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 other articles in the series:
ReWrites with Kevin Wong – rewriting the mother's eleven-o'clock number in The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel.
ReWrites with Leslie Arden – the "I Want" song rewrite that made The House of Martin Guerre "work".
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 the York 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.