THE BEGINNINGS OF THE BATTLES
The musical of mine that is now moving towards production, “The Battles,” was begun in 2010. A friend said, “You know, no one has ever written a show about Leonardo and Michelangelo, and…” And I cut him off, “That sounds amazing and please don’t say another word!” Because it did sound amazing, and I wanted to research it and see what story leaped out at me as I was researching (I love the research phase of writing).
So, I started researching, plowing through books, documentaries, articles, and becoming more and more excited along the way because the story was incredible!
Leonardo and Michelangelo were bitter rivals, and their rivalry started because of Michelangelo’s intense, unprovoked hatred of Leonardo. Michelangelo regarded Leonardo as a dilettante, squandering his immense talents, dabbling here and there, hardly ever finishing a project. Michelangelo felt that such genius was divinely dispensed, and to not drive oneself to fulfill that potential was an affront to God.
An even greater affront to God, according to Michelangelo, was Leonardo’s “out” homosexuality. Leonardo made no qualms about his sexuality, surrounding himself with a retinue of beautiful young boys, especially his lead assistant, Salai, a supposedly beautifully handsome teen. Salai’s reputation was that of a lying, lazy, thieving, party-boy with barely any artistic talent, whom Leonardo nonetheless doted on despite it all.
What Michelangelo did not know was that Leonardo was basically celibate, and had been ever since a traumatic ordeal 20 years earlier when he had suffered a 3-month imprisonment for Sodomy. Upon his release, he decided he wouldn’t hide his nature, but would never risk imprisonment again by fulfilling his desires.
The other thing that Michelangelo did not know, or at least refused to admit to himself, was that he, too, was gay. A devout Catholic, he repressed his feeling, sublimating his desire into his representations of hyper-muscular nude males, driving himself relentlessly to exhaustion.
And these two artists, two of the greatest who ever lived, were involved in a head-to-head painting competition to determine the greatest artist alive.
Add to that the incredible cast of characters intertwined throughout the whole story: the Medicis, Nicollo Machiavelli, the Borgias (especially murderous Cesar Borgia).
There was SO much amazing history. The problem became what to leave out. So I began the process of writing. And rewriting. And rewriting.
During this process, it became clear that I wanted to tell the story of these two great artists rivalry, but also about their own personal struggles as artists and as gay men. To continue focusing the story, I had to become more and more clear as to what I thought the themes of the play were, and the objectives and arcs of each character.
How I’ve tried to achieve this, while hewing to the particular demands of a musical, is the subject of my next post.
I used to be a touring recording artist, but that ended when the indie rock label I was on in Nashville went out of business. I took a look at the industry, knew I was too old to get another record deal, and didn’t want to spend my life touring on the folk circuit, or trying to write country songs for Toby Keith. As a songwriter, I was always a storyteller, but, after a number of years in the business, I had started to feel hamstrung by the constraints of songwriting. I wanted to write bigger stories, where the songs worked together with a script and informed each other to create a more powerfully impactful whole.
I decided to try and write musicals. So, I moved back to NY and got back into the theatre world with no idea how I’d proceed and no real knowledge about how to write a musical or how to get one produced. Little did I know I was going down an even more difficult road than trying to have a career as a songwriter/performer!
A lot of folks are interested in musicals today, and lots of folks would like to write one. In the following series, I’m going to talk about this road I’ve been on, and what I’ve learned from my own experience, and from what I’ve learned from books, classes (at places like The Commercial Theatre Institute, The BMI Musical Theatre Workshop), and the experiences of others. But mostly, through my own experience: the development of my first musical, first titled Blood Ties, and then re-worked and re-titled as Four Messages, to my newest (started 7 years ago!) musical, The Battles, which had it’s first developmental run last winter, and which seems to be…fingers crossed…moving forward. I’ll be including updates on that, describing the process as it unfolds.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
I started work on my first musical, an autobiographical piece, called Blood Ties, in the early 2000’s, working the ideas first into a solo show. I needed to see if the basic concept worked, and a solo show seemed like the easiest thing to mount. I put it up at the 2006 NY Fringe Fest and we received great reviews. So I began trying to expand the piece.
A director and a financial backer came aboard during it’s development, and they each had their own visions for the show, taking the show in directions I was uncomfortable with, but I didn’t have the experience yet to stand up for myself.
The show received a production at the 2010 NY Musical Theatre Festival. It was a tense, miserable process, and while the show received an award for my music, the script lost it’s impact, and the overall production had lost the earlier production’s heartfelt intimacy.
I went back to work on the script, rewriting it just how I wanted and self-produced the show off-off Broadway. It was essentially a brand new show, this time called Four Messages. The show did great, receiving great reviews, and the extremely low-budget production was nominated for a two NY Innovative Theatre Awards.
By chance, a marketing person from Sony Music by the name of Wayne Laakko attended the show on a whim, loved it and wanted to help me try and take the show further.
I think I took Wayne a bit aback when I told him that I was going to set the show aside for the time being. I explained that, while I loved the show, I thought an autobiographical show might have a better chance of getting an audience if people knew who I was. I had been working for a couple years already on a new musical about Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo that I thought had the potential to be something that could do well commercially. I suggested that if the new show did well, more folks would be interested in seeing an autobiographical show about me. He agreed, and has been an invaluable production partner on the journey, and, after 5 years of developing this show, a great friend.
Making a musical is a long road that can be a lot of fun when you get to work with wonderful, talented, supportive people. That’s what I’m doing now and I’m truly grateful!