Just like making tiny hats for cats, writing a musical may seem like an easy, trivial, silly challenge, but it’s actually a hard and long process that requires various skills that one mostly doesn’t possess on their own. That’s why most of the musical theater work is done in collaboration. A classic collaboration is usually between a words person (book and lyrics) and a composer. Another type of collaboration is when one person writes music and lyrics and the other writes the book. And finally, there’s a collaboration which is comprised of three people, one for each task, but not a lot of people have survived such a process, and those who did are still hospitalized.
I would like to unveil the mystery of the first kind of collaboration because just like a snowflakes – there’s plenty of them. A writer-composer relationship, like any other relationship that’s based on egos and laziness, is quite fragile and can be destroyed within one misspoken sentence, especially when one or both sides are over-sensitive.
Let’s take a common scenario in a writer-composer collaboration:The composer has been given some lyrics to set and she just finished playing it to the writer. The writer isn’t completely satisfied with the music, but he fears that if he tells that to the composer, the composer will nod understandingly, call the writer “a talentless douche” and smack him to death with a nearby reading lamp. So how do you pull that off?
Step 1: Grease the collaborator.
**The composer just finished playing the new song to the writer**
COMPOSER: I want you to be totally honest with me. What do you think?
WRITER: (bursts into a spontaneous standing ovation) Wow. Wow. Wow. You nailed it. I think that’s the best music you ever wrote.
COMPOSER: (flattered) If you don’t like something, I can change it.
WRITER: What?! No! No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s perfect! You’ll ruin it. I had tears during the second chorus.
COMPOSER: (Sunk to his neck in adulation) Really?
WRITER: Touch my cheek.
COMPOSER: (touches the writer’s cheek) It’s dry.
WRITER: Well, it dried up during our talk, but it was wet earlier. Man, the music is so great! When I die, I want to be buried with that music in the background. Promise me you’ll play it in my funeral.
COMPOSER: (smothered with admiration and a sense of greatness, about to lose consciousness and can only express herself with random syllables) Guhhhh.. Kahhhh.. Murrrr.
Step 2: Sowing the seed of doubt
WRITER: But it’s not important what I think. What do I know about music? I’m just a words person who can’t carry a tune. What matters is what you think. Do you like it?
COMPOSER: I do.
WRITER: Do you? Great. Do you really? Awesome. If you’re happy with it, then I’m happy.
COMPOSER: If? You’re not happy?
WRITER: I’m happy. Can’t be happier.
COMPOSER: Seriously, if you had to change something, what would you change?
WRITER: Nothing. I think it’s perfect. For a first draft.
COMPOSER: There’s no such a thing as “perfect for a first draft”. If it’s perfect then it’s perfect for all drafts. That what perfect means.
COMPOSER: So it’s perfect, right?
WRITER: (avoids a direct answer by saying random syllables) Grumph
WRITER: Flugh. Schnurrr.
Step 3: Land the truth gently
WRITER: As I said, I wouldn’t change anything, but if you’re forcing me to give you an answer and you don’t accept “nothing” for an answer,
COMPOSER: Yes, please.
WRITER: With a gun to my head, and only because you are demanding it, I would reconsider the accompaniment of the verse. It might feel slightly too cheerful for a ballad to someone who doesn't know you as well as I do.
COMPOSER: (nods understandingly, calls the writer “a talentless douche” and smacks him to death with a nearby reading lamp)
WRITER: (slowly dying, blurts out random syllables) Huhhh… Flurb… Khhhhash. (dead)
And that's how it's done. You’re welcome!