If you wish to make a holiday special from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

by Molly Lewis on November 27, 2014, no comments

Angela (of The Doubleclicks) just wrote a post about how flabbergasted she was that Josh, Joseph, and I wrote and produced a whole musical from scratch.

But we did. We recorded it, and it’s up for pre-order, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

It does seem weirdly impossible, as I look back on it. I couldn’t really sit down to write the songs until after my con season wrapped in mid-September, and by than tickets were already on sale. In the six weeks that followed, I wrote ten entirely new songs, most of which were in someone else’s voice and musical style. Most members of the cast had less than a month to learn their song. We did exactly two and a half read-throughs the night before, and then a single tech run in the venue just hours before doors would open to the public. On the night of the show, we were still fine-tuning the script.

When you look at all those things together, it sounds astoundingly hard. But, I’ve always worked best under deadlines, and I’m used to writing songs in Hard Mode, so at the time it seemed unusually hard, but it didn’t seem impossible. It was just a big thing, directly in front of me, that needed to get addressed.

The actual show came together in baby steps, so I didn’t really notice what a gigantic undertaking it was until it came time to stop taking baby steps and break into a sprint, and by then it was too late to freak out about it.

I decided to write a holiday show. Then I wrote a couple of songs. Then I asked Josh Cagan if he would help me write the words between the songs. Then I picked a date at the Triple Door. Then K Wiley and I made a budget. Then I invited some friends to be in the cast. Then I commissioned a poster from Len Peralta. Then Joseph and Sara Scrimshaw got on board.

Like I said: baby steps.

There were a couple of moments in the months leading up to the show when I went “holy crap, this is a real show now.

When a page went up on the Triple Door website to announce the show and sell tickets, I went “holy crap.”
When we finished arranging travel for the Scrimshaws and Kevin Murphy, I went “holy crap.
When I left the first band rehearsal at Betsy’s house, I went “holy crap.
When I walked out of OfficeMax with a box full of show posters, I went “holy crap.”
When people started coming into town the day before the show, I went “holy crap! holy Jesus, it’s a real thing.”

I still find myself going “holy crap, we made a show. it’s a real show.

I’ve always struggled with asking for help before it’s too late, but for this show, I came to understand how great it is to have a team of talented people you know you can rely on. Your combined skills and talents magnify each other somehow, and you can create things bigger than the sum of their parts. I’ve gotten so used to struggling in silence, to not reaching out for help until it’s too late to alter course; now I see what a dunderhead I was.

Josh was the perfect collaborator for this thing because, while he doesn’t sing or play an instrument, he has a musician’s ear for music. He was especially good at kicking my song engine in a specific direction because he could say, “This song should be Poor Unfortunate Souls, but a little more Brecht” or “this one should be like Modern Major General, but deranged,” and I knew exactly what he meant. Neither of us has a lot of actual music training, so we speak the same pidgin language about it.

Joseph and Sara Scrimshaw should just be in charge of everything from now on, as far as I’m concerned. Joseph both directed the show and played the Narrator, so he kept the show moving forward in more ways than one. Sara was our stage manager and made sure all the weird and disparate moving parts in this show all moved fluidly and in sync.

Ben and David whipped up some incredible costumes for the “Santa” and “Kiri” characters. Rachael kept track of what retakes we needed for the live album recording. Derek and Pat were on standby to lend some muscle, which we ended up not needing so much of. Brandi kept the green room stocked with food and booze. (I won’t call hers the most important job because everyone played a key part, but I also won’t downplay the importance booze played in this production. Heck, the central motivation for one of the characters was getting a martini at the end of the night.)

There were times on the night of the show where I’d go “oh nuts, someone needs to go tell the merch volunteers to run cash transactions through Square Register,” and Brandi or Sara would see me walking in a hurry and intercept me. “What do you need?”
“I need the merch people to know about running cash through the Square–”
“Okay, I’ll go tell them.”
Oh. Awesome.

It takes a village to put on a musical. Turns out.

Writing songs for everyone in the show was uniquely delightful and challenging. The object of the game was to write songs that my friends would improve upon, just by being themselves. I learned a lot about my friends’ songwriting styles in the process, and actually quite a bit about my own style.

I wrote a Doctor Who parody for Vixy & Tony, and I wish I could bottle the glee I felt when I first heard Vixy sing the Actual Freakin’ Doctor Who lead line with the fake lyrics I wrote. How many people do you know who could hit those notes with her finesse and bell-like clarity? I know I can’t. You try it now, I dare you.

I wanted Seth Boyer‘s song to sound like something being cracked open, and a bunch of bright colors and tenderness spilling the hell out, because that’s how I picture Seth every time he sings about his feelings. He’s a big bearded piñata full of emotions. Today, unprompted, he tweeted about the very thing I wrote his song about, and I darned near peed myself.

The Doubleclicks‘ songs are deceptively simple, and put out these emotionally rich and nuanced stories with efficient, elegant prose and catchy melodies. They’re songs that get stuck in your head, but you’re glad when they do, because it gives you more time to chew on them.

Marian Call song draws you close and greets you like an old friend. A Marian Call song feels like the musical extension of a really good, thoughtful conversation, one of those deep-dive discussions that goes on into the wee hours of the night.

The Mongrel Jews‘ songs make you want to move, but not in a ‘hit the dancefloor’ sort of way; more of a ‘sway in your seat and swing a mug of beer back and forth while singing along’ kind of way. Theirs is the siren song that convinces you to ditch everything and run away with the circus.

Nicole (Hello! The Future) Dieker‘s song was the last one out of the gate, because (knowing she’s as big of a nerd for rhyme and lyric as I am,) I set out to write her a Stephen Sondheim-style song. This immediately became as hard as it sounds: each paragraph in each verse rhymed A-A-A-B-B-A, which is FOUR A-rhymes per paragraph, which is STUPID HARD and also WHY MOLLY DID YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF. I wrote her song around a cartoon version of Nicole in my head, inspired by the articles she’s written for The Billfold and so on. Within a few days of receiving her demo & lyrics, she had already made the sock-bear and the can-robot I had mentioned in the song. I never thought that she might make her own props, and it delighted and terrified me. I still don’t know how close my cartoon head-canon Nicole is to the real Nicole Dieker, and that equally delights and terrifies me.

I already knew Kiri Callaghan was a badass, and I knew she had pipes, but as soon as I saw her cover of Let It Go, I knew I had to work with her somehow. She was assigned a weirdly paced Game Of Thrones-style song, and she rose spactacularly to the challenge. Face paint was worn, capes were sashayed, and I’ve never seen anyone balance “adorable” and “scary as all hell” with such deftness as Kiri of the house Callaghan.

I owe more to Kevin Murphy than he could ever know.
I’ve been watching MST3K since I was 4. I would retreat to my parents’ bed if I couldn’t sleep, and they’d put on SNL re-runs, Dr. Katz, The Critic, and (most of the time) MST3K. I was too green to catch most of the references, but I wanted to so badly. I could tell that I liked these people, and all I wanted was to understand what they were talking about, to “get” as many the jokes as possible. When they talk about your “formative” years, this is what that word means: MST3K formed my cultural and comic sensibilities almost completely. I have so much to thank them for, including (but not limited to) my vocation.
I wrote a song for Kevin Murphy, and he brought down the house with it. I wrote a lyric about the Macy’s parade, and he hit it out of the park. And buckle up, because I will never stop talking about it.

When I started writing all the songs, I dreaded the idea of having an obvious runt in the litter. I figured the odds were high that I would have to send one band a hangdog email saying “Here’s the song I wrote for you; sorry; I’m sure to do better next time.” You can be the judge of this when the album comes out, but I feel like all the songs are gems – and that continues to weird me out.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m keenly aware of the things I have to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for all the gifted and patient performers on this cast, who took the raw materials we had and made them their own. I’m thankful for the trust my friends put in me when I said “hey I’m writing a musical and I’m going to write a song just for you, is that cool?”

I’m thankful for the powerhouse “four-person duo” that is Vixy & Tony (with Betsy Tinney & Sunnie Larsen). I keep throwing curveballs at them (“hey, here are the chords to a thing I just finished, see you at rehearsal tonight!” kind of curveballs), and time and again they knock them out of the park. (I’m extra thankful for Sunnie Larsen’s sturdy tailbone, which got dropped onto the stage by a rickety stool during the first show. Sunnie took it like a champ, AND she looked great doing it.)

I’m thankful to have a venue like The Triple Door in my backyard, whose patient and exceedingly capable staff made us sound great, and feel like rockstars. Thanks, Scott. Thanks, Craig. Thanks, Schraepfer.

I’m thankful so many of my friends were able to come out (on a Wednesday night, no less) to see the show. This show has eaten up the majority of my year, and their support has meant the world to me.

I’m thankful for Ben, who was very patient and understanding when I was in my writing cloister, and who (for about 2 months solid) had to remind me on a near-daily basis to eat food.

I’m deeply gratified to know that I have a network of friends and colleagues, more vast and dense than I ever could have dreamt, to catch me if I fall. (I’m even more gratified to know that, in spite of my worst fears about this project and about myself, I didn’t fall.)

I’m so proud of the show, in a way that caught me kind of off guard. Josh and I have since talked about the urge to jump on tables in restaurants and go “HEY LISTEN UP LOSERS, MY FRIENDS AND I MADE A MIRACLE HAPPEN, SO, A LITTLE RESPECT PLEASE.” I also didn’t realize until we’d already fleshed out a full ensemble, but we had a clean 2:1 lady:dude ratio in the cast, which is fairly uncommon. I am pleased by this factoid, but I am even more pleased that nobody seemed to notice.

In the month or so leading up to this, I was visited by this very familiar feeling that I got a lot when I was in college, the feeling of “I can’t wait for this to be over so I don’t have to work on it anymore.”

But at the same time, there was also the feeling of “I can’t wait for this to be done so I can tell people all about it.” I was anticipating being proud of something, which is a very, very new feeling for me.

I’m glad to be talking about it now.

Thank you.