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ReWrites with Leslie Arden

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.

Leslie Arden

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:

Song #2: "Come Away from the window"

Click to enlarge image. 

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.

ARDEN: Yeah!

"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 Bertran