I'm working on a musical based on the music of Pearl Jam. The spine of the plot comes out of the album "Vs.", and the title of the play is the originally planned title of that album, "Five Against One." From the title you can correctly infer that there are 6 main characters and one major conflict. 4 other actors form a Greek-style chorus and they are double cast into any roles incidental to a scene. If the directors do not choose to double cast at all the total headcount is 15 which I believe is still a bit low for a musical (and a bit high for a straight play).
Currently two copies of the play are out in the world other than those distributed to my inner friend circle. The first is in the hands of a production company that runs a new play festival across the street from my own office. They are gracious enough to give the play at least a table reading.
The second is in the hands of one of the business managers of Pearl Jam, at her request. I sent an initial inquiry asking to be placed in contact with the person who does theatrical licensing of the band's music. In her reply she was asking where the play was going to be performed, when, and for a copy of the script. In my response I told her the play was still in draft with no scheduled production. I did provide her a draft.
Both of them have the 4th draft which was completed 2 weeks ago. The 5th draft has more material still to deal with questions that rose out of the first readings and feed backs on the 4th.
So here are my questions
1) Any place for advice on the minefield that is derivative works?
I stated outright in my letter to Pearl Jam's business manager - if the band or their management does not want this play to exist it is essentially dead. To me this goes beyond legal inquiry to courtesy - I don't want to put the thing on without permission. I have a deep respect for the music and the people who wrote it. Besides, I need the writing exercise itself most at this point. I have two other plays at the planning step that aren't derivative.
Also, as the play has fleshed out it has begun 'asking' for changes to the music. "Alive" appears, but with the 2nd verse omitted because that verse isn't dialog and further has incestuous connotations not appropriate to the characters speaking the 1st and 3rd verses that are used. "Last Exit" is preprised - that is the song appears in its original form in the 'reprise' position and a new arrangement of the song is used earlier in the act (for those familiar with it I slowed it down by more than half and stripped everything but 1 acoustic guitar away).
As the play moves into it's latter drafts I feel it's going to be the music that starts doing more changing than the dialog. That worries me because they aren't mine to change and up to this point I've resisted doing that as much as I can.
Replicating the sound doesn't bother me so much - that actually went out the window the moment I chose to have songs sung by multiple actors. Also, in my opinion, if the audience wants the exact sound of Pearl Jam they should go to a concert. While I want the play to honor them, I don't want it to mimic them.
2) Balance of Acts
My goal from the onset was 2 acts of no more than 90 minutes each. The first act is approaching that mark. The second is ten minutes behind. Is symmetry here important?
Another point of symmetry is that, currently, both acts have 13 songs. In my studies of other musicals I've noted the first act tends to have more than the second. Am I fussing about something that isn't going to be important to anyone?
3) Iambic pentameter.
I wrote the play entirely in blank verse. In addition, there are major monologues that are true sonnets though I'm using a non-classical rhyme structure. My artistic reason for doing this is this: The play is about domestic violence. That theme is one that will be familiar, at least in passing, to nearly everyone. That worries me to be honest. It's not a topic I would have chosen but it is the topic the music led me too. Setting the dialog in verse creates a certain 'unreality' to it that, along with the music, allows some space between the reality the play represents.
4) How much should I say about staging?
Frequent scene changing is troublesome in a play. Musicals can cheat a bit, using band solos to keep the audience occupied while the transitions are done, but it is something I'm aware of. The settings 2 houses with 2 bedrooms, 1 kitchen and 1 living room each, a jail, a car, a schoolroom, a hospital room and streets.
My mind visual of the play is that it be done abstractly in the vein of Our Town. The play can be done with two tables and four chairs. The lighting designer gets the job of demarcating the rooms. But how much should I say in the play about this? I don't want to dictate what the designers and director do with it. But if an attempt was done to make the play very realistic it would get expensive, quick.
5) What about blocking?
I've refrained from saying anything about what I see the characters doing on their lines because I want the actors and director to figure that stuff out on their own - and also if this does get performed I'd like to be surprised by what they see that I don't. To this end my only blocking directions are those critical to plot or that the dialog directly makes commentary on (usually, but not always, when someone strikes someone else).
My main worry is this - I've noted when the characters hurt each other physically because they say something about it. But when I see them hugging, holding hands or trying to comfort each other nothing is called out about that. It bothers me when reading it.
6) What of the action outside the play?
What, if anything, should I say about what occurs before the play? In a sense, the play has a missing 7th character who has died the previous summer. He is mentioned around 8 times through the play and the effect of his actions on the characters is noticable, to me at least. Should I write a prologue or afterword and talk about him?
I don't think the play needs this information, but I do think it would be useful to the actors to know. I don't want to tell them how the character feels - doing that implies I want them to feel a certain way and that isn't fair I think.
Then again, not answering these questions lends a sort of mystery to the play and has already given my friends stuff to debate about - and to date I haven't given my answers.
Those are all good questions, and I don't have answers for all of them. But here are the answers I do have:
2) What's important is that the story is well told and the audience is interested. Usually second acts are shorter than first acts, but that's not always true. Make sure you are telling your story, and then watch the audience at the readings. If they're engaged, your play isn't too long.
3) What is your question about blank verse?
4) Give a few notes about staging, and let the designers and director worry about the rest, especially how much it will cost. Being clear that a play can be staged simply is always a good idea, especially these days when theaters are struggling. They will always spend more money if they have it. ;)
5) Directors are famous for saying that the first thing they do is cross out all of the stage directions. So you may not need to worry. One teacher of mine said that if a bit of action is important, put something in the dialog that makes that action essential.
6) You can always put notes in for the actors. Again, they may ignore them, but usually they like to know the playwright's intent.
My main worry about blank verse is that it is an unusual choice. Worst case scenario is I get written off and laughed at as a Shakespeare wannabe. I wonder if it's ok to do something so unusual anymore.