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It Cuts Both Ways

Set up the songs and (for better and worse) your name's in lights

September 17, 2006|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEIL SIMON has succinct advice for anybody who might be thinking about writing the book for a Broadway musical: "Don't do it."

"A musical is always in trouble," says the playwright who not only wrote the books for a slew of hit musicals ("Little Me," "Sweet Charity," "Promises, Promises") but also came to the aid of many others. "What is it that Larry Gelbart once said? 'If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical.' "

But where Hitler might fear to tread, a platoon of new writers is rushing in, many of whom first scored in a seemingly disparate area: series television. Included among the new recruits are Jeffrey Lane ("Mad About You"), who wrote the now-touring hit "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"; Ken Levine ("Frasier"), co-writer of "The 60's Project," which just had a tryout run at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut; David Lee ("Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond"), who is adapting the novel "Like Water for Chocolate" for the musical stage; and Cheri and Bill Steinkellner ("Cheers"), who have two musicals in the pipeline: "Princesses," which premiered last year in Seattle, and "Sister Act," which bows at the Pasadena Playhouse beginning next month. Even "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are getting in on the act, collaborating on a musical with Jeffrey Marx and Robert Lopez of "Avenue Q" Tony-winning fame.

By all accounts these are relatively sane folks who, it seems, hardly need to take on one of the most thankless tasks in theater. In its most rudimentary form, the book of a musical is the dialogue between songs. But it often includes the all-important tone and concept of the show and can be the inspiration for songs.

Unlike in most writing, a book writer does not get to pen the climax of a scene -- that action comes in the songs, which a book writer must serve above all. With that responsibility, "book trouble" is often the first complaint to be aired as a show is being developed. And when the critics weigh in, it is often the first element to be blamed and the last to be praised -- if it is mentioned at all. Consequently, the short list of veteran book writers is, well, short -- Terrence McNally, Tom Meehan, Arthur Laurents, Joe Masteroff, Gelbart and ... ?

Not surprisingly, desperate Broadway producers are raiding other disciplines, particularly with musical comedies now riding high again. But why, if you're a rich, Emmy-winning writer, would you invite this kind of trouble into your life and career? And what could this new infusion mean for the future of the art form itself?

"I don't think it's 'thankless.' 'Unsung' is better," says Winnie Holzman ("thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life"), whose phenomenal success -- and sizable royalties -- as the book writer for "Wicked" may have, at least in part, inspired her peers. "There is a humility to it because you're not in charge. You don't write the arias, you make them possible. I found the experience ... well, enjoyed would not be appropriate. I found it immensely challenging and fulfilling."

Then, perhaps recalling the rough road for the Oz-inspired musical, she adds with a laugh, "I just feel really glad that I got through it alive."

*

Not entirely new ground

FOR several members of this freshman class, the challenge is even keener when compared with that of their proven field -- although pressures there, they say, have risen thanks to the megahit status of shows such as "Friends" substantially upping the ante. "This is not a golden age of television comedy. It's not as much fun anymore," says Levine, who enthusiastically responded when a friend, Janet Brenner, invited him to collaborate with her on "The 60's Project," which uses the pop hits and seminal events of the decade to tell a coming-of-age tale. "I've dabbled in the field a little bit and always wanted to write a musical, so I thought, 'What a fab opportunity.' "

Though the conventions of the musical were unfamiliar in many respects, Levine was not entirely out of his element. In television he learned to write on demand, readying scripts to be performed before a live audience on, say, a Friday night, then rewriting furiously for a Monday taping. "It was invaluable just in terms of learning craft," he says. "You have to fix things right away and you need to really think of brevity."

That's even more true of such a highly concentrated form as a musical. "You write a normal dialogue scene and it's two pages," he says. "You write a book scene, and it has to be four well-chosen lines."

Nor can you rely on a camera for the emotional shorthand of a close-up as you can in television. Moreover, what is written must play to the back of the balcony, at which distance the facial expressions of the actors are practically nil. Generally speaking, a song in the musical can take the place of the close-up. "In TV, you can say a lot without words, and that was the biggest difference for me, finding other ways to express what was going on between the characters," Holzman says.

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