Finding Tamsen's Song


Margee the Bride.jpg

I love roses. Yeah, partly because of my last name. But mostly because they are so lovely. From the florist’s roses in a vase, to the fully opened blossoms covering a trellis in a garden. The soft petals, the vivid colors, the intoxicating scent. Roses and flowers in general, make me happy. Inspire me. Thrill me. Flowers never make me think, only feel.

 But one of our leading characters, Tamsen Donner, was all about thinking. She was logical, analytical, practical; a schoolteacher with an interest in botany. She kept a journal while on the trail and she made notes of the wildflowers she saw along the way.

 We needed a song for Tamsen. A solo which would let us in on who she was, which would reveal the essence of her character. Tamsen would serve as a foil to James Reed, the leader of their group. She was disappointed with the decisions being made by Reed, and in an era when women weren’t expected to have opinions, Tamsen wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions clearly. In the scene right after Tamsen had been needling Reed about his poor choices, we wanted her to sing while her young daughter listened.

 I struggled with finding a lyric for her. My “way in” to characters is usually from their emotions. How does she feel? What does she desire? Yet I just couldn’t find an emotional side to Tamsen; she was all left-brain. In fact, I didn’t really “get” Tamsen’s interest in flowers – it seemed to conflict with her analytical, reasoning mind.

 Eric suggested that I was thinking of how I react to flowers, not how Tamsen reacts to them. Tamsen loves flowers, not because of their fragrance or brilliant colors, and not because their appearance makes her feel cheerful – that’s Margee’s love of flowers, not Tamsen’s. Tamsen loves flowers because of their predictability, of how what they will be and what they will do is programmed into every cell of their fiber. Flowers can be known.

 Once that idea clicked for me, I felt I knew Tamsen. I’d found my “way in.”

 It isn’t that Tamsen doesn’t have emotions (far from it!); it’s that she isn’t ruled by them. What Tamsen wants is to be able to understand people the way she can understand flowers. You know what a lupine will do, based on the scientific evidence in front of you. But despite all evidence... you can never predict what a person will do! They act illogically, they act based on fancy, based on emotion... and that's something Tamsen can't understand, it's not quantifiable. She wishes that people could eliminate that irrationality and – well, be like flowers.

 All of a sudden, the verse, the first two “A” sections of the song, and the “B,” came easily!



















 But the third “A” was eluding me. In the first part of the song, Tamsen explains to her young daughter that what she loves about the beautiful wildflowers isn’t the physical beauty so much as it is the systematic way they live and grow to be beautiful. In the B section, Tamsen has expressed her wish that people were more like flowers. But … was that it? What was left to say?

 I asked myself why it mattered what Tamsen thought of lupines and other flowers. Why is it important to Tamsen and to the story we are telling? Why is it important to us, here and now in 2015 (when I was writing the song) or in 2017 (when it would be premiered), or in some year in the future (when it debuts on Broadway)…?

 For Tamsen, it was early summer on the plains of a great continent, but unbeknownst to her, in five months she and her family would be starving to death in the icy Sierra Nevada mountains.

 For me, it was November 2015. The day before I sat at my laptop struggling to find a lyric for the final lines of Tamsen’s song, ISIL terrorists had shattered the world with a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, leaving almost 100 random people dead.

Margee toddler and daffodils cropped.jpg

 What could the science of a wildflower tell either of us that would have any relevance?

 And the answer came to me, as vivid as the memory of yellow daffodils peaking up from the frozen dirt every March when I was a little girl: the science of the flowers gives us hope:






lupine quote.jpg

Cut From The Show


When we decided to write a musical about the Donner Party, we chose the subject because we’d always been fascinated by the story of the pioneers, trapped in the icy mountains for the whole winter without food. We’d heard the story as school children, but as playwrights we had a lot of research to do, to learn all we could about the 87 people who were the Donner Party.

The more we read, the more we learned about each of them, and with each real person’s storyline, we found there was a wealth of more material, more STORY, than we could ever use. In a 2-act musical there isn’t enough time to tell the details of 87 stories, and some of our favorite people and incidents were eliminated from subsequent drafts of the show.  

One of the stories that was cut was the tale of Old Hardkoop.

Very little is known about Old Hardkoop other than he was a Belgian immigrant, single, older than most of the Company, and traveling with Keseberg’s family. In the historical narrative of the journey, which began in May, Hardkoop’s name doesn’t even come up until October 8.

The date is significant. Until October, the group had suffered great hardships – fording flooded rivers, a couple of deaths from natural causes, loss of much of their cattle and near-death experiences while crossing the Great Salt Desert. Those hardships had worn on the company’s spirts; they argued amongst themselves, they had lost valuable time, and they were anxious and afraid. But things got worse in October as anxiety and fear turned deadly. As they trudged across the landscape we now call Nevada, the heavy wagons were bogged down in the sand, slowing them down to a crawl. Item after item was thrown out of the wagon and abandoned. Tools, furniture, trunks of clothes:  anything that could be spared was tossed aside to make the wagons lighter.

On October 8, the Company stopped and made camp for the night, Old Hardkoop wasn’t with them. Keseberg was questioned about the old man, and he admitted he had turned Hardkoop out of the wagon to lighten the load. Hardkoop was made to walk on his own, to keep up as best he could. Two of the young teamsters reported seeing Old Hardkoop sitting beside the trail; his feet had given out and he had simply sat down to rest. In camp, Mr. Eddy and Mr. Elliot kept a fire going to serve as a beacon for the old man, but the old man never arrived.

The next morning, Eddy and Elliot begged to be given a horse to ride back on the trail to find Old Hardkoop, but no one would lend them a horse. The Company packed up and moved on, westward. The young men asked again at midday to borrow a horse and again they were told no. No time could be spared for hopeless rescue missions. Everyone was certain the old man must already be dead.


That’s it. That’s all we know of Old Hardkoop. Just a tiny footnote to an epic journey of 87 pioneers seeking a better life. Yet that tiny footnote fascinated me, and I tried to keep Old Hardkoop in our telling of the story. He made it into the First Draft of the show, and even had a little monologue, describing the scene from his point of view as he watched his companions disappear beyond the horizon. But then Rockwell & Rose became ruthless, as writers must, and we focused our storytelling by eliminating what was unnecessary. Old Hardkoop was left behind again, relegated to an archived .pdf file of a long-ago version of Meet Your Mountain.

How To Write A Musical - 2 The Plan

How To Write A Musical - 2: The Plan


“And then when you have to collaborate”

To write a musical, there are three elements to write: Book, Lyrics, and Music. Sometimes one person can write all three. More often, there are two or three collaborators writing a musical. And in some cases, many more collaborators share the writing. (For the sake of simplicity in this and future articles, I’ll use the example of three writers, one on Book, one on Lyrics, and one on Music). Collaboration is one of the greatest things about writing a musical, but it can also be one of the most frustrating. The truth is that collaboration makes your own work better, assuming you have collaborators with whom you share a mutual trust and respect. The work is better for having additional voices to question, to brainstorm, and to clarify exactly what you, as a team, want to create.

Having everyone together in the early stages will help you write a musical which feels as if one person wrote it, because the goal is a musical which flows seamlessly from dialog into song and back to dialog. A musical where each character has the same vernacular whether they are speaking dialog or singing a song. Where each element of the musical supports the same story. It’s a mistake to think of the three elements of a musical as separate tasks, and it’s an incorrect assumption that the Book Writer is the “playwright” while the other two write songs to be inserted into the play. On the contrary, each theater song is an integral part of the dramatic through line of a musical. Whether you are a lyricist, a composer, or a book writer: you are a playwright.

So: you have three playwrights, together writing one play. Get the three of you together at the very beginning of the process and get to work. But don’t write anything yet! Before you start writing, your work begins with discussing it all. Together, create a central vision for your musical.

Start With The Story

Your vision for your musical starts with the story. “Story” doesn’t mean the “book.” The book is just one of three tools you will use, together with the lyrics and the music, to tell the story. Therefore, it’s important that all three collaborators have a clear handle on the story. In addition to talking about the plot and the specifics of what happens, also discuss the themes and the message of the story. Ask yourselves why:  WHY are you telling this story, why here, why now? What affect do you want this story to have on today’s audience? The answers to these questions will guide each of you as you write your element of the musical. The answers may change as you go along, and that’s okay, but having them spelled out at the beginning will help the three of you to write the same musical. As the writing and re-writing process goes on, as you find things changing (the plot specifics, the themes, the message, the style) just discuss it, come to a new understanding, and proceed.

Something that can help you focus the plans for your story is to create your “elevator pitch:” you step onto an elevator with a Producer and she presses the button for the second floor; as the doors close she says to you, “So, what’s your show about?” What do you say, in the amount of time it takes you to ride up one floor? That’s your “elevator pitch,” and though you may not be actively pitching your show to anyone for a while yet, going through this exercise helps you focus on what your story is. (And it prepares you, too, just in case you run into Jeffrey Seller in an elevator.)

Agree on a Plan

Once you are clear on what the story is, plan how your musical will tell that story.

Who are the characters?  How many characters? Who is the hero?

Do you need a large cast or small? What is the setting? Discuss the dramatic peaks of the story and identify probable song moments.

A lot of these questions will be answered by the source material, unless of course you are working on an original story. Look to your source material for the basics, and for inspiration, but realize that you don’t have to be true to everything in the original story. Remember, you are telling the story in a new medium, with a new voice: your’s. And even with underlying source material, this is the time to let your imaginations run wild. This is the time to say, “yes, and…” to each idea presented.

Craig Howard and Erin Parker Meashey in the 1988 New York City production of Oklahoma!

Craig Howard and Erin Parker Meashey in the 1988 New York City production of Oklahoma!

Look for ways to expand the original piece. Maybe there’s a character who is only mentioned briefly in the film, which might be worthy of developing into a subplot in your musical. In Green Grow The Lilacs, for example, Will Parker is mentioned but isn’t a character in the play; Ado Annie is described as an “unattractive, stupid-looking farm girl.” Hammerstein brought Will Parker onto the stage in Oklahoma! to partner with Ado Annie, who was now attractive, and naive rather than stupid. Also look at the events of the story which are mentioned in the source material but not dramatized; for example, if two characters mention they met at a formal ball, is there value in dramatizing their meeting at that ball?

As you and your team talk through the telling of your story, discuss which moments might become songs. Where a scene reaches a dramatic point, how can you use song or dance to heighten that moment? When a character in the story must make a decision, could that be a song moment for her? Look for the most emotional high points, and those moments will often become songs.

There are many more questions to ask and discussions to be had while planning your musical, but if you’ve gone through the above conversations, dreamed big, and reached some conclusions, you are probably itching to stop talking about it and get started. And that’s just what should happen. In the next article, I’ll give you some things to think about as you finally start to write the darn thing.

Lynn Ahrens And Me

Lynn Ahrens And Me

 I had been looking forward to that weekend in May. Nothing was on my calendar except two full days at my laptop, working on writing projects. First two assignments for the weekend were finishing up applications for two big awards; the deadlines were the following week and I just needed to

How To Write A Musical - 1 The Idea

How To Write A Musical - 1: The Idea

 You have an idea for a musical!  “What if …”

 ·         What if a slick traveling salesman finds himself in a small town in Iowa, facing the most stubborn customers he’s ever met, and his goal is to sell them the most far-fetched product ever imagined: a boys’ band?

·         What if the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t really that wicked?

·         What if an out of work actor pretends to be a woman in order to be cast in a Broadway musical?

It all starts with a “what if…?” Your idea might be completely original, like Meredith Willson’s for the plot of The Music Man. Or it might have originated as a novel, like the source material for Wicked, or from a movie, like the source material for Tootsie. Or maybe your idea is based on a play, like Oklahoma! or an historical event, like Come From Away. All can be great sources for the basis of a new musical. If you’ve never written one before, it’s best to start with a story that has already been dramatized in one format, such as a play or a screenplay; there will still be plenty of creativity and imagination for you to add as you adapt the source material, but it’s easier to start with something and adapt it than it is to create a script of dialog out of thin air as must happen if your inspiration is a novel, an historical event, or a story of your own imagining. Be aware, of course, that if a novel, a play, or screenplay is under copyright, you will first have to obtain the rights to the material. There are also plenty of novels and plays in the public domain which can be a great source for a musical.


Is It Worthy?

Before you spend too much time on your Great Idea, evaluate its worthiness. Is this a story you are passionate about, and one which you will still be passionate about after you’ve lived with it, intimately, for 6 to 10 years?

Is the best possible telling of this story on stage as a musical? What would make the story better by being a musical? What can you add to the story? Ask yourself what you love about the source material, and then ask yourself if it is already perfect just the way it is. If it is, move on to a different idea.

Finally, be sure this story is worthy of being told in the theater. Novelist/playwright Thornton Wilder wrote, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”  Ever since Show Boat and Oklahoma! people have come to expect a musical to be more than simply entertaining; there needs to be a reason, an idea percolating under the surface to elevate it to ART. Sure, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud comedies in the musical theater repertoire, but if you look at most of those you will see a deeper soul, a meaningful message at the heart of it all.

Avenue Q will elicit unending laughter from audiences all night long, and then the big finale, while still comedic, lets us in on the moral of the story:

“Life may be scary

But it’s only temporary

Everything in life is only for now”

(lyric by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx)

It turns out Avenue Q isn’t only a little parody of Sesame Street, nor a little comedy about a recent college graduate trying to find his purpose in life. It’s about more than that; it’s about each of us, dealing with the harsh realities of day to day living and –hopefully—finding an appreciation for the adventure along the way.

Whatever story you decide to tell, be certain that your idea is one worthy of elevating to the art of musical theater.


There are many more things to consider, questions to ask, and elements to plan before you write your musical. But if, after considering the above, you still think your idea is perfect … and if you are so excited about your idea that you can’t wait to get started, well, then: start. If you have a clear vision of a crucial song, write it. If you know exactly how a particular scene will go, write it. Capture your inspired vision right away and let it flow while the inspiration is fresh. Once you’ve done that, put that brilliant scene or song aside for a bit, and come back to planning your musical. The next article will give you specific ways to organize your creative work in order to write the best musical you can.

But for now, go ahead and start. “What if…?”

Just Divine


I hate the word “just.” It’s just so, um… just so ugly. And usually, just so unnecessary.

It’s the lyricist in me that hates “just.” Because when I think of it being sung, there isn’t anything pretty or satisfying in the sounds. The short “u” vowel is boring and dull. The “j” sound which begins the word is mushy and indistinct. And the “st” to end the word is complicated, with the two consonants “s” and “t” combined. Go ahead, say it out loud. Ugly, isn’t it?  Now, sing it. Pick your prettiest, most perfectly-placed note for your own voice and sing, “Just—” Simply awful.

When I’m writing a lyric and I come up with a line that includes the word, “just,” I go back and challenge myself to re-write the lyric without the word. Because it’s not only the ugly sound of the word, it’s the meaning. Or rather, the lack of meaning. It creeps into our sentences as a filler word, maybe for emphasis (“it’s just ugly”) or for attitude (“she’s just a writer”). For some reason I don’t mind the word if it is being used as an adjective to describe an act of justice. But when otherwise used, it’s a warning sign to me that maybe I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say. I remind myself of the meaning I’m intending to write, and then rewrite the lyric or line of dialog with a more exact word to convey a more exact meaning.

Sometimes, you don’t succeed in replacing the offending word. Even if you’re one of the greats. Oscar Hammerstein, in Lyrics (a book which includes his extensive essay on lyric writing), declares that some words have lost their value due to overuse, and he gives the example of the word, “divine.” Hammerstein used the word, “divine” in the last lines of the song, “All The Things You Are,” but he didn’t like the word when he wrote it. He didn’t like the word when he presented it to the song’s composer, Jerome Kern, and Kern didn’t like it, either. The last two lines of the song are: “Some day I’ll know that moment divine, When all the things you are are mine.” Hammerstein loved the final line, but to use the final line he had to have an “-ine” rhyme to set it up.  He tried to replace the word, but couldn’t:

 “’Some day I’ll know that moment…’ What? Sign, line, fine, shine? Nothing served as well as the unwanted “divine.” I never could find a way out. The song written in 1937 shows signs of being a long-lived standard ballad – but I shall never be happy with that word!”

* LYRICS by Oscar Hammerstein II, Copyright 1949, 1985 by Estate of Oscar Hammerstein II, Hal Leonard Books

I’ve been there, too. The big turning point song for the character of Margaret Reed in Meet Your Mountain is called “Just Me.” There’s that stupid word, not only in the song, but right there in the title! This was one of the few times where Eric and I worked music-first, and I was writing a lyric to fit an existing melody from a song we had written for the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop several years earlier. The melody was hauntingly lovely, and Eric suggested it suited Margaret’s refined character. He was right.

I wrote a lyric for Margaret at the moment when she is feeling lost and sorry for herself as she finds, for the first time in her life, she has been left without anyone to help her. Her husband is gone. Her mother is gone. She has several children depending on her, and they are facing hardships of unbelievable proportions. All she has is herself (“…just me”). By the end of the song, though, she is determined to triumph and has made the realization that “… perhaps all I need is me. Just me. Just me.”) In the title phrase of the melody, I only had two syllables to work with. I couldn’t write the lyric as “only me.” I thought long and hard about the word, but ultimately decided I liked the ugly rawness of the word “just;” it contrasted with the lush beauty of the music, and it suited Margaret’s predicament in the story. It’s a good thing I ended up liking the word because the structure of the melody included repeating it twice at the end of the song!

For me, though, this song from Meet Your Mountain is the exception that proves my own personal rule. I will still work towards never again using the word “just” in a lyric.

I have done it, but just once.

Listen to the wonderful Vivienne Cleary singing “Just Me” from Meet Your Mountain. Lyric by Margaret Rose. Music by Eric Rockwell. Demo produced by Frank Galgano & Matt Castle.

Stories In The Dark


Many years ago I played “Katie, the Maid” in Beyer High School’s production of George Washington Slept Here. I had about eight lines in the whole play, but I remember getting some good laughs on those lines. About the same time, I saw some friends in Downey High School’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, and I laughed and laughed over their antics on stage. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed the film version of You Can’t Take It With You, the film The Man Who Came To Dinner, and the 1954 Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. Those scripts are an important part of my early theatrical experiences, and what they have in common is their author: Moss Hart.

Mr. Hart is a legend of Broadway, with a writing and directing career that included far more credits than listed here. His autobiography, Act One, was required reading for any drama student back in my day, and I still have my copy of it. But I recently downloaded the audiobooks version of Act One and for several happy hours commuting in my car, I revisited Mr. Hart’s tales of his childhood in the poverty of the Bronx and the path to his first hit Broadway play. It’s a fascinating tale of a lifestyle and a Broadway in an era that has long since disappeared. But the essence of Mr. Hart’s story and the lessons he learned are still relevant today.

I particularly enjoy Mr. Hart’s description of the moment he discovered his gift for drama. It’s a moment in a specific time and place, yet it is a scene that has recurred time and time again since the dawn of humanity.

He was 12 years old, spending the endless summer days as all the boys did, in the street in front of his home. Young Moss, not being athletically inclined and something of a bookworm, was never asked to take part in the street baseball game. Instead, he sat on the curb and read a book while the other boys played. When it grew dark, it was customary for the boys to gather on the little stoop in front of the corner store, and Moss was happy just to be allowed to sit there with them. He picks up the narrative now:

“There the boys would sit, talking aimlessly for hours on end. There were the usual probings of sex and dirty jokes, not too well defined or clearly understood; but mostly the talk was of the games played during the day. Ultimately, long silences would fall and then the boys would wander off one by one. It was just after one of those long silences that my life as an outsider changed, and for one glorious summer I was accepted on my own terms as one of the tribe.

I can no longer remember which boy it was that summer evening who broke the silence with a question. ‘What’s in those books you’re always reading?’ he asked idly. ‘Stories,’ I answered. ‘What kind?’ asked somebody else without much interest.

 I launched full tilt into the book I was immersed in at the moment. I told them the story for two full hours. They listened bug-eyed and breathless. Not one of them left the stoop until I had finished. The next night and many nights thereafter, a kind of unspoken ritual took place. As it grew dark, I would take my place in the center of the stoop and begin the evening’s tale. Some nights, in order to savor my triumph more completely, I cheated. I would stop at the most exciting part of a story and without warning tell them that that was as far as I had gone in the book and it would have to be continued the following evening. It was not true, of course; but with a sense of drama that I did not know I possessed, I spun out the long summer evenings until school began again in the fall.”

In the years that followed, Moss left the streets of the Bronx behind and took his rightful place on Broadway. What I love about Mr. Hart’s story of those summer evenings on the stoop is that it boils down the art of creating theater to the most basic necessity. We playwrights, songwriters, directors, actors, designers, and theater craftsmen come together to create elaborate musical theater productions, but sometimes it’s useful to remember that theater doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective. “Theater” has been happening whenever and wherever there are people who want to hear a good story. Ultimately our work – as well as Mr. Hart’s amazing Broadway & Hollywood career – boils down to that centuries-old habit of humanity: telling stories in the dark.

“Other words of mine have been listened to by larger and more fashionable audiences, but for that tough and grimy audience huddled on the stoop outside the candy store, I have an unreasoning affection that will last forever.”

How about you? When did you realize you had a flair for the dramatic? When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?

Excerpts from Act One by Moss Hart. Copyright, 1959, By Catharine Carlisle Hart and Joseph M. Hyman Trustees. Published in New York by Random House, Inc.

Words To Sing

Words To Sing

Walt Disney World commercials used to make me cry.

“You just won the Super Bowl!,” the voiceover asked the beaming, sweaty quarterback, “What are you going to do NEXT?”

“I’m going to Disney World!”

And remember the two brothers packing their suitcase, with the

And The Winner Is...

And The Winner Is...

This week, the Tony Award Nominations will be announced, and the Tonys will be presented on Sunday June 10.  All the articles and hoopla of “awards season” has reminded me of other awards given out for theater, awards that while not in the same echelon as the Tonys, are nevertheless important. I’m talking about

Still Doin' Fine, 75 Years Later

Still Doin' Fine, 75 Years Later

This past weekend was the 75th Anniversary of the Broadway opening of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, and I can’t let the milestone go by without comment.

Much has been written over the years of the impact the show had on the American musical theater; there are important lessons to be learned in studying the show, lessons for today’s creators of musical theater. But I’ll leave that to

Writer's Block, or Why I Need A Shower

Writer's Block, or Why I Need A Shower

I’m writing a lyric for a new song. Or, rather, I’m not writing a lyric for a new song. I’m trying to. I’m working on it. I’m thinking about it. I’ve written pages and pages of ideas for the song, but nothing that even begins to resemble a lyric.

I have been self-diagnosed with a severe case of