My Second Act: Writing My First Musical
This editor hopes to pursue his passion all the way to Broadway
For my second act, I’m in the process of writing my first musical, with dreams of taking it to Broadway. Let me tell you how this has happened and my hopes for it — and for me.
The course was charted long ago: when I was in fourth grade in Cincinnati, Ohio, my parents took me to see the national touring company of The Sound of Music and it was love at first sight.
From that moment on, I spent hours listening to Broadway cast albums and reading the published scripts of plays and musicals my parents received monthly from the Fireside Theater Book Club. While other nine-year-olds memorized baseball stats, I memorized song lyrics.
Turning a Pipe Dream into a Project
For 50 years, the love affair continued. Every so often, I’d imagine what it would be like to someday write a musical, but I thought it was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Since I also loved writing poetry and reading, I’d pursued a career in publishing, editing dozens of books running the gamut from Johnny Cash’s memoir to a new translation of The Dead Sea Scrolls.
Then, about two years ago, at a friend’s birthday party I met a talented singer-songwriter named Jay Jacques, who played a few songs on his guitar. A few days later I wrote Jay, suggesting that I’d be happy to write lyrics if he ever needed a songwriting partner. He took me up on the offer and we wrote a few pop songs, including a fun bossa nova.
One day, as Jay glanced at the posters and books in my apartment, a veritable shrine to musical theater, he asked: “Why don’t we write a musical?” His wife Katrina had grandparents who survived the siege of Leningrad in WWII and Jay asked if that might not be an interesting subject.
I was thrilled by the idea, but hesitant at first about the theme. Then, Jay called my attention to a New York Times article the following week about a poet named Olga Berggolts, who’d inspired the beleaguered people of Leningrad with her radio broadcasts. I said to Jay, “If we can make a poet like Olga the main character of our musical, I’m in!”
The Journey of 'The Road of Life'
And so we started our journey writing The Road of Life and pursuing our dream of making it Broadway bound. We created a love story set against this tragic moment in Russian history when a group of resilient people were determined to fight inhumanity with their humanity.
We chose The Road of Life as our title because of a “miracle” that had occurred in Leningrad. The Nazis had blockaded most of the city, hoping to starve the population to death and the only area not surrounded was Lake Ladoga. In the harsh winter of 1942, the lake froze so deep that Leningraders were able to plow about 100 miles of it into an ice road. Known as “The Road of Life,” it was used to bring food and supplies into the city and became a possible, though perilous, means of escape.
Jay and I created a script and wrote more than 40 songs, many of which we dropped as our ideas about the musical evolved. This process has been a new and challenging experience. As a poet, I had always worked alone; suddenly I was collaborating and learning the give-and-take necessary for any partnership to succeed.
A year after Jay and I started working together, my friend David Black, the producer of the hit musical George M!, arranged for us to have a staged reading at the Granite Theatre in Westerly, R.I. The reading played to a sold-out audience, and Jay and I became energized, reworking plot points and writing new songs. We then shared the new material with a packed audience in Portland, Maine, who embraced the theme of hope triumphing in the darkest of circumstances.
Jay and I knew that taking The Road of Life to the next step — a full-scale production — required creating a high-quality demo CD of its songs and sending it to producers and theater companies.
Crash Course in Crowdfunding
Estimating that the CD would cost about $18,000, we decided to lasso contributions through the crowdfunding site, Indiegogo. We chose it because this site lets creators keep all the money they raise (with a small percentage deducted for its fees); Kickstarter, by contrast, is all or nothing — if you don’t achieve your financial goal, you don’t get any of the money raised.
Over the next few weeks, we got a crash course in crowdfunding.
First, we sent out a series of e-blasts about our campaign to a mailing list of 275 family members, friends and colleagues. Then we posted links to our Indiegogo campaign on LinkedIn and a few Facebook sites — some targeted to musical theater (like Show Off Your New Musical) and others specializing in promoting crowdfunding campaigns.
To help persuade people to donate, our list of perks for contributors ranged from being designated a “Dream Funder” on our site (for a $10 contribution) to receiving a signed poster, lyric sheets and a CD sampler ($150) to getting an original poem on the subject of your choice written by me ($1,000; to my delight, we had three contributors at this level).
Thanks to the generous support of 86 contributors, we raised close to $14,000 in 47 days — not quite our $18,000 goal, but close.
Living the Dream Is Hard
Our timetable is ambitious. We’re aiming to record the CD by late spring and then shopping it around to get at least one professional production mounted at a prestigious regional theater with a reputation for incubating musicals and attracting the attention of Broadway producers, directors, and actors.
“What’s it like to be living the dream?” a friend recently asked. Well, it’s more demanding and exhausting than anything I’ve done, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Every day I wake up 5:00 a.m. and before beginning my day job as an editorial consultant, I spend three to four hours working on the musical. Jay and I are constantly developing new plot points or polishing dialogue, so the script is still a work-in-progress. We’re also writing new songs to replace previous numbers that no longer measure up to the high bar we’ve set for ourselves.
Fortunately, The Road of Life has taken on a life of its own. As more people hear about it, they want to lend their support — by contributing money, sharing leads on theatrical contacts and providing welcome words of encouragement. (If you want to be on our mailing list to receive updates about the musical, please sign up on our website: Roadoflifethemusical.com.)
And what have I learned from my passion project? That in order to follow your bliss you need to surrender to it — not just because you want to, but because you can’t imagine not doing it.
Sure, it’s scary to dream big. But when you believe in something deeply enough, you realize nothing is impossible.
As I near my 60 birthday, I find that what I’m really celebrating is being able to live out a secret dream that I never thought would become a reality.
So, light the lights. My Act Two has just begun!