The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode contains some strong language, including lyrics sung by our special guest.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 471 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we welcome back one of our favorite people. Rachel Bloom is the award-winning co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Welcome back, Rachel.
Rachel Bloom: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be back. I was just listening to Scriptnotes yesterday.
Rachel: It is one of my delights as I continually, endlessly clean my house which is now all I do. And it’s such a good excuse to love cleaning.
John: Last time you were on the show we talked about better portrayals of sex onscreen. And this is possibly confirmation bias but I feel like I’ve seen some better portrayals of sex onscreen and I want to credit you and us for at least people thinking about how they’re portraying sex onscreen.
Rachel: I mean, it’s definitely all us. And it’s definitely specifically that conversation that we had, obviously.
Craig: And probably mostly me.
Craig: It was us.
John: It’s mostly Craig.
Craig: [sings] Mostly me.
John: Now today Rachel we want to talk about songwriting. I want to talk about the art of songwriting and the business of songwriting because you have some opinions about how songwriters are paid and not paid for the work they do in Hollywood. And let’s try to solve this problem as best we can over the next 45 minutes.
Rachel: Oy, OK.
Craig: I know.
John: And in a bonus segment for Premium members I want to talk about revivals which is what musical theater calls reboots. And what things should be revived, what things should not be revived, and how we’re thinking about stage musicals in this time.
Craig: I mean, I’m all for this. This is a dream come true. This is my kind of episode. I might actually listen to this one.
John: Ha-ha. That’s how good of an episode we’re going to have.
John: There’s actually news this week. So we’re recording this on Friday morning, so obviously the thing that just happened was that Trump got COVID. We’re not going to talk all about that, but there’s other stuff that happened this past week.
Craig: Yeah. Let’s talk about anything other than that. Please.
John: Anything other than that. So this past week the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality released a survey of nearly 10,000 workers in the entertainment industry. So this commission is the Anita Hill Commission. The one that Kathleen Kennedy helped set up. It started in 2017 on the heels of #MeToo. And so this was a big survey of people working in the industry. It got released. I didn’t hear people talking very much about it, but I want us to talk about it because we were talking about this quite early on.
We’ll put a link in the show notes to this, and both the article is about it and the actual link itself. It’s a beautifully illustrated report. I think this report is 18 months too late at least, and I don’t feel it actually has a lot of very actionable information.
John: But let’s talk about some of the information they have in there. So, only 35% of survey respondents believe that a powerful individual such as a producer or director would be held accountable for harassing someone with less power. But there’s an interesting gender split there. 45% of men believe that someone would be held accountable whereas only 28% of women have that same belief. So, again, that seems to track with my experience is that men don’t think the situation is as bad as women think the situation is.
John: One good thing the survey did is they talked to people across different areas of the industry. So they talked to people in talent agencies, commercials, film and TV, live theater, and corporate. There really weren’t big changes in any of those different categories. So, no matter where you’re at you had a similar kind of experience.
And less than half of workers felt that they noticed progress since the #MeToo movement began.
John: Is any of this surprising to either of you?
Craig: I mean, not to me. I think that there is a pretty clear direction that this is pointing out. The part of it that seems particularly useful, at least from my point of view, is the part where they’re saying, “Look, there is just simply not high enough of a number of people who are being victimized who feel comfortable enough to report.”
So the conventional wisdom is everybody is constantly reporting everything. And everybody is inundated with by HR complaints. But in fact in reality that is not the case. And that people just are still reluctant to speak out in our business when they are being victimized. That is something that does feel actionable in terms of reshaping the way that the mechanisms work.
I mean, I think that there is value in these kind of like people feel questions because it does show that there is a total lack of trust among the traditionally victimized people in Hollywood that Hollywood is going to fix itself. And so in this case we’re talking about women and we’re talking about racial minorities, people of color. They’re like, yeah, we didn’t really think anything is changing and we don’t think it’s going to change. And I don’t blame them for that.
On the other hand, I’m not sure why there was so much emphasis on how do you think things are going, because really what I kind of want to know is how are things going. And from what I can tell they’re not going well but maybe going a little bit better? Rachel, what’s your feeling?
Rachel: You know, I’m thinking the same thing. What are those actual stats? Obviously, I mean, I have a lot of thoughts on this. I don’t even know where to begin. But I think the first thing is are there stats on complaints. Are there anonymous stats that the HR departments of each studio, for instance, could release to us? Now, I know that that gets touchy because having been in a position of power and very familiar with the HR system it’s a very separate confidential process. Litigation can be involved. People getting fired can be involved. So they’re very, very secretive about it. But I think that like, you know, secrecy breeds a system that doesn’t fix itself sometimes. So I also would be interested in the actual stats.
That having been said, it’s weird because – OK, so first of all I talked to someone the other day who is writing on a staff and the showrunner on that staff is hostile to women. But not in a way that’s like, “Hey sugar tits. Or like I’m not going to give you the script because you’re a lady.” You know, it’s stuff that you can’t articulate why.
Like if you were to write down what they said it’s all – it’s all kind of this dog whistle hostility that you know something is wrong but because it’s not like out and out harassment it’s hard to articulate. And I think that that’s what makes – when the pressure is on you to report something you can’t just call HR or people might feel that they can’t just call HR and be like, “There’s just this feeling of hostility.” You have to have these concrete things because they’re keeping a record of the things said.
And having been in situations where there’s something off and you can’t articulate it and you start to question well maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive. I can see a world in which we’ve gotten a lot of the actual offenders, right. Assumedly. We’ve gotten a lot at least of the blatant harassers. The fucking rapists. The out and out racists. Now you’re in this I think with some people this second tier. It’s definitely inappropriate and harass-y and bullying, but it’s less like tangible. It’s much more like contextual. And that’s a lot harder to report and scarier to report. And that’s why it falls on people in power to question their power and privilege because ultimately it’s like your personality fucking sucks.
That’s when we get into like change your personality. Change your leadership style. And some people I think are unwilling to examine that. And then also as far as like people’s reluctance in reporting, I saw up close what happens when you report. So basically a couple years ago there was this program called the CBS Diversity Showcase which still exists. And every year – now they just call it CBS Showcase which I think is a huge improvement.
But basically it’s a big sketch comedy show put on by CBS every year showcasing diverse people. Basically anyone who isn’t–
Craig: A white guy.
Rachel: Straight, white, and white women, too. Straight white men and women, basically. But then it also includes differently-abled people in that. And I being in the comedy community had a ton of friends who did this. And for years I heard horrible stories about, I mean, racism, fat shaming. I mean, the straight up use of the N-word.
I’d heard all these stories. And so when I actually started working for CBS, because CBS was the studio of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I got an invite to the diversity showcase that year. I was like, man, now I’m in a position of power here. I’ve got to say something. And so I went through – but it wasn’t on behalf of me. It was on behalf of like a bunch of people. And so I went through this process. And so it started out by asking various people, hey, are you aware that the diversity showcase is terrible? And no one at CBS was aware because it was in its own bubble.
So then they said well here’s who you talk to at HR. I talked to HR and they said, OK, well here’s how you have people come report. Here’s our actual reporting line and then here’s our anonymous reporting line so people can call in anonymously.
So then I sent out some emails and I posted a thing on a couple private Facebook groups saying, hey, various people have been complaining about the CBS Diversity Showcase for years, I just want to let you know CBS has, I’ve been assured, a strict non-retaliation policy if you complain. Because the worry is with people complaining – because it’s not like people – people knew in theory they could complain. I don’t think they were necessarily given the numbers to HR, but they theoretically knew there was a way. But they were afraid because the whole point of this showcase was to expose them to casting directors and people who could hire them. And the worry is well if I complain I’m going to get taking off of those casting lists, which is going to defeat the purpose.
Or, if I complain what if this whole program gets taken away? So, all I did was give people numbers and emails. And what was interesting is otherwise very outspoken people were like, “I’m afraid to complain,” because of those exact things. Sure, you say CBS has a strict non-retaliation policy, but you can’t prove to me that I wasn’t suddenly removed from a casting list. There’s no way to actually record that. There’s no way to actually record how various casting directors or heads of casting are going to like, if they’re thinking of a role, to just like not think of me. There’s no actual way to monitor that. And then god forbid this program gets taken away if this blows up.
So eventually the program did change. But what happened was, because this was in the wake of #MeToo, some independent publications, I want to say it was like The Wrap and I think it was Vulture – I could have that wrong – they were separately talking to people about sexual harassment, which I hadn’t heard about, from one of the heads of the showcase. And then the racism and kind of homophobia and sexism kind of came along with that.
So, I’m still not sure – my point being, because the showcase did change. And it changed for the better. I’m still not sure if that was HR dealing with the racism and the things that people I think had reported based on me giving – because I know some people did call in with complaints based on the numbers I gave them. Or, if people were like, you know what, I’m just going to go straight to news sources because that’s the only way to get things done. I actually still don’t know and I still work with CBS. I want to have faith in that system. HR was very nice to me when I spoke to them. Obviously the situation didn’t affect me, so there was only so much I could do and so much that I could share.
So I don’t know what came first. If it was HR dealing with this or if someone had to leak it to The Wrap to actually affect change.
John: Well, one of the things I hear you talking about is we talk about sexual harassment, which is obviously how this all started. We also talk about racial disparities and racism that’s happening. But there’s also just kind of abusive behavior on the behalf of showrunners or executives or other people. And I do feel like if we see a change from 2017 is that all the stuff we sort of knew about but we literally weren’t talking about we are talking about that a little bit more. And some of the CBS showrunners have been fired off their own shows for being assholes.
And so that does feel like there’s some progress there.
John: But I don’t think we’ve cracked how you report an actual incident in ways that make you feel like you are not putting yourself at risk whistleblowing on this.
Craig: I mean, it’s probably based on what Rachel is describing, and also based on the way that this report functions, it seems to me like this will continue to be something where there is not a clarity that you would hope for, but there is at least an increase in attention and the more that we look at it, even if we’re looking at it imperfectly, if we’re maybe not doing the perfect survey or the statistics don’t cover every possibility, or the system for reporting isn’t what it ought to be, if we keep looking at it and we keep talking about it in theory it will slowly but surely and inexorably improve.
I don’t know what the perfect situation is. I think that sometimes Hollywood, I mean, for instance the Writers Guild for well over a decade has been commissioning a yearly report on diversity, as if paying for a report on diversity was the same thing as helping diversity. It’s not. We do have a tendency – we love reports. It’s one of our things we love to do in Hollywood. We love a report because it’s something that’s easy to do. And it’s not easy to fix the problem that every single report will report. It is always the same.
John: But the difference between a WGA report on diversity is we’re looking at how many people are actually employed. And those numbers are actual real numbers we can look at and we can see whether there has been progress, where there’s not been progress. And there has been progress at the lower levels of TV staffing. And it’s also helpful because we can – it’s our own members who are largely responsible for hiring those lower level members. So that is actually progress that can be done.
What’s so tough though is these invisible actions that are happening and people who are afraid to file harassment reports, like those numbers are tough to do. So I think my biggest frustration with this commission report is that this should have come out 18 months ago. We’ve also spent millions of dollars on setting up some anonymous tip line that still does not exist. I’m frustrated by how slowly this has all gone is I think my biggest concern with this commission and this report.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. This is, yeah, it’s complicated.
John: So let’s go onto a much simpler issue for us to discuss which is ageism.
Craig: Oh yeah. Easy.
John: So also this past week the Career Longevity Committee of the Writers Guild of America West sent out an open letter decrying the Academy’s new rules for inclusion and representation saying they should also be mindful of age as a qualifying characteristic. So, we’ll put a link to the letter, but I thought we’d have a brief chat about ageism and how we rank that in our list of priorities of things to think about. And Rachel you’re our young person on the call. How old is old?
Craig: Saying young person is the oldest thing a human can do.
John: Isn’t it so great? I want to say you’re our young person. Ageism, how do you think about ageism? Are you mindful of people’s careers petering out at a certain point? Where does that fit in your list of priorities?
Rachel: Yeah. Ageism, I really first started to think about it when we were auditioning for the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And everyone who came in to audition for the role of Paula, which is we wanted women of – I don’t know if I talked about this last time, but we wanted women, any ethnicity, 40s to 50s. And they were all so talented. I mean, just like pros and so many of these women could also sing their faces off. People who otherwise you would never knew were singers. It’s like, oh, I’m an amazing actress, yes, and I can also sing my face off.
And so I realized like there are so many talented women and so few roles for them. So that’s one element of ageism is just opportunity. It’s interesting when it’s in terms of like a writing staff, we’re talking about writing with ageism, because then when you talk about age you start – like I’m starting to work on a project where two of the leads are going to be in their 40s. So I want to work with someone who is at least in their 40s. Because there are certain – it’s like a kind of project where there are references. I want a partner with someone who is in their 40s. So is that like reverse ageism? Sure, but what I really want is someone who has that life experience and background. It’s seeking out the appropriate person with the background and the life skills to better write and better inform this project.
And similarly when I wrote on Robot Chicken they were actively trying to hire younger people there because it’s a sketch show based on pop culture references and all of the references they’ve been doing were – there were a lot of like He-Man, a lot of like ‘80s shows. And I came in and me and some other people and we were like, no, we’re going to do some like Nickelodeon ‘90s shows, which now is also old. So I’m sure that they should start hiring some even younger people.
I feel like ageism gets – it definitely exists, it just gets trickier when it comes to writing because ageism overlaps with where you’re coming from, point of view, your experience as a writer. And it’s I imagine kind of harder to define and then also there’s this real rebellion against like straight old white men, but like old being one of those defining factors. And that being seen from a position of power.
So I think that it’s interesting to see, especially in writing, is age in writing in the context of writers, is that something that is discriminatory? Is that something that people suffer from?
John: Yeah. So I was able to look up some stats on this. The average age of a screenwriter on a top-grossing Hollywood film in 2014 was 46 years and 10 months. So it’s not just the youngs who are getting hired to do these things. And it is weird with a writing career though because it’s expected that you’re going to advance through things. You’re going to start at a low level and you’re going to move your way up and you start getting movies made. And then it can take 10 years to get your career started, so therefore you’re not going to be as young as you were once.
That doesn’t help the 60-year-old person who is looking to break in to the TV industry.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a perfectly good number. Writer of 65, whatever you want to call – I guess 65 is what we consider a senior citizen. The problem I have with this, and I’m just kind of astonished the more I’ve been thinking about it, is that the committee is essentially saying, “Hey, Academy, your new rules for inclusion and representation should also include white men from 40 years and up.” At that point there are no more rules for inclusion and representation. Because at that point if that’s all you need to do well that’s what we’ve been doing anyway. That’s who has been winning Academy Awards. White men between the ages of 40 and 60 as far as I could tell.
We’ve discussed this quite a bit that when you look at the statistics from the Writers Guild the age group that is being pummeled and underrepresented is not writers over the age of 40, it’s writers under the age of 30. They’re the ones who are getting killed. But when you look at the way our business actually functions, while there may be a world where there is this like line in the sand of a protective class that starts at 40, I am hard-pressed as a white man who is almost exactly in between 40 and 60 to say that people like me need protection.
I look around and I think that people like me are what Hollywood defaults to. So this feels like, uh-oh, sometimes as people are trying to make things better suddenly everybody is like well what about my thing and then at some point you have to say, no. I’m actually drawing a line there. I do think that there is an issue for older writers. We’re just talking about writers now 60 or 65 and above. I think those numbers are real and I think there is just an endemic kind of ageism in our country and our culture. But from 40 to 60, which is what this committee is suggesting as far as I can tell, no. I think that’s a terrible idea. I do.
John: Hey Rachel you’ve had to work with people who are older than you. And you’ve had to be the boss of people who are older than you. And that’s a thing I do hear when I think about writers working on writing staffs where they’re not the senior person but they’re quite a bit older than the people they’re working for, is that an awkward dynamic ever?
Rachel: On my end, no. Because I feel like the art that we’re doing – I feel like comedy is such an equalizer. But in general focusing on a task, from my point of view, but again I was a boss, so I’m coming in from a position of power. So, like I want to acknowledge if you ask people from my show they might be like, “Yeah, it was really weird that I had like a 20-something year old bossing me around. Like it fucking sucked. It was humiliating.”
So from my point of view I’m like, yeah, we’re all in our nebulous 30s/40s. That’s how I kind of see everyone around me. It’s about the work. But I think what occurs to me with this is what you said earlier which is breaking in. And there are a lot of programs where it’s like young writers’ new work and young writers has become synonymous with people just starting a career, but there are people who maybe aren’t “young” but want to break into the business and have things to say. And they should be given a fair shot.
This is really true, or this is like really true, is with women and directing. Because – and Rachel Specter and Audrey Wauchope who were writers on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend they’ve talked a lot about this because they wanted to co-direct an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It was their first foray as co-directors but they’d been writing partners for – I mean, 10, 15 years. And they had to appeal to the DGA board. And basically they didn’t get approved as directing partners, despite the fact that they’re definitely partners.
And a bias that came up is like well why haven’t you directed more together. And it’s like we had young kids. Being a director you have to be on set constantly. And if you are a mother with young kids you cannot be gone 18 hours a day. And so there is an implicit break from certain aspects of one’s career when your kids are little. And I think that’s a really big issue is the strike against moms.
And this is a larger thing – and I thought this way before I was a mother. And now that I am one I feel this so much stronger which is the lack of paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave. And that’s an overall cultural problem. In general that then leaks into our various guilds.
John: Absolutely. So if you’d waited one more year you would have gotten your paid parental leave which the WGA got in its last contract.
John: So that is something. But I want to go back to what you said about this idea of we often conflate younger with newer or less expensive. I remember very distinctly I had a lunch meeting with a producer who I really liked and she was great. And I had worked with her before. And she sort of half-pitched me this idea of something they were working on. And I was like, oh, well that sounds great. And she said, “No, we’re looking for a younger writer.”
And I was 30. And I was like, wait, I couldn’t believe she was saying that. And of course what she really meant was a less expensive, less experienced writer for it. But I do think we conflate these two things. And I think that’s to our detriment. We deliberately sort of discount anybody who isn’t in a very clear slot of being like, oh, I really mean a writer who is about 25 years old is my perception of who the writer is for this project. And that’s something we need to past. Because that’s a bias that I hear myself saying, too.
Like I’ve tried to not say Baby Writer anymore. Because it’s infantilizing and sort of makes me think of somebody who has just no idea what they’re doing, when in fact they are a competent person who can write which is why I’m considering them for a job.
John: Cool. Rachel, you are a songwriter in addition to being an actor and a writer of scenes. Can you talk to us about the process of writing a song that you know is going to fit into a filmed narrative? So obviously you did a ton of this for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but you’re also doing this for Broadway. You’re doing this for other things. Talk to us about in your head that moment where it goes from characters speaking into characters singing and how you think of that transition and just the craft of coming up with a song that is doing some storytelling.
Rachel: Ooh. A lot.
John: A lot.
Rachel: Well, I think I go back to that old adage of you burst into song when the emotion is too strong to speak. And then when the emotion is too strong to sing you dance. That I think rings very, very true. You need a heightened state of emotion in order to burst into song. Or you need something to be heightened. You need a grandiosity.
So, if you look at opening numbers, like even the South Park Movie, the emotions are heightened, sure, but it’s also that they’re setting up South Park to be this beautiful, grand town. And they’re doing a kind of Beauty and the Beast like opening with that. So I think there needs to be some sort of intensity or just a reason why a song here. And that’s a really loaded question because there can be a million reasons. Like on Crazy Ex the emotion was nine times out of ten always high, but occasionally we would have songs that were almost like from the writer’s point of view that were making a point. Because also comedy songs are such efficient ways to explore comedic ideas. I see most of the songs I write as like musical sketches.
It’s ways to like boil down these ideas and fully explore them. And so I’m trying to think of an example on the show where it was maybe the writers coming through. Oh, perfect example. So in season three Rebecca Bunch is kind of at a very, very low point. And a song comes in called The End of the Movie. So Rebecca is despondent. And she could sing a song right now, but instead this voiceover song comes in. And it’s a song about how Rebecca thought she was in a movie this whole time. But if this were the end of the movie it would suck because life fundamentally doesn’t make narrative sense. And it’s sung by Josh Groban.
So that was, sure, motivated by a low point in the story and Rebecca’s emotions were low, but it’s also something we as the writers wanted to say and use to comment on the situation. But I think that even then it was a remarkable low in the story.
John: So something like that song, you know where in the context of the story it’s going. So you can’t write that song independent of the actual scene or the sequence in which it’s going to be dropped. It just doesn’t make sense to write that song independently of that. So, as a songwriter, and was this you and Jack? Who was doing this song?
Rachel: This was actually a big brainstorming session between me, Jack, Adam, and Aline, this particular one.
John: And so you’re coming out of this with just a list of beats or ideas or like these are the things that are going to be in the song and then it becomes the responsibility to put lyrics to it. But you have an outline for what happens in the song independently of where the lyrics and the music are going to go, right?
Rachel: Yes. So that song was really almost all Adam, because we had had a brainstorming session where we said it should say like life is a series of revelations that occur over a period of time. And Adam was like oh my god that’s such a great lyric. He really honed in on that song. But generally the way that I go from like a bullet pointed list of ideas to crafting a song is I’ll take the brainstorm and I’ll be like, OK, so first of all what’s the hook. What’s the title of the song? What’s the chorus of the song? What’s the thesis statement of this essay that you’re writing? That comes first.
And then, OK, what is the structure? Does it feel like it’s going to be a verse/chorus structure? What will best serve the idea of the song? And then you’re like, OK, if your verses are your supporting paragraphs – sorry, AP English kid here, so I still think about it like college essays. If your verse is your supporting paragraphs, OK, what are the fundamental ideas I want to have in this verse? How do I want to heighten it into this verse? OK, what should the bridge say? How can the bridge be a departure that kind of goes a different place but then eventually gets you back to the song?
And you start kind of putting sentences and putting jokes in these verse structures. It’s not like lyrics yet. But it’s just organizing your ideas in these clusters and then you start to like rhyme. That’s how I structure it. That’s how I begin to write songs.
I know some people probably they’ll get like a rhyme in their head and they’ll be like, OK, I know I really want this line in there. And so that’s definitely–
John: That’s the germ there.
Rachel: Yeah, like we knew when we were writing the song Strip with My Conscience, like we knew we wanted this line that Jack came up with of “Let me choke on your cocksuredness.” And so like that was something that came up in the brainstorm. And it was like well that’s a great line. We have to put that line in there. So then it’s a reverse engineer of like, OK, that line is great. That could work in this verse because I know that in this verse we’re going to be talking about this aspect of her sexuality. So then how do we rhyme with cocksuredness? It was reverse engineering. And the answer is luridness.
John: Now, Craig, what Rachel is describing, it does sound like writing a scene, doesn’t it?
Craig: It does. And I haven’t done anywhere near as much songwriting as Rachel has, but I have done some songwriting for movies. And when I was working on songs with Jeanine Tesori who is a brilliant composer but absolutely refuses to write lyrics. Refuses. [laughs] So that fell to me. One of the things that I was thinking about a lot and I’m kind of curious Rachel if this was part of your calculation was that there’s this awkwardness, there’s an inevitable awkwardness that occurs about one second after the song ends, which is like – and now it’s like almost everybody, like the song ends and then I almost want everybody to sort of look at each other like, “Do we just stand here now? Or what do we do?”
And so I kind of became obsessed with that moment. And really thought as much as I could about how the end of the song would compel the next thing. So that it wasn’t like “and song” and then grind the story up again, but rather push ahead so that even if the song, like a good scene was revealing something, creating drama, resolving a conflict, or whatever it is, that at the very end there was something actionable in the way the song played out so that somebody could do a thing. Or we could cut to a thing and not feel like it was arbitrary.
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that that’s a testament, because that’s such a good point, that’s a testament to I think when a song is in the right spot most of the time it won’t feel like, well, that was fun. Anyway, we should get back to playing tennis. Because if that’s the case then why did you sing a song? And that song was an aside. So even in like, and I’m going to keep referencing Crazy Ex because I worked on it for a long time, so there’s this silly song we wrote called Man Nap which is a song that men should take naps more. And really silly song. Like one of the most aside songs we ever did. But it was a song sung by Darryl to Nathaniel saying you need to take a nap.
And so throughout the song Nathaniel was getting comfortable and falling asleep. And when the song ended he was asleep and everyone left the room. So there was even a purpose to that song. And that’s the hardest part I find writing especially comedy songs is it’s this balance of you’re furthering something in the plot but yet because you’re living in a comedy song the plot has to stop, because the second that something new plot wise happens in a comedy song it’s the death of the comedy, because you’re not living in this comedic moment.
And so it’s really hard. But it has to still be motivated. It has to be urgently motivated by something in the plot. You have to convince someone to do something. You have to tell the world how much you want something. And at the end of the song, oh my god, I’m going to go get this thing. And that’s also what you can use a bridge for. If you’re living in an idea for most of the song and you’re singing a song called I Want Some Cake. And the verses are like why you love cake. And the chorus is just like I Want Cake, I Want Cake. The bridge is like but wait a second, there’s a pastry shop right around the corner. I can see. It could just go there and get some cake. And then the ending chorus is like I’m Going to Get Some Cake. And then you go and get the cake.
Terrible song idea. But you get what I’m saying that it’s–
Craig: It’s the worst song ever. Ever.
Rachel: But it’s really hard to strike that balance because a song does stop – most of the time if you’re in comedy songs it does stop the plot a little bit. And so it’s very, very contextual. Craig, what did you work on with Jeanine Tesori?
Craig: It’s a movie that I don’t think will ever see the light of day, but we were adapting a Gregory Maguire novel. Not Wicked, but another one of his novels. And writing songs. And it was a joy. And I loved that part of it. Getting a movie made based on a property that people aren’t familiar with always kind of an uphill battle. But it was a great lesson for me because so much of what I kept thinking about was how do I get in and how do we get out.
And for a comedy song like you say why does it happen and also how can its comedy be sort of enmeshed so that it’s not like, again, we don’t stop the show to do – like I always think of Master of the House as the best example of this. I mean, talk about a heavy show, I mean, my god. Look down. Look down. And there are prostitutes that are being in thrown in pits and all the rest. And they’re taking her hair away and her child. It’s awful.
And then you walk into an inn and characters introduced themselves and you just slink into a comedy song. And you slink on out of the comedy song. And it just did it well. You felt seamless.
And I think that this is no different than when we’re writing scenes. I think a lot of times when I read scripts I will see scenes where I’m like this is a wonderful scene. It feels like everything just stopped, a great scene happened, and now everything is starting up again. And then so I don’t recognize how that functions. Yeah.
John: Yeah. I’ve definitely written a lot of musicals, but I’ve also written a lot of action movies. And I think the same transition from normal things are happening and suddenly we’re in an action sequence.
John: You have the same moments of like, OK, we’re now in a heightened space where this action moment is happening. And the same trouble of how do you get out of that action moment. You’re definitely thinking about that. And I find it weird that we consider writing action to be the job of a screenwriter but sometimes we don’t consider writing the musical number to be part of the screenwriter’s job. And I always insist that it is.
Craig: Of course.
John: That’s why in the things I’ve written I write the songs, even if I don’t think I’m going to be the person who ultimately is writing that final song. Because important stuff happened there and I need to show on the page what that is going to feel like.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s a huge part to me, at least, of these songs is what are people doing while they’re singing? That’s such a big part of it. And with film as opposed to stage the options are essentially completely wide open. You are not stage bound.
John: Don’t need that economy of time and space. Not required. So what are you going to do?
Craig: Exactly. So what are they doing? What are they looking at? What are they touching? What are they holding? Where are they going? All of that stuff needs to be considered as part of the song so that you understand – it’s part and parcel because I will just keep saying, I mean, the cottage industry that keeps telling screenwriters to not “direct on the page,” absolutely direct on the page. Direct as much as you can on the page. Because the more you put on the page the more your intention will be carried through.
The danger is when I have seen scripts for a musical, I’m thinking of one in particular, where there’s a scene and then the action says, “She turns to camera and begins singing,” and then the title of the song. And then the next scene. So, wait, they’re just – that’s it? You think your job is to just say that they sing a song? What?
Rachel: It’s a fundamental misunderstanding. And also [other rising] of probably music, but also songwriters, because I too have read those scripts where it’s like, “And they turn and they sing something.” It basically is like you’re writing “and they sing some fucking bullshit. I don’t know. You’ll figure it the fuck out. But it wasn’t important enough for me to write because I don’t write musicals. And I’m like ironically writing a musical because my kid likes them or whatever.”
Rachel: Anyway, go fuck yourself. But, no, it’s part of the story. And, in fact, in thinking about what demands to be musical numbers, musical numbers are often – it’s synonymous with the term like the fun and games of the movie. When you’d be in a montage or when you’d be in the kind of trailer scenes of a movie. That would be in the trailer. You turn that into a musical number. So important things can happen in the musical number. It’s just that you can’t suddenly in the same musical number go from the “I’m on top of the world, I’m eating cake” to “oh no, cake has been outlawed.”
Again, this is my movie. It’s called Cake.
It’s a misunderstanding of how musicals work and the purpose that music serves. And I have firsthand experience and I didn’t mean to jump in, just before I forget, there is something called Demo Derbies which John you may have been seguing into.
John: I was total trying to segue, but you do the segue, because talk to us about how songwriters get involved in this process.
Rachel: Yeah. So, I also come at things, just I should preface with, because I’ve had the experience of being both a writer and an award-winning actor I see the disparity in how both are treated. And it infuriates me.
Case in point. I have done a couple of demo derbies. So, what happens is there’s a movie, a big movie, and they decide, OK, we want a song here, or we want to even make it a musical. And so they go out to a bunch of songwriters, give them very little context, and say, “Write a song to try out for our movie.” And not only write a song to try out for a movie, we’re not going to pay you. We’re not going to credit you with any ideas for a song we may take from the song you submit. And also could you make it a finished song? And we also won’t pay you for that production. OK, thanks, bye.
Rachel: So it’s asking a bunch of writers to pitch them an idea, except they can ask as many people as they want. Because usually if you’re pitching on an idea you know you’re in the mix. You know when it’s like a bakeoff. You know you’re in a mix with a couple of, maybe, I don’t know, a couple of other people. I’m sure there are sometimes more.
But often they’ll just solicit songs from as many songwriters as they want. I got an insight – I had a friend working on a major motion picture and they were showing me the song submissions. And there were upwards of 15 submissions from big songwriters. And they were also not only big songwriters but also they were fully produced. And that’s the thing that’s different from submitting a spec pitch to a studio is you’re asking songwriters to not only do the work of writing a song, which is really hard, and is frankly harder than coming up with a pitch. But also you’re asking them to pay for production. To pay for a studio. To pay a producer to comp together the vocals. To pay musicians. And they’re not going to – sometimes they’ll give you a demo fee. But most times they won’t.
And it’s just like a complete devaluing of songwriters’ time. And top songwriters do this because Adam was doing this. I did a couple of these with Adam and Jack. And it’s not good for the movie. It doesn’t serve the movie because you’re asking people in a vacuum to write a song without giving them the context. You’re not giving them any say on how the lead in to the song should be, how the lead out of the song should be. It’s other-rising of music.
John: Yeah. So I was emailing with you and Jack about this a year ago, even more than that. And we’re talking about Adam Schlesinger. Obviously an incredibly talented songwriter, producer. Did a lot of stuff for you on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, you know, you and Jack and Adam were writing songs, but you were all employees of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. So you guys were covered in ways that someone who is going up for one of these demo derbies is not covered and could theoretically be spending thousands of dollars producing these demos and have nothing to show for it.
Rachel: Exactly. And granted, sorry, I will actively be breastfeeding during this next part.
John: That’s awesome.
Rachel: If you hear sucking and or cooing sounds.
Craig: Those might be coming from me, though. Just because I do that. It’s around that time of day where I just start making sucking and cooing sounds. Go on.
Rachel: [laughs] Everyone has their process. I don’t want to – because this was important to Adam. And I don’t want to speak for Adam because the way that Adam got the gig for That Thing You Do was it was a blind demo submission. So it can be a way – I mean, he wasn’t an unknown songwriter at the time.
Rachel: It can be a way for people to achieve success, but it really takes advantage of songwriter’s time and just – yeah, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how musicals are done because the same is not the case for theater. If you write musicals for theater you are part of the creative – I’m in this right now. I have literal points in the decision making of a musical because there’s a union called the Dramatist Guild. So the book writers can’t make changes to my songs. That is in the Dramatist Guild. I am part of dreaming up the story for this musical.
There are rights that fundamentally understand the role of songwriting in storytelling in theater that you don’t have in film and TV.
John: Now, Craig, talk us through why it’s different, because you’re going to explain copyright and why there’s a big difference there.
Craig: This is the sort of push and pull of the world that we’re in. Because on the one hand in theater everybody that’s writing is an author. You author your songs. You’re the author of those songs. You write a play, you are the playwright. That copyright belongs to you. And so you are licensing the work and therefore you are collecting royalties on that work. And if you have a show like the aforementioned Les Mis that goes on and on and on, multiple revivals and tours, even high school productions, all of it funnels money back towards the author.
In Hollywood we don’t have that. We’re not authors. We are employees. Interestingly, I think for some of these cases where you’re writing songs you still maintain your authorship, but that’s why they can kind of do this to you. Because you’re not protected by a union because you’re not an employee. So the Writers Guild has a working rule that says you can’t write spec work on demand. In other words if a studio says you need to write 30 pages in order for us to decide if we’re going to give you this job, you’re not allowed to do it. It is a violation of our contract. It’s a violation of our working rules. But that’s because we’re employees. And a union can do that.
And when you are not an employee all sorts of cool things, but more of the Wild West. And you can be abused. It’s easier weirdly to get abused I think when you’re not under the aegis of an actual employee’s union.
John: Yeah. So I do wonder if there are situations, like we’re talking about these movies where there are demo derbies for that, but I often hear from people who are writing songs for animation projects. Or especially like TV animation where they have to crank out these songs for a Duck Tales or something like that. And in those situations I’m not sure they actually are holding on to the copyright for their songs. And I think those are all getting subsumed by the episode itself.
I want to find some protection for folks who are doing that kind of writing. And I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do it through the WGA. But at least we can shine a spotlight on these are abuses that are happening and try to change some of the behaviors here.
Rachel, you talked about a demo fee. Would that help?
Rachel: Yeah, and we got it – we had to demand it on one thing that we did. That would help. I think what would help more is in an ideal world if you have to submit a song for something you wouldn’t be expected to submit the full song. What you’d be expected to submit is maybe a verse and a chorus, or just your chorus, and it’s just on one instrument. It’s just a piano vocal. It’s just a vocal guitar.
Now that does ask executives to use their imagination, which I know is a strong demand for most executives. But that would be a more reasonable demand than write a full song. And then certainly write and produce a full song. I understand that like someone pitching a song, “OK, here’s the song I’m going to write and it’s going to sound like this,” I understand that you can’t really get a sense of what that songwriting style is going to be. But there is a middle ground between like produce a fully done song and pitch us your idea for a song.
And that’s where I feel like, and I don’t know much about how these decisions are made in the Writers Guild, but if the Writers Guild stipulated, OK, you’re a songwriter, if you’re going to pitch something on spec here’s what you’re allowed to do, here’s what you’re not allowed to do. But that implies that you would have to then get into the guild as a songwriter. It seems like there should be someone protecting the writers saying here’s what you are and are not allowed to do on spec.
John: Yeah. Because, Craig, I’m thinking about Rachel is obviously a WGA member, if she’s a pitching a song, I mean, she is writing scenes that go with it. So, it becomes a very fine line. Is she doing spec work in turning in that spec song for a thing? It’s the assumption she would hold on to the copyright behind it, but if it’s specific to the movie that she’s doing it’s not like she has any value for that work that she did that she could use and exploit in some other way. Her copyright isn’t–
Craig: If it’s written down on paper, if it’s written on paper then I think there’s an argument that it’s writing. And is covered and they can’t ask for it. If it’s an mp3, if it’s an audio file, it’s a song, then it’s not on paper. It’s not writing. That’s the weird part of it. I mean, according the Writers Guild right now. At that point you’re saying again that this is a song that you would own the copyright to but you would license. And if they’re like, “Oh, no, no, we commissioned this,” then even then the Writers Guild does not I don’t believe cover lyric writing.
Rachel: No. Sorry, hold on, burping a baby. But what these demo derbies – first of all you sign, I think, NDAs. I couldn’t be… [baby cries]
I know, I’m very sorry.
Craig: Aw. Hi baby.
John: I think it’s the first baby on Scriptnotes. I like it.
Craig: Hey baby. Hey.
Rachel: [baby cries] OK. OK. All right. Goodbye.
Craig: I imagine that you just put her down and she just walked away. Because she’s actually like eight. And she just was like – and you’re like, bye, and she just cries as she walks away, unsatisfied.
John: Yeah. It’s a Game of Thrones/Arryn kind of situation.
Rachel: Bye, I’m going back to middle school. Someone came in and helped take her away–
Craig: Spirit her away.
Rachel: For the moment. So, first of all when you do these demo derbies, they own the work that you do. It’s not like you’re licensing this song. You’re writing the song for this thing. It’s not like you can then take that song and be like this is my song. You sign – my brain is foggy right now, but I believe you – well, first of all, you sign NDAs about the material they’re giving you. But you also sign something that like they own that song.
So, you are–
Craig: Right. It’s a work-for-hire in other words.
Rachel: It’s a work-for-hire that sometimes isn’t paid. Right?
John: [laughs] An unpaid work-for-hire.
Rachel: But Craig you were saying is it on paper, it’s always going to be on paper because you’re always going to have lyrics on paper.
Craig: But do you submit those lyrics or not?
Rachel: Yes. I do. Here’s another wrinkle of the way that I do my work which is I don’t just write lyrics. If I’m writing a song I script the song, because I have very specific things that I want to have happen. So I full on any song I do it’s in Final Draft and I turn in the lyrics, or they’re in Final Draft. And I do scripted elements of the song. So I absolutely–
Craig: That’s writing.
Rachel: Yeah, no, I’ve done that for numerous places.
Craig: Well, you should stop. [laughs]
Rachel: Well, so what do we do? How can–?
Craig: Well, I think that for starters it would be good for the Writers Guild to know that some of these businesses that are asking writers to submit songs are either requesting or are accepting script pages. Because they’re not allowed to. It is a full violation of our working rules. They’re allowed to ask for songs all they want. You can also come and paint a mural for them. But if you’re writing script pages, including action description and stuff like that, then it’s writing. And they can’t do that as a condition of employment. They’re just not allowed.
Rachel: I mean, that’s me just the way I work doing that. So I don’t want to speak for other writers.
Craig: And they should pay you.
John: It’s not about volunteering. They shouldn’t be accepting it.
Craig: What they should say is, OK, if we want this and we do we’re going to at least agree to pay you scale. It’s not that much. Believe me. It won’t change your life. But at least it covers the work under the contract that applies. So, something to think about and certainly – by the way, I find a lot of times these companies or their representatives, they don’t know either. I mean, it’s been 10 years, but I sat in a room at Paramount, this is like four regimes ago, with the Committee on the Professional Status of Screenwriters, and we were talking to all of the Paramount executives about the free rewrite issue and why it needed to stop. And one of the junior executives said, “Well, we need to get a producer pass, so how does the producer pass fit in?”
And we were like, actually we didn’t even get to say it. The person who was the president of production, very embarrassed, I had to turn to her and say, “There is no producer pass. It’s not a thing.” They just don’t know. So in this case it may be also that they just don’t know.
John: Yeah. So hopefully we’ve raised some awareness on this and just like we improved sex onscreen we can improve the lives of songwriters who are trying to write for the film and television industry. We can always hope.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Craig: I do. It is a revival of a former One Cool Thing of mine. I am obsessed as some of you know with the movie The Boys in the Band. I mean, I never saw the play. I have just not had the ability to see it performed live. But I am a big fan of the 1970 William Friedkin version of Mart Crowley’s excellent play because it is both awesome and terrible at the same time in various ways. It’s a remarkable thing and I’ve talked about it before.
There is a new Boys in the Band, the play itself has had a fascinating renaissance, where it had been kind of rejected – the history was it was on Off Broadway, then it went to Broadway. It was a big hit. They decided to make a movie. And while they were shooting the movie Stonewall happened and everything changed. And the story of Boys in the Band felt like it was out of its time, like it hadn’t kept up. And that so much of it was about the self-loathing homosexual. And nobody wanted to hear it at the time because the word at the time was pride. And it essentially got kind of pushed off into whatever the gay version of Uncle Tom is. It was just sort of like you go over there. We don’t want you anymore.
And now it’s back, which I think is great. Mark Harris who is a fantastic, I don’t know what you’d call him, critic, but like in the good version, not a reviewer.
John: Journalist. Yeah.
Craig: But a thinker about culture. Has written a really interesting piece about it contextualizing Boys in the Band as part of history, and particularly part of LGBTQ history.
So there’s a new version of Netflix, because everything is on Netflix, and what’s fascinating about it is that it is an all-gay cast. So the original, the movie was not an all-gay cast. It was mostly a gay cast, and tragically and not at all unexpectedly I think almost every single gay actor from the 1970 movie was dead by 1992 from AIDS. So it was sort of like tragic elimination of these very talented, brilliant guys. And so here comes this new version that has sort of this triumphant revival. Entirely openly gay cast of actors, including lots of actors that we all know like Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons.
And I thought it was really well done. It was directed by Joe Mantello who is also gay. So it was like everybody everywhere was sort of like, OK, we’re going to do this with full representation. And I have to say I thought it was really, really good. But I want to single out Jim Parsons because – look, I don’t like speaking ill of the dead, but Kenneth Nelson who played the main character of Michael in the original Broadway production and in the 1970 movie, he just wasn’t good. I’m just going to say it. It’s just bizarrely over the top. He’s like in a different movie. He is over there in like Mommie Dearest land, and everybody else is like in a regular movie.
And Jim Parsons kind of reclaims that part and does it in a way that I thought was like, OK, yes, this makes sense. This is really good. I thought he was fantastic. So big thumbs up to Jim Parsons and in general to the production of The Boys in the Band on Netflix. Totally worth watching. A fascinating little time capsule from the late ‘60s.
John: Cool. Rachel, do you have a One Cool Thing to share with us? Anything you want to recommend to our listeners?
Rachel: Yeah, just in general a comedian. Demi Adejuyigbe. He is such a funny comedian and basically every year on September 21st for the past couple of years he’s done a music video online to the song Do You Remember…September, because it’s about September 21st. And this year he really topped himself. And they’re always these fundraising ventures. And he basically said if you give me enough money I’ll do another one this year. And he earned so much money this year.
So he’s doing these amazing kind of OK Go music videos that are also for a good cause. And just everything he does is so funny in general.
Rachel: Check out his stuff. And it’s Demi is his first name. And then his last name is spelled Adejuyigbe.
John: He’s great. And I believe he was a writer on The Good Place if I remember correctly.
John: He’s really, really talented. So we’ll put a link in that to the show notes. My One Cool Thing is just a phrase I heard this last week which I had never heard before which is apparently the common self-helpy kind of AA kind of phrase. But it’s “Let go or be dragged.” And it’s the idea that like if you’re holding onto something that’s pulling you into a bad place you need to let go of that thing. And it’s such an obvious idea and yet it would be so useful for so many things I could think of in my life where it’s like why am I holding onto this thing that is pulling me in such a bad way. And the proper answer is, no, you just have to let go of that thing.
And so “Let go or be dragged” is just a nice thought that I feel like I should put a stickie note on my computer here.
Rachel: That’s beautiful. I love that.
John: Yeah. But more crucially, not just a One Cool Thing, Rachel you have a book to plug. Tell us about your book.
Rachel: I do. Oh my god. Thank you so much for asking. It comes out November 17th which is great because we won’t be talking about anything else that’s way more important than my book.
John: No, 100 percent.
Rachel: In November. There’s like nothing else going on. It’s called I Want to Be Where the Normal People are. And it’s basically a collection of essays and sketches and comedic prose about my experience and feelings on normalcy and not fitting in.
And it starts in childhood and ends in now. And it was always going to be a kind of time capsule of part one of my life, before I had a child. And then now it is very much a time capsule of part one of my life because my child is the age of COVID, born in March. And I finished the book literally the day before I went to give birth.
So, if you feel like you don’t fit in, if you have a kid that feels like he/she/or they don’t fit in, if you want to read about what it’s like to not fit in because you wonder what that’s like because you’ve always fit in, check it out.
John: Excellent. And so we’ll have a link in the show notes to that so people can find that in all the bookstores everywhere. So, I’m looking forward to that.
All right. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Rachel and Jack Dolgen from our live show way back in 2014. Do you remember that live show Rachel?
Rachel Bloom: I do. Is that the one where I sang How Do I Get Famous?
John: Exactly. So, we’ll be playing that. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Rachel, what are you on Twitter?
Rachel: I’m @racheldoesstuff.
John: Yeah. And you also are on Instagram which is where I more often see you, so follow her there.
We have t-shirts. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can also find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments.
Craig: Goodbye Rachel and goodbye to your baby. And I miss you. And we’ll all see each other soon.
Rachel: Yes. Miss you two men.
Rachel: Oh, that was so good. I’m so proud of myself.
John: You should be so proud of yourself.
Rachel: Oh, that was good.
John: Yeah. That brings us back to a simpler time. A simpler time. A lovely time. A Christmas show. And we first got to hear about you. It’s where I first met you. And learned about this show. Back then it was a Showtime show. It was before you had even moved to the CW. Wow. So long ago.
Rachel: Oh man. Oh.
John: So Craig was going to be here for our revival segment, and then Craig had to take off because he had urgent work stuff to deal with. So it’s just you and me talking revivals. But I love a revival and you’ve been in revivals. Let’s think about revivals and musicals and what is sort of the point of revivals. And Craig’s actual One Cool Thing was a kind of revival, The Boys in the Band, sort of taking a thing from the past and looking at it with a new lens.
Where do you come down, Rachel, in terms of the energy we spend reviving old pieces of musical theater versus creating new ones? What should that balance be?
Rachel: Yeah. I have sometimes have problems with revivals that really try to like – if you’re going to do a revival that really reimagines something, where it’s like – at a certain point – and I don’t want to throw any like one revival under the bus, so I’ll be as vague as I can while still remaining specific. But if you’re going to do a revival and it’s like but I really want to make it about this, it’s like well then why not just write a new show about that? Because you’re trying to take a piece that was written in the ‘40s or the ‘50s and make a point about the way that we treat gender.
And it’s like, yeah, you can do that. And that is really cool. And that’s all the context of this is how we used to think and here is how we think and isn’t that contrast cool? And that does have value and I have a ton of revivals in my head that I’ve always – I should do a revival of 42nd Street where everyone is on an acid trip. I don’t know. I’ve had ideas like that.
But at a certain point there’s a very fine line between reimagining and then like just write a new show.
John: Yeah. And obviously all of the Shakespeare shows had antecedents. They were based on things that beforehand. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about sort of like, OK, we’re going to take the book and the songs from this musical and we’re going to stage them again, either as a very faithful recreation of them. So you and I have both seen plenty of those things where they dust off an old musical and just like stage it again for two nights.
You did one with Susan Stroman where they took an old musical and staged it.
Rachel: I did.
John: And it’s sort of fun to see what those things were like because they weren’t ever filmed in a way that you should see it. So kind of the only way to experience them is to see them. But then a lot of times you watch them and you’re like, well, that’s not actually interesting. Or that’s not funny anymore. That’s just not a thing we want to see. And that’s the challenge of some of these revivals. You realize like, oh, well maybe there’s a reason why we’re not staging this one again the way we do The Sound of Music every couple of years.
Rachel: Yeah. I think that’s also a good point that comedy has a real shelf life. And it’s a problem because the golden age of musicals, the ‘50s through the ‘70s, a lot of things are relevant but the comedy gets more and more and more dated. And then similarly I wanted to do – I looked into directing a production of Anyone Can Whistle, this little known Sondheim show, or lesser known Sondheim show in college.
And I got access to the script. And everyone was like, “You want to do Anyone Can Whistle?” Because the music is great. And they’re like, OK, good luck. And I looked at the book and it’s a mess. It’s an absolute mess. And there are a lot of musicals that are messes, but also that is a problem especially in early musical theater where everything is serving the song so the book is almost like an afterthought.
So then it’s like, OK, well do you then do a rewrite of the book, in which case is it a revival?
John: Yeah. Or a complete reinvention of a thing. This whole topic was brought up, our friend Dan Jinks tweeted this last week, “Broadway geeks, what’s a musical that has really good things in it but is probably not revivable in its current form?” And it sounds like book problems are going to be one of the big issues that get in there, but also just sometimes there’s a couple of great songs. You’re like, wow, that’s just so amazing. And then you realize like, oh, there’s also a lot of stinker songs that if you were listening to the cast album you’re just like clicking past those tracks.
And then you actually have, oh, we’re going to have to sit here for four minutes and watch this thing happen onstage, that becomes a real problem.
John: So what do we do? The revivals, like Anyone Can Whistle, that’s a situation where you could go to Sondheim and say like, hey, I really want to do this thing and can we really take another look at the book or how we get into this? Or do we do just a concert staging or some other way to showcase those songs without being kind of stuck with the book?
Rachel: Depends what your goal is. Because they’ve done concert readings of Anyone Can Whistle that I think I’m pretty sure they did a glossed over version of the book. That’s if you want to just focus on the songs and say, you know what, let’s revisit these songs. They’re so good.
If you think the piece – and I haven’t read the script of Anyone Can Whistle in quite some time at this point, but if you think, you know what, this piece does have not only amazing songs but also amazing themes, and I have some ideas about how it could be just made fantastic, but it has some problems, or some things that we need to update. And there are ways to go to the original writer or the company that controls the rights and do that. That’s another way to go.
John: Yeah. We were talking about the difference between movies and TV shows where it’s all work-for-hire versus something like a Broadway musical where that copyright is controlled by the original playwright, or the original songwriters, and so you are not allowed to make those changes without their permission and their blessing.
There’s many good things about that, but it also gets into situations where you can’t make a change. It seems like an obvious change that you would want to make, it’s not just incredibly misogynistic or racist or just have real troubles putting on a modern stage. Tough.
Rachel: Yeah. And I know someone who got dinged in college. There were some fellow students who put on a production of Company but with an all-male cast. They wanted to make it about gay relationships. But they also decided to set it now, rather than setting it in the early ‘70s. So Another Hundred People became this like club song, which is actually quite interesting. But they changed certain things. They said like “I’ll text you.” They changed certain things to be updated with their revival. And R&H who owns the rights, Rogers and Hammerstein Company, found out and they had to write a personal apology letter to Stephen Sondheim.
John: Oof. But in some ways it’s kind of fun to write a personal apology letter to Stephen Sondheim because you’re like, ah, I got to write to Stephen Sondheim.
Rachel: That is cute. You’re right.
John: With all the trouble I created. With Big Fish, you know, the musical, there have been certain changes that we’re kind of allowing just because the show gets performed so often in kind of conservative campuses. Like Utah. Utah High School, they just love it. But there will be certain lyrics that they don’t want to say.
One of the things we’re sort of wrestling with is they try to have the Josephine character not be pregnant at her wedding, and it’s like, well, that’s actually kind of a crucial plot point. And yet if that’s the obstacle between you staging the thing and not staging the thing, I guess we’re just going to kind of live with it. Because we’d much rather you see all the themes and all of the joyful things of Big Fish than for us to get hung up on sort of how pregnant Josephine is at this wedding.
Rachel: Yeah. It’s all context of what are you changing, why are you changing. What’s the purpose of you reimagining? I remember hearing about a production of South Pacific done by the director Anne Bogart a while back that all took place in a mental institution. The patients were doing South Pacific as a therapeutic exercise. And I believe they got in trouble with R&H about it.
So it just depends on a lot of factors, but I think it all comes down to why. I think if there’s a compelling like why are doing this, why now. It’s also like contextual. Because there was about to be this Music Man revival with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. I don’t think they were going to make many changes. And the question is like why now. Because it’s Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. And that’s going to be awesome. And they’re perfect for those roles and I want to see that. And I want to see The Music Man just done on stage again. And that sounds so fun.
John: It’s escapism. There’s always a role for escapism in these shows as well. You’re working on The Nanny right now. I’m sure you will tackle some meaningful social issues in The Nanny, but that is a piece of escapist entertainment that I cannot wait to see.
Rachel: Yes. And I signed onto that project because it’s a part of my childhood and because for me there is a – it’s a nostalgic escapism that also is part of my identify because it’s about a loud, brassy, outspoken Jewish lady. And so we are going to come at some things with a more contemporary lens. But especially whenever Broadway comes back, should this go to Broadway, of the why now, people are going to need escapism, especially like back to a time before a lot of complicated things happened. Let’s just say a time pre-9/11 to say the least.
John: That would be lovely.
Rachel: And I took a musical theater writing class where they walked us through why are you making something, a musical, when you’re adapting something that wasn’t a musical. And the fundamental thing is can you find a new element in the piece or can you make the piece better by making it a musical.
Rachel: And I came to the conclusion with that that yes. But sometimes that’s not the case. If you have a movie out there that already has this 90-minute/two-hour narrative that is perfect, that I find less compelling to make into musicals.
John: Because then you’re trying to wedge some things in there and either you’re going to have to musicalize some things that were just spoken before, which is awkward, or you’re going to have to – you’re always going to be losing some things by putting the songs in. And in putting the songs in are you really transforming it in a way that’s better for everyone to be watching?
John: Rachel, good luck with all and it’s so good to talk with you again.
Rachel: It’s so good to talk with you, too.
John: Cool. Bye.
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