FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Cutting Down Your Show

We kick off this year’s Festival season with our first Festival Countdown Blog!  In this entry, Duane Poole, bookwriter of Beautiful Poison, gives us insight on how to prepare the 45-minute cut of the show for the Festival.

So we get the news that we made the cut.  (By “we” I mean composer Brendan Milburn, lyricist Valerie Vigoda, and bookwriter me.)  Our “Beautiful Poison” is in this year’s NAMT Festival!  The thrill of the announcement is still fresh when we realize we have yet another cut to make — bringing our two-hour musical down to a strict forty-five minutes for the presentation.

Okay, this shouldn’t be a problem.  As both a writer and producer, I’ve done this sort of thing countless times over the years.  But there seems to be extra pressure on this particular cut. Perhaps it’s knowing who might be in our audiences this October.  What can we show these theatre insiders in that abbreviated time that will truly represent the variety of music, the twists of plot, and the richness of character we three have worked so hard to create?

We briefly consider using a narrator to present the entire musical, speeding past plot points
and trimming songs along the way to get it all in.  We realize, however, that this “best of” approach would surely strip a dimension or two from what we believe are richly layered characters.  So we quickly dismiss that idea and opt to focus on the first act.  If we begin at the beginning and carry it through to our cliffhanger act break, the audience might be intrigued enough to want to learn what the second act holds.

Sounds good.  We’re all on board.  But our first act has been running sixty-two minutes and we know that at forty-five minutes sharp the lights go out, the curtain comes down.  Each of us now pulls out a red pen and begins cutting.  What can go without doing serious damage?

Well, a couple of characters and plot points don’t really pay off until the second act, so those are easy lifts.  Likewise, some dialogue is merely set-up for a reveal we won’t be getting to in this act anyway.  Another easy choice.  Snip.  From there, however, the cuts come hard.  Real sacrifices. 

The use of a narrator ​allows some ​dialogue ​to ​come out in helpful chunks, the saving grace being that those exchanges are not lost forever.  ​Favorite stretches of music are abbreviated or cut completely.  We realize one extended musical sequence that we all love is pure set-up and atmosphere involving a couple characters we don’t see again in this act.  We have to be practical…and that includes keeping an eye on cast size for this presentation.  (We’re limited to ten players.)  So the sequence disappears and we’re five minutes and two less characters closer to our target time.

Once we’re satisfied with the draft, it goes off to our director and musical director for a fresh look.  Have we cut enough?  Have we cut too much?  Have we cut the right things?  Ultimately only the audience can tell us that — as long as we reach that cliffhanger before the hook drags us offstage.  Time will tell.

Leave a Reply