Writing a musical is hard. This is not new news to anyone who’s tried to develop characters out of nothingness, put words and melodies into their mouths, and move plot and dramatic intention through song, all while trying to meet an audience’s expectations. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Writing a spy musical is even harder; imagine a puzzle where there are no edge pieces, you’re forced to assemble it without looking at the picture on the box, and you wind up with two missing pieces- or worse, two extra. It’s that kind of hard.
A spy musical is a unique animal; perhaps that’s why there hasn’t been a truly successful one to date. As a film and TV-loving people, most of us are familiar with the espionage genre. It must be suspenseful, sexy, thrilling, dangerous. We expect to be confused at certain times, yet we go along for the ride confident that our plot questions will eventually be answered. We meet characters briefly on screen who disappear for great lengths of time, only to return at a crucial moment and we’re satisfied. Yet a musical doesn’t allow for the same kind of grace.
Musical theatre lives and dies on structure. It’s an interesting paradox that the same viewing audience will allow for confusion in one medium, yet demand explicit clarity in another. In a musical, we want to know immediately who the story is about and who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Mama Rose screams from the wings, Sweeney Todd steps off a ship, so if our James Bond doesn’t appear in the first scene, the audience feels unsettled and it’s that much harder to get them back.
In a musical, we don’t get the luxury of playing around with a non-linear presentation of the story. Characters must be introduced and plot points developed in a logical sequence so they can be easily followed. With film we willingly jump around in time through flashbacks or cut-aways showing simultaneous action sequences giving clues to what lies ahead. Try that with a musical and your audience will be scratching their collective heads.
So how does one reconcile this tricky puzzle of hanging your necessarily ambiguous spy story on a solid musical theatre backdrop? In Code Name: Cynthia we’ve tried to honor audience expectations by employing a cinematic approach to the material. Like a screenplay, the script is tightly crafted with no wasted words. There’s an economy of thought and action that feels familiar and right, but we’ve been careful to not strip away too much, lest we lose emotional resonance and the chance to revel in the story. Significant underscoring and transition music provide connective tissue that propels the audience from scene to scene and help stabilize the plot. The required espionage elements of intrigue, sex, action, a compelling antagonist, and plot twists are all there. We’ve looked at the pieces from every angle to find the best fit and put them together in a new way to bring the picture on the box into focus.
This puzzle we’ve put together has been challenging and exhilarating but never, ever dull. As we approach the show’s first production this summer with Pallas Theatre Collective in Washington, D.C., we hope our audiences enjoy hearing Betty Thorpe’s story in a musical format. We hope there’s enough to satisfy the secret agent in all of us and the expectations/demands of a musical theatre audience. We hope all the pieces of the puzzle are there and that they fit.