Gather round into a fairy circle, children, it’s time for our drama lesson. Today we’re going to learn how to turn a classic play into an ultra-hip, multi-award-winning alt-rock musical! Isn’t that lovely?
Yes it is, Duncan. It’s lovely.
No, Duncan, stop staring at Lea’s tonsils.
Yes, Steven? Why? Why what? Oh. Why are we going to learn how to turn a classic play into an uber-hip, multi-award-winning alt-rock musical? Because I have a mortgage to pay, Steven, and teachers had a pay freeze last year. And because it’s easier than having an idea of our own. Ideas are precious things, children, and we must never, ever waste them. Particularly not on alt-rock music.
Take notes, children. There’ll be a test later.
So, where was I? Yes, uber-hip alt-rock musical. Now, children. First of all, we must pick our classic. Yes, Steven? Why a classic? Because otherwise we’d have to pay royalties, Steven, and that would never do, would it? No it wouldn’t. Any suggestions, children?
Yes, Michael John? Medea? No, I don’t think that’s a very nice idea, do you? No it isn’t. Because she kills her children, Michael John, and people will think that’s icky. What’s that, Harry? Thérèse Raquin? No, Harry. That won’t do at all. It’s French and it’s got old people in it.
And what are you and Michael John doing in alt-rock class anyway? Flaming theatrical catastrophes are down the hall. Come here, I’ll sign your hall passes. Yes, ask for Ms. Stroman and Ms. Daniele.
No, if you’re going to be a crosspatch you’ll have to go and explain yourself to Mr. Brantley. Yes, both of you. And you know how strict he can be.
What’s that, Steven? Spring Awakening? Wedekind? Well done, Steven, that has possibilities. What do you think, Duncan? Yes, Duncan? Well, it’s got suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons. And it’s quite long, which is important.
Yes, Duncan? Why is it important that it’s quite long? All in good time. Stop pummeling Michael Friedman. Because I said so, Duncan.
Now, children, this is going to be your homework, so pay very careful attention. We’ve chosen a play that has suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons in it. Those are all good learning topics, aren’t they, children?
Yes they are, Jonathan, so pay close attention. You’re going to have to sing Duncan’s music later, and it’ll be a few years before you get a regular TV gig and can afford to goof off.
Yes, children, those are all good learning topics. But Spring Awakening also has an awful lot of plot, doesn’t it, children?
Yes, Steven, that means a lot of different things happen during the play. Very clever. What have you got in your mouth? I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Yes? You’d like to write the lyrics as well as the story? We’ll see.
Now, children. As I said, Spring Awakening is full to the brim with good topics for class discussion, particularly when we’re learning about religion, personal health, and the dangers of wearing clothes after you’ve grown out of them. But, children, you must not forget – we are trying to write an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical, and there isn’t very much plot on MTV Rocks or KISS or 4Music, now, is there?
No, Duncan, there isn’t.
So, children, this is your homework. With a grown-up, or a qualified dramaturge if you can find one, you must take a sharp knife, and carefully fillet anything transgressive out of the play, leaving only the barest hint of danger. Suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons are all wonderful topics in a classroom, but in a theatre they might make people think. That’s why it’s important to choose a long play, children. When you’re going to take out all the good stuff, you’ve got to make sure there’ll still be something left when you’re done. And we’ve got to leave room for all of Duncan’s lovely music, haven’t we?
Why, Steven? Because we can’t have an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical without alt-rock music, now, can we? No we can’t. And Duncan’s writing the music because Damon Albarn only does opera, Pop Will Eat Itself keep splitting up, Green Day are punk not alt and are planning on biding their time and riding your coattails once you’ve got a hit and won a lot of awards, and everybody else sells too many records to ever consider going near an off-Broadway theatre.
What, Steven? You’ve got to spend tonight developing a project for HBO? Instead of doing your homework? Oh, Steven. Well, never mind. Just get the Cliff Notes out of the library and photocopy each paragraph of the synopsis onto a flashcard. We’ll have to manage. What? There’s a Ladybird Book version? Let me have a look! That’s very nice, Steven! Why, the spanking scene here will work without any rewrites at all, as long as both of our actors can pout and yell at the same time! Yes, Lea, that’s right. Try the line now, so we can see what it sounds like.
Spank me, Melchior! Spank me hard on my bottom!
That’s very good, Lea. I’m sure Mr. Mayer will give you a contract.
Yes, Lea and Jonathan and John. It’s set in the Olden Days. It was written in the Olden Days too, that’s why we don’t have to pay for it. Yes, children, that means you’ll get nice costumes. But only one each, and not very nice, because we can’t afford to spend a lot of money. Why can’t we spend a lot of money? Because we’re going to have to have lots and lots of Workshops, aren’t we, where we read it all the way through then have lots of meetings where we talk about what we just read. It might be as long as seven years before the money comes in, children, so we must be frugal now.
Now. The play is set in Olden Days, but Duncan’s music sounds a bit like the stuff they play on K-Rock. How are we going to make these two things fit together?
Yes, Duncan? You can write a few songs where it slows down a bit, and sling in a violin, a viola and a cello so it sounds a bit arty? That’s lovely, Duncan. And we can replace them with a synthesiser for the tour, it’s cheaper. Just make sure the audience can always see the Apple logo on the back of the MD’s Macbook Pro. It’s the only opportunity we’ve got for product placement.
Now, children. We have to talk about the nitty-gritty, difficult parts of writing a play. Yes, Steven, you as well. Yes I know it’s boring. The audience are paying money for us to tell them a story, and so we must at least pretend to give them one. No, give them a story, Steven, not a titillating glimpse of an actress’s boobies. Although perhaps we can do that as well. What, Steven? You have to go to the littlest room? Now? Oh, go on then. We’ll just fall back on the flashcards, get the actors to shout their dialogue, make sure the lights turn purple when the music starts, and call it verfremdungseffekt.
Yes, Lea and John and Jonathan? What does verfremdungseffekt mean? It’s a very long German word, children. Nobody really knows or cares what it means, but it sounds good and it lets clever people give us extra credibility by writing long, baffling articles about us in peer-reviewed journals. If we’re lucky, perhaps someone will give us even more credibility by using the term ‘priem ostranenie’ instead. Nobody knows what that means either, but Russian formalism makes academic papers look really, really sexy. And we must hope that people write sexy articles about us, children, because we’re removing nearly everything sexy from the show we’re writing.
What do we do when we come back from the littlest room, Steven? Yes, that’s right. We pull our collaborators up. Possibly by the bootstraps. What do you mean, you don’t feel like it? Oh. Well, just make a list of phrases you associate with generic teen angst, Steven, and sprinkle them across every other line in the lyrics, then surround them with filler phrases. We’re writing an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical. Nobody cares if the lyrics make sense, and the sound system will probably obliterate half of them anyway.
Yes, Duncan, that is a good point – singers with no diction skills will deal with the problem of the rest of the lyrics. Don’t sulk, Lea and John and Jonathan. I’m sure he didn’t mean you. Much.
What? I beg your pardon? Wash your mouth out with soap, Steven! No… wait. I don’t approve of that word at all, Steven, and you’re very very naughty for using it. But we haven’t got any ideas, teenage alt-rock fans think it’s, like, way, way cool and edgy, we’ve softened the rape, the abuse and the homosexuality to the point where they look like something out of Dawson’s Creek, and the abortion happens offstage. We need to get some credibility back, so put the word ‘fucked’ in a song title. It makes it look like we’re pushing the boundaries.
And let’s end with something affirmative. We don’t want to send the audience home on a downer, now, do we? What, Steven? You can’t think what to put? Let me think… OK, Steven. Pick a pretty flower, and then write something opaque and slightly mystical, with the name of the flower somewhere in every verse. You and I both know it’s completely meaningless, but people will think it’s profound. Particularly if we make the lights change colour again, and make the actors alternate between scowling and grinning as they sing it.
Finally, children – it’s possible, even after all your hard work, that you won’t find an audience in other cities even though Mr. Brantley gives you his blessing, the Village Voice anoints you as the new hip attraction, and all the older theatre people give you lots and lots of little statues.
Yes, children, little statues are nice. They mean people think you’re talented. No, you can’t sell them on eBay.
You might get given more little statues by people in other countries as well, even though your work doesn’t sell there. (Don’t worry, Lea. You’ll have got a series by then.) If you’re lucky, somebody might even stage a low-budget tour in a country where you aren’t very popular other than with people who give out little statues, and write you a nice programme note telling the world that it’s a tragedy and an injustice that people didn’t recognise your genius when they had the chance. Won’t that be lovely?
Yes, Duncan, I agree with you, royalty cheques are better. But this is showbiz, children. You take what you can get.