What Are the Odds?

This is part [part not set] of 12 in the series 26 Songs

This is a post where I reflect on my life to date and the story behind the number What Are the Odds? from the show I’m currently working on. You can skip the reflection and go straight to where I talk about the show, the background on this number or jump straight to the video, audio, score or program notes.

I’ve talked before about how small and unimportant decisions can eventually shape the course of our lives. And as I sit here watching the snow falling outside my window on Thanksgiving Day, reflecting on life for the first time in a while, I do have to give thanks to God for all my blessings today. Life isn’t perfect (if it were, I wouldn’t be here in this empty house), but nothing ever is. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Despite the self discovery and epiphanies I’ve had over the last couple of years, I still feel like I’m still trying to discover my purpose.

Purpose from Avenue Q

Whenever I stop to reflect on life, I am always astounded by how much we can achieve over time. Certainly the me of two years ago never dreamed that I would actually get to study at Juilliard for a year, and then through that study, gain some truly amazing friends and the opportunity to have my work premiered to a full house in New York City.

The thought still has power to move me to the verge of tears. The thought that the music I hear inside my head can be brought to life by some, touch the souls of others and then live on independently of me is just astonishing.

I may be playing a bit loosely with my Scripture here, but I do believe that humanity was created to create. There is power in the act of creation and there is joy in seeing your creation take on a life of its own, whether this is a piece of literature, a work of art or music or a child. Every creator gets a sense of wonder when they examine their creation; it’s something that grew from a part of your soul into something that’s entirely its own self. Much like how a child can take after her mother or father and yet be entirely her own person, unlike her mother or father.

I digress, however, and will stop here before we get into a theological discussion about free will. It also seems that I’ve gotten to that stage of my life when pretty much everyone I know is trying to get pregnant, is pregnant or has recently given birth.

And since we’re already on a tangent here, I am going to permit myself to have a slight freak out that I am behind schedule. You see, according to my twenty-year plan, I am supposed to be pregnant (or trying to get pregnant) with our second kid right now. I am twenty-eight years old. But in the immortal words of Jonathan Larson, I still feel like I’m twenty-two and I am totally not ready for kids. Even if we do have Zeke and I have this show that I am writing with Sarah, which for all intents and purposes, is a baby.

Sarah often jokes that in the hopefully-sometime-soon-near-future when we finally finish writing our show and get the funds to produce it, I’m going to be pregnant during the whole process of casting and rehearsing to the point when the curtains go up on opening night, I’m about to actually give birth. Which honestly is kind of a scary thought. Opening night and giving birth are two events which are pretty scary on their own. The worst part is, knowing myself and my tendency to overcommit, there’s probably some element of prophecy in that joke.

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For better or for worse, this show is a baby and like all first time parents, we are making things up as we go along and generally screwing up. We are currently up to revision 4 of the overall storyboard and it’s been fascinating to see how much has changed and yet how much the spirit of the show has stayed the same (yes, cliche, I know, I know, but there’s a reason why cliches exist).

In the “early days” (this makes me laugh, seeing how this show began only eight months ago) after completing our outline, we were very laissez-faire about the whole process and pretty much decided to just work on whatever songs we felt like in whatever order those feelings happened. After all, the rule is that there are no rules when it comes to how to actually write a musical.

That’s how we ended up with Moment.

In hindsight, it was a bad move. Showboat and Oklahoma! marked the evolution of musical theatre beyond the flat simplicity of revues or the redundancy of plays with music, where the tight integration of music, lyrics and plot are critical to the integrity of the work. We thought we had done our homework with our storyboard, but in reality we had a long way to go. We couldn’t articulate the premise of our show without going into a longwinded and rather convoluted explanation of the story, and we couldn’t tell the difference between having an outline and a plot.

Maybe more experienced writers and composers can make this approach work, but looking back, I think we have a lot to learn before we can get to that point. To this day, while I think we are closer to understanding what our show is about, I still have trouble explaining the premise of the show in a single, simple sentence of ten words or less (you could argue that as evidenced by this blog, I just have trouble being succinct, which would also be true). There are still main characters that I can’t emotionally connect to and understand, which means I can’t write songs for them convincingly.

Which is a rather rambling way to say that as of right now, I’m not sure Moment (in its current incarnation) is going to be in the show. Since we wrote the song, there’s been many revisions of plot and character and I am convinced that the song as it stands just doesn’t work, dramatically, lyrically or musically.

From a technical perspective, I’m not happy either. Apart from the haunting cello theme I continue to love, the rest of the music makes me cringe a bit whenever I hear it. Something Jonathan Dawe teaches (which I have been trying very hard to live by) is to analyze and understand what it is that you don’t like about whatever it is that you are hearing. When I consider Moment, the words “contrived” and “disjointed” come to mind, but I can’t pin it down exactly to what it is that I wrote that gives me that feeling. To do so, I would have to go back and listen to it more which I am very reluctant to do. I tell myself that I don’t have the time but maybe it’s just cowardice and not wanting to face an immature piece of work.

But it does make me feel better to know that even the great Stephen Sondheim feels embarrassed about some of his work.

Anyway. We learned from Moment and moved on, and started back at the beginning. We wrote the opening number, the short interlude, the second number which is the “I want” song and then we got to the third number, which we have been calling “the arranged marriage song” since the conception of this musical.

This number was originally conceived for Marco (who, in earlier drafts, was called David). Marco is that smooth, good looking and confident white collar guy who shows up to every event with a different woman every time, so much that people have stopped trying to learn their names because next time, Marco will bring someone new. His parents are trying to put an end to this by constantly setting him up with girls they like. Unbeknownst to his parents, Marco has a serious long-time boyfriend and has been trying to figure out how to eventually break the news to them.

In early versions of this song, we had pictured a stand-off on stage between Marco and his parents, with dancers playing the parts of Marco’s revolving door girlfriends and dinner partners. The song would go back and forth between his parents ambushing him with cookie cutter “good girls” and Marco rejecting them for shallower and shallower reasons and countering with increasingly “bad girls” just to spite them. I’m not sure how on earth all of that action would have worked on stage, but fortunately the point became moot when I woke up in the middle of one night, suddenly struck by inspiration (why yes, that does actually happen).

This song is not sung by Marco or his parents. This song is sung by Neel.

Neel is the ingenue of the show. We had imagined him as a precociously bright computer science whiz kid who graduated years ahead of his age group. His marriage to a girl named Priya has been arranged by his parents since his childhood. Obedient and logical to a fault, Neel reasons that it’s much better (not to mention much less troublesome) to have the experience and wisdom of his parents guiding his choices in love, rather than the hormone and alcohol induced “chemistry” behind modern dating.

I’m not really sure why it took me so long to make the connection, but once I did, everything started to fall into place from a plot perspective. This song would be multi-layered. Not just another musical theatre number where the song grows organically out of the emotion of the scene, but it would be an actual in-character song, sung by Neel as a serenade to Priya. After all, even if their parents did set them up, he’s still just a normal young man trying to impress a girl he likes.

Of course, Neel as a character is supposed to be somewhat socially awkward, in contrast to Priya who is a rather socially savvy young woman. That meant this scene had comedic potential and the first set of dummy lyrics I wrote for Sarah to polish were inspired by Legally Blonde the Musical and boy band music from the 1990s. In fact, I had pictured it somewhat like this number, where it’s sung in all seriousness by the character and yet it’s a comedy scene for the audience, which ends with a note of pathos (because there is supposed to be a fair bit of foreshadowing in this scene).

Serious from Legally Blonde the Musical

Sadly, we worked out that we are not good at humor. By “not good”, I mean “cannot write”. I am a huge fan of humor in musicals. And at risk of overly flattering myself, I’m generally a funny story teller in social situations when it’s a story of ridicule. But I seem to be missing the funny bone that enables people like Chiara Atik and Jack Moore to write funny scenes. Seriously. I took one class with them six years ago and whenever I come across the pile of scripts I kept from that class and I read the ones they wrote, I still chuckle.

So What Are the Odds? didn’t end up being a true comic number. Instead, it is doing some heavy lifting plot-wise. Not only does it have to be sufficiently “romantic” in style in order for Neel’s serenade to be plausible, it needs to reveal character and foreshadow a few things for Neel’s storyline (e.g. his awkwardness, naivety and lack of independent decision-making, Priya’s limited interest) while doing double duty for Marco’s storyline. As Neel sings to Priya, the lyrics effectively serve as a commentary on the dramatic action unfolding between Marco and his parents.

Here’s the current draft of the scene – please excuse the rough dialogue and stage directions I wrote which Sarah hasn’t had the time to revise. The bridge also makes use of the magic of theatre to show audiences what is going on inside Neel’s head; I have always imagined the scene to be like the middle of the dream ballet from the 1999 revival production of Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman where with just some lighting changes, choreography and chairs – all of which is cleverly underscored – Laurey’s wonderful dream shifts into a nightmare of debauchery.

Download (PDF, 37KB)

Unfortunately, the Composers Collective Fall 2014 concert had no vocalists. Still, I was very excited to write for an amazing brass quintet. With ’90s boy band pop being firmly out of the picture, I considered a number of different styles (including things like…modern Bollywood and tango…) but ultimately settled on big-band swing, because: 1) BRASS QUINTET!!!; 2) swing is so versatile that it’s simultaneously classy, intimate and fun; and 3) musically it had to support Neel’s comic attempt at being a dashing romantic leading man but also able to veer into sensuality during Neel’s nightmare of the “den of sin”.

I knew I was on the right track when I got shivers down my spine at the very first reading. We still need to polish the scene and I still need to create a piano-vocal score because well, the piano-vocal score is supposed to come before the orchestration, plus I need to insert some vamp for Neel’s dialogue and add dance music for Marco and company. But all in all, I am extremely happy with how the piece has turned out.

If you want to hear this song as it will eventually sound in the show, well, you’ll just have to stay tuned until I can get a reading organized. But in the mean time, I hope you enjoy the performance from the Composers Collective Fall 2014 concert featuring Sam Nester and Atse Theodros on trumpets, Rachel Boehl on horn, David Westen on tenor trombone and Santiago Latorre on bass trombone. They were absolutely amazing and pulled this off without a conductor after just a single rehearsal! Recording and editing by Ben Young. Program notes and score below.

What Are the Odds? as performed at the Composers Collective Fall 2014 concert. Arrangement by Deborah Lau, based on a song with music by Deborah Lau and lyrics by Sarah Guan.

For those who are interested, here is the score so you can follow along:

Download (PDF, 140KB)

Program Notes

What Are the Odds? is an instrumental arrangement of a big-band swing number from a new musical exploring identity, family, and love in this modern age.

Neel Gupta celebrates a job offer with his fiancée, Priya, at a fancy restaurant. Having been betrothed since childhood, Neel has sought to impress her ever since–this time by serenading her over dinner. Though Neel’s friends find his approach to love incomprehensibly outdated, he is relieved to have escaped the follies of modern dating.

Meanwhile, Neel’s friend Marco Garcia dodges the parade of eligible young women his family foists upon him, and tries to convince his parents that he’s perfectly capable of finding love on his own.

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