of the songs, it seems like it will work really well for Mary’s song to follow Peter’s so that Act I has the nicely contrasting solo numbers, with the duet waiting for the one song slot in Act II.

All three songs ended up with three verses each, and there’s a bunch of dialectical flavor going on beyond that. Mary’s song and mine both have it somewhat in how their stories evolve through the three verses. The creative processes — music then lyrics, lyrics then music, both together — show it. Then there’s a comic song, a poignant song, and a song that starts comic and becomes poignant. And, of course, two solos are followed by a duet between the two singers. And all are in variations of waltz time. So lots of dialectic and lots of threes.

Getting It Done

In terms of getting everything done for the show, it turns out it that we’d made some very wise decisions in how we’d go about this.

Having collaborators made things easier in a number of ways. The sheer project of writing three songs in that short a time would have been, it turns out, probably somewhat overwhelming, or at least it would have meant sacrificing some quality.

Beyond that, though, it’s somewhat inevitable that, when you write a song, you get to know it pretty well. Having the singers involved in the songwriting meant that they each had a pretty big head start on the rehearsal and performance of their own songs. We certainly needed to rehearse their solos, but that was much easier than rehearsing the duet, which Mary and Peter both had to learn from scratch.

It would not only have been harder for singers to have to learn multiple songs from scratch if all the songs had been written by someone else. The rehearsal process would be harder simply due to timing and the inevitable fact that they wouldn’t be able to rehearse any songs until the songs we’re written. By having everyone working on the three songs in parallel, it meant that all three songs could get done sooner, allowing for a larger amount of time to be spent rehearsing each song than would have been possible if the singers weren’t themselves involved in the writing. Not to mention that it meant that singers weren’t waiting around huge amounts of time for a songwriter to give them something to do.

All of that, then, meant that it was extremely wise that we’d decided to limit collaboration and have each of the three of us responsible for writing a lyric on our own. Though some actual songwriting work did continue into mid-afternoon, the bulk of it was done through morning and the early afternoon, giving us a few hours before the 5:00 p.m. dress rehearsal to focus simply on rehearsing our performances together.

Of course, all of this means that it was also wise that we songwriters were declared off-limits to the rest of the production. Had we made ourselves available to try to provide music and/or songs for any of the five plays, any other segues, etc., it would have been a serious imposition on time that turned out to be very precious just for our three songs.

The songs went pretty well during the show. Alas, the duet had some technical challenges, since the microphone that Mary and Peter were sharing kept flopping down. Managing the single microphone without a reliable stand was hard enough for them in a duet, and it complicated their ability to turn pages as they followed the lyrics. But their solo numbers went well, and hopefully the duet came across well enough, too.

In the end, there was a lot of positive feedback for the songs. They seemed like a really nice addition to this kind of event. So it looks like the experiment was a success, and maybe the way we went about it can serve as a model for how other 24-Hour theatre projects can get songwriting involved.

2 comments for “Songwriting for a 24-Hour Theatre Project

  1. May 21, 2013 at 10:11 am

    The songwriting experiment was definitely a success! It added an incredible amount to the evening and many audience members commented on it as a great addition to the project. The process the three of you chose worked well for this event and is a great model for other 24hr projects. Thanks for writing the blog post and capturing the process. Great to read it and have more insight into how it all came together.

    • May 21, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Thanks for checking this out, and hazzahs all around for this experiment and the event as a whole!

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