What happens when an average guy wakes up to discover that his life has become a musical?
Howard Barnes is a typical (read: emotionally repressed) American man who has never seen a musical. That all changes the day he wakes up to discover everyone around him singing and dancing; he’s suddenly at the center of a splashy Broadway-style opening number.
Not being the kind of guy who enjoys living in a musical, Howard sets out on a quest to escape, guided by his aspiring-actor co-worker/awkward-love-interest Maggie. Together they embark on a wacky, mind-bending, emotional journey through the world of musical theatre, as Howard learns to embrace the music in his everyday life.
The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes—the world premiere recording of which is now available—is a show for people who love musical theatre—and their spouses who hate it.
“Welcome To Today”
The tricky (or perhaps the fun) part of opening numbers is that it they have to set the tone, establish the world, and welcome the audience in a matter of seconds. Typically, we end up writing the opening number pretty late in the process, but in this case, it was actually the first song we wrote for the show.
We ended up with something that is part Avenue Q, part Hairspray, and an intro that’s full out Danny Elfman. We wanted to catch the audience’s ears with something magical and spooky at the top (since there is a bit of “theatre magic” later in the show), and then crash into a world that is bright, flashy, and unabashedly over-the-top musical theatre.
“Shoot the Puck”
Trying to escape his musical, Howard retreats to what he believes is the least musical theatre thing he can do: a New York Rangers hockey game, where he happens to run into his crush, Maggie. We conceived of this song sort of like if “Kiss the Girl” were in Jersey Boys.
The essence of this song is basically the same as it was when we wrote it eight years ago, but while we were in production, our technical director informed us that in order to make the ensuing scene change work, the backstage crew needed an additional 30 seconds. We racked our brains to figure out what we could do that would be funny and, most of all, not feel like we’re marking time (after all, we’re only 10 minutes into the show).
We ended up having about a day to write a short playoff, which we’ve included on the recording. The chorus really plainly narrates the banality of what Howard is doing as he’s walking home from the hockey game.
It’s almost certainly one of the stupidest things we’ve ever written, but it’s also become one of our favorite parts of the show.
“Gotta Get Out”
One of the challenges we knew we were facing at the very start of the process was that we were writing a musical about a main character who was, to say the least, reluctant to sing. This song occurs about 20 minutes into the show and, to this point, Howard has not sung at all. Pretty rare for the titular character of a musical.
It didn’t seem plausible that we’d be able to get through the whole show without giving our protagonist a song or two, so we knew we had to figure out a way to tackle Howard’s relationship to music relatively early on.
We decided that the most entertaining way to do so was to have the musical itself force Howard to sing, as he desperately tries to resist.
One of the things that we like most about the song is that it really gives the actor a lot to play with. Physicalizing Howard’s internal conflict as he unknowingly launches into his “I Want” song provides the actor with plenty of opportunities for comedy.
One of the most fun things about writing a musical that is as metatheatrical as The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes is that it gives us the chance to pay homage to (and poke a little fun at) many of the musicals that we love. This song is the clearest example of that.
Since Howard knows absolutely nothing about musicals, it was helpful to give him a guide who knows everything. Maggie, an aspiring actor, is a gigantic musical theatre nerd, and Howard’s condition gives her the oh-so-rare opportunity to put her encyclopedic knowledge of the musical theatre canon to practical use.
Creating the list of musicals in this song was perhaps the most fun we had during the writing process. It’s not easy to summarize a popular musical in six syllables, but we had a blast doing so.
Believe us when we tell you that there is an extensive list of alternate lyrics for this one on the cutting room floor.
This song serves as the “Almost in Love” song for the show, and in many ways, encapsulates the heart of the show itself. This is a musical about a man who learns to love despite the risks that come along with opening yourself up to another person. Here, Maggie first articulates the central idea beneath that: Life sucks, but there’s still a lot worth singing about.
This is probably the most personal song that we wrote for the show, as many of the specific examples that both Maggie and Howard cite are things that we love too.
It’s always nice when you don’t have to do too much research to write a song.
As we’ve mentioned, we discovered a lot of opportunities to reference existing musicals as Howard makes his way through the weird and wacky world of this show. But as much as we enjoy that sort of thing, we didn’t want this to be a show about musical allusions. We wanted to make sure that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface.
We strove to find ways that each of the references could not only make the audience laugh, but also serve the story by advancing the plot or, perhaps more importantly, dig into the deeper elements of what is at the root of Howard’s metamorphosis.
We eventually came up with the idea that we could explore Howard’s problematic romantic past as we celebrate our love for Kander and Ebb (two of our favorites) by telling the story of Howard’s struggles with emotional intimacy in a nightmare homage to the “Cell Block Tango.”
There’s also a really fun Dream Ballet that’s part of this sequence, but sadly, we didn’t record that…
“Let It Out”
In this scene, Howard has mistakenly ventured “beyond the fourth wall” (yeah, this show is weird), where he encounters a group of characters who represent the world of experimental theatre. We wanted the sound of this song to be completely different from anything else we’ve heard thus far, and so we decided to go full out electronic.
One of the synth sounds our fabulous orchestrator, Mike Pettry, used in this one is called “Eurotrash,” which we found particularly appropriate. Think Blue Man Group meets Sprockets from SNL.
As Howard begins to sing towards the end of the song, we revert back to live instruments, and the song peaks in a moment where Howard first starts to find his voice. Because he hasn’t truly found his ability to “let it out” yet, we land on a really dissonant chord, despite the fact that he’s singing the highest and most sustained note he’s reached thus far in the musical. This sets him up for the next song, where he truly begins to embrace the musical.
Howard unexpectedly begins to give in to the musical in order to save Maggie from a dangerous gang of characters from the Musical Theatre pantheon, eventually winning them over… through dance.
This is a conglomeration of melodies we’ve heard thus far, and we’ll be the first to admit that it is really, really silly. But what we love about it is the fact that it’s unabashedly joyful, and ends up being a huge high in the show. This average man who we thought hated musicals is now dancing with a full ensemble behind him? It’s just so much fun.
Obviously in a musical that is this reference-heavy there are going to be a few jokes that go over the heads of some of the audience members; allusions that only the truest of musical theatre nerds will get. Our favorite one is in “Let It Out,” but a decent number of them pop up in this song as well.
Von Schwartzenheim may be the most fun character to write for in the show. He’s delightfully over-the-top and so in love with himself and his work that it’s a real joy to get to live in his head for a bit.
And no, though his full name is an amalgam of many of our favorite Broadway composers, he’s not meant to reflect any of them. He’s a loving combination of all of the most narcissistic impulses that you see in some (or perhaps all?) theatre people.
It took us about four completely different songs to end up with this one. We just couldn’t find the right concept for this moment. After about the 20th draft of the show, we figured out that Howard needs a beat to fully embrace and enjoy the musical. He’s opened up to Maggie, whom he’s fallen in love with, and he’s the happiest he’s been in a very long time.
We loved creating the overall sound for Howard as a character, which is a semi-‘80s sound through the lens of contemporary musical theatre.
See if you can hear the accompaniment figure from “Gotta Get Out” layered through this one. Howard’s finally enjoying himself!
“Can’t You Hear the Music?”
We struggled to find the right way to end the show for a really long time. Like, ten years.
At this point in the show, Howard has escaped the musical and left Maggie. Long story. The important thing is that he realizes that he misses both Maggie and the music. He returns to her and needs to convince her to take him back.
It’s an extraordinarily vulnerable moment for him, and we ultimately realized that having Howard sing to Maggie—a capella—and then begin to build a musical world for them both was a great way to hit the emotional climax of the story and give the audience the catharsis they were looking for.
As much as we loved the simple emotionality of “Can’t You Hear the Music?,” it didn’t feel like the right note to end on. We didn’t want the audience to walk away simply feeling sweet and sentimental, we wanted to get them on their feet and give them a good old-fashioned climactic musical theatre production number. Hence, this song was born.
The actual version of the song includes a dance break (choreographed brilliantly by Al Blackstone in the Village Theatre Production), which is so ridiculously extensive that you wouldn’t believe us if we told you how much stage time it takes up.
“Stay - Bonus Track”
There’s an old adage in writing that says you sometimes need to “kill your darlings.” Basically, occasionally you have to sacrifice little (or not so little) thing you’ve grown to love that just isn’t working. Maybe they’re jokes, maybe they’re characters, or maybe they’re full songs.
In “Stay,” Maggie sings to Howard in hopes of convincing him to be with her, both within the musical and romantically. We love the song, but it occurs quite late in the show, and we felt that it slowed down the momentum at a point where things should be accelerating.
The stakes were extremely high at this point in the story, but the tempo and pace of this song were way, way too slow. People were zoning out. After talking it through with our genius director, Brandon Ivie, we cut it and replaced it with a short reprise of “Noteworthy,” and it worked much better.
Thankfully, one of our favorite performers, Heidi Blickenstaff, graciously agreed to record this song for posterity… even though it will never again be a part of the full show.