Progress in Work

In an essay called "The Decline of Quality," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman writes of Michelangelo, who locked all potential helpers out of the Sistine Chapel while he spent four painful years on a scaffold carrying his famed work to completion.

"That is what makes for quality -- and its cost," Tuchman states in her essay, contained in Thinking in Writing, a book assembled by Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. "And what helped to make Michelangelo one of the greatest artists of all time. Creating quality is self-nourishing.... Genius and effort go together, or if they do not, genius will be wasted."

One of the most daunting tasks I face in teaching the craft of writing is explaining the need for, and the art of, rewriting. The youthful and the mature-but-amateurish author alike believe in first-draft magic: you get the idea, rush it onto paper, and abracadabra! up pops the completed work with nary a syllable out of place. Of course, the truth is usually the opposite: many tedious hours of a writer's life. Dylan Thomas went through hundreds of revisions; Tom Wolfe claims his first 300 pages and two years of work on Bonfire of the Vanities ended up in the circular file. Very few scribblers give birth in a matter of months; more often it takes years of shaving and trimming and sculpting and resculpting in order to create well. Those who cling to the myth of rapid-fire genius are likely to produce only a sparkle amid what is mostly trash.

Nowhere is this art of crafting more imperative than in dramatic writing. Words laid down on a page often don't play well when spoken by actual human beings. Witty dialogue may yield dead dramatic time. Worse, these pitfalls often don't become evident until a play is performed, sometimes not until a work is performed many times over the course of several productions. Called "workshopping," this procedure should be followed by every aspiring playwright, lest he face a crueler and weightier sword of criticism than my own. Bomb in South Florida and the vast majority of people will forget; bomb on the Great White Way or in the West End of London and the international press will circle like vultures.

The current Broadway smash Tommy was workshopped at the La Jolla Playhouse in California; most successful plays and musicals use regional theaters in a similar fashion, to hone the edges and eliminate dead matter. Once mounted on a stage, a play may go through numerous changes, sometimes turning from ugly duckling to swan in the process.

In fact, the secret of writing is to treat rewriting as an enjoyable game. Any author who can't face this fact ought to try another field, such as accounting. Then again, even good accountants rethink their work.

Perhaps no artist understands the need for "practice" more than the classical pianist. They play that piece by Chopin or Mozart over and over again, each time hoping to move a little bit closer to genius. Ultimately, truly great artists die in the attempt; the concept of perfection is by definition never acknowledged. The best musicians always believe they can play it better next time.

Therefore, it's pleasurable but not surprising that Pamela Ross, a highly gifted and classically trained pianist, worked and reworked her musical one-woman show/tribute to her father, harry, from the leaden rambling that made its local debut at the Surf Theatre in June of this year, to the enjoyable piece goodbye harry now playing at Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre. (I reviewed the work in my June 2 column, under the headline "Pianist Envy.") I was convinced to reattend the show after requesting and receiving a script in which I saw drastic revisions. I felt the value and meaning of such dedication on the part of the playwright would be interesting to all theater professionals and audiences.

Wisely, Ross worked with an excellent director, Broadway veteran David Spangler, along with savvy producer Smith, in order to do more justice to her father on stage. All the labor, rewriting, and quick relearning of new lines through -- according to the author, director, and producer -- dozens of alterations have borne fine fruit. Whereas Ross's renditions of piano compositions by maestros as diverse as Chopin, Debussy, Erroll Garner, George Gershwin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Stephen Sondheim, and Irving Berlin were diminished in the first incarnation by boring stories and flat jokes about bland, kind, old Harry, the trimmed-down script now enhances the music and Ross's virtuosity, to boot. A Long Island dentist who painted and played tennis and the piano purely for the love of sports and art, Hershel Rosenblatt (a.k.a. Harry Ross, a.k.a. Doc Bones) emerges as a more interesting character here than in the previous draft. Not only did Harry leave Pamela a great deal of awe for his blithe spirit, he also bequeathed to her a large dose of his verve and talent.

This version doesn't represent the end of the road, though, if Ross wants goodbye, harry to enjoy the same accolades as Carreno!, her previous work about the famed, tormented Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno. Carreno! won an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding achievement and played to packed audiences off-Broadway. To perfect this play, Ross must trim more, write more slickly, with less exposition and sentimentality. Her acting, too, must be contained; she still tends to go over the top, mistaking forced emotion for the real thing.

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