A few months ago I was teaching a musical theater master class in New York City, and one of my actors said, “I hope it’s okay — I’d like to sing one of YOUR songs.”
Members of my family have asked me what a master class is, and for those of you who don’t regularly make a practice of studying musical theater, I’ll fill you in. A master class is an organized class where a “master” teacher (in this case, me… yes, I know… ) works one-on-one with an individual student while the rest of the students (and often, faculty) watch. The process is obviously beneficial to the guinea pig student getting the private attention, but it’s also helpful to the crowd of onlookers, most of whom are able to absorb some bit of advice or wisdom from watching the process happen in front of them.
I teach master classes at colleges pretty regularly, and usually the students bring in standard musical theater repertoire. I work mostly on song interpretation. I ask a lot of questions. (What does this lyric mean? Who are you talking to? What are you trying to accomplish? Why do you think there’s suddenly a minor chord on that particular word? What does the ascending line of the melody tell you about your character’s emotional life? What happens if you sing that entire line in one breath?) Because I’m a writer, I try to make the actors question why the composers and lyricists made the decisions they made, and I encourage the actors to make musical and dramatic choices to support their understanding of the text.
Every once in a while, I’ll get asked to teach a master class in which the students all have to sing music that I wrote. I love the classics, but I have to admit that my ego and I really like it when the songs are mine. Never have I made it through a class without learning something about one of my songs from the insight and individuality of the actor singing it.
So, on this particular day, an actor put down in front of the pianist a piece of music that I’ve never released to the public. As you know, I sell a lot of my sheet music, in both hard copy and digital formats, but this guy had a photocopy of a piece of music that I had used in an early reading of my show THE WATER. And that music isn’t for sale anywhere. So immediately I knew that the music was a bootleg. I have to assume that one of the actors or stage managers or musicians from one of the early readings of my show made a copy of that score and, without my permission, circulated it.
So.. you know me. I launched into my copyright speech. And the actor was shocked. He had no idea I would be upset. He had just gotten this music from his coach and he’d gone and memorized it. He had really meant to honor me by choosing this song. It was totally not his fault. So I allowed him to work on it — and that’s where the trouble really started.
You see, this music was so old that it didn’t reflect the changes we’d made to the second act, where this very song occurs. In the version of the song this guy had, his character proposed to his girlfriend, and at the end of the song, she turned him down. But in the rewrite of the show, the girlfriend now says yes. There’s a whole new ending to the song, because we discovered in that first reading that the sad version didn’t work. And now here this actor was, in my master class, asking me to help him make sense of a song that actually doesn’t even exist anymore.
So first of all, I was embarrassed. Because there my name is on the title page of the song, and I’m watching all these details go by and I’m thinking, “Yeah, we fixed that.” “Whew, that was a bad lyric.” “Oh, I forgot about those extra bars there because we cut them.” And so on. But second of all, and more importantly, I was annoyed that this piece of music is out in the world. Because I didn’t release it. That’s exactly why I wait until things are finished to make them available to the public. And sometimes it takes a very long time for a song to be finished.
There is a novelty, especially among students and collectors, to having early drafts of works. It’s fun to see the notepads where lyricists wrote their first drafts of now-famous lyrics. But what’s good for a collector is not necessarily good for an actor. I may not have known in my first draft of that song that it was a bad idea. That’s the process of writing and rewriting, which is what writers spend all day every day trying to get right. It is to your best advantage, as the performer, to have the version of the song that actually works.
Actors must have the ability to be critical thinkers. In master classes, I often tell students that trying to find the song that nobody else is singing isn’t necessarily a great idea. The best songs — both contemporary and traditional — are the ones that have withstood the test of time. They have survived the scrutiny of many different kinds of singers. Uncovering the song that nobody knows may not set you apart because of your incredible research. It may set you apart because you sang something — maybe even something of mine — that wasn’t any good.