How Does A Book Become A Musical?
Today’s author interview is a bit different, instead of a writer of books, we have a writer of musicals!
Adam Gwon is a musical theater writer named one of “50 to Watch” by The Dramatist magazine and hailed “a promising newcomer to our talent-hungry musical theater” by The New York Times.
His musicals have been produced on six continents, in more than half a dozen languages. Off-Broadway: Ordinary Days (Roundabout Theatre; Keen Company, Drama League Award nomination, Best Revival), Old Jews Telling Jokes (Westside Theatre); Regional: String (Village Theatre), Cake Off (Signature Theatre, Helen Hayes Award nomination; Bucks County Playhouse), Cloudlands (South Coast Repertory), The Boy Detective Fails (Signature Theatre), Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma); West End: Ordinary Days (Trafalgar Studios).
I met Adam this summer, when my husband performed in a staged reading of one of his newer musicals, The Proxy Marriage. It’s based on a short story of the same name by Maile Meloy, an author I adore! I was super excited to chat with Adam at the after party to learn about his connection to a writer I love, and her story’s journey to the stage.
Besides, The Proxy Marriage, many of the musicals Adam has composed for have been adaptations of books. This made me curious about the process of adopting a book into a musical, and Adam was kind enough to take time to answer my questions for this post!
Since this is a book blog, can you give us a quick summary of what you do as a composer and lyricist? How might that be similar or different from a “traditional” writer who is creating novels
In a nutshell, I write songs for musicals. Most of the time, I collaborate with a playwright who writes the script, though my first “breakout” musical was one I wrote all on my own (Ordinary Days.) One similarity I can see between what I do and what novelists do is I’m constantly trying to dive deep into the hearts and minds of my characters—songs in musicals can let an audience into a character’s inner life, and novels can do the same thing for its readers. One thing that’s different is that I’ve got to juggle many elements other than language in figuring out the best way for a moment to land. Since theater is meant to be staged and experienced live, I’ve not only got to incorporate music and an actor’s performance into the songs I write, I’ve got to account for choreography, sets, lights, costumes, etc. Most of the time this means leaving some space in what I do so that other collaborators have room to participate in the storytelling.
Can you tell us about the relationship between Playwright and Composer?
For me, it’s a very tight-knit relationship. We collaborate on the story and on the best way to tell it. There’s lots of back-and-forth in the writing process: the playwright will send me a scene, which I’ll use to write a song, then we’ll each revise and revise until the two are incorporated together seamlessly. It’s important to me that for any given musical, the playwright and I are creating one cohesive voice—so that when a character sings, it feels like the same character who’s been speaking, and vice versa.
I noticed from your Wikipedia page that many of the musicals you’ve compose for were based on novels or short stories. Is that common in the musical world in general? Or specific to what you prefer to work on?
Most musicals are adaptations of some sort, and have been historically—Oklahoma was adapted from a play, Hamilton from a biography, and of course the loads of movie adaptations that are happening today. I think this is because it helps to have a story to start with—there are so many moving parts to make a musical work that if the basic story at least is already figured out, it’s one less mountain to climb. I’ve been drawn to literature because a) I read a lot of it, and love it and b) a lot about novels and short stories lend themselves to musicalization. Like I mentioned before, novels dive really deep into characters’ inner lives, which provides a lot of great raw material for songs. The challenge with adapting novels is that you have to condense the story so much for it to fit comfortably into a 2 hour-ish long stage piece. What’s great about short stories is that the plot is usually pretty tight, and you’ve got room to expand when you adapt.
What, if any, permissions need to be gained before a written work is adapted into a musical?
Unless something is in the public domain, you need to get the rights to adapt a property for the stage. For most novels and short stories those rights are controlled by the authors. Movies are a different story because they’re usually owned by the movie studio. You enter into an agreement with the rights holder that they’re giving you the rights to make an adaptation, and usually there’s a timeline attached with certain milestones you have to hit—a draft by a certain date, etc.
If you compose for a script based on a book, do you read the book before you start composing?
I will definitely read the book. Structurally the way the story is being told may change when translating it to the stage. But I will go back to the book again and again for inspiration about character.
Do you read much? If so, who are your favorite authors?
I do! It’s no coincidence that some of my favorite authors are those whose work I’ve gotten to adapt—Joe Meno, Maile Meloy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance. Some other favorites include John Irving, Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng. I’ll read anything those folks write. Recent reads I’ve loved include The Immortalistsand The Nix. I just started Ted Chiang’s latest short story collection, Exhalation.
In a recent interview in the NYT, you said, “Writing is my therapy.” Can you elaborate? Would you say writing energizes or drains you?
Ha—yes! I mean that writing is where I do a lot of self-reflection, a lot of trying to answer questions I don’t have an answer to, all through the lens of characters who are not myself, but who are full of doubts and questions that are my own. One thing I love about lyric writing is that you must be so precise. It forces me to articulate thoughts in a way that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It helps me find a kind of clarity that I only get because I write it in that way. In that big picture sense, writing energizes me—it’s how I figure out how to communicate most honestly with the world. At the same time the actual writing process can be draining—sometimes I literally feel like I’ve gone for a workout when I’m really in the thick of something. I’m sweaty and spent and ready for a nap afterward.
What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
My high school library had a subscription to American Theatremagazine, which publishes the full script of a new play in many of its issues. I would devour it each time a new one arrived. I remember reading one play—I wish I could remember which one!—where a character posed this existential question that I had been pondering myself. I so clearly remember thinking, “Oh my God, someone elseis thinking about this? I’m not alone here?” Some stranger had articulated something that felt so true to me. Reading that one sentence, I suddenly felt connected to the whole world.
Do you read reviews of your shows? How do you deal with positive or negative ones?
I did for my first shows, because it was undeniably thrilling to see my name and work in print! But I’ve stopped, mostly, not only for my own work but for shows in general. For my own work, reviews good or bad tend to mess with my head. And for others work, I just like going to a show and having my own experience with it.
How do you get your creativity flowing?
I read a lot! Try to get out of the city, or get out into the city—walking outside helps get my brain going when it’s stuck. I love collaborating, and draw a lot of creative inspiration from my collaborators and working with other writers I admire. I also try to see all kinds of shows, in theater spaces big and small. Something about being in a theater watching a show—even if I’m not particularly enjoying the show I’m watching!—gets the juices flowing about all the different ways I could fill up a stage with a story.
Adam’s newest musical, Scotland, PA is an adaptation of the 2001 cult film, which was based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s currently playing at The Roundabout Theatre in NYC, and getting rave reviews, including a “Critic’s Pick” from the New York Times. You can learn more about Scotland, PA (and get tickets if you’re in the neighborhood) by clicking here.
I can’t thank Adam enough for taking the time to collaborate with me on this post, and I hope you enjoyed it!