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How a Musical Gets On Its Feet

Monday, May 31st, 2010


The primary goal of the play development process, as it is called, is to figure out which story we want to tell and whether we’re telling it clearly. There’s the sequence of events (the plot), the nature of the relationships (the characters), and the escalating conflict and the character arcs to fine tune. Unlike fiction, which reaches its ultimate life on the page, theatre isn’t theatre until it is physically manifest in a space by actors whose bodies and voices bear the weight of the storytelling. These actors do their stuff in give and take relationship with each other, which means that a musical is a living organism. It can only be tested for vital signs in the presence of the watchful community of an audience.
A first draft, then titled Return, received a 2-day workshop in May 2004, culminating in a “by-invitation-only” reading attended by some 30 people in Brian’s studio, The Shining Rose, in Abbotsford, B.C. Morris Ertman, artistic director of Rosebud Theatre in Alberta, served as the director. Non-singing actors sat at tables for this reading, Mr. Ertman read the stage directions, and all the songs were played and sung by members of Brian’s band, Philip Janz, Brian Thiessen, and Loralee Thiessen.
A later draft received a 4-day workshop in April 2005, also in Abbotsford, and also directed by Mr. Ertman. This time, singing actors and a London-based musical director, Ali Berry, were employed. The culminating, slightly staged reading was open to the general public. The 80-person audience responded enthusiastically to the piece, and filled out feedback surveys developed by the writers and one of the executive producers, Jay Doktor.
Two drafts later, we held a private reading in March 2006 at The Shining Rose. In attendance were 3 actors and Mr. Ertman, with Brian and Christopher performing all the songs with the help of a female singer, Daphne Rademaker.
Draft seven received a public reading after a single rehearsal in April 2008 in Cambridge, MA. Christopher directed this reading using a combination of the earlier approaches. Actors sat behind tables with the exception of a couple of spontaneously staged moments. Some actors sang (including Christopher’s nephew, Daniel, as the younger son), others did not. Christopher and members of his band filled in the gaps. Brian was not in attendance, but watched the reading via webcam. About 50 people took in the performance with enthusiasm, and provided feedback.
Along the way, songs were cut or rewritten. New songs were written. Lyrics and scenes were rewritten. And rewritten. Every reading and subsequent rewrite seemed to help make the piece clearer and more focused. The script went from 3 hours running time, down to 2 and a quarter. And there’s still more refinement in the works.

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