The Process of Creating a Musical for Online Audiences

By May-Elise Martinsen

I am May-Elise Martinsen, a musical theatre composer, lyricist, and producer. For the last two years, I’ve been creating 59 Days in New York, a musical webseries about tight budgets and big dreams. When I first moved to New York from my Florida hometown, I had it all planned out. First, I was going to intern at a musical theatre festival for three months and learn the ropes of the industry. Then, that fall, I was going to attend the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts to cultivate my inner Rodgers and find my future Hammerstein writing partner.

When I got to New York though, I started to reconsider those carefully crafted plans. Somewhere between interning and getting ready for grad school, I started writing what I thought to be a small, easily produceable project – a musical webseries featuring a character who, much like myself, had also just moved to the Big City to follow her dreams.

While I did get accepted to Tisch with a scholarship, I ended up making the difficult decision to say no to the program and instead pursue this musical that was steadily taking on a life of its own. Two years, one Kickstarter campaign, and eight episodes later, I am excited to introduce you to 59 Days in New York – still a work in progress.

Why Write a Musical Webseries?

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Coming to New York as a young composer/lyricist with little more than a Wellesley College thesis in her portfolio, I knew the odds of having someone produce my first musical theatre work was…well, nonexistent. That is part of what attracted me to writing for the web. In producing a musical webseries, I could create a full-length work to share with friends, family, and potentially people from all over the world. I was also excited to write a musical in a webseries format. In the last couple of years, webseries have become popular and gained a reputation for being the medium where young creators can cut their teeth, grow an audience, and share stories not typically featured on network media. In some cases, webseries even get picked by the big leagues. Think Broad City, which started on the web in rough two-minute segments and now plays on Comedy Central!

Of all the great webseries I have watched however, I’ve only found a handful of musicals. Unfortunately, most of them use the musical numbers as spectacles, rather than as vehicles to push the plot forward or serve up more insight into the characters. Others seemed like they didn’t take the musical numbers seriously by neglecting the quality of the lyrics or music.

Focusing on Music

In creating 59 Days in New York, I wanted the music to be at the heart of the series. To achieve this, I built each episode around a main musical number. This way, the music wouldn’t just add pizzazz or provide a break from the main action. It would function as the centerpiece of each script.

We’ve done a lot of fun pieces with 59 Days in which the music carries the weight of the story’s drama – but none more so than the most recently released Episode 8. This episode features the show’s biggest and most ambitious number: a ballroom dream “ballet.” In the story, the dream sequence explores our heroine’s fear of failure. For inspiration, I looked to the structure of the dream sequence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, which features another young woman presented with her worst fears. As in Oklahoma, the piece moves from a happy daydream to a terrifying nightmare. But in contrast to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 14-minute extended ballet sequence, my episode 8 number had to complete the same dramatic arch in under five minutes – both to minimize filming resources and because people’s internet attention spans are extremely short.

59 Days in New York, Episode 8

We had another musical restriction as well. The piece had to fit the choreography framework of ballroom dancing. I decided to build the piece around one theme that could be adapted into a satisfying foxtrot and thematically distorted into a dark tango. To make the middle section better suited for some of the dancers in the piece, I also wrote another theme variation that deviated from ballroom to allow for more jazzy musical theatre choreography.

Developing the Sound of the Show

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When I first started writing 59 Days, all I had was a 66-key Yamaha keyboard, a small microphone I could hook up to my computer, a pop guard, and Sibelius software to notate my music. Since I had no money to record, I used Sibelius to generate accompaniment tracks and recorded in my bedroom.

Those scratchy recordings served as the music for the first four self-produced videos of the show. After Episode 4, however, I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money so we could afford paying musicians and recording at a studio. Thankfully, the campaign went well. And you can hear, comparing the Sibelius generated background tracks of Episode 4 to the polished vocal performance in Episode 5 – the funding was a major game changer for me in writing the music for the rest of the show.

Now that we had a budget for music production, I was eager to explore new sounds. Since each episode stands on its own, I felt like we could work with a variety of styles – from pop to big band – without it being a jarring experience to the listeners. I started writing the rest of the show so that each episode would feature a new style or a new set of instruments. In Episode 5, for instance, I decided to write an all male a cappella number. Having gone to Wellesley, a women’s college, I had never written for men’s voices before.

Still, I was excited to collaborate with my lead vocalist to rework the piece based on his range and vocal strengths. To fill out the tenor, baritone and bass parts, we brought on a talented New York-based a cappella group, Feedback. They recorded themselves singing each line multiple times, giving the impression they were a bigger group. One of their talented members also improvised a beatbox vocal percussion track, which gave the piece even more dimension and made it stylistically in tune with current a cappella trends.

59 Days in New York, Episode 5

In Episode 7, we went country. From a storytelling perspective, writing a country song made sense because the main character idolizes Dolly Parton – and even kept a poster of the woman in her room for comfort and inspiration. In spite of having listened to Dolly albums since high school, writing a country tune was definitely outside my comfort zone. I had experience writing for voice, strings, piano, and some horns. But this piece needed a pop country arrangement, featuring guitars, drums, and banjo. For the piece, I worked with arranger Remy Labbe and an excellent group of musicians, lead by guitar player Mike Bono, who had never played banjo before. However, Mike had an incredibly ability to pick up instruments and even improvise a full guitar solo, making the recording session great fun.

59 Days in New York, Episode 7 

Moving Forward

From a production standpoint, 59 Days is almost wrapped. In late March, I’ll release the ninth episode, bringing to conclusion some two years worth of work. Looking back now, I’m amazed at how far the project has come. Episode 1 was a one-woman show. Episode 8, on the other hand, involved nearly 40 different production people, including 10 musicians! For a young composer, it’s been an incredible experience to collaborate, build my portfolio, and know firsthand the blood, sweat and tears that go into producing and promoting a work.

According to my original plans, I ought to be graduating with my masters this spring. But you know, even though I didn’t choose that path, I think I’ll feel an even greater sense of accomplishment when I launch Episode 9 and know my first full-length musical theatre creation finally exists for all the world to see.

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