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Point of View

We asked multi award winning Australian
musician/writer/composer, Sean Peter
to answer the following question...

Sean Peter

March 2008

The Question:
Why write musicals anymore? Don't they all suck?

Response by Sean Peter share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

So, why on earth would anyone want to write musicals anyway? They all suck. Nobody likes them, well except for a few show queens and teenage girls. And in Australia of all places? I mean thereís no infrastructure or market for it.

Professional opportunities are rare. Commercial producers would rightly put their bet on whatever has proven itself on the great white way, or the west end, before developing or gambling on a new Australian work. And our few subsidised companies that put on musicals usually do the same. The rest of the subsidised theatre companies are either inexperienced, under resourced or uninterested.

And why would they be? The theatre fund donít want to know about you Ďcos youíre music, and the music fund donít want to know about you Ďcos youíre theatre. And while thereís a growing number of music theatre graduates from WAAPA and VCA coming into the workplace, thereís no specific training or networks for those that would write them a job.

And thereís that very same cultural cringe that pervades itself across our film, and TV Ė if Aussies do it itís just not as good as the Americans. Or the Brits if youíre the managing director of the ABC.

And more to the point, why would anyone want to write that horrid heart bleeding on your sleeve wide voweled yankee emote-fest that just makes you want to wash yourself after youíve heard it?

Musicals suck.

I mean theatre by itself is cool. It can be anything from a play to dance to a comedy to weird-arse performance art . Like any artform, thereís plenty of dross, but when itís great, itís great. It becomes this magic commune between the performer and audience, each pushing the other to new highs. Musicals are a part of that, and in fact they should try to be the best parts of all of that. Dance, drama, comedy, and even weird arse performance art.

And music itself is cool. Possibly the coolest. Have you ever met anyone that didnít like some kind of music?

Music can be anything from a plonky C chord four to the bar, to a symphony, or metal, or sample mash or anything else. I think a good musical has to acknowledge all of those genres as it looks for the best and most original way to tell a story, and communicate with and move the audience.

Originally musicals were all about making a show from a collection of songs of the day. They were the Video Smash Hits of their day. That was how you promoted those songs, and lets face it; some of those songs from musicals are pretty damn good. They make up the vocal jazz standard repertoire for a start. I honestly wonder where the new standards going to come fromÖ

But as great as they were, if youíre making a new musical, hopefully itís not some nostalgia fest, and not some forced plot around a singer/songwriterís back catalogue. Itís got to be something more vital, and dangerous, and immediate. Itís all about synergy.

Making something that combines hopefully the best of all those things into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Musicals are about that place where character and story and music interact. About a pieceís dramatic demands forcing you to write a song about something you would never write a song about. Like how to do phone sex, or dropping a chandelier, or even just learning solfege. Itís trying to find ways of answering these challenges that keep me coming back to writing musicals and music theatre.

And for me whatís exciting, (and finally getting to the point) is that trying to write music and musicals has made me a better musician and songwriter anyway for all of the other types of music I make to try and pay my mortgage.
Consider this. A good music theatre lyric has to be understood on itís first, and often only listen. You canít rewind a live play. Doesnít mean it has to be simplistic, but it needs to be focused and clear. And brief.

A good music theatre lyric tells you more about the singer than just the content of the words. Itís about character, and attitude, and achieving much with less. A good lyric should do the same for any song, in any genre.

And it forces you to be aware of what any piece of music is doing to you emotionally. You listen across all the genres looking for the way thatís going to communicate your original idea, rather than just arpegiating your piano through some weird chords. Good composers borrow, and great composers steal. I try to steal from everywhere. The essential difference is that when you steal it, you have to make it yours.

And so suddenly you have to try and make a good country song about how no-one does the dishes, with a taste of reggae, and bossa. With only a cello and piano. And three singers backstage. Thatís fun to me.

And as fun as they are, and as much as they can teach you, why write them when they all end up sucking anyway? I guess I hope that maybe music theatre can remember again to be current, and vital, and take risks. And it can be more than just a grey headed matinee diversion. And then maybe musicals wonít suck so much.

© 2008 Sean Peter

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