It’s been an exciting few months at Vocademy and in the world of music, despite COVID’s valiant efforts to dictate otherwise. June’s blog is a very special one for me as I have just completed a fantastic project with various members of the Vocademy family. Since March, we have been working together to create a two-track demo (with more to come!) for my original musical, ‘The Perfect Tragedy.’ Creating Perfect Tragedy has been such a long rollercoaster for me over the past three years that I feel both the musical; and the generous talent of Vocademy’s staff and students; are deserving of a blog dedication. I would like to talk a little this month about my personal techniques and methods when writing a musical, in the hope of inspiring future musicians and composers to do the same.
I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision that I wanted to write musicals, more an inevitable realisation. I remember returning from a school trip to see ‘Les Misérables.’ I had never seen a large scale musical before and it was utterly mesmerising, abruptly banishing any accusations of being ‘nerdy’ or ‘uncool’ because the combination of musical and story was simply magical. If being completely obsessed by this art form made me nerdy, then nerdy was a good thing to be. It is true that, in the real world, people don’t just spontaneously break into song and dance. But why would you go to the theatre to experience real world? Anyhow, I returned from London at the age of thirteen and that inevitable realisation hit me like a brick. I was going to write a musical, however long it took.
Of course, ‘however long it takes’ when you are on the edge of your teenage years can range from ‘tomorrow evening’ to ‘a week on Tuesday,’ and not all that farther. My advice to anybody considering writing a musical: get comfortable. It’s going to take a while. I have taken on a fair few of long-scale projects these last six years including novels and a symphony, squashing a music degree in whenever I could; but ‘The Perfect Tragedy’ takes the gold medal of long-term endeavours. From blank page to completed score, I can clock it in at almost exactly three years. But, when starting out, as long as you are aware of the commitment and don’t expect a finished product over a couple of weeks, you will be fine.
When creating a musical, it is very common to have a collaboration of two or even three writers. This is because there are three components to writing: the book, the lyrics and the score. The book is essentially the scrips; the lyrics the words to the musical numbers; and the score the music, including the orchestra or band of you want one. Taking inspiration from composers such as Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of ‘Hamilton’) and Anais Mitchell (creator of ‘Hadestown’) I knew very early on that this was a project in which I wanted to undertake as much of the work myself as possible. Writing and music have always been my favourite occupations, and so writing a musical myself seemed the perfect opportunity to blend both loves and come up with something brand new.
Although I played around with some musical themes from very early stages, I wanted to perfect the story first. This is because the relationship between story and music is crucial – some may disagree, but I wanted to have the themes and plots down early so that I could compose appropriate music. I’ve always loved writing futuristic, dystopian novels and so I wanted to stick to that style. I thought a dystopian musical could fill a gap in the market, and so I started to reimagine an ‘in-the-pipeline’ novel called ‘Odds and Ends’ as a musical. I quickly realised that I wanted this story on stage, and not just between pages. The next stage was, using the monomyth theory as a guide, to break down what was initially a very long plot into just fifteen short scenes. A lot of material was cut, and a few scenes were added. It took a long time to reimagine ‘Odds and Ends’ – or ‘The Perfect Tragedy’ as it would be re-christened – as a musical, but once I had my fifteen scenes, the next stage was to start on the music.
Before I started composing the material itself, I created a ‘song chart.’ This outlined the musical numbers I wanted; which scene they were in; which characters were involved and so on. It is worth noting that this song chart was changed probably more than any other element of the entire musical. I think almost zero of the original pieces made it into the final product. At least two thirds of writing a musical is grudgingly rewriting it when you learn to become more critical of your own work. I also had to ensure I had a good balance of ensemble numbers and solo pieces, to keep variety and – hopefully – the audience’s attention off the fish and chips they have been promised after the curtain closes; and instead on the stage in front of them.
Themes are key in musicals, and I personally love to use leitmotifs (this is when a character, relationship or place has their own musical themes.) Very, VERY slowly, I started to complete my song chart by composing the pieces I had assigned myself. I cut plenty; I added a few. I rewrote or replaced just about every single song at some point. Although I didn’t strictly limit myself to writing the music in its exact order, I did try to follow the story chronologically as best as I could. I feel that this let me see both the plot and the music develop together. It also meant I could bring back significant themes when I felt they were best placed. As I went along, I spent a lot of time behind a microphone and pop shield, trying to record as many of the pieces myself as I could, just so I could hear how they worked. Since few people in the world have committed such heinous crimes that they deserve to hear my vile vocal tones; I was also hugely helped out by the fantastic Dani Baker, who very kindly volunteered to record some of these songs before me. All of my songs started out as just piano-vocal pieces. They would usually remain in this state for a few days, before I had time to sit down at my notation software and transform them into fully orchestral pieces. I will stress for anyone who might be thinking about writing a musical that you DON’T have to write for a full orchestra. If you would prefer a more contemporary band, or even just a piano and guitar and that is right for your musical; go for it.
When you combine the book (script) with the lyrics, you are faced with the dauntingly terrifying ‘libretto.’ For anyone embarking on the treacherous mountain that is the libretto, I would recommend investing in ‘Final Draft’ software, as this will do a lot of the industry formatting for you. As I had a lot of experience writing, I overlooked this stage a little and soon discovered it was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated! I was incredibly limited on time due to the expected lengths of musicals and wasn’t used to not being able to include paragraphs of setting descriptions or plot pointers. It was definitely worth doing the scene-breakdown early on as this helped a lot.
And, finally, after three years of writing, composing, roaring in frustration and apologising to my entire block of flats (whose population probably knows this musical as well as I do at this point) I had a completed, orchestrated musical. It was a big moment. But, if it wasn’t for Vocademy, that could have been the end of it.
When Dani Baker (Vocademy principle) agreed to create a demo for ‘The Perfect Tragedy,’ I was beyond excited. I had spent the last year or so attempting to sing sometimes four part harmony off by heart with my headphones in, every time I left the house until I knew the entire musical. I learned two things: firstly, I still couldn’t sing; and secondly, that I definitely couldn’t sing four parts at the same time. Anyway, the thought of hearing real-life, talented singers performing my music was incredibly humbling and utterly thrilling.
It was an experience and learning curve for me, too. I needed some very appreciated guidance on how realistic some of my parts were with regards to range; Dani very kindly was happy to alter some of the harmonies so they could actually be sung! COVID, of course, did not help as all recordings had to be done either at home or in a tutor’s studio. The professional level required was also incredibly advanced, and some of the ensemble parts needed to be incredibly tight – difficult when the ensemble members couldn’t actually be recorded together.
Despite all of this, I simply could not have asked for a better demo. I’m always one to grimace at a cliché, but when I heard the first track, ‘Let Me Go,’ for the first time, it really did bring a tear to my eye. The students and tutors who recorded it were stunning and, despite my high expectations, I was shocked at how very professional and beautiful it sounded. In my opinion, the second track, ‘Fire,’ was even better, particularly after the fantastic producer and mixer Jack Randall had had a go at it. The result: a newly found confidence I had in the show, and an eternal gratitude to everybody involved. I truly believe now that the only way I can repay this would be to get this show as far as I possibly can.
So what now? Now, I plan on sending the demo, along with the other parts of the submission, to every musical theatre company I can. If you are interested, there is much more information on the show on the Vocademy website, where you can also check out the music. I will keep the space updated, and let you know if we get anywhere with it. Whatever happens, it would not have been possible without this demo. Thank you, everybody.
Tutor Tura x