I believe that a fundamental component of being a creative artist is self-delusion. My own began in 2003 when I saw a terrible musical that had made it all the way to production with a large cast and orchestra, and thought, phht — I can do better than that. That phrase, and the phht noise is an essential part of it, is the first step of your journey into madness.
You have to convince yourself that you can write a musical; that the musical you’ve written is good; and that others will see and understand this and agree with you to the point that they will put this musical on. The first two parts are all you, but the last part — this is where the York Theatre comes into it. To all of this year’s crop of NEO winners, I want to be brutally honest about what the York’s role is in all of this. The York Theatre is an enabler.
How does it do this? By connecting you with other crazy, self-deluded people. People who are convinced that they can create theater — not just theater, but your theater. The show that for years has played only in your mind in a continuous loop, causing you to hum off-key in the subways or speak in different voices in public parks, has suddenly been yanked away and entrusted to a team of strangers with talent. And this is New York City, which means that the talent pool they will be drawing on is the greatest musical theater talent pool in the world.
I know this from experience. I have done workshops in other states. There are talented people in other states, but not as many. You might get cast members who don’t read music, or who will confess, I’m really a straight actor, but my agent thought I should try musicals. Not here. The York does it right. They cast it right. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was sitting down with my composer, Joy Son, our director, Annette Jolles, and Seth Christenfeld, the producer slash god of casting at the York, and suggest people for our show. Which became a lot of me saying, “Holy cow! You can get him? She might do it?” And you look at clips on youtube for people you’ve never heard of and say, “Cast them! Now, before someone else does!” And you end up with the best of all possible casts, which is to say, the best cast available that week.
And because they are New York City musical theater actors, they will learn the score in two and a half days, leaving you two more to finally hear what the show sounds like outside of your head. It will be very different. I write with my imaginary floating repertory company supplying the voices. Nick and Lauren have been members for years. But now you have different voices, different faces, different bodies inhabiting your characters, and you get to see whether the work will hold up with these new people, if the lines and songs and scenes make sense. And you will find yourself saying, “That’s a terrible line. Who wrote that terrible line? Oh, right.” and you cut it. Or, “How self-indulgent were we to think that song needed a second verse?” and you cut it.
But then you see the things you hoped might work actually work. You came into the week with a twelfth draft that you thought was perfect, and come out with a thirteenth draft that’s even more perfect and ten minutes shorter. And then it gets performed in front of a knowledgeable musical theater audience, because this is the York. For one performance, a group of self-deluded people comes together to support your delusion, and all of a sudden, it’s a mass delusion. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve made something worthwhile and rewritten reality. And the sad and beautiful part is, it happens only once, and you’ll never see that particular collection of performers do that particular version of the show again. But you’ll know that maybe your choice to do this was not so crazy after all.
The great Lily Tomlin once said, “Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.” My hero Tom Stoppard said, “ You’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else.” To all of my self-deluded colleagues, I wish you the best, and enjoy the long strange trip you’re about to take.