Nearly thirty years after Sweeney Todd debuted on Broadway, in the process of preparing for the film adaptation, Stephen Sondheim took the opportunity to edit a line that irked him. In the Original Broadway Cast recording of “A Little Priest"––the Act One closing number replete with imaginative human pie-fillings––the last three lines are:
SWEENEY TODD: We’ll serve anyone––
MRS. LOVETT: Meaning anyone––
TOGETHER: And to anyone at all!
In his book Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim says, “until 2007 I had always been bothered by the way I filled out the last quatrain: ‘meaning anyone’ is a stocking-stuffer, an unnecessary intensifier clearly present for the sole purpose of padding the quatrain into shape.” For the film, he changed it to:
SWEENEY TODD: We’ll serve anyone––
MRS. LOVETT: We’ll serve anyone––
TOGETHER: And to anyone at all!
A small but important rewrite, as Sondheim notes: “Oscar [Hammerstein II], a lyricist who took great delight in repetition as a means of intensification, would have approved, I think.” I find it comforting to know that even Sondheim has padded a verse or two, but I also find it inspiring that, thirty years on, he took the time to tweak a single word. As the saying goes, “Musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten.”
These changes, however big or small, are just as important as the act of creation. Shaping, tweaking, and polishing produces works that feel inevitable. Rewriting is an essential component of writing in this complex, integrated form, yet even so, it is rarely discussed in public at length or in depth.
ReWrites is an exploration of that process. Over the course of this series, I’ll sit down with Canadian composers, lyricists, and book-writers to discuss specific moments in their musicals that they have rewritten. We’ll explore what they changed and why they made those changes.
The first artist in the ReWrites series is Kevin Wong: a composer-lyricist based in Toronto and the Associate Artistic Director of the Musical Stage Company. His song cycle Recurring John debuted in a concert reading as part of the 2014 SummerWorks festival in the Musical Works in Concert lineup. It went on to premiere as part of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.
Other projects include Highrising (book & lyrics by Matthew Milo Sergi), Misprint (book by Lauren Toffan), STAR!(ving) – A Collection of Songs, and coming next, In Real Life with (book by Nick Green, lyrics by Nick Green & Kevin Wong), debuting in the 2018 Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College.
In our conversation, we discuss a moment in The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (book by Julie Tepperman). Originally commissioned as part of Musical Stage Company’s Reframed initiative, Polly Peel was further developed at the In Tune Festival in Vancouver, BC, and is the 2018 recipient of the Paul O’Sullivan Prize for Musical Theatre at the Toronto Fringe Festival (sponsored by the Pat & Tony Adams Freedom Fund for the Arts).
Song #1: "What do I do now?"
SIMMONS: What moment would you like to discuss?
WONG: Maybe the best example for this one isn’t the case of small re-writes but scrapping two different songs and replacing them with a completely different one each time. In this expanded version, Pauline (Mom) has a musical moment immediately following a crazy group number [“The Right Thing,” where she takes her kid to a series of different therapists]. She’s recently lost her husband, is left with her kids in this house, and they’re not super-close because Dad was sort of the glue between them.
In the early twenty-minute version, when she only had one kid (Polly, who in that draft was a boy named Paulie), she spoke to the Dad as a sort of imagined partner, psychological apparition that she needed. She poured out all of these feelings of despair, hopelessness, and anger at him in this torch-song ballad that was sort of gospel-y. That worked okay… for the twenty-minute version. But honestly, we just didn’t know who she was with great specificity at the time.
That song has survived a couple of times. It survived a twenty-five minute version, made it into a forty-five minute reading in Vancouver, and we even used it for our Fringe application as well as an audition excerpt––‘cause it was a good vocal test. But the song has always bothered me.
"It felt emote-able, but not necessarily actable;
singable, but not honest"
The best part of the song is stuff that I stole from the monologue Julie gave me. She listed all of these things that Mom was doing still so that she doesn’t really have to deal with the fact that her husband isn’t there anymore. She’s not washing the coffee cup, or the basket of clothes, she’s leaving a lot of things undone, crying into a pillow; a lot of that wonderful specificity was Julie’s. Then she gets into the bridge, which, naturally, in that sort of gospel song, needs a big emotional wallop, but she goes into generalities: the failures you bore, the dreams that you swore would come true, what about them now?
This song does resonate with some people, and I don’t want to minimize their reaction to it, because some people found a lot of truth for themselves in it. And that's completely valid. But for me it got a little washy. It always felt like the actor had to speed up the tempo of the song because the text wasn’t fast enough, or else it really felt indulgent, like you were sitting in every impulse for too long. It felt emote-able, but not necessarily actable; singable, but not honest.
Song #2: "The Peels"
I had always meant to cut the song and replace it. Earlier this year, Julie and I went off to a retreat in Gananoque where we created a lot more material. We storyboarded, we knew who mom was, and it turns out she’s a much more tense person than we originally imagined. She’s logistically minded. The reason she’s not closer with her kids emotionally is because she’s obsessed with keeping things in order. That’s how the duty split between her and her husband: he was fun, she was the walking calendar, basically.
On the basis of that, I thought I had enough material to take another stab at a song. Julie was writing a new scene and simultaneously I went upstairs to my office and started writing a song that was more about the difference between the two of them and why she felt inadequate without him. The working title of the first song was “What Do I Do Now,” which is already a red flag.
WONG: I think songs work at their best if it you take a small concept and turn it on its head, look at it in every single way in the light, find its multiple meanings, and get through a three-act mini-structure with it. If you look at Fun Home, “Ring of Keys,” “Days and Days,” or “Telephone Wire,” all these really small things expand into these big ideas that represent so much more than what the image is. If I don’t have enough specificity, I’ll just try to musicalize the moment, and it’s a bit raw: the first song was “What Do I Do Now”. The second song was "The Peels," or “It Just Makes Sense,” or “Without You, It Somehow Makes Sense,”––something like that, I don’t think I even titled it.
"Take a small concept and turn it on its head,
look at it in every single way"
In a way, they’re both prettier, they’re more melodic, they might be better to listen to, but even the second one [didn't] feel honest. I realized what I was trying to do, inadvertently, was fast-track this woman’s grief. If someone’s that tense and bottled up and hasn’t even had a moment alone, there is no way they’re going to get the point where they’re like, “what do I do without you?” Or, “how am I supposed to go on?” Those are big moments of despair and they’re big indulgent things in grieving that you have to allow yourself but it takes time for you to get to that point. It felt like we were trying to shoehorn her into that because it was a “Song” with a capital “S”.
["The Peels"] was cut almost immediately. I sent it to Julie, and she said “What do you think of this song?” and I said, “I’m gonna try it again,” and she didn’t protest, which means she probably agreed. She didn’t fight for the song, which was telling. It meant that I hadn’t gotten something right.
Song #3: "Messing up"
This time––who knows, maybe this one will get cut, too––but this one is called “Messing Things Up”. It’s still not as specific conceptually as I would like it to be, but it’s got much more specific imagery and action in it. She recovers from the mass overstimulation of all this advice and failure. We fast-track to her office, it’s silent, she looks around and realizes she just screamed at no one, which is unlike her.
The entire thing is about her processing that feeling of going nuts in light of crazy loss where you’re still spinning all those plates, logistically, like organizing funerals and caskets, and getting the kids to therapists. She’s trying to boil everything down into lists, but she keeps getting distracted by larger thoughts, [like] the kids growing up apart. The emptiness of the house is looming but hasn’t even hit home for her yet.
We only get so far as the idea that she is alone, that it’s scary, and that she might be messing it up, even though she’s trying so hard not to. [In the] chorus, she goes from “I’m not messing it up,” to “maybe I am,” to “okay, I’ve definitely made some mistakes”. We don’t get to a point where she allows herself to break fully open. As a result, it makes a lot more sense.
"All of that action built into the song
means that it's less indulgent."
She’s talking about herself in first person, which is always a difficult thing––when a character is singing in a room alone, who are they singing to? In the first two songs, she was singing to [Paul], he was a sort of apparition. In this one, she’s not yet. We use the deliberate ambiguousness of a character singing alone and [through the song] she slowly realizes that she is talking to her husband, who is no longer there. She’s conjuring him slowly because she needs him.
The “you” [in the first verse] doesn’t appear––there’s [a] recurring theme of “who am I talking to”––and then verse two, there are a couple of “you”s that are little bit more specific. There’s a cup that keeps appearing in the verses, from “no one’s washed that cup,” to “that cup is growing mold,” to “you would never wash that cup.” By the third chorus, it’s clear that she’s singing to him. She’s realizing it as we’re realizing it.
All of that action built into the song means that it’s less indulgent. Now it’s really wordy and it’s harmonically less stable, so it doesn’t make for as pleasant listening, but I think it’s more on the nose.
Also, Julie really likes this one and said, “we are definitely using this one!” [Her] response is super informative that maybe I’ve gotten more things right this time. Or at least, more things that feel honest about the character. And then we’ll see what the actor thinks––maybe it’ll change again!
We have an amazing actor in the show, and I’m sure that if I gave her any of these songs, she’d find a way [to justify it]––without even realizing that she’s justifying it––because good actors find ways to make things honest. But I can sometimes feel it in my body and only on the third song did I feel that I had actually gotten inside this woman’s skin and started to feel a little of what she was feeling in a visceral way instead of a cognitive way. This one feels less calculated. The first two are pretty ballads, and the third one is not that pleasant to listen to, but...
SIMMONS: It serves the story better.
WONG: I think so.
SIMMONS: It’s funny, my initial thought wouldn’t be, “it’s not a ballad moment,” because you think when you finally get her alone, it’d be a chance for water works.
WONG: She might still have a moment like that, but it would be in Act Two. It’s our first moment checking in with her and she’s just not there. [Paula’s] dealing with guilt, [Polly’s] off in her own world; I think Mom is just trying to hold it together. It’s enough to watch her crack just a bit. There’s something more satisfying about watching someone pretend to be okay when they’re clearly not and following them along that journey where it’s not all crazy right off the bat.
SIMMONS: It’s the idea that watching someone try not to cry is more effective than watching someone sob their eyes out.
WONG: [Britta Johnson's] song “The Wallpaper,” in Life After, is that in spades. We watch someone really try to be okay and careen into action as a result of it, while everything [underneath] is breaking and shifting. That’s theatre at its best.
Colin Simmons is the editor of the Musical Theatre Insider for CMTWC. Read his bio here.