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.
This month, I talked with Corey Payette, a playwright, actor, composer, and director based in Vancouver, BC. Corey holds a B.F.A. in music composition from York University. He is the Artistic Director of Urban Ink in Vancouver, a past Artist-in-Residence with English Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre, and the founder Raven Theatre (Vancouver, BC) focusing on new works by Indigenous artists.
His original musical Children of God has been developed in collaboration with English Theatre at the National Arts Centre and had its world premiere in 2017 at theYork Theatre (The Cultch) in Vancouver. It has since toured to the Mainstage at the National Arts Centre, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, and the Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops. Next year, it will be touring to the Segal Centre in Montreal and the York Theatre (The Cultch) in Vancouver in Winter 2019.
His second musical Les Filles du Roi(music and direction, co-book/lyrics with Julie McIsaac)––written in English, French, and Kanien’kéha (Mohawk)––was commissioned by Fugue Theatre and had its world premiere in May 2018 in Vancouver at the York Theatre.
In our conversation, we discuss a moment in Children of God(music, lyrics, and book by Corey Payette) and why the last song of the show was saying everything he wanted to say, but wasn't working––then we'll discuss the song he replaced it with.
SIMMONS: What are you working on right now?
PAYETTE: I am working on a bunch of different shows. I just did the second musical, Les Filles du Roi––daughters of the king. That just happened in the spring and since then we’ve been doing an album of music, similar to what we did for Children of God. That’s been the summer, and then Bard on the Beach (in Vancouver) [has] commissioned my next musical, and so I’ve been gently working on that.
SIMMONS: That’s so exciting! Are you allowed to talk about what the show is going to be? Give us a little teaser?
PAYETTE: That is a great question! If I only knew. [laughs] It’s a show that’s inspired by a work of Shakespeare’s. It’s a musical and it has an Indigenous focus to it… but that’s about as much as I can say at this point. It’s a show that––when Children of God happened, they kind of just gave me a blank page of “whatever you want to do, whatever you want to work on next.” It’s been a real journey to figure out what it is that I want to say next.
Children of God took seven years, so you have to live with these shows for so long. It’s not that I don’t have things to say, [it’s that,] if I’m going to invest so many years of my life into a project, then I really need to know that I love it, that I love these characters and I love this journey. I’m [in] that process and I’m excited to see where it will go! I’m hoping that it’ll be very different from the other shows that I’ve done. I can tell you that it’s not a period piece: it’s a contemporary piece. That is different; all the shows I’ve done so far have been very much set in “the olden days,” so it’ll be nice to do something that’s very ‘today’.
SIMMONS: Is there a specific moment you would like to discuss from Children of God?
PAYETTE: When I was reading [ReWrites] and thinking about it, writing is rewriting and all I’ve ever done is rewrite. I have to force myself to stop working on shows. I don’t think Children of God is ever going to be finished, I think I’ll just have to stop working on it at some point. I think I may come back to it in, like, thirty years and be like, “Oh, you know what, I wanna rewrite these songs!”
For Children of God, it was a really interesting process because I had such a specific idea of what the songs needed to sound like. I had a very specific idea of exactly how they were supposed to be, so there really was a right and a wrong choice for a song.
"Writing is rewriting and all I've ever done is rewrite."
Often times I would write a song, finish it, and be like: “Okay, great, this is a great song, but it does not fit within the show, you know?” It had to be cut because it didn’t work for the tone of the show. That’s for obvious reasons… because of the subject matter of the show, because of the cultural aspects of the show, the show needs to––it almost needs to sound like everything familiar but like something totally unique and of itself.
A specific example from the show that kind of is an interesting story is [a] song in this show called “And We Wait”. It’s one of the climax songs of the second act, the one moment where the lead character is speaking to his mother and they share this song as a longing for the life that they could have had, the relationship they could have shared. All the things, looking back on [it] that could have been different.
That song had been a totally different song. I had a written a song called “I’ll Be Here”. What’s interesting is that… they have similarities, they have a similar pattern as far as what the song is trying to do, what the song is trying to say, but they’re completely different songs. The song, “I’ll Be Here,” it was one of the first songs that I wrote. It was for Rita, Cathy Elliott’s character in the workshop and production of Children of God.
Song #1: "I'll Be Here"
This is an excerpt of the video for purposes of listening to "I'll Be Here".
The full video is at the end of the article.
As the show was progressing, it was saying everything I wanted it to say, but it didn’t move the story along, it didn’t allow for there to be connection. The song very much speaks to the mother’s longing for the son, but it doesn’t allow the son to answer. It doesn’t allow there to be actual communication. That’s what they’re searching for through the whole piece: how do they speak to one another? How can they move forward? So there was a structural problem with the song.
When we were in Kamloops, we were workshopping the show at the Chief Louis Cultural Centre, that was, historically, the residential school in Kamloops, BC. We did this workshop in 2015. It was a community engaged workshop. We worked in the chapel of the school with the full company.
We had an open-door, open-room environment, where the community––the people who worked in the school––could come and sit in and listen to what we were doing. They could talk to us about what we were doing. There was a dialogue that could happen. It was super intense and extremely emotional, but really helped to form what the show ended up being.
"It was saying everything I wanted it to say, but it didn't move the story along."
I cut the song “I’ll Be Here,” before that workshop and then, one night, while we were there, rehearsals had finished and everyone had gone. I [was] sitting in the chapel with this little electric piano and I [was] playing music. I wrote the whole song, “And We Wait,” with these two different voices, harmonies and everything, and all of a sudden––you know that thing happens where you get on a roll and you don’t realize how much time has passed?
Basically in the span of time that I was writing, it had gone from a nice evening to fully pitch black and everyone had left the building. It was just me in my little room. All of the lights were off. You have to lock the door in the rehearsal hall and bring [the key] downstairs to the security office––and the downstairs is fully a dungeon. I heard things like feet running the halls [and] doors slamming. It was so, so scary and also kind of like: this is what the show is. That’s the song that’s in the show now. It has this very eerie feeling to it.
Song #2: "And we Wait"
The next day I brought it to the rehearsal hall and taught it to Cathy [Elliott] and Herbie [Barnes] and they sang it and that’s the song that’s in the show today!
SIMMONS: Wow! That’s amazing.
PAYETTE: I wish that it hadn’t been so intense, so scary in the process, but it’s one of those things as a writer that… I try not to just write just [to] get something on paper.
Even if it’s just me thinking about what a song could be, and spending months and months meditating on what the song needs to be before I write. By the time I write, the emotions and the journey [have] been in me and part of my thinking process for a long time. That’s where I think that song came out of; [I] sat with it for quite a long time.
SIMMONS: What made “And We Wait” work where “I’ll Be Here” didn’t?
PAYETTE: Even through the lyrics, there are similar words, the lines have similar progressions in what it’s trying to say. One of the [lines] is “What I wouldn’t give to see your face, your smile, your eyes.” It’s the immediate things that you think about a person. What are the things that you would miss the most if someone you loved was no longer there?
Sometimes it’s the simplest thing, it’s not that you want to ask the question; you just want to be in their presence again. Even just to see them from across a street would be enough to make you feel better about everything.
"It's using music as a tool to act as the connecting device"
These two characters––who can’t speak to one another, who have no way of [communicating] because of their trauma and history together––can find the similarities in their longing for what they’re looking for from this person who has passed. It allows, rather than music for music’s sake, it’s using the music as a tool to act as the connecting device for the things these two characters have in common with one another.
SIMMONS: I love that. That’s the beauty of musical theatre because the music contains so much information that you can’t convey with text. I love that it connects characters that otherwise can’t connect.
PAYETTE: Mm-mm! And it underscores and holds a great deal of the deeper emotions that actually have no words to say. You can't put your words on what loss means to someone. It’s that deeper feeling of that thing that eats away at you. That can be held––at least, I feel it does––in song, in music.
Where I think it really lands is that the audience goes through this really intense experience and all of a sudden you’re left with two broken characters who are both struggling. No one knows how to get through it, no one knows what the best way forward would be, and so “And We Wait”––the idea of waiting and the idea of the passage of time––serves as a kind of “carry on,” we’ll wait it out. That’s what you can promise one another.
SIMMONS: I can’t wait to listen to it!
PAYETTE: Well, on the album I did it as a solo. The album of Children of God is me singing because… when I direct a show, when I create a show, I really give it over to the actors. A good singer can take my music and run with it and make it better than I ever imagined.
But [in] the making of an album, what I’m after is the music through my ear. It’s different; it’s not about collaboration, it’s about trying to capture the sound of the music that I hear in my head.
"It's not about collaboration, it's about trying to capture the sound of the music that I hear in my head."
When we went into the studio for this album, that was the goal. It’s satisfying in a different way. When you listen to “And We Wait,” on the album, it’s two of my voices on top of each other, but in the show it’s actually a duet. [laughs]
SIMMONS: I love that distinction because there’s something that live performance brings to music that you can’t capture on an album––and it almost doesn’t make sense to try. A lot of the old Broadway recordings were not what you heard when you actually went to the show: tempos changed, endings were altered, dialogue or interludes cut; it’s all modified for the medium that it’s going through. That’s an interesting way of looking at it: “this is a record of what I hear,” instead of, “this is a record of the show.”
PAYETTE: Totally! I conduct everything, I sing on most of the tracks––unless they’re solos that women sing, and then I’ll choose certain women to do those songs. It’s something that I find so satisfying because it’s so selfish. I’m just doing this for me.
The act of putting on a show is about everyone else. It’s about supporting the actors, supporting the musicians, supporting the company; everything is about them. The process of doing an album is, “how can we live up to what I want it to be?” It’s a different beast.
Song #3: "Beyond the Walls"
SIMMONS: Do you have a recording of it?
PAYETTE: It’s funny that you’re asking about this… the story goes on. The song “I’ll Be Here”… I actually recycled and put it into Les Filles du Roi. [laughs] I didn’t take the lyrics of the song, or the melody, but I took the accompaniment and rewrote a different melody. Julie McIsaac, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with me, rewrote the lyrics as a duet. That song is called “Beyond the Walls” and it’s a love duet in Les Filles du Roi!
PAYETTE: [laughs] I know, I’m giving away all my secrets––now everyone’s gonna know that I’ve recycled this song. Maybe we should focus on a different part. [laughs] But it’s an interesting tidbit for musical theatre writers. I’m sure I’m not the only one to do this. And I’m also sure that people are probably going to look down on me for it, but it’s like: whatever! It worked for the moment.
"All of my shows will share that kind of aesthetic because it's all through me."
SIMMONS: If it works, it works! No judgement from me.
PAYETTE: I don’t know if you feel this about your music, but for me, all of my music lives in a very, I don’t know––this is what I’ve been told––my chord patterns are similar, my tonalities are similar; even though they’re different shows, they’re along the same aesthetic. I think all of my shows will share that kind of aesthetic because it’s all through me. It’s not completely out of this world to think of them having a through-line that a song that might be in another one.
SIMMONS: And it’s not like you copied and pasted, you rewrote almost everything except fo the accompaniment.
PAYETTE: The other reason I wanted to recycle the song is because my fiancé’s favourite song is “I’ll Be Here”. When I cut it, he was like, “I love that song, why did you cut that song?” He was sad about it… [but when] I put it in Les Filles du Roi, it [had] its moment.
SIMMONS: Did he recognize it?
PAYETTE: Oh, absolutely. But he still loves "I'll Be Here"––that’s the thing, melody and music have such a way of fitting together. Even though “Beyond the Walls” was using the music, it was a different song.
A couple of months ago when we were at the Citadel, Julie and I––as part of a pre-show donor concert for the opening of Children of God––shared this story. I played the music from “I’ll Be Here” that was in Children of God and then we did a duet of “Beyond the Walls” and showed how the two songs were the same.