As the saying goes, "Musicals aren't written, they're rewritten." The ReWrites series is an exploration of the process of rewriting in musical theatre. Colin Simmons sits down with Canadian composers, lyricists, and book-writers to explore specific moments in their musicals that they have rewritten and why they made those changes.
Read the first article in the series, ReWrites with Kevin Wong about a moment in The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel.
This month, I sat down with Leslie Arden, an award-winning composer, orchestrator, lyricist, librettist, performer, director, and teacher based in Cookstown, Ontario.
Leslie has written over a dozen musicals, including the critically acclaimed and multi-award-winning The House of Martin Guerre, the Chalmers Award-winning The Happy Prince, and the Dora Mavor Moore-nominated The Princess and the Handmaiden. She collaborated with Norm Foster on the oft produced The Last Resort and Ned Durango. Leslie has been commissioned by theatres and choirs all across Canada and the United States. She's also spent four seasons as a composer with The Stratford Festival. Currently, Leslie is working on MOLL, a loose contemporary musical adaptation of Defoe’s “Moll Flanders”, and Starlight Tours, based on the infamous “Starlight Tours” linked with the Saskatchewan freezing deaths.
Leslie was one of thirteen professional musical theatre writers chosen by Cameron Mackintosh and Stephen Sondheim to take part in a six-month masterclass taught by Mr. Sondheim in Oxford, England in 1990.
In our conversation, we discuss a moment in The House of Martin Guerre(music, lyrics, and book by Leslie Arden, additional book by Anna T. Cascio). The House of Martin Guerre was nominated for a Chalmers Award and was the recipient of three Dora Mavor Moore awards in Toronto (including Best New Musical) and six Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago (including Best New Musical).
SIMMONS: What moment would you like to discuss?
ARDEN: I'll use The House of Martin Guerre because it’s going to be [produced] at Sheridan next year. It’s a good example: it’s a song that was a good song and the directors didn’t want it cut because it was one of the first songs they heard. The guy who sang it in the workshop and first production was fantastic.
I knew really early on that this wasn’t the right song for this spot. It’s the second song in the show and it’s a song for Martin. I thought I needed a song for him that explained why he’s about to run away, about how he hates his marriage, and how he hates his father.
Bertrande is eleven and he’s fourteen and they’re forced to marry for economic reasons. It’s sixteenth century in France. I mean, she’s eleven! At the end of the big wedding feast, they’re thrown into the bed together, the door’s slammed on them, and they’re left alone.
He jumps out of bed and goes and looks out the window. Bertrande is saying, “You should come to bed, you’re supposed to come to bed.” She finally says, “It’s dark out, what do you see?” To which he sings:
Song #1: "Martin's Window"
ARDEN: So I wrote that. And Kevin Hicks and Steven Sutcliffe both knocked it out of the park.
SIMMONS: I can imagine!
ARDEN: I went to the director and I said, “this song is totally wrong, I have to replace it.” He wouldn’t let me. So it stayed, though it was totally wrong. Livent did a workshop and [they said] “It’s an amazing song!” So it stayed in the workshop, too!
When the Goodman picked it up and did the production in Chicago, I took the bull by the horns and just replaced it. I didn’t ask anybody, I just replaced it. I replaced it with ["Come Away From the Window"]. Same spot; same situation.
"I said, 'This song is totally wrong,
I have to replace it.' He wouldn't let me. "
The reason I knew ["Martin's Window"] didn’t work was: it’s an “I Want” song for the wrong character. In the next scene, Martin deserts them. He leaves, and he doesn’t come back until the penultimate scene in the play. So it leads you to believe that the story is his story, he’s our main character, and we’re following that character… and then he disappears in the next scene! I knew it was wrong.
So, I took his song away from him. I gave it to little eleven-year-old Bertrande. Martin goes and looks out the window and she says, “Are you coming to bed?” [When] he doesn’t come to bed, she sings:
ARDEN: That made the difference between the show working or not working. That song. Now we know whose story it is, now we’re invested in our lead––we know who the lead is. It just made the show work. It’s not that the other song wasn’t good––it was fine––it was just wrong.
SIMMONS: Wrong in context.
ARDEN: That happens so often in musicals, especially if you’re getting advice from people who are in the show. They fall in love with songs that they’ve sung or that were in the workshop that they did. They’re constantly coming and saying “you shouldn’t have cut that, that was a great song!” Yeah, but…
SIMMONS: It’s the whole picture.
"That made the difference between the show working or not working. That song."
SIMMONS: When you wrote this song, did it go through rewrites itself?
ARDEN: No, because I wanted to write it for so long, I wrote it in a couple of hours. It just [poured out]. I think it’s probably one of, if not my best song, ever. I mean, I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs, but my guess is because it’d been percolating for so long, and––by the time I wrote this song, I’d already won the Dora for this show. It had had productions, it had had workshops, it had had tons of stuff! By the time I finally wrote this song, I knew this character. It’s the second song of the show, so very often if you’re on your second song, you haven’t quite figured your characters out yet. I knew her by the time I wrote this.
SIMMONS: That’s amazing.
ARDEN: You know what I like about it too, if I might just wax on about how brilliant it is… [Laughs] It’s really specific: she’s in bed, the pillows are there, and the comforter. She’s looking for something to talk to him about: “The comforter! Mama said to,” so it’s really specific, as opposed to looking just looking out the window and seeing eagles and locked doors and metaphors!
SIMMONS: It’s very active! And the turn on the comforter––the very first image––is so simple: red and blue.
ARDEN: There’s something that nobody but the historical consultant and I would know: in the sixteenth century in France, girls got married in red, not white. When Little Bertrande says, “Mama chose red, I wanted blue,” no one will get it, but Mama chose red because she wanted [her] to marry [Martin].
SIMMONS: Oh my.
ARDEN: It works without knowing that, but if you happen to know it...
SIMMONS: Do all of your songs pop out that perfectly?
ARDEN: Oh god, no! Actually, the song after this is called “Eight Years”. It goes through the eight years of their marriage before he deserts her. I joke about how it took me eight years to write it. [Laughs]
SIMMONS: Can you talk to me about your process of rewriting?
ARDEN: Rewrites are really difficult because you’re locked into something: you’ve already got a sound and an idea. It’s very difficult to wrench yourself away from that. This rewrite worked because it was for a completely different character––she was in a different place. So there was no need for me to steal anything from Martin’s song, other than he was at the window. If I decided to write another song for Martin, it would be difficult to just let go of everything you’ve already written for Martin. There are more songs for Martin Guerre on my cutting room floor then there are left in the show. The songs are fine; they just don’t work in the show.
"The songs are fine; they just don't work in the show."
There was a love duet they had in the second act––here’s an example of people falling in love with stuff––Marek Norman (whom I adore) was going to music direct the show. He came into my studio on our first meeting and said, “Play me your favourite song and your least favourite song.” So I played him “Devils and Doubts,” which was later cut––too many ballads in a row––and I played him this romantic duet.
I really didn’t like the romantic duet and he loved it; it is, to this day, his favourite song from the show. It was cut immediately. I cut it, like, the next day. I replaced it with another duet which is way better, way better.
SIMMONS: In context or as a song?
ARDEN: All of the above. The tenor goes to a high B flat at the end. [It] brings down the house because it just builds and builds and builds––the audience just goes nuts.
So that was harder because I’d already written this romantic duet, same character, same situation, same everything. To have to go, "leave that behind and don’t [use] any part of it," that's hard.
SIMMONS: How did you go about reformulating all of the conceptions you had for the first song?
ARDEN: Probably the way I write any song, which is: I sit down with my yellow legal pad and my pen and just write pages of anything that occurs to me that that character or those characters would be thinking or saying or doing. A hook, or something, finally pops out at me. If I were just starting fresh with [“Come Out of the Window”] (and it hadn’t be percolating for two, three, or four years), I would’ve thought: “Okay, so what is Bertrande feeling and thinking right now?” I don’t want to hear her tell me how she’s feeling. What is she doing and how do I get it across to the audience that she’s feeling a certain way?
She doesn’t know what to say––she probably doesn’t even know what sex is––so what would she say? Well, “Mama said to say this, Mama said to do this,” so I would have a list of what Mama told her to say. For that list, I’d go, “Where are they? What would she be looking at? What would remind her of that”––well, she’s sitting on the bed. Notes, notes, notes. And then dialogue, I’d just do it conversationally, as opposed to “Bertrande would ask him to think about…” I just do it as dialogue.
I don’t try to rhyme, I don’t try to put it in any form until I’m way down… like, pages of notes. Finally, I get a hook. Sometimes the hook will suggest the time signature. The other thing I'll do is [I’ll sit at] the piano and get––everybody does this––get a musical atmosphere for it, or some sort of vamp.
"I don't try to rhyme, I don't try to put it in any form until I'm way down... like, pages of notes."
For instance, when I wrote Martin’s song––the one that sucks––I asked myself, “what’s he thinking?” He’s brooding, he’s angry, he doesn’t want to married, he doesn’t want to go to bed with this eleven-year-old; so what would he do? Well, he’d jump out of bed first chance, as soon as everybody slams the door, he’d go to the window, he’d be looking out the window. It was written down here. [Plays in a lower key] It was there, so it was even darker, more brooding. With Bertrande, it’s innocent. She’s eleven. She has no idea, so it’s this innocent, pretty little thing.
SIMMONS: And also, like you said, it's so active because she's not telling us how she feels.
ARDEN: It’s all consonant, very childlike, until she says “I know you’re feeling scared,” then–– [Playing a more dissonant chord]
SIMMONS: Any final thoughts on rewriting?
ARDEN: It’s a horrible thing to have to do and we all try to avoid it. But don’t be lazy! Be prepared to drown your babies; don’t become emotionally attached to stuff. There are so many people that I see workshop after workshop and the show doesn’t change very much, if at all. Then it finally gets to the stage and it doesn’t work and that’s the end of the show.
Don’t shy away from rewriting and honing and honing. There’s nothing worse than sitting in the audience and having a comedy song and nobody’s laughing. [Laughs] There’s also nothing worse than sitting in the audience and seeing someone nod off. It may be your best work ever, it may be your most brilliant song, but if it’s one too many: cut it! Cuts are great. If you can say it in less time, do it: "brevity is the soul of wit.”
"It may be your best work ever, it may be your most brilliant song, but if it's one too many: cut it!"
SIMMONS: And recognizing that anything you write is changeable and malleable. Sometimes it feels as though you put so much effort into writing this one thing that it must stay like that because it was so hard to get it out the first time.
ARDEN: Yep. Yeah, you just have to let it go. I’m going through that right now with Starlight Tours. The synopsis has morphed into something that is very different than what we were working on for Sheridan, which means that most of my score’s gone. I had written fourteen songs and most of it’s gone now. I find as I’m working on the song, I’m trying to maneuver it so that I can get one of those songs in. I’m like, “stop it, stop it! Don’t shoehorn old songs in there.”
People are always saying to me, “Too bad that song’s cut, but you can use it in something else, right?” Well, if I can, then I’m not a very good writer, because that means that I’m not writing specifically and it’s not character-driven if I can just pick it up and put it somewhere else.