This is the fifth in a series of “behind the scenes” posts about the stuff that really goes into producing a show in NYC. You can check out our previous posts here and click here to be notified when the next one goes live.
I mean metaphorical baby pictures, not real ones like this one of me rocking a red tracksuit.
You know when your mom pulls out your baby pictures and shows them to your friends? How proud she is, but also how dumb you used to look and act? And how embarrassing the whole thing is?
That’s what this’ll be like, except instead of baby pictures, it’s old (and brand new!) music from the show, and instead of my mom, it’s me.
“I Am” & “I Want” Songs
Let me put on my “Musical Theatre Professor” hat.
Most musical theatre protagonists sing a “character-establishing” song fairly early in the show, sometimes called their “I Am” or “I Want” song.
Put simply, it’s the song where we get to know the character. Ideally, it also points us toward the journey he or she is going to take over the course of the show. Think “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, or “Naughty” from Matilda:
It’s a great type of song, and also a really hard one to write (at least for me!). My inclination is sometimes to over-explain or over-narrate, rather than letting us get to know the character naturally. Or, as naturally as you can get to know anybody in a highly-structured 2–4 minute song. But you get the point: It’s the old Show, Don’t Tell adage.
Judah is one of the main characters in 210 Amlent Avenue, and his “I Want” moment has gone through considerable revision in the years Becky and I have been working on the show. I thought it might be fun (and only slightly embarrassing) to share some of that evolution with you here.
Three rewrites, three different songs for the same scene between Judah and Leslie.
All you need to know, if you haven’t seen the show: Judah is a poet in his mid-20s whose first book of poetry became an unexpected smash hit. Leslie is a nanny in her early-20s who reads said poetry book and likes it. They meet when Judah comes to 210 Amlent Avenue for the weekend. This is the second song in the show.
Take 1: “I Could Say Yes”
This song hasn’t been in the show since 2012, and I can’t say I’m too broken up about cutting it. Though the music is pretty (before it gets too repetitive) and the melodic line is fun to sing, the setup and lyrics here kill me. It’s the song that literally says, “Let’s stop the show so I can sing you my feelings and back-story for three minutes!” Yikes.
Also, this song had to be cut once we (wisely, I think!) ditched the idea that Judah and Leslie were complete strangers who experience love-at-first-sight. A couple years ago we realized how much more potent the drama could be if they were instead childhood friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Given that new setup, there’s no way Leslie wouldn’t know she was reading Judah’s book. So onward we went!
Take 2: “One In A Million”
This song does a little better job of showing rather than telling (or at least it tells in more interesting ways). I do like the music, too, though I think it worked better back when the opening number was an up-tempo bossa nova, so this moderate/ballad feel was a welcome contrast. Now that we have a new opening number, this song feels a little snoozey.
Really, there are two main problems with this song (well, there used to be three, but then we cut out a minute and a half and it got so much better): First, the song blossoms into a huge almost-love-song moment for Judah and Leslie. From talking to our director, we decided Scene 2 was too soon to have Judah and Leslie be super doe-eyed at each other.
And second, it’s not really doing a good enough job pointing to Judah’s journey. What I mean is, it’s not just that he is a poet who became famous and is now creatively stuck; it’s that he feels like he doesn’t understand his family anymore, the family that inspired him in the first place. He thinks if he can reconnect with his past and understand his parents now, as an adult, it will help him creatively. Those were some of the ideas I wanted to weave into this new version of Judah’s “I Am” song…
Take 3: “Making Sense”
It’s not all the way there yet, but this gives you an idea of where I’m heading with the character and the scene. As I described to Sami, “One in a Million” was a song that was 100% about poetry/writing struggles, and I wanted to replace it with something that would be 80% about writing and 20% about Judah’s questions about his family. (Some of that family stuff will be spelled out more in the last chunk of the song, which I’m still working on.)
Also, I am legally obligated to disclose that Williams is a poet that Becky (who has studied far more poetry than I) does not care for and is not a fan of. But I sorta like him, and his name is still easier to sing than “Ezra Pound.”
So, yes! Please throw some salt over your shoulder and light your incense to the gods of revision, I will take all the good karma I can get. Even though it’s frustrating at times, it’s a great experience getting to know these characters more and more in the lead-up to our first full production in July. Thanks for joining us on that journey.
Do you have a favorite “I Want” song from another musical? Do you undergo this sort of revision process in your own work? Or is it more refining rather than rewriting? Comment below and let us know! 🙂 Also, click here if you’d like to know the next time we post a “Behind the Scenes” exclusive.