Musical Theater, Opportunity

9 Pieces of Advice I’d Tell My Younger Self about Writing, Producing & Surviving a First Big Musical Project


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By May-Elise Martinsen

When I first started dreaming up 59 Days in New York over two years ago in my tiny Washington Heights bedroom, let’s be honest – I didn’t know what I was doing.

I had never written more than a series of isolated songs before, yet here I was attempting to write a complete musical for the web. I didn’t know anyone in New York City, minus my fellow interns at the office and Craigslist roommates. And yet, I was going to need to assemble a film crew and cast. I was trying to keep myself on a $1.00-per-meal budget. And oh how blissfully unaware I was of the capital required to produce even the lowliest of low budget musicals….

If I could go back in time to talk with that “fresh-from-LaGuardia airport” May-Elise, what advice would I give her? What do I wish I had known then?

Besides imparting all the wisdom from my Google searches, here are the hard-won lessons I would share:

1.    Write everything first. When we started filming 59 Days in New York, I had only three episodes written. The trajectory for the rest of the show existed in my head, but only loosely. At the time, I imagined that by not having the scripts and scores fixed, I would be better able to take Amy’s story in a new direction, depending on audience feedback or logistical concerns.

The idea had merit. But I realize now that if you are going to wear a lot of creative hats on the same project, it’s best not to tackle them all at the same time. Ergo write the series in advance. You can always re-write if need be. But for budgeting, planning, and personal sanity reasons, it makes a huge difference to write before going to production.

2.    Everything takes more time than you think it will. I’m an optimist by nature. But working on 59 Days in New York, I’ve learned that scheduling is a job best suited for the pessimists of this world. Did I ever think it would take two years to complete 59 Days? Never! Even as late as November 2014, I was planning the Episode 9 release party for February. And here we are in April…

Plenty of times, I had to reconcile my optimistic expectations with cold, slow-moving reality – and plenty of times, that reconciliation process hurt. I remember calling my former voice teacher for advice after a major recording delay for the Kickstarter video.

“I told EVERYONE I would be launching the Kickstarter campaign next Monday,” I told her despairingly.

As she reassured me and as I have done my best to remember since, the world will not collapse if you can’t stay on schedule. Most people will not even remember the original date you said. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s better to take the extra time and make sure you are ready.

3.    You are not alone. At one point last year, I met with a fellow webseries writer/producer to talk about crowdfunding, and ended up having a life-changing cup of coffee. During the meeting, this fellow creator confided in me, “Sometimes, I feel like I’m trying to do this project alone and that no one else cares.”

It was the nicest thing to hear. I felt such relief knowing that someone else – someone whose work ethic and creativity I admired tremendously – also felt at times like the process could be overwhelming and that leading could be lonely job.

Many of our narratives around success imply that if you are doing something well, it should come easily. Today, I know that delays, mistakes, feeling overwhelmed, and the likes are not necessarily signs of failure. They come with the territory of creating.

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4.    Prioritize yourself. By the time we finished filming Episode 7, I was burnt out. I had gotten so preoccupied with production, I wasn’t taking care of my basic needs: sleep, eat nutritious food, exercise. I had even started getting recurring dizzy spells from excessive tension in my shoulders. And I experienced, when you do not prioritize your personal wellbeing, it is impossible to enjoy the process of creating.

When you feel overwhelmed, protect yourself and your creativity. Push deadlines where you can. Remember that you can afford to take an exercise class, take a walk, or buy healthy groceries for dinner. After all, if you are not functional and feeling like your best self, it will affect your work.

5.    It’s better for it to be done than for it to be perfect! In the arts, there is such pressure on perfection and “genius.” In my experience, the pressure inhibits more than it helps. That’s why in high school, I started adopting this “better done” mantra to prevent me from getting writer’s block. Still, I need the reminder from time to time – and I especially needed it while composing “Brown Brick and Grey” for Episode 6.

“Brown Brick and Grey” is by far the simplest piece of the show in terms of lyrics, harmony, and arrangement. For instrumentation, it involved just voice and piano (we added an extra cello part later). In spite of it being so simple, I had this idea that it needed to be beautiful and nuanced. Those words got me all hung up, and I spent weeks writing lots of not-quite-good-enough tunes and lyrics for the episode.

A friend finally suggested I use dummy lyrics like the Beatles did to craft some of their songs. “Write lyrics that don’t make sense but have good rhythm and vowel sounds; then you can substitute them out later,” she recommended.

That advice – the license to write something that didn’t even make sense – saved me. A few days before the scheduled recording session, I was able to crank out the melody. And you know what, the song existed – and that was more important than it matching my expectations.

6.    Everyone has a different opinion. I used to think that people had more or less the same opinions of creative work. After all, when you turn in a paper in school, you get a specific grade. There is no shortage of “Top 10 lists” that define the best and worst of any music genre. And with pop culture and the internet, it’s so easy to feel like there is one unified wave of consciousness.

When I started showing episodes to friends and family, however, I saw that people’s opinions were far from unified. Often, people had conflicting opinions on the exact same material. After Episode 6, I wrote a blog talking about how people seemed to fall into two distinct camps: those who loved the “realness” and pacing of the episode, and those who missed the fun and snap of the previous material.

In asking people “what do you think,” I’ve learned to listen, but not get too invested in the opinion. At the end of the day, there isn’t a right answer and you have to go with your gut.

7.    The talent in NYC is amazing! Throughout creating 59 Days, I was privileged to work with the most incredible cast, crew, and musicians – people who really gave their heart and soul and countless hours to the project. When I’d go to a recording session or a film shoot or production meeting, I was always impressed at the level of talent and passion. I hope I don’t forget what a blessing it is to be surrounded by this kind of creative energy.

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8.    Working with other people can be the worst, but is definitely preferable to working solo. As stated above, I was lucky to work with many wonderful collaborators on 59 Days. Sometimes – as is wont to happen when creative, caring people want to do the best job possible – people had different opinions. Those different opinions could be hard to reconcile.

For instance, on Episode 5, I was working with our talented arranger and music director Rémy Labbé on the score. I had initially written “Wait for the Moment” in a simple, collegiate a cappella style. Rémy, who has a strong jazz background, gave the piece a decidedly jazzy arrangement. For days, we sent scores back and forth, trying to find the sweet spot of the arrangement. Tension ran high as we were working right down to the recording deadline. At the end, however, we were able to finalize a neat a cappella piece with beautiful jazz harmonies and nice rhythmic intricacies. It had more flavor and complexity than my original score, while still retaining its musical theatre character. In other words, the ideas combined were stronger than what we had created separately.

I am convinced being a lone genius is overrated. Creativity blossoms in collaboration – particularly on a large-scale project like this one.

9.    There’s still a lot to learn. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking, leadership, and musical theatre writing over the past two years. Still, I know I’ve only scratched the surface. Going forward, I’m excited to build my skills in just one area for a while, and to come back to what inspired this project initially – the music. I’m looking forward to concentrate on arranging and instrumentation and to ground my knowledge of harmony.

While it’s back to the drawing board for me, I feel more confident tackling what I don’t know today. If 59 Days taught me anything, it is that even if I don’t know what I am doing, I can figure it out. And that keeps me going…

Editor’s Note: Catch up with 59 Days in New York here on Musicovation! Episodes 7 through 9 are currently featured on our homepage. For the rest of the episodes, visit the 59 Days YouTube channel here

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