Author: May-Elise Martinsen

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

Musical Theater, Opportunity, Technology

The Process of Creating a Musical for Online Audiences

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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.