Did I ever tell you about the time we ended up writing a musical in two weeks? True story.
So, Katie and I are both alumni of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. It’s a two year Masters program where composers, lyricists and bookwriters come from all over the world to be completely immersed in writing musicals. The demands on the writers are intense – you learn to be able to sit down and write a song with the clock ticking on a tight deadline, no matter where you are. Only the strong survive.
The two of us learned we had similar senses of humor – finding the comedy in the daily insanity we both had to deal with in our jobs. We’d e-mail back and forth, writing funny lyrics about whatever nuttiness was taking place around us.
After she graduated, Katie went off to work at theaters from Florida to Massachusetts; eventually, she came back to her hometown in southern Missouri. When she wasn’t writing musicals, she pursued her other passion: baking and creating all kinds of delicious treats (including a whole range of homemade flavored marshmallows.) She began selling her stuff at a local farmers market; in our phone calls and e-mails, she would regale me with stories about all the shenanigans that were taking place behind the scenes at the market. Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
I don’t know which one of us said it first, but during one of these calls, it happened:
“You know, this should be a musical.”
We kept joking about it – “Farmers Market the Musical.” We even came up with a poster for it – “Everyone knows the market is a tough place to work. It’s survival of the fittest. Backstabbers. Schemers. Con artists. And green beans. The Farmers Market.”
The joke started to take shape … the plot was more or less writing itself every week as Katie dealt with people at the market who couldn’t believe you could really make a marshmallow. We came up with characters … possible song titles … plot twists.
In the late winter of 2012, Katie came back to New York to visit friends for a few days, and we decided to take a crack at writing a few songs together to see if there was anything in the idea besides good joking-around material. We also weren’t sure how we would work together – we both write music and lyrics. While you often see writers working together on scripts and lyrics, you don’t often see two composers collaborating.
We went into a practice room and walked out about an hour later with the first song, “Marshmallows Are Magic.” The next day we came up with parts of “You Can’t Make A Marshmallow” and “Produce to the People.” The idea definitely had legs.
We were still wondering exactly how the story should proceed. Then – truth is stranger than fiction – the rest of the plot wrote itself right before our eyes. Some of the vendors at Katie’s market wanted to try and open another market. The ownership of the first market did not take kindly to that idea, to put it mildly. Arguments were had. Battle lines drawn. Secret meetings planned. Vendors were booted from the market.
And the whole thing made the papers. Market versus market. We couldn’t resist – we HAD to write this show.
Towards the end of the summer, I drove out to Missouri for a couple of weeks. We both work fast, so we knew we could come up with a draft of the show pretty quickly. We knew what the sound of the world should be – a score that incorporated country, folk, bluegrass, and straight-up musical comedy. We knew the characters and we knew the story. Now we just had to write it.
We holed up in Katie’s house in Southwest Missouri, and began writing. We taped an outline of the show written on wrapping paper up on the wall. We only stopped to eat, sleep, and tend to the flock of ducks that Katie kept in the backyard. Lyrics and music poured out – it was true collaboration – shaping the ideas together.
When we had drafts of the songs, I started making orchestrated tracks that we sang to – recording the vocals in Katie’s kitchen, usually in the middle of the night. While I was doing that, Katie would curl up with her laptop and write scenes. We started to get a little lightheaded from too much caffeine and not enough sleep: I started channeling Peaches-and-Honey scenes in the kitchen … most of which went right into the script.
One thing about musicals is that you can’t really judge what you have just on paper: you have to see the show on its feet. Katie started calling around to all her friends in town, and we assembled an enthusiastic cast – about half of whom were farmers. Everybody got together and did some quick rehearsing, and we presented the show beginning to end.
Of course there’s always tweaking and polishing and fine-tuning to be done – but the first question with any show is – is there life in the story? Watching the audience react to that first-time-ever presentation, we felt like we had captured a good part of what we set out to do. We were aiming to tell a simple tale, with humor but also with emotion – about how a community comes together.
When we were first talking about the show, we wanted to make it the kind of musical that would fit a lot of different kinds of performing groups: outdoor summer festivals, professional musical rep companies, schools, community theaters. We’re preparing a concert version which can be easily done right at a farmers market. Everyone can find a place in the world of this show.
So that’s the tale about how it got started… how real life turned into a musical. True story.