musings

Musings on... Omission by Ben Frost

Look for what’s missing. Many advisors can tell a President how to improve what’s proposed or what’s gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn’t there.
— Donald Rumsfeld
’Darling, I missed you!’ she said as she fired again.
— Me

This sentence has been left intentionally blank. As has this one. Furthermore (and I use the word “furthermore” quite inaccurately), this next sentence contains nothing of interest, absolutely nothing of value and, before you can make some cruel joke about how “absolutely nothing of value” is more or less par for the course with these articles, let me tell you that my fourth sentence will also be supplied without meaning, significance or subtext: Curious isn’t it? In truth, I am deliberately spending the whole of my opening gambit saying nothing. I am speaking to you, certainly, but the only thing you can take from my words is that I have nothing whatsoever to say…

…Until now: after several weeks of me waxing lyrical about, well… waxing lyrical, I thought that, today, we might spend a little time talking about the power of saying nothing at all. Which isn’t to say we’re talking politics. Or rather, not talking politics in the way the all politicians are wont to do. We’re not talking talking for the sake of talking, the art of speaking as an act of circumvention, answering questions with abstract sounds rather than words in the belief that our audience will be mollified or reassured simply by the fact that we’re speaking at all. No, no. We’re talking about talking about something else entirely, or else nothing whatsoever at all, as a disguise for our real intentions, or as carefully wrought mask for our own beliefs.

A character is defined by what she or he says, and what they don’t say. How they say it, and how they don’t say it. How they sing it, and why sometimes they don’t sing – even when the music’s playing, even when everyone else is singing along, because for some reason, the lyrics turn to ashes on their lips and they’d rather keep their mouths shut. Ben and I are in the middle of writing an “Electric Opera” called NEON. Over the coming months, you’ll be able to find our more about it, and hear songs from the show, on this here very website. Until then, all I can tell you is that NEON is the story of a powerful woman, in the autumn of her life, finding love and losing love and proving to herself that love is too great a price to pay, and that power is better and business is everything. Her name is Louisa McAdams and she is introduced in an extended opening sequence as the Designer of a exciting range of Winter Couture, on display at London Fashion Week. The opening sequence is a ten-minute fashion show followed by a glitzy, sexy, backstage party. And throughout, as the models and the VIP guests dance about her, our protagonist, Louisa McAdams, says nothing. All eyes are on her, the world revolves around her, but she keeps schtum.  

Well, not entirely schtum. She does say, “Hi.” Twice. To the same gorgeous model, thirty-years her junior, who will one day have such an impact on her life, but other than that she remains silent. And the effect is powerful, as powerful and enigmatic as our lead. The fact that she refuses to speak or doesn’t need to speak, or perhaps, hardly dares to speak, invites so many questions from the audience. Both audiences – her invited guests and ours. A mystery is created, artificially by the writers but quite deliberately by Louisa McAdams, a mystery to be resolved on her own terms over the course of the drama.

Not that Louisa is wholly mysterious. The situation tells us a great deal about her, her status and her attitude to the world (even if that attitude is the mask she wears only in public). The music tells us even more, it speaks of power and practice, of confidence and competence, of boredom, perhaps, and of desire. The fact that Louisa ends the sequence by slipping our of her own party in the arms of the young model, a fact that does not go unnoticed by many of her guests, speaks volumes as to her character. Indeed, by the end of the opening sequence, we know a lot about a woman who hasn’t said a word and we want to know more.

Somebody somewhere said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about – which is balls; obviously, whoever said that had never been to Kettering. However, it’s true that a person exists as much in the minds of her or his friends and colleagues as she or he does in their own psychology. To be talked about is to be kept alive, and to be defined. In the opening sequence for NEON, Louisa is talked about almost continuously, variously in words of praise and of censure. In this way, once again, the character doesn’t have to utter a word for us to know all we need to know about her. Of course, there’s nothing particularly new or innovative in these story-telling gimmicks. They’ve been around in other media for decades. But in a field where character can sometimes be delivered for you wholesale in a clunky “I Want” song, a more subtle mechanism for introducing a protagonist is immediately attractive. Musical Theatre has the unique advantage of having music to do at least half the story-telling work for you, half the heavy-lifting and fifty per cent of the characterisation. And therefore, although I love a spot of idiomatic verisimilitude and a vibrantly verbose lyric or two, of course I do, I’m also fond of the times when a character does it all through music and song. The times when I get to write something like: 

She tries not to cry.

And Ben does the rest.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Musings on... Verisimilitude by Ben Frost

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
— Abraham Lincoln
…Unless you work in Musical Theatre.
— Me

When is a yoghurt not a yoghurt? When it’s a Marks and Spencer’s yogurt. When it’s a Greco-Roman Mega-Posset raddled by citrus blossom, tempered with essential oils and studded with the crystalized remains of sixty-seven sun-blushed Mediterranean Lemons. An M&S yogurt is more that a yogurt, is better than a yoghurt, is somehow more desirable and damn sight more appetising than a plain old “yogurt” because it conjures up images in our minds and tastes on our tongues; it is an altogether more acceptable and convincing proposition. Bottom line: I believe in it and, I’m guessing, given our mutual fondness for Musical Theatre, you believe in it too. M&S knows a thing or six about gentle persuasion; St Michael wields the power of verisimilitude. 

Drama is a bunch of ugly lies dressed up pretty to look like the truth. How convincing any piece of drama is depends upon the performance of the actors, the insight of the directors, the budget, the subject, the venue, and (of course) the wit and wisdom of the writing team. As a humble writer (and I use the word “humble” quite wrongly), I am in control only of the very first sheen of truth applied to the myriad fibs of a brand new story. I do the words but, although they come out of my head, they’re destined to reach the audience from the mouths of other people entirely. I therefore have my work cut out for me to convince anyone at all that I mean what I say. Fortunately for me (and others like me [there are no others like me]), there are little tricks I can use to add verisimilitude, the illusion of truth and reality, to my work. Which is to say, things I can do to help you believe in the unutterably illusory world that I’m creating.

Names are important. Shakespeare said, something along the lines of, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would it? Really? Even if it was called a Bum Flower or a Rotten-Guts Weed? Far be it from me to disagree with the Bard of Avon, but I ain’t convinced. A name should fit the character, because that just makes life easier for everyone. A bouncer outside a nightclub should be called Massive Craig, say, and not Lionel St John Ffolkes-Coupling. Unless the whole point of the character was that he was playing against type, in which case, I can’t think of a better name for him. (“You can’t come in with those shoes, sir. No trainers, no sandals, no Giuseppe Zanotti.”) More importantly, a name should sound like it was given to the character by her or his parents at her or his birth. A forename should fit with a surname, and both should be relatively interesting in their own right (and, as far as my particular job is concerned, both should rhyme with practically anything I want them to). 

Proper nouns are the liar’s best friend. (A liar is also chummy with verbs, participles, prepositions and conjunctions, but they’re more like Facebook Friends than bosom buddies.) Using brand names, nicknames, obscure county towns, trademarks etc. all help to convince the listener that you know what you’re talking about. In drama, the prodigious use of proper nouns (real or imaginary) can be the difference between a clichéd line of dialogue, muttered by a character in a third-rate soap, and a quotable sound-bite of gospel truth, delivered by a three-dimensional human being, standing under a proscenium arch but living and breathing in the fragile frame of a two-hour window on the world. Here’s a little something from Doctor Who (just because, and also because if anything is a difficult sell, it’s the wacky work of the good Doctor)…

An evil scientist from the 51st Century has travelled back to the 19th to escape justice. His method of transport: a rickety time machine based on a dangerously unstable technology. The Doctor explains how the experiments which led its construction were (or rather, will be) an abject failure, and he does so with a lot of proper nouns:

“[correcting his friend] Unsuccessful time travel, Professor. Findecker's discovery of the double nexus particle sent human science up a technological cul-de-sac.”

(from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1977)

He goes on to identify the scientist as one Magnus Greel, “the infamous Minister of Justice, the Butcher of Brisbane,” a Mengele-type figure from a future World War, forced to flee after the “Filipino Army” made its “final advance on Reykjavik.” Sure, it’s all nonsense, but it’s richly textured and well-written nonsense, peppered with proper nouns all of which serve to conjure up in our minds images of exotic locations, horrific atrocities, and infinite scientific possibilities. These words have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, or even the plot. Both of which can roughly be summed up by: evil bloke with a laser gun wreaks havoc in Victorian London until  someone with the balls and the brawn steps up to stop him. The words are there only to make this ludicrous story more palatable, in much the same way as M&S might advertise their pots of rotten cow’s milk with a list of romantic ingredients similar to those spelled out at the top of this article. The proper nouns somehow make the lies more believable. And, I would argue, that nobody knew this better than one of my favourite writers of the last 100 years, Robert Holmes (author of a number of Doctor Who stories and a plethora of other television show in the 1960s, 70s and 80s) –more about him another time. For now, back to product placement… 

People don’t eat “chocolate bars” they might, “go for a Snickers” or “fancy a Mars Bar.” People don’t run out of “bubble bath”, they run out of Radox (or, in this house: Matey.) Proper nouns, when it comes to comestibles and consumables, lend not only verisimilitude to dialogue, but they tell us about the character, her or his likes and prejudices. Last year, Ben and I put together a rehearsed reading of one of out shows at the Dominion Theatre. The biggest laugh came not from any of my carefully wrought gags, or any one of Ben’s many musical flourishes, but from a proper noun. It’s unlikely to work out of context, but I’m getting to the end of this article, I’ve got to stop somewhere, and I’m off to Fitness First in a minute. So, picture the scene, an old woman, matriarch of a decaying household has struck the gong for dinner. Tonight, a young man is in attendance, a very special guest. Grandma has this to say to him:

GRANDMA:                  Dinner is served! In fifteen minutes. I suggest, Mr Austin, that you go and wash your hands. Straight down the hall, second on your left. 

Somewhat taken aback, SAM squares his shoulders and makes for the exit.

SAM:                             Right, yeah. OK. Thanks.

GRANDMA stops him at the door.

GRANDMA:                  Was my daughter telling you about her “shotgun wedding”?

SAM:                             Yes. Well, almost-wedding. There wasn’t a ceremony.

GRANDMA:                  But there was a shotgun... Feel free to use the Molton Brown

[Cue Riotous Laughter!]

SAM:                             Thanks.

SAM, unnerved, wanders off to find the loo.

NB: If any of the manufacturers of any of the products mentioned in this article want to give me free stuff, I can be contacted at the usual address, or emailed on the link above. Thank you kindly in advance.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Musings on... Verbosity by Richard Hough

Ah, but if less is more, just think of how much more “more” will be!
— (Frasier Crane, Frasier)

Charles Dickens was paid by the word. Which is why he would often use 70 of them when just the one or two would do. In A Christmas Carol (picking a story at random), his first description of the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, uses no less than eight adjectives, in rapid sequence in the space of the same fruity sentence:

“But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”

He probably got sixpence for that little lot. In the opinion of this writer, if he dares to write it down, and he does: that was sixpence well earned. Sure, many of those words share the same definition or, at least, describe the same flaw in the character of wicked old Scrooge. One might argue therefore that most of them are redundant. But that’s kind of missing the point. Here Dickens has written an elongated but consequently elegant introduction to his antihero, where the words combine in a rhythm and a meter to hammer home a entirely specific impression in the mind of the reader. This is not over-writing. I wouldn’t even call it verbose (because I don’t fully understand what that words means). It is, if anything, lyrical, metaphorical and highly imaginative. Note how most of the adjectives describe a motion of the hands – squeezing, wrenching, grasping etc. – giving us a visual metaphor to fasten to our first impressions and gathering mistrust of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Again, Dickens was earning his money when he wrote that sentence – which was handy, in retrospect, as he had a mistress who was bleeding him dry.

The business of song writing is an art of finding rhyme and reason for the inclusion of far too many words. It is the practice of describing the simplest of things in the most agonising detail, and it is justified when the simplest of things include emotions like love and hate. Sure, love is simple, and simply expressed: I love you. But the expression alone has no meaning, and little understanding. What do I mean when I tell you I love you? The answer to that question is incredibly complex and it changes almost every moment of every day. A song about my feelings for you requires a hell of a lot of words, adjectives, occasional expletives and, dare I say it? metaphors…

If you believe that the best James Bond was Sean Connery, you are wrong. No, no – this isn’t at metaphor, but I’ll be coming back to my point in a minute. For now, let me repeat: Sean Connery was not the best James Bond. The best James Bond was Roger Moore. (And in that sentence you will find everything you need to know about me and about all I’m willing to admit.) His best films were probably the two directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Christopher Wood. Now, here was a man powerfully unafraid of the colourful metaphor. In Moonraker, the villainous Hugo Drax is at his wits’ end. He tells James: “You persist in defying my efforts to plan an amusing death for you.” In the last act of the film, when Bond appears wryly unscathed from yet another botched execution, this time on board an orbiting space station, Hugo Drax says (and here’s the brilliant metaphor, wait for it):

“James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”

And, what is more, he says it in a French accent. I adore this line, and I appreciate the efforts writer Christopher Wood must have gone to when he conjured it up and wrote it down; not only did he decorate the sentiment with a coruscating metaphor, he managed to think up an entirely new one in order to avoid the dreaded pitfalls of cliché. After all, Hugo Drax might have instead accused Bond of resembling, I don’t know, “a bad penny” or “a cheap suit” or any one of those hackneyed phrases lazier writers employ to describe an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times… My God, “an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times”?! OK, that’s an unattractive sentence. It’s verbose (probably, whatever “verbose” means) but it’s also a good example of how hard it is to be interesting and original, and why the cliché is so often the first resort.

Lyricists (all of us really, but lyricists especially) have to try harder. Songwriters need words in vast quantities, original metaphors in attractive constructions and an ability to identify and avoid the cliché like a Hemsworth Brother avoids carbohydrates. They also need to think harder, to mine the most simple ideas for hidden depths and lost complexities. Not so long ago, Ben and I wrote a musical about a mother and her daughter and the mother sang a song called, You Don’t Need a Man:

THEODORA:             
AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR MOTHER TO CLOUT YOU,
AS LONG AS YOU’RE A WOMAN THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT THAT
YOU DON’T NEED A MAN! 

AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT A SLAVE TO PASSION
YOU’LL NEVER BE KNACKERED OR IRRATIONAL,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE INHERITED A TON OF CASH THEN
YOU DON’T NEED A MAN!

’CAUSE MEN ARE UNNECESSARY,
WHEN AT LAST YOU SEE THAT, MAYBE
THEN YOU WON’T BE LOOKING ANYMORE...

LOVE IS JUST A NASTY HABIT,
AND YOU CAN LIVE WITHOUT IT IF YOU’VE NEVER HAD IT,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE A BATT’RY FOR YOUR RAMPANT RABBIT,
YOU DON’T, YOU DON’T NEED A MAN!

She could have said, “All men are useless,” because that was the sentiment, but she didn’t because this is a musical, and the writers were working their butts off.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Musings on... Punctuation by Richard Hough

As the late, great Roy Castle sang at the end of every Record Breakers: “Punctuation’s what you need!” At least, I think that’s what he sang. The memory’s a little hazy. But they say that, don’t they? - If you can remember the 1980s, you weren’t there. Or, if you were there, you weren’t paying enough attention. And who could blame you? It was a bloody awful decade. Anyway, all of this is beside the point. (I’m getting bogged down in my childhood, and I shouldn’t be. Not here, anyway. I save all of my most painful reminiscences for my day job.) The point I’m trying to make is that Punctuation is vitally important, an essential tool of the playwright and lyricist. Of the Ballet Dancer or the Spectacled Bear, less so. But to me, it’s indispensable - at least as important as any other key stroke. There seems to be, however, a difference of opinion…

I have found a tendency among lyricists, my contemporaries and my ancestors, to avoid or omit punctuation altogether, believing that the rhythm and the melody does the job for them. They ignore the comma, and the colon (semi and standing proud), and only ever bother with the full stop in extremis. Well, a good lyric should obviously fit the melody like a glove (fits a hand, not a foot), and work its implied punctuation along the structure of the music. Nevertheless, when considering the finer details, in order to order the thoughts of the singer and to expose every facet of a character’s internal struggle, a little extra direction in the lyric can be very useful. Consider the following:

THIS WAS ME:
FOREVER ON MY OWN,
THIS SMILE, THIS WAS ME.
I USED TO TRY TO FOOL MYSELF.
YOU HAVE TAKEN ME TO TASK;
I WAS ANGRY, TOO AFRAID TO ASK YOU - WHY? 

A few lines taken from a new project currently fermenting in the brewery of Frost & Hough. Without the multitude of commas and colons, the reading of the lyric is almost unchanged, but not quite - and that means, without it, we’d be missing something. Something the writers intended, something they thought about to inform the characterisation. Without the punctuation, perhaps the character’s self-description as someone alone and lonely who, in addition to that, wears an ersatz smile to fool herself and the world, would be mistaken for simply a list of cold attributes. The fact that she (for she is a she, and her name is Louisa - but that’s all you’re getting out of me for now) is angry because someone took her to task, and then felt too afraid to confront them is only really specified by the semi-colon. And the actress, of course. To interpret as she will. I mean, maybe she’ll disagree with that line-reading - but at least the punctuation has made the writers’ intentions clear, and given us all something to argue about. And we call love a good fight, don’t we? That’s what drew so many of us to MT in the first place. The bloodshed. And the French Horns. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that punctuation should be used accurately. God knows, none of us went to a decent school, and Grammar, for me and for everyone else in my family, was not so much a rule of law as the name we gave to my Grandfather’s wife (who was, incidentally, an awful lot more demanding and complex than word order and the perfect tense). As playwrights and lyricists, we’re writing our sentences to be spoken aloud and should be free to use punctuation to excess if it helps to better communicate to the reader, or the actor, or the singer, how best to present the line. I’m writing this as if I expect it to be read aloud. Which is kinda silly, I know. I’m sure you won’t be reading this out loud, unless you’re on a bus, hoping to make conversation with the blue-eyed boy sitting next to you and figuring that the best way to test to see if he’s up for it is to try him on musical theatre. Nevertheless, I’m punctuating the hell out of this blog post because that’s all I know how to do. And I hope it makes sense for all this punctuation, because the words alone are, frankly, impenetrable. Still, if it wins you old blue-eyes, it’s been worth it. Let me know how it goes, you scamp!

Rich Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough