Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The "I Want" Song -- Behind the Music-al

I am going to make a little confession: I think I love Adam Guettel. And not just because he's a wildly talented writer/composer, but also because, as I learned from his moderation of last night's Behind the Music-al at 92Y Tribeca, he's also just an incredibly sharp person who can easily and passionately discuss the craft of writing.

I've been meaning to attend one of the evenings in the Behind the Music-al series for a while. Organized by composers Kyle Ewalt and Michael I. Walker, this regular series features conversations with awesome musical theatre writers centered around a particular theme/aspect of contemporary musical theatre. Last night's theme was the "I Want" song, which made for some really fascinating conversation about craft and what role desires play in driving character and momentum for songs in a musical piece. With writing teams Ewalt & Walker and Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary, in addition to Michael Holland, taking the stage to share some of their work and chat with Adam Guettel, the night featured some diverse work from extremely talented writers.

(Ewalt & Walker's "I'm No Hero," a song that was performed last night.
Performed here at ANT Fest by Jonathan Whitton and Michael Buchanan.)

What I loved about Adam Guettel's moderation was how much he challenged every writer who shared his/her work. Through conversation, he quickly picked up on interesting musical conventions/themes that seemed to characterize each songwriters' style, and he pressed the writers to explain their choices and how those musical choices interact in context to the whole work and with audience expectation. In all cases, this led to the writers sharing really great tidbits and insight into their processes and not only standing by their decisions, but being able to articulate why they made the creative choices they did -- from Ewalt & Walker talking about the soaring tenors in Separate: Battle Songs of Youth to Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary's explanation of why many of their songs from Pregnancy Pact don't have buttons.

(Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary's "Love Me Better,"
a song that was performed last night.
Performed here at ANT Fest by Ally Bonino.)

I think it facilitated very honest discussion, which was refreshing to see in a public forum. It was even strangely thrilling when, at the very beginning of the evening, Adam asked about how a song Ewalt & Walker presented was orchestrated beyond just the piano part, and it turned into a little back-and-forth on what it means to score economically and write with future performance groups (and their limitations) in mind.

The "I Want" idea also fit nicely into the evening because it was such an all-encompassing theme that runs throughout musicals. While on the surface, there is a common trope of a very direct "I Want" song, there was also mention and discussion of less obvious "I Want" moments, like the "I Am Who I Am"-I Am What I Want song and the "I Don't Want" song. There was also a lot of talk about role pop music plays in contemporary musical theatre and how sometimes the inherent structure of a pop song, especially one that can standalone, can tend on the side of being an "I Want" song that is almost too explicit and selfish in its need to express what it wants directly to the audience.

Talking about wanting also extended itself to interesting discussion about the songwriting process itself. Michael Holland spoke very eloquently about the struggle to write and how he feels his songs come together. He also spoke about his career and about the transition from pop music and writing about his own personal wants to turning his focus on characters and stories and being inspired by their wants and desires. One of the greatest parts of the night was actually when he shared a song, and then Adam had the performer return to the stage to sing the song again without the piano. Showing how the melody stood up without accompaniment was inspiring and striking-- a rare opportunity to see a song deconstructed.

If you are at all interested in the craft of writing or theatre, I highly suggest attending Behind the Musical. Not only do they have great artists, but the laid back environment really allows for enlightening discussion amongst writers of many different backgrounds and approaches. It's a fascinating evening, and I, for one, can't wait to attend another one.

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