Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Perks of Debuting a Musical: An Interview with Tom Diggs

The pilot episode of Perks, formerly known as The Perks of Writing a Musical, premiered on Youtube this past Sunday, marking the exciting beginning of a new musical webseries. Sporting a cast and creative team that should look familiar to followers of Emerging Musical Theatre, this is going to be a show worth keeping up with. I’ve written about the Perks blog before, which is regularly updated by Perks creator/writer/producer Tom Diggs. Amidst the series’ debut, Tom took some time to answer some questions about the process of putting on a webseries, using social media, and the future of the series.

(The pilot of Perks)

Me: Where did the idea for Perks come from? How did you decide to make it a webseries?

Tom Diggs: Perks came out of a writer’s group I’m in where we went from playwriting to TV writing to web series writing. I had been at BMI for a few years and I love the world of musical theatre. And Glee’s success inspired me to think about a web musical. I studied the fanboy world and came up with a story – which my writer’s group encouraged me to write. As I get older, I’m aware of how fast forms keep changing! The web seems to be the last great frontier for dramatic writing. And I want to be a part of it. The computer is currently in the process of replacing the television. There was a lot of emphasis on short forms in grad school – short films, ten-minute plays – so I thought this would be a great way to bring all these elements together in a current, relevant way.

Me: Having experience as a playwright, how has the experience been working on a musical screenplay, not to mention a series?

Tom: Plays can include language flourishes to a certain degree. The musical libretto, on the other hand, is a very unforgiving form when it comes to over-writing. One extra line and you can feel it. The songs and musical score do a lot of the heavy lifting. Add the visual element and it’s really “less is more” time for the words. Cutting the dialogue to the bone is the name of the game. It’s interesting how, the less there is, the more it breathes and comes to life.

Me: How did you connect with Jason Michael Snow and Mishaela Faucher for the music and lyrics?

Tom: I was in their BMI composer/lyricists group. I never got paired with either of them during our time together, but I always deeply admired their work – and love them very much as people. When I started thinking about approaching songwriting teams for this project, they were the first team I thought of. Their energy and talent is a perfect fit for this project.

(The theme song, "That's the Reason," from Perks)

Me: The development of this project has been such a joy to follow through all the social media platforms you use to share your progress (like the blog, the vlogs, Twitter, etc.). Even funding has come from Kickstarter. How do you feel all the social media has affected the development of the project? Any surprises along the way?

Tom: This project would never have found its way without social media. I’m not sure I would do a Kickstarter campaign again. But there was something useful in rallying a fund-raising campaign, getting comfortable asking people for money, and saying to the world “Here’s a project I passionately believe in. Please support us.” Even though people didn’t necessarily give, they gave ear to the fact that Perks existed. One of the challenges with the pilot is how do you get people to give 8 minutes of their time to something they’ve never heard of? You help them get word in any context you can. Kickstarter was good for that. So is Facebook. The surprise is that social media creates a hyper-awareness of yourself as a brand. I’m always watching myself. Was I a good ambassador for the project? I can be as nutty as the next artist; social media demands that I behave myself.

Me: You wrote a great blog post about copyright and fair use regarding how much The Perks of Being a Wallflower could be used in the show. How much inspiration did you pull from that book for the series as a whole, and to what extent will we see it in the show?

Tom: This is super important. It’s the law. We want to live within the boundaries of Fair Use. I love the book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I think it’s one of the greatest novels about young people around. It’s about grief and identity and growing up. If Perks can help more people find that book, that makes me happy. We can’t adapt any part of the book until Chbosky or MTV publications gives us permission. And they haven’t at this point. Which is actually great because it would be too easy to fall back on adapting a great book when it’s really our task to write the story of Josh, Darwin, Courtney, Matt, and Ms. Pilgrim. Some of the universal coming of age themes may overlap, but Perks might actually be closer in theme to The Great Gatsby than The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Right now, we’re waiting until the later episodes for permission before we decide to adapt anything directly from the book.

Me: From the perspective of a producer, what advice would you give to someone hoping to start a musical series?

Tom: Do it! Videos loves music. It’s why MTV became what it is today. And the world needs songs like it needs oxygen. But budget accordingly – there’s more time in the recording studio than a regular web show, and that eats a budget.

Me: What can we look forward to from Perks in the future?

Tom: We want to explore the fanboy/girl lifestyle. We want to see if geeky Josh can really get the girl. We want to push the gay narrative beyond bullying and gay kids with crushes on straight kids. And we’ll learn why Courtney is always reading that book.

Also, I can’t wait to see what other new fantastic songs Jason and Mishaela have up their sleeves.

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