In Thoughts on Writing


 

Ed Kee and I used to live only two blocks from one another. His son was a close friend of my older son. We worked in the same industry at the same recording studios with the same musicians and singers and engineers. Yet, for years Ed and I only saw one another at Gospel Music Week, in downtown Nashville, or at MusiCalifornia, in San Diego. So much for being close neighbors, right?  

Now that we live across town from one another, I see Ed more often.  He and I get together once every couple of months for lunch and compare notes. I always learn something from Ed. I hope Ed is at least entertained by the time spent with me.

 In our e-mail chat, Ed and I talk about our mutual interest in musical theater in the church – where it’s been and where it’s going.

(I recommend you check out Ed’s website: ChurchMusicals.com.)

RS:  So let’s get the conversation started shall we? After leaving a long, successful career in choral print music at Brentood Benson Music, you started your own company, ChurchMusicals.com. This venture marries two of your passions: the church and musical theater.  What led you to start ChurchMusicals?

Ed:  It was a trip to New York when I was sitting in a Broadway theater watching Jane Eyre with tears rolling down my face. (Did I really say that?)

RS:  Yes.  And I now have it on record. FOREVER.Musical-Theatre

Ed:  I was so moved by what I was seeing and hearing on stage and couldn’t help comparing it to the “musicals” I was creating for Brentwood Benson. There was no comparison. NOTHING I had ever experienced in the church moved me the way that did.

RS:  How could it possibly? The typical church musical (at least back then) was a little more than a series of choir songs strung together with some narration.

Ed:  My first thought was that, of all the people in the world who should be creating musicals like this, Christians should be the ones doing it. We have a Bible full of amazing stories to tell, a message of redemption, and the Spirit of God (and all his creativity) residing within us. Why shouldn’t we be able to do this? I knew from that night I had to be involved in creating something like that and it wasn’t going to happen at Brentwood Benson.  I knew I was going to have to do it myself.  Thus Church Musicals was born.

RS:  I love it.  Starting in the early 1990s, I began attempting to write more authentic musical theater for the church.  At the time, it was not a focused, well-reasoned career choice.  (I’m not sure it’s that even today.)  All I knew then was that the typical church musical bored me. So I tried writing stuff that did not bore me.  I jumped in without knowing what I was doing and learned along the way. Not long after that, I heard Les Miserables. (On a CD.)  Before I ever saw it on stage I knew it was what a church musical should be.  Very powerful stuff.

So, let’s talk a bit about what makes musical theater such a powerful medium, when done right.  Obviously, you need great songs.  After all, that’s what the audience will be humming when they leave the show.  But just as important, though less appreciated, is a great story.  The greatest songs in the world can’t make up for a weak storyline, in my humble opinion.

Would you agree? Maybe you don’t.

Ed:  I do agree. It’s the story, told with the aid of great songs sung by compelling characters, that makes musical theater so effective. This is where every great musical has to start. Great songs alone can’t carry a musical. The audience will leave feeling cheated if the story is weak.

RS:  And in my opinion, writing a really good story is the hardest thing ever to do.  Writing songs is a piece of cake compared to writing a well-crafted, interesting story. But we humans want a good story. We love a good story.

Ed:  Robert McKee (Hollywood’s master screen writing teacher) explains that in his book Story“The world now consumes films, novels, theater and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”

RS:  Every songwriter should read McKee’s book. He says (and I agree) that screenwriting is more closely akin to songwriting than any other writing craft.  Both tell stories and both are temporal art forms. It’s a great read. What’s more, more than once in the book McKee makes positive references to faith-based stories and songs.

Ed:  McKee is not a believer and doesn’t speak from a Christian worldview, but nonetheless, I believe he is dead on when he talks about our appetite for story. That’s universal and as old as time. We want to be enthralled and entertained by a story. For those of us doing musical theater in the church, story is the means by which we get an audience to sit still and become completely focused on what we have to say to them.

RS:  So then let’s talk a bit about how story comes to life in musical theater. And it ain’t just about the singing.

Ed:  In musical theater, you have a story driven by the characters who sing songs that move the action by revealing plot, or by revealing their feelings or secret desires and emotions. Music, which can be highly emotional even without lyrics, is the perfect means to carry those feelings and emotions straight into the hearts of the audience, thereby drawing them into the story like a magnet.

RS:  Such is the power of good music. In fact, our friend Deborah Craig-Claar taught me that characters in musicals should speak up to the point that dialogue will no longer carry the emotional weight. Then they should sing. But too often in the church, we rely on music to carry the show and settle for less-than-satisfying stories.

Ed:  When you watch good musical theater, you get caught up in the story, the characters, their dilemmas, failures and triumphs and you feel all of that emotionally. You can actually be exhausted emotionally at the end of a great musical because you feel like you’ve physically experienced the same roller coaster of emotions that the main character did. That’s the power of a great musical. It’s the combination of a great story (well told) and great songs that has impact.

There are a few of us who have attempted to create this kind of musical for the church and, while I think we have had some success in creating Broadway-style musicals that reflect that genre fairly well (and have been well received), I don’t think we have yet really nailed its potential.

RS:  One reason we haven’t yet nailed it is craft, or the lack of it. We who write for the church haven’t developed the craft of musical theater writing as diligently as those who toil at it every day. Another reason is the church’s reluctance to get real. People sitting in church pews rarely want to see truly flawed characters. Though the Bible is filled with stories about sinners, the moment we dramatize these stories in church we start sweeping the real dirt under the proverbial carpet.

Ed:  When I listen to Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s King David, I see the potential more clearly. Written by a couple of non-believers, this is the story of David’s life, beginning with his relationship with Saul and ending with him passing the torch to Solomon. What makes it so engaging, beside the fact that it is musically and lyrically first-rate, is that it is not afraid to deal with the ugly side of David’s experiences – like his attraction to Bathsheba and the death of Absalom.

RS:  Exactly. David is among the greatest heroes in the Bible. But he was also an adulterer and a murderer. And we tend to downplay those things in church musicals. But Mencken & Rice have no such qualms.

Ed:  They show us David’s heart for the Lord, but also his human weaknesses – all told in a way that gives you deeper insight into the characters. In the church, we don’t like to deal with the realities of sin in our musicals.  But when we watch non-believers honestly tackle these issues we realize how seductive and selfish sin can be. That’s part of what a great musical needs to do – expose the true heart of man and let us see how ugly it truly is. How or even whether that ugliness is dealt with will differentiate the Christian musical from the non-Christian one. The first step is to expose it so you can deal with it. That’s what we in the church tend to either soft-pedal or avoid altogether.

RS:  And I’m not sure I know why that is the case. It could be several things – squeamishness about portraying something unpleasant inside the walls of a church, or fear of admitting that real life isn’t always rosy. Whatever it is, it seems less than honest. And if Christians can’t be honest about human nature, then we cannot hope to be convincing when it comes to presenting the Gospel to an unbelieving world.

What are some examples you can give us of believably flawed characters that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic?

Ed:  Here are two characters (all written by non-believers who aren’t worried about offending people!) whose darker sides are exposed – believably:

  • Frollo, the Priest in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He sings the song “Hellfire” that reveals the darkness of his heart, consumed with lust for Esmerelda.
  • Brockelhurst, self-righteous and cruel headmaster of a charitable school for girls in Jane Eyre sings the song, “Children of God.”

RS:  And along with two supposedly Christian women, Brockelhurst espouses the idea that because the flesh is ultimately weak, the only way to save the spirit is to punish the body.  Dark stuff.

Ed:  In the song “Warm Spring Night,” King David recounts his temptation with Bathsheba.

RS:  That lyric isn’t exactly graphic, but it is totally honest. And it would never be sung in most church dramas, despite the fact that it is completely true to David’s character.

Ed:  I also like the song “Absalom, My Absalom,” which David sings when he learns of Absalom’s death. It’s one of the most emotionally moving songs I’ve heard in the theater – in part because of the performer who had the ability to pull it off (which another topic of discussion). But the whole thing makes you see David’s relationship with Absalom from a father’s perspective. Well-crafted musicals allow you to see beyond the surface and into the heart and motivation of a character (and man in general), which I think is key in conveying biblical truth to an audience.

RS:  Well, let’s chase that other topic of discussion you just mentioned (performing). A lot of great musical theater roles these days have enormous vocal ranges. (Think Elfaba and Jean Valjean and Sweeny Todd.) I have written a handful of musical roles that were somewhat demanding on the singer’s range, though rarely to an extreme, I think. I tend to allow myself some leeway when it comes to the lead characters. But we who write for amateur singers have to be careful about demanding ranges if we ever want the roles to be sung well in performance. Do you agree? What’s your approach to vocal ranges for your musical roles?

Ed:  Yes, we certainly have to be careful about ranges for musicals in the church. More often than not, we’re dealing with amateur singers whose vocal skills may be good, but not at all at a professional level. In the church, we’re lucky (“blessed” in church speak) if we have a truly professional singer involved in our productions. That is obviously the exception to the rule.

RS:  Except here in Nashville, where it’s easy to be lulled by all the talent surrounding us into thinking what we have here is normal. It’s not.

Ed:  So true. Nashville is a magnet for talent, so the flip side of that means that we have probably lured some churches’ top vocalists away from them. So, if we want our musicals to be performed well, and be a satisfying experience for the cast and audience alike, we have to write so that non-professional singers can pull it off believably and sound reasonably good in doing so. If we use extreme ranges or very challenging melodies, we run a great risk of damaging the message we’re trying to communicate because when a singer cracks a note, poorly executes a melody, or otherwise falls on his or her face because they were trying to perform music that was beyond their capability, the focus shifts from the message of the song to their poor performance. The trick is to write music that is exciting, memorable and foolproof (as much as possible) for the singers. Some might call that dumbing it down, but I just see it as writing for the market (i.e. – the end user).

RS:  Every time I write something new, I have to re-visit this issue. The “sweet spot” I tend to land on, for me – at least – is music that is about 90% in the wheelhouse of good church musicians. (Note:  I said good.)  The other 10% pushes those musicians a little beyond their comfort zones.

That said, only a few days ago I heard from a church in California that had performed Two From Galilee in years past. But they no longer had access to singers capable of singing the two lead roles (Mary & Joseph). So, in the case of that particular show, I may have pushed the envelope too far.

Ed:  As a church orchestra director, I like that 10% out of their comfort zone – because it pushes them to hone their skills a little more. They like the challenge as well.

Let me go back to your comment about “Absalom, My Absalom”. That song isn’t particularly rangy, though it does have a couple of short melodic phrases that might cause even a good singer to stumble a little. What puts that song over the top is its emotional impact. Even if it were all very easy from a musical standpoint, how many church soloists could effectively pull off the emotion needed to effectively portray David’s agony as he sings, pouring his heart out to his dead son??? That’s a tall order. A song like this requires not only powerful singing, but also believable acting. Honestly, it brings me to tears every time I hear it.

RS:  There you go again with the tears…

Ed:  OK. I confess. I’m just a tender-hearted guy….  However, that just points up the power of a well written and well-acted song in a musical. It reaches deep into the soul and affects the heart!

RS:  Besides, girls like a guy who is willing to show his emotions.

Ed:  It’s lamentable we will likely never see that kind of emotion in a church musical because the average church singer just doesn’t have the acting ability and training to pull it off. Think of all the incidents in the Bible that, if musicalized, could demand that kind of emotional intensity: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the woman pleading with Solomon not to cut her young child in half to settle an argument, the rage of Jezebel. Those are all highly emotional moments. Great musical theater performances boil down to acting skills as much as musical skills.

RS:  You are absolutely right. The craft of acting is equally important to singing ability in musical theater. And most churches spend little or no effort training their singers to act. There is a real craft to it. And any church wanting to produce effective musical theater would be wise to focus efforts on the acting skills of its performers.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Amick Byram perform two of my musical theater songs in a concert setting. Amick is an accomplished professional performer. That night he sang on a bare stage, with no set, no props, no character make-up or costume. Yet in only a moment, Amick “became” John the Baptist on stage. Then he “became” Joseph of Arimathea. He completely captured the audience. And he barely moved from the spot he first planted his feet. This is the power of a great singer with solid acting skills.

Ed:  Agreed. A good actor must be willing to step into that character and not feel self-conscious in doing so. That takes training and practice. I do wish church musical directors would try to get more realistic performances out of their casts, but it may be that they don’t know how to do that because they’re not trained in acting either. In most cases, music is the director’s forte – not acting or stage directing.

RS:  There are exceptions. I’ve been working the last few years with David Basel at Brightmoor Christian Church (Novi, MI), and he pulls a lot more out his actors than most. Keith Ferguson (at First Baptist Carrollton, TX) is a talented director.  Mike Meece is an independent professional director, who has worked free-lance for large church productions for many years now. He knows how to get better performances out of amateur actors.  And some churches have drama ministries with trained people in those ministries. That said, the acting abilities in most church productions lag far behind the musical abilities.

So, to wrap up, let’s move to a business issue. For years, church musicals were sold to the churches for a retail price. The churches could perform the works as often as they liked. They could even alter the musical, should they desire to do so. In all your years at Brentwood Benson Music, this is how you were required to do business.

This is very different from the Broadway show model, which charges license fees based on seating capacity, the number of performances, and ticket sales. Also, not a single note or word of the licensed show can be altered without written approval from the authors.

When you began ChurchMusicals.com, you chose to base your business on the Broadway model. (And I think you made the proper choice, by the way.) Tell me (and my vast army of readers) why you chose that model over the old church retail approach.

Ed: Ah, Grasshopper, glad you asked!

RS:  Watch carefully as I grab the pebble from your hand…

Ed:  Interesting that you should call it “the old church retail approach.”  That approach flourished in the 1950s, with John T. Benson selling Southern Gospel sheet music and songbooks at camp meetings and conventions and evolved into one of the most powerful publishing companies in Christian music. Along the way, they made a decision (perhaps by default more than deliberate strategy) that had a negative impact on the writers of Christian musicals in a significant way.

RS:  As a songwriter who came along after old Mr. Benson’s time, enlighten me, please.

Ed:  Having built their business on retail sales of sheet music, hymnals and camp meeting song books, which is defined as a “small right” granted to copyright holders, they became so entrenched in that business model that when, in later years, they began to create cantatas and “musicals” (music combined with drama), they naturally just sold them at retail.  They never considered that the combination of music and drama made these new works eligible as a “Grand Performance Rights” use according to the copyright law. Either they knew nothing about Grand Rights, or they felt that it would only confuse their buyers to introduce the concept of licensing. So they opted to sell these musicals and cantatas (the “old church retail” model) rather than upset the status quo. For them, the issue was the sale and not the status (or classification) of the work. I believe they slighted their writers (inadvertently) by failing to utilize their Grand Rights in these musical works.

RS:  True Confessions time: I understood nothing about the difference between Small Rights and Grand Rights until learning it the hard way in the early 1990s. I had several songs in the successful musical Passion Play, The Promise, that ran every summer in the Fort Worth area. When I realized I was not making a cent from the use of my songs, I contacted ASCAP. I assumed this was a Performance Right issue. I was wrong. It was a Grand Rights issue.

Long story short: Apparently the publishing executive that made the deal with producers of the show did not understand Grand Rights, either. As a result, the writers of all those songs were not paid for years and years.

Similarly, in the late 1990s, my musical Two From Galilee (co-written with the talented Karla Worley) was the anchor piece in a very large church Christmas program. This program ran for multiple performances, selling thousands of tickets, generating over $200,000 in ticket sales. And Karla and I split a few hundred dollars in print royalties. The guy who rented the camel to the church made more money than the people who wrote the show! That’s when I knew something was very wrong with the status quo.

Ed:  As a publisher and writer for twenty-six years, I watched as writers (including myself) poured an untold amount of blood, sweat and tears into creating an hour-long Broadway-style musical only to receive a very small royalty for a few years, then see the work be put out of print because it wasn’t selling up to a required quota. Besides, there were seven new musicals waiting to be put in the sales schedule and they needed the room in the warehouse. The quality of the work had nothing to do with the decision to put it permanently out of print. At that point, the writer’s income stopped completely. Also, an excellent work was allowed to die for lack of promotion, since the main marketing push was only during the first year. After that, the salespeople rarely talked about it to customers.

RS:  The built-in publishing obsolescence of our choral print music is another of my pet peeves. But that is an entirely different discussion. I won’t de-rail this conversation to chase it. Another time, perhaps.

Ed:  As I studied the Broadway model, I realized the early Christian music publishers had gotten it wrong. It was wrong for the churches, wrong for the writers, and ultimately, wrong (in my opinion) for the publishers as well.

I chose the Broadway model because it gave longevity to my work and the work of others whose musicals I license. These musicals will not die out because of a sales cycle or corporate formulas that declare a piece of music obsolete.  As long as I promote it and make it available, there will be an audience for it. That has proven true, as churches often come back two, three, even four years later, and perform a musical again.

RS:  And since most musical theater is not built with trendy songs, the songs don’t go out of fashion like so much pop music does.

Ed: Another reason I went the licensing direction is that the big companies quit creating Broadway-style musicals. (Not that they ever did a lot of them to begin with).

RS:  Word Music hung in there for as long as they could. I wrote at least four big shows for them. I can’t blame them for not trying. But they weren’t ever going to change how they did business. So, they just stopped offering the dramatic musicals. The musicals demanded too much of the publishers, for too little return, I suppose.

Ed:  This style of music demands more of the writer, too.

RS:  Musical theater writing is considerably more demanding than pop songwriting from a form and craft perspective.

Ed:  But I think it has more of a lasting impact on an audience. Therefore I believe it has more value to both writers and to the churches that use them.

RS:  I have heard from more than one church after having made the shift from cantatas to musical theater, that it was very difficult to go back to the cantatas. The cantatas simply didn’t have the emotional impact that the musical theater works had.

Ed:  Also, licensing a Broadway-style musical helps to establish it as something different or unique. And assuming the writer has indeed delivered the goods regarding craftsmanship in the lyrics, music and story line (which Broadway theater-goers expect), the piece should be a cut above the norm, and thus worthy of a fee to perform it.

RS:  What you’re saying is: A well-written piece of musical theater is not a One-Size-Fits-All cantata. That is refreshing to hear in this day when music is regarded by so many as a commodity.

Ed:  Lastly, licensing gives the owner of the musical more control of how it is performed. Unlike a purchased musical, the licensee may not arbitrarily change dialog, story line, characters, or lyrics without permission from the publisher.

RS:  And as a writer, I treasure this aspect of licensing a work. But those limitations rub some users the wrong way. Churches have come to believe it is their right to change whatever they want. They even take pride in making changes.  I actually had a Music Minister once tell me that his church had taken one of my scripted musicals and written their own story to go with all my songs. He must’ve thought I would think that was a good thing. I didn’t even know how to respond. After all, I had also written the script they had cavalierly tossed aside.

Ed:  I once had a lady take all the songs from my musical and write her own script, and then submit it to me at Brentwood Benson, hoping to get it published! (Didn’t happen.)

RS:  You win! That is amazing!  What about churches that want to make a change for reasons other than creative license? Say, they find something in the script that offends their sensibilities?

Ed:  Of course, we understand the needs of the church and will try to accommodate when possible. But we want to be the one to make those decisions. This helps to preserve the integrity of the work and maintain some consistency from performance to performance as audiences see it.

RS:  What about broadcast and videos?

Ed:  We also don’t allow videotaping without specific permission. More often than not, we refuse to allow anyone to post their church performance online.

RS:  That’s interesting – especially since everybody wants to post their video on YouTube these days.

Ed:  We have the “authorized version” online for people to see – again to maintain integrity in the work.  It’s a model that seems to be working very well for us and for the churches too.

RS:  I hope it continues to do that for the foreseeable future. I have two shows about to be released to the general public, and I’m choosing to use the licensing model. So – from your lips to God’s ears!

Many thanks to Ed Kee for participating in this chat. He and I could go on forever, but we have to save something to talk about over lunch in a week or so. Be sure to visit his website, ChurchMusicals.com.

Showing 6 comments
  • Darrin Gowan
    Reply

    I’ve been following the work of Ed Kee for a while and this conversation is long overdue. Thanks so much for pointing out what so many churches fail to embrace; people are messy, fallen critters. Not the chosen few riding the fast train to glory while being entertained by the latest radio worship knock-off, but the least, lost and last, struggling to find a point of connection with other real, fallen people.
    “People sitting in church pews rarely want to see truly flawed characters.” I once wrote a musical script which included the comic gag of an automatic toilet-flush sensor whisking away someone’s accidentally dropped cell phone (SFX only, all offstage). The idea was quashed because “the sound of a flushing toilet was a little crude” in a church setting. Slap my forehead and shake my head. Apparently the folks in my church don’t use the restroom.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Haha. I’ve come to realize the setting itself (the church as a performance venue, that is) has a real effect on how people perceive and accept (or do not accept) certain dramatic depictions. I’ve had to accept that reality and try to deal with it. Your clever toilet flush was probably a bridge too far – simply because of the setting. The very same comic bit done in a theater would cause no one to blink.

      That said, you are absolutely right that if the church is king to use drama, we need to be willing to honestly portray real, fallen people.

  • Chris Alsup
    Reply

    Great thought provoking article. The greatest untold secret of the modern musical is that nearly every Broadway musical especially the traveling ones are lip-synced. I have worked in the field for over 20 years and can’t figure out how musicians sitting in the audience can’t tell. So I went to Wicked in Honolulu twice last year and timed them and they both were identical in length to the second. Of course it is the singers voices that are prerecorded in a studio. Maybe church musicals should go this way too. It would solve many of the difficulties.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Chris – Thanks for your input. The shows I’ve seen recently definitely were not lip-synced. (Otherwise there wouldn’t have been the occasional pitch problem. :)) That said, it is not uncommon at all for the lead vocals to be recorded as a back-up, should a mic or a singer’s voice fail. Also – these days, even the average church musical musical theater production is often being run by a computer, in order to sync music cues, lights, special effects, etc. The orchestra (if there is one) is often playing to click trax, along with supplemental recorded trax. Because of that, a show will run the same time every performance.

      My newest show is closing this week in suburban Detroit – at Brightmoor Christian Church. They are running the whole show on Pro Tools – which makes every performance time out almost identically. They have all their lead vocals backed up on the trax – just in case of a disaster. And they use pre-recorded chorus vocal trax to augment their chorus singers – mostly due to the lack of an additional 25 wireless mics. (That is much more common than most people realize.)

      BTW – I checked out your site. Some wonderful set designs you’ve done!

      • Chris Alsup
        Reply

        Some ministers of music, pastors and musicians have been talking with me about starting a Christian music theatre here in Hawaii – I’d love to talk with you about it

        • rsterling
          Reply

          Hi Chris – Just sent you an email to hopefully further this thought. RS

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