July, 2012: My composer Brian Carpenter and I in residence at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’sGround Floor development program, at their new facility on Harrison Street.
I wish I had some juicy dirt to impart, but actually TGF was a collaborator’s paradise. Brian had a studio on end of the facility, complete with several keyboards and his laptop (the essential musical instrument of the 21st Century). On the other end of the space, I had my little grotto for hammering out the words. In between our offices, were the common areas, and—most importantly—the kitchen, from which a delicious dinner would (to our minds) magically appear at the end of the work-day.
|One of the Barbary Coast|
landmarks in SF
|San Francisco's Barbary Coast|
Anyone who’s ever seen “Gangs of New York” will have some idea of the com-plexity of historical material we were dealing with on the other side of North America, with our story of the criminal underworld that thrived during (and was enabled by) San Francisco’s Gold Rush. As book-writer I was tasked first with taming this wild beast of information, then with honing the characters and scenarios we’d selected into gritty, compelling drama.
Because Brian doesn’t work from existing lyrics, we ironically ended up collab-orating more on the architecture (I re-use that word intentionally) and goals of each song than we might have through a more traditional arrangement.
The way we worked was simple. In the morning, after we had a little time to settle in (the coffee helped), I’d walk over to Brian’s studio and ask which song he was ready to explore that day. Using a giant pad provided by TGF (it was very high-tech)—we created a literal map of what the song should be. How this is specifically done is a long story and you should take the class to hear it, but in short it was a way for both of us to not only agree on how the song was structured and where it was going, but to see that agreement in front of us, in black and white, on a very large piece of paper (you’d be surprised how affective this is to us visual animals).
What we discovered working this way (with the encouragement of BRT Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Madeleine Oldham, the Director of TGF) was that the music could do most of the work (sorry, Brian). What had up til now simply been scenes became what would more properlybe called song-scenes in which the bulk of the conflict was carried by singing and music rather than by dialogue.
It is a very tiresome cliché that songs must “advance the action”. Some of the greatest songs in the canon do no such thing—what these great songs always do, however, is replace the action, that is, replace the dialogue and conflict of a straight play, with song, movement and music. Such that the piece resembles a chaotic Swiss cheese if you remove these musical elements.
The relationship between the book-writer (who is often the lyricist) and the composer (who is often also the lyricist) is the core from which every musical springs—negotiating that terrain is the key to a successful project. Though Brian and I had a pretty easy time of it collaborating technically, we did have some philosophical differences I’ll try to get into another future post.
For more on Dominic and Brian's The Barbary Coast check out Berkeley Rep
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