About a year ago, I sat through a reading of my current project with a handful of chosen friends. It went well and provided me with a helpful feedback. But I came upon an issue with the songs.
In the "golden days" of Broadway, a show would be taken out of state to rewrite, revise and tweak for audiences before it opened in New York. This was a tryout period where each performance could be different based on audience response. Typically dialogue would be clarified, scenes re-worked or cut completely and songs would change.
Picture the composer and lyricist secluded in their hotel rooms feverishly writing songs to have them to the cast in time for rehearsal before they go into the next performance.
The songs changed - and frequently.
There are two types of script readings. The first is when you get a bunch of friends together and do a table reading of your work. These friends may be fellow theatre people or close friends whose opinion you respect. I'll call this a "friends reading".
The other type is an "industry reading". In this situation, you are typically working with actors, directors and producers for a live reading of your show.
I didn't understand how to determine which type of reading is best.
I went into a friend reading with the assumption that all involved understood that it was a work in progress and that there would be incomplete songs, clunky dialogue and possible plot issues. It may have been an ego controlled situation for me - rather than embarrass myself in front of industry people, I could embarrass my self in front of friends.
But I needed the read-through to gauge if the characters were interesting and if the overall story was compelling.
The problem came after the reading. Even though my friends are theatre people, the feedback was mostly about the issues that I assumed they understood. Even with a disclaimer, they were unable to see past the roughness of the piece.
Or they couldn't picture it onstage because it wasn't anywhere near completion.
As an example, in my script, I have a song that I've determined will be in the style of an "Irish Drinking Song" when performed on stage. However, I hadn't composed it as such before the reading and instead simply performed it with a melody line and chords.
"I expected an Irish Drinking Song"
"That doesn't sound Irish at all"
"You should rewrite that song, it doesn't sound like an Irish song at all"
Even though there was a disclaimer in the script that the final version would be an "Irish Drinking Song" the readers still felt it necessary to critique. At the expense of deciding if the song worked overall or not.
The takeaway? In order to get useful feedback from a friends reading, you may have to be sure the work is as complete as possible.
Now... an industry reading would understand a lead sheet for songs and the accompanist would provide a brief description as such prior to performing the song, and those in the reading would look past that and focus on how the song works in the overall scene.
In a friends reading, to get fine detail feedback about a song, you have to provide it in the style of how it will eventually end up in the stage production. And that takes time.
I don't know about you, but I've written at least 30 songs so far that I cut from my script because they aren't quite right. If I had to create full accompaniment scores for each of those to ensure that the style gets through, I'd spend more time on them than the actual rewriting of the script.
Do I think a friends read-through isn't helpful - no, I think it can be useful to determine if your story line works, if there are problems with the plot, if the characters are interesting and for a general sense of the feelings the readers have for the show.
But, with this in mind, I wonder if an industry reading makes more sense first, rather than a friend reading. In an industry reading, you are working with people that are used to reading new scripts, people that have an eye for picturing your work on stage and an understanding of the process to get a show on stage.
I suppose this is where musical theatre workshops come in handy for writers.
Go into a friends read-through with this in mind and you'll find bare bones feedback that may help you spot issues with your story, but don't expect fine detail from those that are not regularly involved in bringing a new work to the stage.
Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com
Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.
Check out WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!