Thomsen Talk: November 2015
50 Shades of Grey
Does this title of this Thomsen Talk intrigue you? Keep reading…. (Be warned: this one’s a long one.)
In 2009 the Herald-Whig did an interview with me and asked what was something I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime. I said I wanted to travel to Europe and I wanted to write a musical, but I’m not a writer.
In that same year, a former college professor of mine began her pursuit of turning Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan into a musical. At the time I had no idea that we would come together on this project.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde. In 2009 my acting teacher Jan Nelson-Gompper of Wisconsin Lutheran College and her colleague Dr. David Eggebrecht of Concordia University teamed up and sifted through the word-heavy four act play and condensed it, making room for songs that would explore themes and drive the action. Jan discovered sections of dialogue that could really “sing” and developed that dialogue into musical numbers.
Several readings of the work in progress were given at Wisconsin Lutheran College. In 2010 a full production was mounted. The show was successful and all involved believed that the new musical could have a life beyond the college; however, it was thought that there was still work that could be done to tighten the material and focus the characters and scenes.
Jan sent me the script, a CD of the songs, and a video of the college production. She asked me for my opinion of it and also wondered if it might work for QCT. I first took in their adaptation and then read Wilde’s original play. I was especially struck by Jan’s ability to take pages of Wilde’s dialogue and turn them into a concise and effective song. David is to be commended for paring the story to the main points, while opening it up to make room for the songs.
I really, really liked it and was excited about how it could be tightened up and made stronger. I told Jan that I thought QCT should do it first as a staged reading, which would allow for the opportunity to make changes on the material and test them out without the pressure of a full-fledged production. I asked Jan if she was open to suggestions and notes, and she was. It was agreed that it would be effective if we could sit down together and go line by line and I could ask her questions and give her my thoughts. Jan is now living in Atlanta, and by coincidence, I also have an aunt who lives in Atlanta; therefore, I was able to see both people during the trip.
I booked my flight, and in October, over three very intense days, Jan and I analyzed every line and lyric, asking each other does it make sense, could something be stronger, could something be said more concisely, is something missing. Organically, it went from just talking about changes to actually making changes. Together, Jan and I cut dialogue, rewrote dialogue, put in a new opening scene, took out a song, put another song back in, restructured some scenes, and talked about possible lyric changes. We agreed that there were certain lyrics that needed to be rewritten in order to clarify a moment or a character. I also wanted a song to be reprised towards the end of the show, but with lyrics that reflected Lady Windermere’s change. Some of these revisions were too big to write on the spot, and Jan said she would take time to work on them; but by the end of three exhausting days, we had pulled the entire show apart and put it back together again, and without the fat.
On October 21, a draft was emailed to me that included our changes, her rewritten lyrics, and the new reprise for the ending. But there was one change that stood out among the rest — the title of the show. Originally titled Lady Windermere’s Fan – The Musical, the latest draft had at the top of the first page a new title: A Shade of Grey. (As the story is set in London, the English spelling is utilized, whereas Americans now spell it “gray.”)
My favorite song in Jan’s score was called “Is Everything so Black and White.” The title was the first line of the song, but it didn’t feel like the right title. The catch phrase in the song was “shade of grey.” I recommended that the song title be changed to “A Shade of Grey,” which I thought was quicker and catchier. Jan was amiable to the title change. Lady Windermere takes an incredible personal journey: she goes from believing people are only good or bad to understanding good people can make bad decisions and can be forgiven. She learns that choices in life aren’t as simple as either this or that. There can be a shade of grey. The song becomes the theme. In passing I said to Jan that that particular song title could be the title of the show – it sums up Lady Windermere’s character arc. I wasn’t expecting the title to actually be changed, and then I received a revised draft, and there it was.
However, it looks like the new title is short-lived. There are at least two realities to consider with it – it might be easier for the public to associate the musical with the original play, and the name recognition might help sell the show. And as ridiculous as it sounds, with the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, the public assumes the show is connected to that book and movie. How scandalous for QCT! For the time being we are back to Lady Windermere’s Fan: The Musical. We’re open to suggestions.
Something else very exciting happened when the revised draft arrived in my email. In addition to the change of title, a new name was added to the writing credits at the top of the first page. I was shocked and completely honored to have been given credit as a co-writer of the revised piece. Though I know I’m not really a writer, I’m thrilled at the thought of collaborating with my former teacher and being a “Re-Writer.”