Posted on September 26, 2006 at 7:47 am

I get a lot of requests for clarifications in the texts and scores of my shows, and more rarely I get e-mails asking for changes in a lyric or a key, but every once in a while, I get a letter like the one below, one which suggests an improvement for one of my shows and permission to implement it. I don’t generally have time to respond to most of these letters (these requests are supposed to be directed to MTI, who can handle most of them with boilerplate responses), but occasionally I feel obliged to get directly involved.

A young director writes:

My name is Selma Wacknuts and I am the artistic director of Musical for Monkeys!, a non-profit theatre company in Frankenfreak, Utah. (JRB: At her request, I have changed her identifying details.) We are producing “The Last 5 Years” here in November. I asked a friend about a question I had regarding the show and he suggested I try to contact you using this forum.

You will no doubt consider this fairly brazen of me, but I hope you will forgive it. Let me preface my question by saying that I am a playwright myself and have the utmost respect for the script and maintaining the intentions of the author. Anyway, this brings me to my question regarding Jamie’s monologues that are interspersed in “See, I’m Smiling.” I realize L5Y has been produced numerous times, has won awards, is highly acclaimed and so forth. But having said that…

Upon reading Jamie’s monologues, they can’t help but seem extraneous and unneccessary. They provide little insight into the character or the story. We know from “Moving Too Fast” that Jamie becomes a famous writer; Cathy also repeats this infomration numerous times through the play. Exactly how he got to be famous is unimportant. Not to mention, the monologues really break the momentum of Cathy’s song. I understand the intention: you are juxtaposing Cathy’s response to Jamie’s success with the story of how Jamie got to be successful; but you do this so much better with “A Part of That” coming right after “Moving Too Fast”. Further, you are also showing how Jamie’s rise to success had nothing to do with Cathy, while Cathy’s rise to success has everything to do with Jamie, but this is revealed later on anyway in both “The Shmuel Song” (when Jamie encourages her to pursue her career) and in the monologue he does in the middle of “Climbing Uphill” (which I love!). Further, the three lines that lead up to “Moving Too Fast” are unneccessary – the song tells us that Jamie is moving with Cathy; why do we need to hear it in dialogue? Also, who is Rob? We never hear about him or see him again.

Anyway, my suggestion is this: that the first monologue, the one in which he calls the literary agent and gets the address be cut completely; and that the second monologue, in which he gets an interview with her, replaces the “Rob” speech as the lead up to Moving Too Fast. It would work a lot better. He gets a great phone call from a literary agent who wants to read his book; then he hangs up and sings “Moving Too Fast”. It would really strengthen the moment’s narrative arc and also help preserve the momentum of “See, I’m Smiling”.

As I’ve said, it’s your script and I fully intend to do it as written. But as a fellow writer I thought I would at least give you the suggestion for you to consider. I truly would not even bother making the suggestion unless I felt it would strengthen the show and make an already wonderful script that much better.

Now this is a generally respectful letter, which is not always the case with these things, and clearly Selma has very carefully considered what she’s asking for.

Something Selma surely knows is that the overwhelming majority of the responses to requests like this is “no.” And the answer is “no” because there’s very little reason for the answer to be “yes.” The show is published as is because the author has decided that’s how he wants it to go out into the world, he’s already worked on it with his actors, his director, his producers, he’s faced the critics, he’s run the gauntlet, and by the time the play is published, he’s moving on. Let the show be what it is. That’s not always the case, of course: I know they’ve done three or four further revisions to “Footloose” since it closed on Broadway, and there are obviously the high-profile examples of “Candide” and “Merrily We Roll Along” as shows that continued to evolve once their initial commercial runs were over. But by and large, I am certainly not alone among playwrights in thinking that publishing the play is as good a point as any to officially close the book and let posterity do its job. Commercially unsuccessful musicals in particular tend to invite a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, but in the case of all three of my shows thus far, it would really take an enormous incentive to get me to dig back into them and make any changes. (I did change one lyric in “The Last Five Years” – scroll about two-thirds of the way down that blog entry – and have approved that change for future use.)

But Selma was persistent enough in her requests (she sent this e-mail twice) and smart enough in her question that I wanted to respond and elucidate. Here’s what I said:

You’re mistaken about the importance of the information Jamie passes along and the reason those monologues exist. First of all, they’re intended specifically to break up Cathy’s song, there needs to be time between those verses for Cathy to digest and react to what Jamie is “telling” her. But more importantly, “See I’m Smiling” is the first moment when both characters are on stage at the same time, and the visual effect of Cathy waiting for Jamie’s response only to have Jamie turn out to be in a different place (and time) entirely is part of the key to the audience figuring out the timeline of the show. Jamie states in his monologue “Yes, I really am 23,” right before Cathy sings “Just 28, the savior of writing.” On a structural level, it’s vitally important that that scene play out exactly that way or I think you run the serious risk of confusing the audience (even more than they already are!).

You’re also wrong about Rob. I don’t know how you’re staging the show, but integral to the concept of how I wrote the piece is that the fourth wall is never broken. These characters are always singing “to” someone else, and in the case of “Moving Too Fast” and “A Miracle Would Happen,” the person Jamie is singing to is his best friend, Rob. (There used to be a whole Rob subplot, but it disappeared in Chicago.)

And Selma wrote back a very nice note thanking me for my time and promising to do the show as written, for which I’m most grateful.

But you may be reading this and have one nagging question in the back of your mind: What if Selma’s suggestion really was an improvement? In this case, I really don’t think it was, but being strictly theoretical, what if you were reading “Into the Woods” and realized, in a flash, that if you eliminated the Little Red Riding Hood plot, the show would become not just better but transcendentally extraordinary. I’m not being sarcastic, I have ideas like that about shows all the time, so let’s say you finally figured out what “Dreamgirls” has been missing all this time and you’re desperate to try it so you can see. What do you do?

Well, first you do what Selma did, you contact the authors for permission. Like I said, they’re almost definitely going to say no. But you’re burning to try it! This will make a difference! Now what?

Now what?

Nothing. Leave it alone. Move on. Do not produce it at your high school, your college, your summer camp, your local theater, with the intention of “fixing it”. Don’t think you can do it under the radar and get away with it. Don’t sneak around. I don’t want my shows produced so people can fix them. I want them produced so people can love them, enjoy them, be stimulated by them. I don’t put my work out in the world to have people tell me what I should have done. I put it out in the world to share with people what I did.

And if you really have that great burning idea about how to fix a show, how to bring it to life, how to make it emotionally palpable, here’s my suggestion: go write your own. Go channel your creativity into bringing something new into the world. My work is mine, it’s sacred to me; it’s time for you to build your own altar.