Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after playing Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of months, I can’t put the notion away. What the two of them have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think first of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities. Hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other idiom, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. But what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the one in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” or from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence multiple times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all.

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A few days ago, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time naturally informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself, if only because Shakespeare was better at it than anybody else. He clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

"Deeply Furious" from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

As it happens, I got to thinking about all this shortly after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ll probably end up reading Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its other problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which the musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. A writer or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame opens doors and creates possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

Note: I’m heading out this afternoon for Kansas City, Missouri, where I’ll be taking part in programming over the next four days at the World Science Fiction Convention. Hope to see some of you there!

With great power comes great incomprehensibility

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So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)

As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:

[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.

Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:

Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.

The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.

The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

A message from Tina Fey

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Tina Fey’s charming article in this week’s New Yorker—in which she shares some of the lessons that she learned from nine years of working on Saturday Night Live—is essential reading for fans of our most unlikely celebrity writer, and especially for those trying to write for themselves. Her advice ranges from the aphoristic (“Producing is about discouraging creativity”) to the cheekily practical (“Never cut to a closed door”), but the big one, the one that every writer needs to bear in mind, is this:

The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty. This is something that Lorne [Michaels] has said often about Saturday Night Live, and it’s a great lesson in not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go.

At first, Fey’s point might seem more relevant for writers on a weekly sketch comedy show than, say, for novelists, whose writing process is both private and infinitely expandable. If anything, though, the advice is even more important for those of us working alone, without a fixed deadline, who might otherwise be inclined to polish our work until it’s perfect, luminous, and dead. This impulse has crippled great writers from Virgil (who asked on his deathbed for the unfinished Aeneid to be burned) to Ralph Ellison (who worked on his second novel for forty years and never came close to finishing it), as well as countless lesser writers who remained unpublished, and therefore unknown.

The fact is that a novel—or any work of art—isn’t complete until other people have the chance to see it. A flawed story that strangers can read from beginning to end is infinitely superior to three perfect chapters from an unfinished novel. And there are times when productivity is a much greater virtue than perfection. Every writer, whether novelist or playwright or sketch comedian, needs to be capable, when necessary, of cranking it out. Even you intend to go back and polish what you’ve done, there are days, especially at the beginning of a project, when a novelist needs to be something of a hack. And that’s the way it should be. (One suspects that the backers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark wish that Julie Taymor had displayed a little more of the hack and less of the artist.)

Which is why deadlines are so important. As Fey points out, writers in live television have deadlines whether they like it or not, but novelists—under contract or otherwise—need to establish deadlines as well. They can be as large as the deadline for completing the entire novel, and as small as the completion of a single chapter or paragraph. But once the deadline has been reached, you’ve got to move on. At the moment, I’m writing a chapter a day, and the results are far from perfect—but, as Fey notes, “perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.” And, sooner or later, every novel needs to go live.

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