How I developed the first fully realized global concept musical from scratch
By Todd Squitieri
With the world’s technological advancements and globalization, you can do anything you desire with some networking and dedication. I’m going to share the story of how I put on a musical with the help of people all over the world. Yes, that’s right, I developed a musical from scratch, in 2016.
I had always wanted to work with ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a Renaissance play written around 1633 by John Ford. I was introduced to the show in my early twenties when I was a musical theater student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). It wasn’t very well known, but it was a regularly performed piece even during the era. It was kind of in the mid-range you might say, kind of like your B-level classical theatre piece. I wanted to take this and turn it into a musical. This kernel of a thought started in 2006 but didn’t really pop until 10 years later.
I became an English teacher in South Korea for two years and I had been in criminal justice school prior to this. I was looking for university teaching positions but to my mind, there was no thought whatsoever of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: A Pop Opera. I was focusing on teaching and that was it.
Because I was focused so much on teaching, I was very surprised that I returned to the idea of writing this musical when I left teaching in South Korea and moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand where I wanted to learn about business and working online. I never thought I would be doing this musical in the country because I was initially looking for new ideas to pursue, instead of looking at things that I had already worked on.
One fateful night in Thailand, I was just thinking about my old life back in New York and New Jersey and what my interests used to be as I felt lost and unsure of myself. I started looking back at my strengths and passions because maybe I could find some kind of direction there.
I began by singing. And then realized that I wanted to develop a musical.
Soon I started singing out the scenes. Once a scene was musicalized, I would repeat this again, like clockwork almost every afternoon or sometimes in the evenings. One scene led to another, and with each scene, it was as if the words just emerged. I would write the lyrics that came to my head and my heart. I began musicalizing each scene with the ukulele, never having played ukulele in my life, at least not consistently. The music took on a life of its own in reconnecting with John Ford’s tale in a new and exciting way.
Each day, I would compose a song, record it and that would be the song for the scene. To record the songs with my ukulele, I used an old iPod with a recording device and played in my apartment, and later got a recording space so the neighbors wouldn’t be disturbed. I wrote all the songs that came to me whenever I read a scene.
Simultaneously, I would develop dialogue in more conversational language when songs didn’t come to me or when it seemed that some scenes didn’t have a lot of musical possibilities; when this happened, I would just take John Ford’s language and then turn it into dialogue for more modern ears. For this, I didn’t use any playwriting software, just a doc file. My tools were simple: an iPod and a Word doc.
By the end of what amounted to my re-reading of the play, I had close to 56 songs. It took about 3 weeks to put it all together. After that, I began thinking about how I could make a demo of this show.
Developing piano tracks
After putting together all of those songs, I knew I needed to have piano tracks to go along with the lyrics. So I decided to merge my musical project with the growing freelance world. I began looking online and searching for singers and musicians on Fiverr, Freelancer.com, and UpWork. The first person I hired, Juan Carlos McKay, was a pianist from the United States. He turned my songs into piano masterpieces and this got me even more excited. Once he did 2 or 3 songs, I was convinced that he had to do the rest of them.
One week, Juan would perform 5 songs, another week he would do 10; it varied, but we just kept a steady pace and managed to keep a rhythm going until we completed most of the songs. At times, I did have to put some pieces on the backburner, so to speak, as they weren’t achieving the original impact and musicality that I had intended. Sometimes, I contacted other pianists to have certain songs re-worked, but Juan was and always has been the key player in helping me develop the demo; without him, this show never would have evolved as it did.
After the piano tracks were done, I wanted singers. I felt this was too good to stop now, so I decided to just “ride the wave.” In 2016, there were people who offered their musical talents, their voices, on Fiverr and UpWork. To my mind, it was like striking gold.
However, it took me a while to get used to a new process of hiring singers and training them to deliver what I wanted. The first version of this process was pretty rickety and haphazard. The first thing I used to do was give people the song files of me singing to the ukulele and lyrics and just had the singers sing it to the piano track.
As the process went on, I soon discovered, issues developed where singers felt lost, rhythmically speaking, and unsure of how to perform them. The rhythm I discovered is sort of important in music. Eventually, however, we – the singers and I – worked out the kinks to the process and eventually evolved it to the point where I would provide them with a vocal line on the piano piece because it would have been challenging for them otherwise, especially when piano players add a few bars of an intro before the start of the actual song, a few bars that weren’t in the original song as performed on the scratch file.
The singers had to record their singing, without any instruments, what we call a “dry vocal file,” and then they would also do the mixing afterward, which means merging their voices to the piano track so that it sounds like the person and the piano are in the same room. My freelancers would typically deliver their recording with three different volumes of their voice added to the piano playing. They did this so that I could choose the level of singing applied to the piano that I liked best because sometimes it wasn’t clear to them – or to me – whether I wanted their volume low, medium, or high (we all have different sensory perceptions, after all).
Again, I have to emphasize here that this process evolved through trial and error. I didn’t have a blueprint.
Working with freelancers
I hired many freelancers to be apart of this project. Some worked out perfectly, and others not so much. I did encounter a few, shall we say, “Obstacles” along the way with freelancers, some of whom didn’t end up staying with the project.
For example, some singers didn’t have an adequate vocal range. They claimed to be one vocal range when in fact, for particular songs, they were best suited for another range. If the vocal range for the character was out of their range, singers would often strain to hit high notes and when they did this, I felt pain in my own throat because it sounded like it hurt them and that I may have been the last person to ever hear them sing. A pity to waste such range.
Vocal range wasn’t the only issue. Some freelancers didn’t provide character interpretations to their singing and created the equivalent of pop songs, emoting but ultimately flat with no storyline behind the singing. Musical theater is musical storytelling, as I learned it, and the difference between pop singing and musical theater singing is that musical theater singing uses music and lyrics to move a character (and the story itself) forward.
There were also other slight problems along the way. Some vocalists had very heavy accents that got in the way of the song. It was like the accent and the song kept either from being enjoyed and only distracted from the song. Imagine a heavy Russian accent singing showtunes in English while crooning like a lounge singer from Las Vegas.
Sometimes people took a long time to deliver their songs. I found myself nagging many singers to get the songs finished – unpleasant for the both of us.
Although there were lots of difficulties, I didn’t have problems with all the singers. The singers who did stay on the project the longest were the easiest people to work with because they didn’t require many revisions, nor did they require me to engage in a lot of conversation with them. They did what they had to do, in a timely manner, and just sang beautifully. It was effortless.
Networking across the world
This project gave me the opportunity to work with many people from various places. Working with multiple artists from around the world was seen as trailblazing. Friends and family were fascinated by the fact that the show was performed by artists, around the world.
It was essential, or else the show couldn’t have been done with such limited resources and such a tight budget. I believe that this show is one of the first of its kind, if not, the very first fully globalized musical production, technically speaking.
Again, I had many people from many different places. One voice artist came from Romania, another from France and another from Canada. I also had several instrumentalists; a cellist from Venezuela (Nerio Olmedillo) and a pianist from Germany (Alf Schumacher). Joni Fuller, who is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever encountered in my life, played the violin for all tracks. I had a sound engineer from Venezuela, Luifer Lawyer, and another from Croatia, Plava Kuca.
Making it all come together
I became a de-facto orchestrater, putting it all together. Creating the show reminded me of the stories you read about the way Shakespeare put on his plays, where the actors themselves wouldn’t always get the full scripts; they would just get their own individual parts and memorize those and then put them together on opening night. This is essentially what happened with this production.
I gave the actors only the parts they needed to know, always highlighted. They would sing them and then mix if they could. Then the piece would go on to maybe another instrument and then after that, it would just be mixed or finessed depending on where the level of the file was or where I thought it needed to go. I would put it together with the other songs, and boom—I created an album, short of two years.
When the album was finished, I put it on CD Baby (cdbaby.com/cd/TisPityPop), where it remains to this day available for purchase.
By the end of 2017, I had a full album and libretto. The scenes in the libretto were edited by a number of people, including the comedy writers Scott Black and Samantha Lienhard. My family edited some of it too, including my sister, Cara, who provided some of the medical vocabulary in the doctor’s scene. Together, with all of the artists and engineers and medical staff (my sister), we created a global musical from scratch.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: A Pop Opera was just a labor of love. It was less about the money and more about the joy. I just wanted to see amazing theater and I did with this album. When you listen to it, it’s almost as if the actions and story were unfolding for the first time. You then begin to visualize the performance as each character tells his or her own side of the story in ever-evolving scenes. And this is exactly how I intended it to be. It’s entertainment without the big budget, from one song to the next.
For me, writing this musical restored my passion for musical theater from a new perspective. I learned an enormous amount, met many talented musicians, singers, and engineers from all over the world. Although it was labor intensive for many months, and I often worried that it would never get finished, at times it also transported me to a new place and time, to a place of renewed hope and energy as well.
I think if there’s any message I want you to come away with from reading this article, it’s that we live in a world of immensity and it’s almost breathtaking, the opportunities and the options that are available to us, even just within ourselves.
This is a story of how one person can use their own inner resources and ultimately how you can, too. It doesn’t have to be musical theatre. It could be anything that gives you pleasure. If you have a hobby that you’re passionate about, that could give you direction forward as mine did me, go for it; this is just a reminder to be still and pay attention to the stories you’re painting for yourself. They will show you the way.