Friday, May 21, 2010

A Night at the Opera - from the pages of The Dramatist

Here is my editor's note from the January 2010 issue.  Reprinted by permission of The Dramatist, Journal of the Dramatists Guild of America.

The other night I went to see an opera. In it, a gentleman named Faust struck up a bargain with an unsavory fellow who unfortunately turned out to be the devil. Faust got some good stuff out of the deal in the short term, but ultimately things ended on a bad note for him. Eternal hell fire, eyeballs roasted on the fingers of demons, you know the drill. Well, the whole experience got me thinking, just what would I sell my immortal soul to get?  What do I so strongly desire that I would put myself in a - let's say uncomfortable at best - future situation in order for short term gain.  There are all the boring answers that 99% of us in the world would give.  Some combination of money and sex and power.  Or the money to buy sex and power.  Or perhaps the money to help those whose lives are being destroyed by sex and power.  But this is the Dramatist, and I’m more interested in what a dramatist would sell their soul for.  If Faust was a struggling lyricist, and struck up a deal with the prince of darkness, what would he try and get?  
To over simplify: massive success.  A convenient byproduct of that is usually money.  He probably has no real interest in fame but one must begrudgingly admit it comes with the territory.  So success, wealth, renown, but let’s break that down.  When his attorney (he’d be fool not to have one) is in final negotiations with hell’s legal team, what should be in that contract?  I don’t work in the business affairs department, but this is what I’d advise anyone in the situation to ask for. 
Top of the list: genius, it’s always a good place to start.  Why bother with the usual self doubt, “What if I’m no good?”  None of that.  Faust will know he’s a freaking genius ‘cause he signed a contract with the devil to make him one.  In addition to that, discipline is essential.  There are plenty of brilliant, creative folks who never write a word or note.  Faust needs to be an obsessive work-a-holic whose genius comes pouring out of him on a reliable schedule.   And as lonely as the life of a dramatist can seem, theatre is ultimately a team sport.  Particularly for our lyricist-Faust, a crackerjack team of collaborators is essential.  They are also work-a-holic geniuses, and good listeners. 
At this point you have a brilliant work written by a gifted (hell-assisted) team.  Now it needs to get off the hard drive and into a theatre.  That’s why I advise demanding an unfairly large helping of luck.  Faust’s roommate’s aunt should be friends with that guy who once dated someone who played on the same softball team as the chiropractor of the literary manager of SuperMegaBig not-for-profit Theatre.  They happened to run into each other at a bake sale, and the literary manager decided to come to the reading Faust et al put up in their back yard.  This leads to another reading, developmental workshop, and finally main stage production, all streamlined by hell’s minions.
So far, so good.  But Faust hasn’t really got his soul’s worth yet.  He’s been successful, but not SUCCE$$FUL.    Massive Broadway hit is a deal-breaker, ladies.  If hell won’t guarantee it, walk away.  They need to promise a brilliant, wise, experienced, connected producer who falls in love with Faust’s show and falls hard.  From there the contract writes itself: critical and popular mega-hit, awards sweep (Tony, and hold out for the Pulitzer) record breaking run, leading to film version, Oscars etc, etc, etc.  Then repeat as desired, skipping the “nobody knows who we are” phase. 
Now, I don’t really feel qualified to advise Faust as to weather or not massive success as a dramatist is a good trade for whatever component of the self may be eternal.  And it should be pointed out that even if he hires the toughest attorney in town, it’s likely that Satan works with a larger firm.  I’m just saying Faust, if you’re gonna sell, sell high.