Hey guys, I just hid Thursday’s post to call more attention to this one, because Harvey Jerkwater just posted his very-cool version of my musical idea to the comments. Read it in the comments and comment yourself! (I’ll have my comments on it up later...)
Hi everybody, it’s been a long time since we had a new episode of the podcast! This time around, James Kennedy and I are happy to be joined by acclaimed novelist Jonathan Auxier to discuss POV in prose, and we had previously done in this post and this post. (As always, the music is from FreeMusicArchive.com. It’s “Lucky Me” by Scott Holmes, with an Attribution/NonCommercial license.)
The “guy who hates musicals trapped in a musical” got me thinking. I hate almost all musicals, so the concept of being trapped in one scares the hell out of me. Applying that with a few of Matt’s precepts on story structure and whatnot, below is a synopsis I banged out. [Split into two comments due to Blogger comment size restrictions]
THE SECRETS OF SONG
Pep and Connie are in the last throes of a relationship. He’s still into her but she’s pulling away. He's a bit of a tool, so it's not hard to see why. He fixates on the idea that she loves musicals and he hates them as the key factor in their incompatibility.
One bad day they argue again and she dumps him. That night he mourns the loss and rages, eventually watching her favorite musical, North Atlantic. He rolls his eyes. He gestures at the screen. He mock-sings along (“There ain’t nothin’ like a duuuuude…”) Cheesy Hollywood songs are accompanied by Pep’s vigorous pelvic thrusts and dirty jokes.
As the sun starts to come up outside, it’s the climactic moment of North Atlantic. Pep belts out an obscene version of the big song that ends with him sobbing. But as he sobs, he hears…more singing. He thumps on the wall. Damn neighbors. Then another song comes in through the window. And another from another direction. And it’s all show tunes.
Yep, he’s in The Musical World. Song and dance numbers break out everywhere and constantly. Music comes from nowhere. People dance and sing instinctively.
Pep figures that he’s either lost his mind or died and has been condemned to Theater Kid Heaven, also known as everyone else’s hell.
After a few hours of freaking out, he gets dressed and goes to work. What else can he do?
Pep goes about his life in the Musical World. It’s just like the one he left except that the colors are brighter and the world is jammed with spontaneous musical numbers. The only consolation is that based on how the numbers play out, he’s just in the chorus. Which means that his refusal to participate doesn’t stop them, just makes them off-balance. The others in Musical World don’t appreciate this. He gets stares and rude comments. Often in song, of course.
During his lunch break, he sees a giant number break out that focuses on a woman singing a power ballad. At the song’s conclusion, she pops out of existence. “Oh,” a passerby explains, “her story’s over!” Through a conversation loaded with confusion and two really annoying song breaks, Pep finds out that your “story being over” doesn’t mean you die, it means you leave. “That’s why I’m so happy to be in the chorus,” the woman adds. “Never gotta leave! Here forever!”
Forever? Oh god no. How does he become a lead?
He doesn’t understand this world. But Connie does. Yes, she dumped him, but this is a very special and weird situation, and she’s a good person. She can help.
At Connie’s place he finds that she’s in a musical number with Emil, a big, beefy guy that Pep knows and dislikes. It’s a courting song, an early-stages-of-infatuation number. Pep almost has a stroke from jealousy.
And an idea is formed. He will become a lead and win her back. He’ll escape Theater Kid Heaven and probably get her back in the real world too.
[PART TWO of three, it turns out]
Pep applies himself to learning how musicals work and the ways of Theater Kid Heaven. After a lot of failures, he finds that songs affect reality. He writes a short song about a coworker sneezing and she does. A song about rain makes it rain, but only as long as he sings it. He holes up in his apartment and comes up with a collection of songs that will get Connie away from Emil and back to him.
Next come a couple of bizarre situations created by Pep’s songs that draw Connie away from Emil but not quite back to him. Still, it’s working. Pep’s become a lead.
At the midpoint, Pep breaks out his biggest musical number, which involves sword-fighting lobsters, a downpour of little chocolate doughnuts, and Godzilla playing a giant electric guitar. The inhabitants of Musical World’s version of this city are displeased. They almost decapitate Pep with one of the lobsters’ swords. But…the mob is turned back by a single voice. It’s Connie, singing about Pep. The angry crowd disperses and Pep can’t believe it. He and Connie kiss, the music swells.
He’s still in Musical World.
With Connie back, Pep rededicates himself to getting out. What’s the story? He’s got to find it. As he farts around Theater Kid Heaven, causing small problems with his intrusions into other people’s stories, he also finds that his triumph is not nearly what he thought. Connie keeps drifting away from him, except when he sings. Love songs lead to her devotion, but between those songs, she’s unhappy.
Pep sees Emil singing near Pep’s apartment. Emil’s songs must be the source of her sadness! Pep gets in his business despite Emil being a foot taller. Only when Pep explains that Connie is miserable does Emil back off.
Time passes and their relationship deteriorates again. One night, Connie starts to sing about her need to be free and Pep cuts her off, turns it into a love song that she ends up dueting with him. However, he sees her expression as the song forces her mind to change, if only for a little while. Horrified, Pep stops singing. Connie snaps out of it and runs away.
He stops writing songs and lets himself fade back into the chorus. One day he sees Connie and Emil back together, joy on her face. Pep is relieved, filled with joy himself, and sad.
Pep half-heartedly continues his efforts to find out how he can get home. A montage of mopey-yet-amusing failures ensue. The last and most pathetic leaves him alone at a city park at night beside a pond. His solitude is interrupted by a woman quietly singing about being trapped in the chorus.
He joins her for a minute and sings about hating being trapped in a musical. She’s mystified. How can he say that? He holds up a finger to indicate that they should stop singing for a damn minute. With the singing over and the mysterious background music silent, they hear crickets, frogs, and other sounds that the people of Musical World never hear, because they won’t stop singing. Her eyes widen and she’s about to sing about it when he convinces her to stop again.
They stand by the pond in silence for a long time, then part.
Later, trapped in another damn chorus, he sees the woman from the park, Enid. They grow close. The two of them sneak away from the city at night to enjoy times away from Big Ass Musical Numbers.
One night by the pond, Pep for once can’t help himself and sings for the first time without preplanning or calculation. He sings to her a sweet, low-key love song. She joins him. They kiss for the first time.
Fade to white.
Pep is back in his apartment, in the same slovenly outfit he wore before. Colors are muted again. No music. He’s home.
He returns to his everyday life, unsure of what to make of the whole thing. A dream or a mental breakdown, no doubt.
Waiting at a coffeeshop for a ludicrously over-prepared coffee-milkshake hybrid that he’d ordered, he sings to himself the song he’d sung with Enid at the very end.
Enid turns around, a ludicrously over-prepared coffee-milkshake hybrid in her hand. She doesn’t recognize him. She asks him what that song was. He says he doesn’t know its name. He sings a bit more. She joins him a little bit, as though she knows it too. Both of them are terrible singers and it sounds like ass.
They laugh and sit at a small table together. They talk and we fade out.
This is great, Harvey! I'm impressed and delighted!
My houseguest is gone and I've just had time to dive into this-- It's great! A deeper exploration of my idea. In my version, song simply equals joy and true expression, but in this version there's a danger of false emotion through song. This version plays up the "Groundhog Day" aspect, and fits the idea I've expressed before (but didn't come up with until 20 years after I came up with this story) that the hero should achieve his goal at the midpoint only to have it end in disaster and force the hero do the hard way and get to the spiritual crisis. Combining the love interest and the friend who likes musicals is a good idea. You should write it!
Thanks, guys. I won't be carrying this any farther, as I have a stack of other unfinished work that whispers my name while I sleep that demands my attention first. Also, I live in DC, which renders writing screenplays roughly as quixotic as writing a Noh drama.
This was a chance to apply Matt's version of the "hero's journey," with the roughly quarter-point crises (social, physical, spiritual) and the halfway crisis of "you get what you want but it blows up in your face." Also, it was a chance to apply the names of characters from 1987's Dragnet, a minor classic.
Joe: There's the limo from the mansion.
Pep: Yeah, and that's Emil Muzz.
Joe: Let's check Enid Borden's description.
[Pep opens his notebook and reads from it]
Pep: "Big, bad, stupid-lookin'."
Joe: [grits his teeth] An exact match.
What inspired the story was a weakness in the idea. The pitch boiled down to "people who don't like musicals are wrong and haven't given them a chance." Ah, but that's untrue. As presented, that idea feels condescending. "Oh, you don't like it because you've never triiiiiied it, or you don't get it." Nope. I've endured quite a few musicals and found only a few non-awful. For the story to work, you have to appreciate that the people who hate it may have a point.
The story doesn't do justice to any character aside from Pep, which stinks. Connie, Enid, and Emil are there simply to propel Pep's journey of self-discovery, a common problem in fiction. Two sections are montages as written, which is weak. The "musicals steamroll over subtlety and quiet joys" idea comes almost out of nowhere, so it needs to be set up earlier and reinforced a few times before the pond scene. But overall I enjoy it as a first draft synopsis.
Second draft: add either a jive-talking robot or roller derby vampires.
That's funny, James's take was that I had to really love musicals to write this, but your take is that I had to really dislike, or at least distrust musicals in order to write the main character well.
I think you have to understand why musicals are disliked before you can have a protagonist who dislikes musicals.
The standard reasons ("people breaking into song is unrealistic" is a classic) aren't usually compelling -- it's like dumping on superhero movies because "people can't fly."
I think the distaste from a lot of people stems from genre elements that are seldom acknowledged as elements of the musical genre. "A movie filled with singing and dancing" is not the only quality that defines a film as a musical. For example, despite its greatness, The Blues Brothers is virtually never held up as a musical. (Excepting Roger Ebert, who called it "the Sherman Tank of musicals.") There are other elements at play, and you get a better character if you have a clearer picture of his or her motivation.
BTW, the story could gender-flip very easily. Maybe it should. Hm.
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