Tag Archives | The Distant Bells

2011 Draws To A Close

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I’ve never been a fan of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It always seems that the world stops spinning – or at least slows down – for the entire time. While that’s not so bad for a little bit, I’m usually ready for the world to “start spinning” again well before it actually does. Some of that has to do with my own version of “Buddy’s Blues”. I’ve never been great at simply relaxing and doing nothing for long – except, of course, when I can’t relax or do nothing, in which case it’s all I can think about doing!

As luck would have it, I’ve had plenty to occupy me this year – rewrites, meetings, putting songs I’ve written down on paper – not to mention things like errands and bill paying and other all the other glamorous parts of being in show business. But, to keep myself from having too much relaxation, I thought I’d take this time to look back on 2011 here in the old web site blog.New+Years

It has been a busy year for me – the reading of my musical The Distant Bells at the Roundabout in March, continued writing of my new dance number for Radio City throughout the year, all of the work from start to finish on my Out of Context: The Songs of Michael Patrick Walker, and my first meetings up to the completion of the first draft of the new original musical I’m writing with Rick Elice.

When I put it all in one block like that, it sounds like a very busy year – and it was. But I’m struck by the fact that, before I wrote this blog, I was thinking I wished I had done more in 2011. Funny how our perception of things can be different when we’re in the midst of them as opposed to being “outside” them. Which, really, is my thought for the end of 2011 and the start of 2012. It’s hard to appreciate things or to keep them in perspective while you’re in the midst of them. I’m very fortunate in the opportunities I have and, while I – like most of us – want more opportunities and most success, I look back on 2011 with gratitude and excitement for what has been and what is yet to come.

As we all go into 2012, I hope we all experience happiness, joy and fulfillment. And, most of all, I hope that the Mayans were wrong…Happy New Year!

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Out of Context #1

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It’s been far too long since I’ve updated things here – especially with all of the things I’ve been up to since my last post. Where to start, where to start…? How about here – I’ve spent much of the spring and summer planning for, recording and completing my first album, Out of Context: The Songs of Michael Patrick Walker. It’s a collection of thirteen songs, pulled out of context from the shows they were written for and sung by an incredible group of Broadway singers. Make no mistake, putting together an album like this is a lot of work – both for me and the other people involved – but it’s also a lot of fun to do!

Picking which songs to include, figuring out who best to sing them, arranging and orchestrating the songs, recording the band, the vocals, the overdubs, figuring out the cover art, mixing, re-mixing, etc, etc and on and on! It’s a lot of work but I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all come out and I can’t wait for everybody to hear the finished product. The official release date is Tuesday November 8th, 2011 and the album is being released on the Yellow Sound Label. It will be available on Amazon.com and iTunes as well as out of the trunk of my car…if had a car.

The album itself features a few songs from The Distant Bells, a few songs from my trunk, a song from being theo and maybe even a re-imagined version of an old favorite. I’ll be talking alot about the album in the coming weeks but for now I want to share two things with you all. First, the cover which hasn’t been widely released yet – and here it is:Out of Context

Monday November 7th and 7pm
Broadway at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street
For reservations call 212-581-3080 or visit http://www.birdlandjazz.com/event/71183/
Broadway at Birdland Presented by Jim Caruso
I hope to see everybody there and check back often (must more often than every six months!) for updates on this and several other exciting projects I’ve got in the works!
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29 Hours?! That’s Crazy!

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Yesterday afternoon was the reading of my new musical, The Distant Bells and, first and foremost I have to say that it went very well. But for those of you unfamiliar with these kinds of things, it was a 29-hour reading. That means it was a very basic reading of the show. The actors stand – most often at music stands – with a binder holding their script and score. There are no costumes, props, set or lights. There is no staging aside from standing up and moving to your music stand when you’re in the scene and sitting down in your chair when you aren’t. A stage direction reader helps to fill in anything the audience needs to know and wouldn’t get from just a reading and the music is played by, in this case, a skeleton orchestra of piano and drums.
The 29-hour part comes from the fact that each actor is limited to 29 hours of rehearsal. Now, that might sound like a lot of hours per person, but it most definitely is not. When you consider how much music has to be taught, learned, worked and polished along with character and scene work, those 29 hours fly by like a monkey in Wicked. On top of that, the creative team is usually (as we were) making changes every day to improve and hone the piece. It’s a crazy week and, frankly, it is a minor miracle that any 29-hour reading ever comes together – and yet, most of them do.
Finally, on the last day of the reading, people arrive – producers, actors, agents, friends, etc – to sit in metal chairs flat on the floor under the florescent lights and see the show. It’s not anything close to what the show could/would ultimately be but, in many ways, it is the purest form the show will ever take. It is about the show, the story, the characters, the music, the lyrics, the dialogue and that’s really about it. It is about the actors and their portrayal of the characters to an extent, but, even that is secondary because, in such a short rehearsal period, nobody expects fully realized performances.

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More changes?! The cast of the reading of The Distant Bells

So, in the end, we do these readings to “see if there’s anything there”. To learn from the living portrayal of the characters as embodied by the actors. To learn from the audience response. To learn from just hearing the material come alive. In some cases, the material proves weaker than you thought on the page. In some cases, the talent of the actors elevates the material and makes it seem better than it is. Figuring out which is which is a major challenge to a good creative team.
In the end, it remains to be seen if The Distant Bells will have a future life and, if it does, what form it will take and how it will all unfold. But, I do know that, yesterday, the amazingly talented cast did me very proud! I am so grateful and indebted to Chita Rivera, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel York, Andy Mientus, James Snyder, Chris Sieber and Jason Tam! The entire creative team and staff of course has my heartfelt thanks as well, but I must single out two people that I first worked with on Altar Boyz so many years ago – my music director, Lynne Shankel (who is brilliant and wonderful in so many ways) and my director, Stafford Arima (without whose tireless insight and talent I would never have survived!). Also, a big thank you to Todd Haimes, Jill Rafson, Stephen Kopel and the Roundabout Theatre for allowing us to do this reading under their auspices.
As I relax today I find myself torn between quoting two things from the show. The first one is the last lyric in the show: “Okay, time to see what happens next”. And the second is the first spoken line of the show: “Men are like Picassos – most of them are fucked up”. I wrote them both and, even though the second one doesn’t apply to this moment, I just like it, so I’m gonna keep them both in my head for now!
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Finished! Let’s get started…

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Back in February, I did a table read of my latest musical, The Distant Bells. I hate table reads. I love table reads. I love-hate table reads. I love them because it’s an invaluable way to gain insight into a show I’m writing. Nothing helps me take a step back and focus on all pictures (big, little and everywhere in between) than sitting in a room and hearing actors read through the show. On top of that, it is the least difficult type of reading – rent a studio, call up some actors you know and away you go.

Which is why I hate table reads. Actors can easily sit down and read a part in a script without much preparation – well, many actors can. It won’t be a nuanced and fully realized performance of course, but that’s not the point of a table read. They can get through the show, bring something to it and help you see the characters in a different way – all by cold-reading the script with other actors. What actors can’t do – even the most amazing, professional, talented and wonderful ones – is “cold-sing” a score they’ve never heard before. It would be…let’s say “unfortunate” to try and most likely depressing to me, the actors and any passers-by in the hallway outside the studio.

But, love ’em or hate ’em, a table read is valuable – especially when the show is just not ready yet for a week-long reading or workshop.
So, after the table read in February, I suggested we set a self-imposed deadline of June 1st for another draft of the show incorporating all we learned from the table read and the things we already knew before it. A lot of things changed – and I mean a LOT of things! – between February and June 1st. It wasn’t always easy nor did it always move forward quickly, but, we got to June 1st and we now have a draft which took us several significant steps forward from February.Champagne

Great! Finished! Crack open the champagne, get your suit tailored for opening night, kick back and enjoy! Right? right…?
Not quite.
Though I’ve been working on, outlining, plotting, writing and rewriting The Distant Bells off and on for just under two years now, the June 1st draft is really the “first draft” of the show. Oh, there have been many, many drafts before this one. But none that successfully realized the two separate but complimentary ideas for a musical (one mine, one the book writer’s) which became the show I hope you’ll all see on stage someday soon!
So, what DO I do when a draft is finished…well, a few days after this draft was done I did a reboot on the third song in the show. I didn’t write a completely new song, but made big lyrical, tonal and musical changes to an existing one to set up the relationships between the characters better.
Yup – that’s right, I’m finished with the first draft of The Distant Bells…which means it’s time to get to work on the next draft…and the next draft…and the next draft…
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Closer or Farther Away…?

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As some of you know, I did a table read of my new show, The Distant Bells, about a week and a half ago. My frequent collaborator and director of the show, Stafford Arima, assembled a wonderfully talented group of actors – Nancy Opel, Kate Baldwin, Michele Ragusa, Matt Doyle, Andy Karl, Kasey Marino and Christopher Williams – to read the script and I made a “quick and dirty” recording of me singing through the score. No audience – just the actors, writers and director. The idea being, we get to hear the piece, basically start to finish, and assess where we are. Does the story work? Are the characters well-drawn? How does the book integrate with the score? Are the songs landing? And a hundred other questions…

I almost always learn a lot from these kinds of readings. They can be very exciting and encouraging or very upsetting and discouraging – or almost anywhere in between! So, where did this reading fall in the continuum? Well…

In the “big picture world”, as opposed to the last reading we did – about 9 months ago – this time, the basic story and characters are working. Both will continue to evolve and change as the writing process continues, but it’s a positive step forward that our 4 principal characters and plot/story are heading in the right direction.

Looking at the “small picture” things – ie, everything else! – there are also many positive things in both the score and book. It’s not a surprise that the second half of the show has more problems than the first half – To quote Mrs. Potts, that’s a tale as old as time! Not to say that the first half of the show is ready for opening night – we’ve got a long list of things to rewrite, tighten, focus, etc, etc, etc.PittsburghSkyline-MtWash

Writing is hard, but rewriting is where I think most shows ultimately live or die. Does that song work or not? Is that scene overwritten? It can be as “simple” as a line or two or as complicated as having the guts to throw out 10 pages and start over. And the choices you make will have a domino effect that might not be obvious for months down the line.

Sounds fun, right?

Funny thing is, it really can be! Frustrating too, but, if you want to tell a story, it’s all part of it. And, remember, The Distant Bells is a totally original musical, not based on any source material so, when we go back to “square one” about something, we end up looking at a very, very white piece of paper!

Ok, you got me – I’m not giving away too many specific details about the show’s good or bad points or even characters and story! Part of that is not to give things away for when you (hopefully!) see it one day. But I’m also a bit superstitious about letting too much of the cat out of the bag before the cat is ready for prime time…to mix a metaphor or two! So I don’t like to say too much too early…

…but, as we continue to write and shape the show, I will say that I’m optimistic that a reading – a real reading where the actors sing and we invite an audience – could happen in the next few months. There are a lot of factors that will determine that of course, but it is possible that The Distant Bells might be getting”closer”, little by little…

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Write a lot of new stuff… rewrite old stuff

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Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the score for The Distant Bells. I wrote the first song for Bells about a year and a half ago. Of course, I put that song in my trunk awhile back, but I digress. At this point, working on the score is an interesting combination of writing brand new songs for brand new moments and rewriting and retooling old songs which still fit, but not quite as well as they used to. When you first begin writing a show, it’s all new. And when you get to previews – if you get to previews – then, though you may be rewriting like mad, it’s almost all “old”.

In between those two fence posts though, it’s a mixed bag. I’m almost always working on old and new things at the same time. It’s a constant battle as to which I love or hate more – sometimes old beats new and sometimes the other way around. And sometimes they both lose to the Wii in the other room…but I digress!

When I’m working on an old song – rewriting, revising or retooling it – it can be very exciting. It is a wonderful feeling when I feel that I’m “almost there” or that I just have “one more piece of the puzzle” before I can put my pencil down, play through the last section and take a satisfying drink of my international coffee. Then there are the times where rewriting a song feels like I’m walking into a run-down fixer upper of a house when I really want to see the brand new shiny place across the street.

When I’m working on a new song – well, that can be very exciting too! Finally tackling a new moment in the show that has been crying out for a song is what it’s all about. Of course, writing new material isn’t all joy and rapture. Sometimes, an idea is all I need. I crack “the nut” and the musical and lyrical ideas start to flow. Inspiration hits and a song seems to write itself. Ok, that almost never happens. It would be nice if it did, but… Don’t get me wrong, an idea is important. But an idea on its own is like a friend with ADHD who gives you remodeling suggestions. Sure his comments about “knocking down that wall” might give you something to think about, but he’s nowhere to be found when you start swinging your sledge hammer!

So, back to rewriting the old material. The idea is already there and I’ve fleshed it out – and that’s nice. But the old material also comes with the baggage of what the song already is or once was or maybe could be.

Back to the new stuff! It’s exciting to ponder what the “in” for a moment or a song might be. The possibilities are exciting and good and pure and hopeful and frustrating and scary and annoying!

Suddenly I have the strongest urge to call Carrie Fisher and tell her I know how she feels…

But, such is the glamorous life of a writer – or at least this writer. I dunno, maybe other writers get up in the morning and trip over their pianos and toe-stub out a song by accident…but I doubt it…

Check out one of the “in progress” songs from The Distant Bells entitled “What Margaret Thinks” – just click on the Media button at the top of your screen!

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