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The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Camille Claudel

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From Rowan Sills:

Hi Nan,
My name is Rowan Sills and I'm a eighth grader in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I'm a musician and I love music. I was the music director for many local theater productions. I love all of your works and I try to be as musical as possible. I know you must get a lot of "fan mail" and I appreciate you reading this. I just wanted to know if you had any tips or advice on how to get where you are today. You have inspired me to become a better musician. I especially love the music and lyrics especially from The Scarlet Pimpernel. I downloaded the soundtrack and I try to find the beat and tempo and all that kind of stuff. So if you could respond with advice or tips on how to be like you when I grow up it would be greatly appreciated!

All my best,
Rowan Sills

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Dear Rowan,

Thank you so much for writing me. I get worried sometimes that guys your age (or girls) are not getting interested enough in musical theatre. It's such a wonderful art form, so keep at it, okay? To answer your question, I guess there are many answers as to how to advance in music and the theatre.

I would say the first and most important way is to keep working at the part of it you like best. I'm not sure from your letter whether you want to be a composer or a musician or a director or writer (or producer?) But whichever it is, keep working and working. There's a word called "journeyman" which most people are not familiar with. It refers to someone who is learning their trade, who just keeps going at it until they get it right or, at least, get it good enough to go out and present it to the world at large. I had years and years which I thought of as being a journeyman. I wrote small musicals called "industrials" which are usually shows that get performed at a hotel for a few nights to entertain the real estate industry or any business industry. I would write the scripts and all the songs and I also produced those shows and a friend of mine directed and choreographed. It made us a little money but mostly we were learning our trades. I also did some copywriting and co-wrote an independent film that pretty much opened and closed in a week and then finally I wrote a few songs for Radio City Music Hall. They weren't very good but when I sat out in the audience and heard them, I could hear which lines were lousy, what worked and what didn't. So a lot of this is all about being an apprentice, a journeyman, learning by doing, working hard.

I think the second most important thing is learning- period. School. Studying. College. Masters programs. Besides all the information you gather, you have the advantage of getting constant feedback, not only from teachers who help guide you but also from fellow students when you're in classes where the opinions are really flying around. Also, it is extremely important to always delve into subjects that would seem to have nothing to do with what you love most. For example, studying history would seem not to be particularly related to writing song lyrics. However, it was the study of history that made me able to jump into the French revolution and write "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and I often think I'd like to write a musical about Joan of Arc. A few years ago I thought it would be exciting to write a play about Teddy Roosevelt and I may still do both. My point is simply to say that whatever you study may end up feeding into your work in musical theatre.

Thirdly, don't be shy. I really mean this. Certainly you don't want to be obnoxious and go around bragging about how good you are or being pushy. However, you do want to be ready to step forward and grab it whenever there is the least opportunity. This includes when you meet people in the business. Don't be shy about writing letters (as you've done here) or going up to an artist who might be in the same room with you. If you go to a show, see if there's any way you could go backstage and meet an actor after the show. Some actors really like to help younger people and are happy to talk with them. (Mostly, they'll say no, that you can't go backstage, but sometimes a nice guy at the stage door will intercom up to an actor and say, "There's a teenager down here who'd like to say hi and ask you a question," and if the actor is an especially nice one (like Douglas Sills, our Scarlet Pimpernel, who has the same last name as you!), he might just tell them to send you up to his dressing room. There are a zillion ways to grasp opportunities or meet people in the business. You will find them, but just remember to be politely aggressive, not brash. That kind of thing turns people off. Just be yourself, be honest in telling people that you really want to succeed and ask if they can possibly help (and a smile doesn't hurt).

Lastly, maybe the most important thing is persistence. Don't give up. You will fail, maybe fail a lot. It doesn't mean a thing. That's how you learn. And, trust me, almost every artist can count up scores of failures and rejections- so many- including me. You have to just take note, learn from mistakes and get right back up on the horse and keep going (and going and going). And don't let other people discourage you. If you truly love this and have talent, do not listen to people who tell you that you don't have a chance and to just give it up. Someone very close to me once told me that saying I wanted to be a lyricist on Broadway was like saying I wanted to go off and live on Venus because the odds were so bad. He said only 1% of 1% of people who tried ever made it. But I didn't give up. (It was very hard not to be discouraged, but there were other people who came along and told me I was good and should keep on.) Because I was told this thing about Venus, I put it into a song lyric. I did a show called "Camille Claudel" and there's a song in it called "What's Never Been Done Before" which is about this woman sculptor in the late 1800's who wants to succeed despite the enormous difficulties. In the song, I have her say, "What's wrong with wanting to fly off to Venus?" It was my way of shouting back at this guy who said my odds were the same as living on Venus. If you want to hear this song, by the way, it is about persistence in the face of odds and it's on my website. It's sung by Linda Eder. She sings it unbelievably and the song means a lot to me.

Okay, I guess I've written WAY more than either you or I thought, but I want to encourage you to keep on with what you love. Rowan, again I thank you for writing and I wish you all the luck in the world- Nan

Related link: Video of Linda Eder singing "What's Never Been Done Before".

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