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 June 21, 2013

Steve Cuden Explains It All For You

I’ve met many writers of new musicals, and plenty of them have said the same thing: “When I saw (insert here the name of an awful musical), I said to myself ‘I know I can do better than that.’”

Have you said it, too? Or even thought it?

But, alas, not done it?

Maybe you need Steve Cuden’s new book Beating Broadway to get you going. It will tell you, as the subtitle says, “How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations.”

Cuden has been a fan of musicals since he was a teen and saw amateurs do Sweet Charity at the Irene Kaufmann Center in his native Pittsburgh. It was enough to get him on stage and play The Wizard in Once upon a Mattress.

He turns out to be a wizard in analyzing musicals, too. Beating Broadway spends 250 of its 424 pages detailing why 35 musicals became hits -- from Avenue Q to Wicked, from a 1943 legend (Oklahoma!) to a 2011 smash (The Book of Mormon). He also throws in five musical movies for good measure: Beauty and the Beast, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz.

Don’t ask Cuden what he thought of Dude, Via Galactica or Senator Joe. “I have a proclivity for only seeing good shows.” So he’s less concerned on why flops failed than why hits succeeded. But he certainly knows the territory: “Counting about 90 times that I was a master electrician,” he says, “I’ve worked on close to 300 shows. That doesn’t mean that in this book that I was looking to improve anybody’s work. I just wanted to break down what’s written. There are seven basic plot points to any Westernized story, and yet, even many long-time professional and highly successful writers don’t know them.”

Cuden won’t take credit for creating them. “All these terms have been around for a long time,” he admits. “Some essentially go back to Aristotle. But what writers also need to know is that you cannot start your story before it really should begin and you mustn’t continue it after it ends. It’s like what Picasso said about sculpting when someone asked him how he did it: you have to take away what doesn’t belong.”

Readers will soon be nodding as Cuden points out the commonalities among the 40 properties. He takes his cue from classical music in citing movements in a piece. “The Story’s First Movement,” he says, shows us the musical’s “Normal World.” This is true even if the world seems a little less than normal to some – such as The Kit Kat Club in Cabaret. But it’s certainly normal to The Emcee, Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat virgins.

Every musical needs an “Inciting Incident” (such as in Camelot, when Arthur decides to initiate The Knights of the Round Table). Soon after comes “The End of the First Movement.” In Chicago, Roxie hires Billy Flynn. That, he says, is also the show’s “Point of No Return” which takes us to “Midpoint” – even if a show doesn’t have an intermission.

“The End of the Second Movement” is what Cuden nicknames “The Big Gloom” – meaning that things look pretty dire for the people for whom we’re rooting. That occurs in Hello, Dolly! when most everyone is carted off to jail.

“The Third Movement” takes us into “Climax” (Bialystock and Bloom are sentenced to prison) that leads to “Resolution” (The Anatevkans leave home). It all ends with a “New Normal.” (River City does get its boy’s band.)

And yet, seemingly paradoxically, Cuden insists that “There are no rules, and you are not obliged to follow me. If you find a way to success without following anything I say, more power to you. Still, if you set out without knowing much, this is a good and helpful place to start. There’s a difference between form and formula. People in an audience inherently know when a writer isn’t following the form. They don’t know why; they can’t describe it; they can’t pick it apart. But they absolutely feel and know it.”

All these points might suggest that Cuden’s book doesn’t stress songwriting. Not at all. “The kiss of death – the big failure,” he insists, “is when songs go for exposition and not emotion. We’re in the visceral, passionate, hit-you-in-the-gut business. Audiences care less about events and places than they do about interaction among people. What separates musicals from all other art forms is that a writer has the ability to go into the emotions of a character and have him be exposed in song. Use it.”

Truth to tell, one of the musicals Cuden cites is not a hit, in that it didn’t pay back its investment: Jekyll & Hyde. But who can blame him for including it? On the cover of the book, underneath Cuden’s name are the words “co-creator of Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical.”

This isn’t news to the Jekkies who helped keep the show at the Plymouth for 1,543 performances from 1997 to 2001. Others may be saying, “Wait-wait-wait: I thought that show had music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse.”

Yes and no. True, if you look at the first (of four) Jekyll & Hyde recordings – the “Highlights” CD that RCA Victor released in 1990 – you’ll find Cuden’s name on the back page in the third paragraph of “thank-yous,” listed 19th out of 29 people. That’s better than he did on the concept album that Atlantic released in 1994; there his name cannot be found at all.

By the time the original cast album surfaced in 1997, “conceived for the stage by Steve Cuden and Frank Wildhorn” had made its way to the title page. Ditto the 2012 concept album. One can only imagine the torturous hours, months and years spent with lawyers to work out this conundrum. When I ask “What happened?” Cuden uses the term “off the record” more times than Gypsy has been revived on Broadway.

What he will say on the record (with diplomacy overflowing his cup), is that “Jekyll & Hyde has been a grand ride for me. It’s obviously had its difficult moments. Who wants to spend many years developing the book and lyrics and have the show taken away from him?” But as he says in the book by way of explanation, “C’est la vie.”

“It’s strange for me to see the show now,” he concedes. “I’m watching some of my work 25 years after I was replaced. The structure and characters are pretty much mine with a few exceptions. Close to a third is mine. Some of my lyrics are in ‘The First Transformation,’ ‘His Work and Nothing More,’ ‘Alive,’ ‘Once upon a Dream’ and ‘Murder! Murder!’”

It all started in the late ‘70s, after Cuden transferred from the University of Wisconsin to USC, where Wildhorn was studying. “We were crazy for Sweeney Todd,” he says. “If not for that musical, there’d be no Jekyll & Hyde.”

(I can hear a number of you now singing a line from Carousel’s “Soliloquy” – “That’d be all right, too.” Perhaps – but we all must admit that Jekyll & Hyde has brought a good deal of pleasure to millions of people.)

Says Cuden, “Sweeney started us thinking: what can we do that’s Gothic? We considered Frankenstein, Dracula and even Phantom of the Opera long before Lloyd Webber got to it. We settled on Jekyll & Hyde, and we’re the ones who added the love triangle that isn’t in the original short story.”

Now Cuden is back home in Pittsburgh, where he teaches screenwriting at Point Park University. “The next book may well be Beating Hollywood,” he says. He’ll probably do readers a world of good there, too – for Beating Broadway achieves what the best how-to books do: yes, it teaches a student what he’s been doing wrong, but it also gives encouragement and allows the reader to see what he’s been doing right.

“It’s a book,” he concludes, “for those writers who have never written a musical and yet think that they can outdo what more experienced practitioners have done.” Too bad Steve Cuden didn’t write Beyond Broadway a couple of decades ago.

         — Peter Filichia


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