Musical Theater: Finding your place with your signature

View at the Signature Room at the 95th in Chicago

I had a fantastic evening in Chicago the other night. First, drinks at a skyscraper-top bar overlooking the city called Signature Room. It was an appropriate pre-show stop for the evening of theater that would follow.


We were seeing the musical Working. It’s a show that was put together by Stephen Schwartz several decades ago and has been dusted off and re-worked for a commercial run in Chicago. The show is a series of vignettes about various people and their jobs – cleaning woman, executive, factory worker, truck driver, etc. Rather than writing all the songs however, Stephen Schwartz had several prominent songwriters contribute to the piece. In the updated version there were even some new songs added.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to look at the program to see who wrote which song, before the lights went down . It turns out — I didn’t need the program to tell me. It was crystal clear who wrote which song. The writing voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, et al were obvious. They were all perfectly suited to the style their individual scene demanded and yet, each composer’s “signature” shown unmistakably through.

While I’m not a composer, it made me wonder if I have my own “signature” — that thing that people associate with me? Do you have a signature in whatever you do?

When I started thinking about the producers, writers and directors I know, I could associate a signature with each of them. They all work on a variety of of projects but they keep their signature —  be it a writing style, an approach, or something about their personality. All the people in these success stories have a strong enough sense of their voice that it shines through, no matter what material they’re working with.

I’d argue that may be the key to their lasting success. While they may not get every job (because the job isn’t suited to their particular signature) the jobs they do get (and none of these guys who composed for Working, for example, is hard up for work!), they know they can do it well.

While you don’t want to be overly predictable, it’s nice to have a niche. If you don’t know what yours is, trial and error is sometimes the best way to learn where your strengths lie. Just make sure you don’t rely too heavily on artistic inspiration that becomes imitation. The people you are imitating are already doing that work and getting those jobs. If you want to find your place, excel at what YOU do best. Find your signature and someday, the new up and comers will imitate you, on the path to finding their own signature.

One comment

  1. Interesting post. I happened to run across this article on exactly the same day the NY Post ran their review of WONDERLAND – the new musical by Frank Wildhorn.

    I offer no opinion, having neither seen the show nor heard the score. But, this reviewer hints at the same question in the excerpt here. I don’t take the review to imply that mimicking of a variety of musical composers and styles in a single show is a good thing. Here, as she hints, perhaps Wildhorn should have written in his own voice. The (over) exposition of all the characters through a variety of composer styles and genres was a distraction to this reviewer.

    However, that point said, it appears the real (and separate) lesson here is that the authors should use the songs, whatever the mimickery, to move the plot forward and not to introduce characters in what feels “endless” by it’s practice (see review).

    There’s a lot of talk about time in “Wonderland.” There’s also so much laborious exposition and overexplaining, you’d think this flat new Broadway musical was inspired not by Lewis Carroll, but by Stephen Hawking.

    Most of the first act is taken up with numbers introducing each wackadoo character. This allows composer Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) to write serviceable songs winking at everybody from Danny Elfman to Kander & Ebb and ‘N Sync. Can’t decide what your favorite musical style is? Wildhorn does them all.

    Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious) is now a jazz-spouting hipster while the Cheshire Cat has become El Gato (the energetic Jose Llana), who briefly turns the show into “Alice en el barrio.” There’s also the obligatory bland hunk: Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), whose spoof of boy bands is like a Warblers routine on “Glee.”

    These repeated intros feel endless. The White Rabbit has a watch that can turn back time, which may be Cher’s dream come true but isn’t helping us — we’d rather Boyd, who also directed, sped things up.

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