This past Friday, “Diseducated,” a musical I spent the past six months writing with my friend Allison Taylor, was premiered through the Blank Space Workshop. This was a show I had initially conceived of this past October but hadn’t started working on in earnest until late March/early April, when Allie joined the project. It was something we spent the summer writing, something that utterly consumed this past September for us both as we worked frantically to notate the music we had heard in our heads for so long.
During the three week workshop, we decided to make some radical changes to the plot structure that we hadn’t really touched in four or five months. In the first week, we cut two scenes and added one. Later, we moved the seventh scene into the third scene’s slot and the third scene to the very end of the first act. We cut two songs and added four. In the last week, we completely changed the point of view of the piece, deciding that making it take place in one character’s memory might make the first act more engaging.
And now, seven months after starting our work on the piece, Allie and I can’t help but think that our work has only begun. This is not to say we were unhappy with the piece we presented to our friends this past Friday. Deep down, however, we know that there are changes to be made to make the show even better — changes that we, as maturing musical theater writers, are beginning to understand.
This process has made me rethink one of my performing art pet peeves: the tendency of creative artists to continuously edit their work until it receives a professional premiere. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with as an audience member and a fan, particularly when it comes to seminal pieces of the repertoire that artists needlessly retouch after they reach their prime. I’ve always viewed it as a weakness — insecurity, perhaps or workaholic self-obsession — that these artists continue to edit their work despite its commercial and critical success.
Take Igor Stravinksy’s “The Firebird Suite,” for instance. “The Firebird” was Stravinsky’s first successful ballet score. It’s a staple of the contemporary orchestral repertoire. During his lifetime, Stravinsky created three different orchestral suites from the ballet score. Two of the suites, the 1911 and 1919, are both intended solely for the concert hall. The third, the 1945 suite commonly referred to as a “ballet suite,” comes much closer to approximating the ballet in full.
Was it really necessary for Stravinsky to continue editing after publishing his first suite? The discrepancies between these suites, after all, leads to much confusion among musicians and audience members. And though one of the suites does tend to be performed more than the others, no clear victor has won out. Is it not a point of weakness that Stravinsky continued to edit the work, that it took him 34 years to finally feel satisfied with his many different iterations of it?
One criterion that I used to apply to determine whether I thought this after-publication “editing” was permissible or not is whether work had been changed to the point that it formed a new work. If the artist had stumbled upon a new form for their work, perhaps, or a different means of organizing it that better delivered it’s point, who was I to judge them for this?
Take Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” for example. Between 1888 and 1898, Mahler created or edited six different editions of the orchestral score that have survived to the modern day. These different editions have lead to great confusion among orchestras, particularly when it comes to some of the minor edits that Mahler made to orchestration and the development sections of a few of the movements.
Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that Mahler’s editing was justified because of the big change that he makes to the overall structure of the work: between 1888 and 1898, Mahler decided to omit an entire movement. This large scale change completely alters a listener’s perception of the work; it is more than justified, in my view, though it was made so late after the work’s first publication.
Perhaps it was the size and substance of the edits that justified their latent application? Perhaps I was becoming annoyed not with the substance of the edits but with their knit picky nature. Perhaps grand, substantial edits were always justified, whereas minor semantic edits were not.
But then I thought about Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux,” a 2001 director’s cut of sorts that restored 41 minutes of previously cut footage to Coppola’s seminal film. Though Coppola’s additions added much to the film, it did little to change the substance of it. If anything, it added needless footage, making the plot more meandering, less direct and less entertaining overall.
Do we have to wait until an artist dies, I wondered, before we can assume that we’ve witnessed the artist’s complete artistic vision? And assuming that one agrees with my judgement of the two “Apocalypse Now” films, which should be considered to be the primary “Apocalypse Now” used to introduce new viewers to this film?
This leads me back to my own project, “Diseducated.” Though we’ve already premiered the piece, Allie and I plan on spending many more months revamping it. We hope to completely change it to make it more effective. Though we know that some audience members from our premiere probably have a vision of the show in their head, we are confident that we can improve upon it.
Rather than being annoyed at creative artists’s predilection towards constant editing, I’ve thus learned to accept it as a byproduct of this unusual profession. Allie and I, for example, can’t see any means of being happy with our show without extensively editing it and improving upon it. And even if we never stop editing it, I hope that audiences will be able to select between the different versions to find their personal favorite.
Perhaps it is ultimately up to fans and critics to determine which version of a work they are most happy with, and which they want to ignore. And rather than viewing this as a weakness, as an indicator of insecurity or self-obsession, perhaps it indicates a creative artist’s pride in their work and the degree to which they take it seriously. Perhaps instead of wishing for fewer late-stage edits, I should wish for more artists taking such an active role in the ongoing life of their work.