The Collaborator’s Corner: I Hate Musicals

Gretchen Midgely 

  • OnStage New York Columnist

I hate musicals. There, I said it. And that’s a pretty big problem considering I, well, write them. I don’t know when it happened, but some time between the very first “let’s write a musical!” enthusiasm shared with my first creative partner, the excitement of finally seeing one of my songs performed in a “real” concert by a “real” actor in a “real” musical theatre festival, and starting to actually collect (gasp!) money for what I do, musical theatre stopped being my respite, pulling me away from real world responsibilities, and became my job, full of myriad responsibilities of its own.

I suppose it’s really not all that surprising. Once any endeavor changes from something you did casually for fun to something with others’ expectations and a paycheck attached, the pressure is bound to increase while the whimsy and careless joy decrease. I remember deciding  to write my first musical, First Light, a show based on Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. My collaborator and I decided to write the musical purely for fun, because we were intrigued by the characters in the painting and were excited about giving them a story. Because we approached this show purely for the joy of creating, with no strings attached but to one another and the project, I like to think we came up with something pretty great for a first try.

As these things sometimes go, that show eventually led to some other opportunities, including one that had a little money attached. As I wrote the songs for this project, I still had a blast, but I felt significantly more pressure from the get-go. People were definitely going to see this. A theatre was relying on me. It had to be good. 

I believe I did more rewrites of the songs in that one-act than of all the songs in First Light combined (which taught me a ton about my process—but that’s the subject for another post). And now as I work on material with various levels of commitment attached— from just for fun to rights inquiries to shows under contract— I find it harder and harder to return to that pure place of writing just to write. I definitely wouldn't say I’m jaded or bitter—I’ve been in this business far too short a time for that!—but it’s a lot harder to find the joy when I’m relying on that advance check to pay my rent or I know this particular show may open or close the door to an adaptation I really want to work on. My routine is also significantly different now that the stakes are higher; I don’t get to ponder song titles lazily on my couch for a month in between SVU marathons. I write six days a week at my desk whether I want to or not, whether I’m inspired or not. Which, as any writer will tell you, is about 90% of the time not. 

So when I say I hate musicals, of course I don’t actually mean that. If I did I would have bowed out a long time ago for something that actually paid my utility bills and maybe a Modcloth order or two. What I mean, in part, is, I never listen to musicals just for fun anymore, and I’m pretty jealous of people who still can. I have a friend who works as a staffer on Capitol Hill and when asked how she deals with working in politics, she responded very seriously, “I listen to a lot of musicals.” I’m jealous she can still use them as an escape. Don’t get me wrong; my favorite thing to listen to on my daily walk to the metro is the cast recording of Floyd Collins, The Secret Garden, or Heathers. Only now I’m analyzing the whole time: Yes, I agree that Guettel’s lyrics meander here like that critic said. Amazing how two settings are established so quickly in just an opening. See how the lack of rhyme here sets this character apart from everyone else in the show! So, yes. Even when I’m listening to shows I’m still working, and that goes for seeing  live theatre as well. 

Now what’s a former-musical-lover-turned-writer to do to find motivation and fall back in love with her craft? Two things have kept me going lately. The first came from a recent conversation with my roommate, an actress, about enjoying the phase of life we are currently living. It’s realizing that, no matter how exhausting it is performing the same show eight times a week or how long it feels like I’ve been rewriting the same scene over and over again, this may be the only time in our lives we get to work on this particular material. She’s not guaranteed to get to play this role again, so she better well dive into it now. And this is the only time I will ever get to write this show, this scene, this song. I will do many rewrites, that’s for certain, but looking at the grander scheme of my artistic life and how many shows I hope to write in whatever time I’m given, the amount of time I get to spend with the characters in any given show is quite small. I only get to live with them, their particular problems, their dreams, their feelings so big they have to sing about them, for so long before I have to move on to the next project. 

Finally, this: a few weeks ago, Gary Garrison, the Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild (and man, are they amazing! But again, a subject for another post) stepped down to have more time for writing, family, and friends. In his parting email to members of the Guild, Gary shared with us an essay entitled “The Gift” that he wrote back in 2007 when he came to work at DG. It’s about the power writers have to “create whole intricate, dimensional worlds and to people them with infinitely interesting, complex beings,” to “make entire groups of people THINK about their lives, their loves, their relationships, their histories, their politics and to take an action — a real action — because of something you question, say, show, demonstrate, or illuminate.” He goes on to say that life as a writer is hard, that many of us toil away for years with no recognition in what can be an unkind community. That not all of us will get “shiny brand new production[s]” of our shows and it can be hard to keep going when circumstances, finances, and crazy schedules seem to be working against us. But it’s imperative to keep going. He concludes, “In your mind are all the solutions to the problems I’m trying to solve in my life. So help me out. Write your stories. Show me the way.”

And that is why I keep writing, even when the fire is gone and the embers barely glowing. Not because I believe my stories and songs are going to change the world in a big dramatic way, but because perhaps someday they will touch one person and “show them the way.” And maybe somewhere along the journey, they’ll show me the way, too.