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Steve Franks

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Writing Musicals (for Amateurs)

Posted: 12/13/2013 2:49 pm

I had off-handedly promised a musical episode while we were a few days into shooting the pilot of Psych. It was a day when I was probably feeling full of myself, sure that my fifteen-plus years of fronting an Orange County rock band would sufficiently prepare me to write show tunes in multiple genres, stage massive production numbers and stretch a one-hour quirky detective comedy into a two hour movie.

I was ignorant.

Stubbornly ignorant.

But I always am.

And that is my secret to my success. (I should note here that by "success" I mean working on cable television. Basic cable. On a show that gets a noticeable ratings bump when we stunt-cast a wrestler.)

But the idea of the musical was out there and it seemed like the kind of impossible that either makes for a great adventure or the development of a hiatal hernia near the esophagus. Either one was fine with me, because I had discovered Prilosec years before and acid reflux was generally in my rear view mirror. Nothing could stop me. I was armed with my optimism and my ignorance.

Years of refusing to acknowledge the limitations of my network, my budget and my own suspect vocal range had enabled me to carry a silly little detective show past 100 episodes, dwindling down my bucket list with directing assignments, and even writing and performing the theme song. A few musical numbers in the middle of the story couldn't possibly be that difficult.

It had to be two hours. Because, when it comes down to it, all I really wanted to do was make a Psych movie. And doubling the length of a show, as odd as it seems, was the only way to make our budget work. They call it cross-boarding. Often, you can do amazing things just by keeping the trucks and the crew in the same place. So now, my initial plan of five songs turns to 10. Or more. (I should once again note that reprises and medleys count so that number is inflated, but there are 18 songs on the soundtrack so, in some circles, I'm being modest.)

I spent two months on the story. If we were going to finally do the movie we had begged the network to make for years, we were going to go big. The initial draft took the characters to London, sported big action pieces, and had twice as many scenes as a usual episode, and I hadn't even started on the songs. Cuts were made. Not as nearly as many as I should have but I am rarely one to let reality spoil a good daydream.

Then, the greatest thing in the world happened, I closed my office door, started noodling on my guitar and did not have to feel the tiniest bit guilty because I was actually working. This euphoria was almost immediately followed by my door quickly re-opening because the rest of the challenges and duties of shooting a TV series in another country were not going to go away because I finally restrung my guitar after years of forced dormancy.

I finished exactly one song during the story phase, the opener "Santa Barbara Skies." I had titles, snippets, lyrical ideas and a lots of voice memos on my phone of me singing gibberish melodies in bathrooms and malls around the state. Writing three-minute pop songs with my band Friendly Indians was worlds away from the scale and scope a musical required. I had to call upon my history.

Fortunately, I learned everything I needed to know about making a musical from the Sherman Brothers. No, I never met the legendary songwriting duo that defined Disney music for decades. I went a different route: I worked at the Tiki Room.

I wrote my first feature film, Big Daddy in the Tiki office while I was supposed to be sitting in the show, making sure the fountain didn't malfunction and nobody was getting to third base in the dark corners beyond the birdmobile. But even through the thick bamboo door, there was no escaping the melodies of the Shermans, especially the signature "In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room." All the things I love about music are present in their theme park songs: big hooks, interior rhymes, alliterative phrases, syllables packed to the breaking point and most importantly, a sense of fun. I now had a template to work with, and from there, the numbers began furiously materialize.

"When You're Making Up a Song" owes as much to the songs of Disney and the Muppets as it does to composer Adam Cohen, who I begrudgingly allowed into my office guitar party of one, not realizing it was he who would carry and elevate these ideas to the level that they needed. The simple call-and-response of "I've Heard It Both Ways" became a sprawling tango at Adam's insistence. The island ridiculousness of "Jamaican Inspector" was composed almost as a dare from Adam after I had put the lyrics in the script, intending only to have a character sing it a capella.

By the time we hit the legendary Ocean Way studios to record the vocals and the actors began to bring the songs to life and make them their joyous own, I realized that I did not have a monopoly on ignorant optimism. Either that, or it's contagious.

So with the writing completed, I left for Canada to start pre-production, conceive dance numbers, plan storyboards and to test the limits of the phrase "biting off more than you can chew." I had in hand a script and catalogue of songs that would change my life (I should note here that I'm not saying that because they were that good although I am a big fan of my own work, primarily because, as a writer I really speak to me.) I now had an experience under my belt that made my case of optimism a little more severe and left me feeling that, with the right people, there isn't much reason not to aim high, because in the end, that's where all the fun is.

 

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