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The History of Oh No, Not Emily!

By Dan McLaughlin


It all started when I was "cc'ed" on an e-mail sent by Janet Gray (at the time an actual grad student at the Princeton English Department) to her long-time good friend Vendi Elmen (at the time my beloved honey and now my wife.) The e-mail mentioned in passing that there had been a recent scandal involving an unnamed English Department that had purchased a forged poem supposedly written by Emily Dickinson. Janet mentioned that the English department had actually had a parade when they thought the poem was genuine.


I immediately “replied all” with the following ditty:


The Fake! The Fake!

   Our money you did take!

We had a parade,

   And gave you lemonade,

You Fake! You Fake! You Fake!


Despite the lack of immediate apparent enthusiasm evidenced by those I e-mailed this "poem" to, I persisted to send in a series of “reply all” several poems of similar style and substance as well as a poem that later metamorphosed into "The Forgers' Song". For reasons I do not recall, it then felt completely reasonable to write a short 20-page script around these poems about a forger who goes to a grad school selling this fake poem. My very good friendsMark Sellin (my long-time artistic collaborator both at the Renaissance Faire and projects outside Faire) and Daniel Singer (also a friend also from Faire and an original member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company) read early versions and provided invaluable feedback (such as actually naming the grad students rather than calling them students #1, #2, #3 and, you guessed it, #4).


As to the larger question why “Oh No, Not Emily!” was my first worked of extended creativity, breaking from a background of one-act plays from the Renaissance Faire and quasi-vaudeville variety acts, all I can say is that I took the adage “write what you know” to heart. I was coming off a multi-decade stint as a moderately successful grad student at UCLA.


As to why a musical…Well, I had poems, and poems performed were songs, so therefore, a musical. This progression, like so many others in the history of this story, had a logical, if improbable, answer.


It was then a roadblock was encountered in bringing “Oh No, Not Emily!” to life. Music.  More specifically, the lack of original music to go with the poems. Up to this point, I had rather blithely assumed that Mark, whose musical talents had been the mainstay of our notable folk lounge act “2 Guys From the 70’s,”would be available to work on this project. Alas, other commitments, notably fatherhood, precluded Mark from confronting a blank page of music paper and adding those circle and line things, notes.


After being informed of this, I came to the next improbable, yet logical answer. Simply that I should come up with the circle and line things and put them on that funny lined paper. I assumed the fact I owned a Mac and a program called Musictime, which converts notes into sound files, would facilitate the process.


And it did, to a certain point.


But then again, not. The program did not actually select the note. That, apparently, was my job.


Which might have been a barrier because while I had, despite successfully imitated a folk lounge singer in the act "2 Guys from the '70's" and was self-credited with several show stopping instrumental numbers, I had not a clue about music, musical instruments or musical composition other than the 20 weeks of clarinet instruction in junior high.  I did actually buy a book on music theory, but I quickly realized that if I wanted this project to move forward in this lifetime I would need to come up with some other strategy.


So in a development that is strikingly parallels a theme of “Oh No, Not Emily!”, (the importance of theory in ordering one’s life) I figured out my own theory of music that was both simple to conceive of, and provided practical guidance in producing notes. My fundamental insight was that music is a collection of notes, and selecting a note is similar to what we do when we talk. When we talk each syllable changes in tone from one syllable to the next, and that those changes in tone in the convey information. By extension putting notes to words in a song is basically the same thing that we do when we talk, only more formal and sustained. Since I had been talking for years, I reasoned, this note selecting thing should be easy. Further reflection and a bit of trial and error produced a more fully formed schema, which I share here:


My Musical Theory.

1.     Start with one note (usually somewhere in the middle).

2.     The next note either goes up, down or stays the same.

3.     Repeat.

4.     When you run out of words, stop.

5.     Small gaps between notes are pretty.

6.     Big gaps between notes can either be really interesting, or really really BAD.

7.     Two notes played at the same time can be really interesting, or really really BAD.

8.     Black keys are funny.


The notes I produced following this theory were either so pathetic that Mark was moved by sympathy, or so off-beat that Mark was intrigued, but for what ever reason after hearing my first attempts Mark found the time to take these notes and turn them into usable tunes.


I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mark did a masterful job of making the tunes work, while retaining the spirit of the songs. He also was quite vigilant in communicating that spirit to those further along who mistook my spirit for a mistake. At every stage of the musical development of “Oh No, Not Emily!”, people who know music would look up from the music, reach for their pencil and say, “you know, we could easily fix this…” Mark would then say, “No, Dan really meant it to be this way.” Then everyone would look at me and sorta shrug, put down their pencils, and we would move on till we encountered the next clump of musically educated people.


In the midst of this process (which took place over the course of a couple of years), I did something I regret to this day.


I installed some Microsoft software on his computer.


My Mac computer.


For my sins, my old Mac balked. Enter Mike Schmitt (another friend from Faire who had worked with Mark on many projects, including their adaptation of Oedipus Rex as a musical at the Renaissance Faire.) Mike had a brand new PC, keyboard and software that could also convert sounds into notes and midi files. So I e-mailed my files to Mike so Mark could make them usable. After several sessions of watching Mike's computer crash and making entertainingly random sounds (usually the latter right before the former) the music was done and it was time to recruit a cast for a read through to see if the darn thing was worth any further effort.


Doreen Wiley and JB Cohen (old friends from the Southern California Renaissance Faire) were among the first to say, "sure" and took on the roles of Bonnie LaPerkymoney or Student # 2 (Doreen) and Anygender Hangeron or Student #3 (JB). Daniel also agreed to participate (as Dirk Futureprof or Student #1) and suggested that we do the read through before a live audience and get their feed back as well. After a long search to find a girl to play the role of Molly, the lead, or Student #4, Mark discovered Andrea Artis baby-sitting his children. Mike, sitting perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time, was elected as the professor and Nick Krall (a fine singer also from Faire) was recruited to be the forger, named Bob Forger. Mark on Keyboards was the band and I played Molly’s dad, Pater Writerblock.


After a few rehearsals, at Mike's house where cheese proved to be the snack of choice, the read though took place March 9, 2002 at the "Theater in the Round" of San Rafael Branch of the Pasadena Public Library. It was a rousing success.


Clocking in at a rather trim 43 minutes, the show consisted of the  “Office Song”; “The Grad Students March (1 verse)”; “All Hail (all verses)”; “We Are a Real Grad School”; “The Memo Song”; “Molly’s Song”; “The Core Song” and “The Grad Student March (2 verses)” in Act I. Act II was the “Office Song Duet”; “A Grad Student March bit”; “Holy Cow!”; “We Have a Brand New Poem bit”; “The Wailing Song”; “We Have a Brand New Poem”; “The Forger’s Song” and “How Bad Could It Be?”. Act III consisted of the “Emily Family Fun Day and Parade”; “We Have a Brand New Poem (angry version)”; “The Memo Song (you are the brand new dean”); “The Forger’s Song (teachers version)” and ended with the “Grad Students March (3 verses)”.


Armed with allot of very good feedback, I went back and revised the script. I added four songs. Basically I went through the script and when it seemed that there were more than a couple of pages without a song I would begin to look for a place where a song could replace some words. And then I would write them, confident that musical inspiration would soon strike. Most of the times it did. In one instance, where the academics all begin to talk like Dr. Seuss:


 [ANYGENDER: Before we write our tomes,

BONNIE: We have to read the poems?

PROFESSOR REPPEP: Especially all the nouns and verbs.

DIRK: Every line,

BONNIE: Every word?

ANYGENDER: There's lots of them,

DIRK, BONNIE, ANYGENDER: That's absurd!]


I never got around to writing some music. Otherwise Mark continued to take my notes and turn them into usable songs.


At the second run through there were a few cast changes largely dictated by conflicting company softball games and other time pressures. Once again friends from the Faire proved handy to have. Chris Gauntt became the forger, Bob, and Sarah Kleinberg took over as Molly.


Clocking in a somewhat more bloated one hour, eleven minutes and nine seconds, this version saw the introduction of the “Financial Aid Hymn,” and the “Humble Song” in Act I. Act III got the “He’s Brash” and “School Bye-Bye”.


In the invaluable discussion that followed, highlighted by the actors complaining loudly about the number of syllables per notes, Sarah, also a high school English teacher, shared that every Emily Dickinson poem could be sung to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”


This simple fact, quickly and convincingly illustrated, stunned me. The mechanics of the unmasking of the forgery, which hitherto had been pretty lame, suddenly became both evident and demonstrable in song. So I wrote some more words, and we wrote a few more tunes including “The Yellow Rose of Emily”, and “Dare to Dream.” The “All Hail” song was broken up and used as the entrance song for each of Professor Reppep’s entrances.


Mindful of the critique of the people who actually sung the songs to make the number of notes and words per line be more roughly in the ratio of 1 to 1, and to have similar lines have similar number of syllables in them, all the songs got a general tune-up and make-over. As part of this, I paid more attention to the critiques of my lovely wife Vendi.  I would pad out into the living room armed with my latest bout of creativity and, for instance, suggest that “epistemology” and “League of Nations” made a perfectly good rhyme and scanned perfectly well. Then we would have a dialogue that had large elements of “Yes, it is (does).” and “No, it isn’t (doesn’t)”. Then it often devolved to “uh-huh” vs. “nuh-uh”. After awhile that would get boring and one of us would suggest an alternative that passed her eagle ear and I would pad away.


Thus the songs got better.


The script was tightened too and thus it was time to move on to the next steps in bringing the show to the attention of the general public.


Mark then told me that if we were to have a live band at the show, something that I felt was important, we would need to have the music arranged by a professional.  I put an ad on a listserve for musicians and solicited bids. I offered $100 for them to arrange two songs. In return I asked for a midi file to I could hear what they thought and the music written out to see if they could do that and so Mark would have something to read. I decided to pay for the submissions because I really hate the whole “spec” thing, and also thought it would be easier to say no to someone if I had paid them for their work. It also gave them an idea as to what I thought would be a reasonable rate of pay for the project over all (17 songs and 33 sound cues). I also told them I wanted an arrangement for four instruments: keyboards, bass, drums (which were pretty standard), and clarinet.  I had taken the clarinet in junior high school and have always liked its sound. It is a “fun” instrument and since the score was eclectic, the clarinet, was, in my opinion the way to go.


And since I was paying for it, that’s the direction we went.


One piece of empirical evidence I gathered in doing this show is that 1 out of 5 musicians is a flake. I gave $100 to five arrangers and four submitted scores and midi files. One guy was a professional arranger how worked with cruise lines who did a nice job, but he was in Florida and was not quite interesting enough.  The other two people who did not get the job embraced the quirkiness, but in a sense overpowered they original intent of the music. They took it in directions that, while in some cases were very interesting, but not where I wanted to go.


The person I went with, Dominik Hauser did both a wonderful, creative arrangement, but he also seemed to “get” where the music was coming from, and realize that the arrangement was there to serve the music and the show, not showcase the arranger. Also he also seemed to understand the requirements of having live musicians play his arrangements and his notation was very good. (I don’t think some of the other arrangers really believed that live musicians would have to play the music, given the prevalence of recorded music at live shows these days). Dominik also lived quite locally, and proved to be quite willing to serve as musical director for the show, to play bass, and to assemble and direct the other musicians.


Let me take a moment and digress on the various types of ways one can assemble a project such as this. In general there are three categories of people you can use to propel the project onward. The first is you. You are cheap, easy to get along with, know on a deep level what you want and are basically available 24/7 to work on the project as need be. The drawback to you is that you don’t know everything, have no talent in many areas and simply cannot do everything to perform a show.


That brings us to the next level of people, talented friends. Talented friends can bring an astonishingly wide and diverse level of talent to the project. Talented friends who are actors really really like to act, and in general welcome an opportunity to perform. They can bring incredible levels of creativity and talent to the project that makes it better on many levels. The drawback to talented friends is that, in general, you trade time for money. Put another way, when your project is not the source of their income, your project becomes another part of their already full life that has to be squeezed in. Multiplied by as many talented friends you have, and the way life has a way of inserting itself into your timeline, waiting for the planets to align can kill the momentum around any project.


Which brings us to the third level of people, professional people you pay. Selected well, professional people will work extremely competently and in a timely matter to achieve a goal.  In many cases, it is actually cheaper to use professionals who can quickly get the job done, as opposed to talented friends who do not have the technical competence to adapt to a work environment.  For instance, for “On No, Not Emily!” I hired someone to do the lights, Ellen Monocoroussos. She came in, did her thing (very well), I paid her and she left. I also hired professional musicians to do the music. I paid them to rehearse so that when we were in the recording studio (for the cast album cd) there were able to crank out an incredible amount of music in a short 8 hour session.


Another related issue is that of how to communicate your “vision” with the people around you that does not stifle their creativity and desire to contribute.  I find that using definite adjectives and them letting them figure out how to get there is the best policy. For instance say to an arranger “This song is like, well imagine someone who has listened to John Philip Sousa all his life in 1920 wanting to be modern. Use a trumpet, violin, keyboards and tuba.”


If for some reason you are not successful in communicating, or you are successful but the original idea sucked, say “that was really good, but…” and then specifically mention things you liked and didn’t like.


Also, once it’s basically “done”, stop. Move on. Multiple iterations in the quest of perfection take time and energy and saps the initiative of the people everyone, including you.


Also, you don’t have to have an opinion on everything, or rather you can have an opinion, but it is not necessary express it everywhere because you’re “in charge”. You have defined the goal; how they get there is their business. For most people working in the theater or music or whatever doing what they do represents the dream of a lifetime. Give them the opportunity to showcase their chosen skill and you will be richly rewarded.


Finally, when you and someone else has an artistic disagreement, unless it is something really important for the over all structure of the show, go with their idea. A simple adage is, “Tie goes to the artist.” Again it shows commitment on their part to have thought about it and come to a conclusion, and if it is just different than yours, so be it. Try it.


At any rate, with a definite production are recording of an "Original Cast Album" in the offing, I fired myself, nicely and replaced me with another Faire friend Scott Shaw in the dual role of Pater Writerblock and Pater Forger. The burden of being too talented and being involved in too many projects finally overtook Daniel, who then left the project. Daniel was replaced in the role of Dirk with long time friend and multi-tonal singer Jeffrey Markle. Regrettably what was thought to be a temporary cold was actually nodes on the vocal cords so Sarah also had to bow out. Looking about I noticed Margit Schmitt in the role of “the Bride” in the wedding between herself and Mike Schmitt. That, and a considerable theatrical background also grounded in the Renaissance Faire, got her the part of Molly.


In March, 2003, armed with Dominik's awe-inspiring arrangements, we went into the studio to record the music and vocal tracks under the technical guidance of Rob Beaton, assisted by my brother-in-law Mark Weber. The musicians were Dominik on bass, Bill Newly on piano, Geog Nodal on clarinet and Kurt Walther on drums. Rob proved t be a master of managing a recording session working hard to keep things going professionally as well as acknowledging that musicians are people too. Rob and Mark spent lots of “love” post-recording finding an excellent balance and sound for the songs.


One thing I like about the cast album is that for each song there is the dialogue that sets up each song, so that one who listens to the album in sequence actually can follow the show. They also hear the speaking voice of the singer. I am also pleased that I insisted on having an overture, which many musicals don’t have these days.


While I had originally planned to record the music in advance of the vocals in order to give enough lead time for the album to be done, it also turned to be a quite a boon in the rehearsal process. Instead of having to hire an accompanist, the arrangements were burned to a cd and the actors we able to rehearse to the sounds they were going to hear in the theater.


When we recorded the vocals, as Mark knows music and is able to talk music, he took upon himself the vocal direction of the actors. I put on my producer hat so my job was to basically sit in the corner and tell everyone that what they had was good enough, and since time was indeed money in the recoding studio it was time to move on. My favorite expression from that time was, “Guys, only dogs can hear the changes you are making here. Let’s move on.” Or sometimes, “Take 20 more minutes and see what you can do.”


Once we started rehearsals, I directed, but since I am truly a horrible dancer with an active aversion to moving in time with music, the half of the show that was musical became the responsibility of Doreen, who did a terrific job as choreographer. She managed to come up with arrangements that were interesting to view, and were individualized to accommodate the various levels of the talents of the actors.


While rehearsals continued I found a theater to rent. Again this was something I had never done, but found once again appearing and actually being able to spend money made other people quite forgiving of my forays into their world. I quickly learned that theaters in Los Angeles all were about the same relative cost. Bascially take the number of seats in the theater, multiply by 15, then take 1/3 of that. The result was the cost to rent the theater a night. This basic equation means that if you sell more than 1/3 of the house, at $15 a ticket, you cover the cost of the theater. I suspect that this cost structure accounts for the high prevalence on one-man shows. The fewer the actors and others you have to pay, the fewer seats you have to sell to cover your fixed costs.


Since cost was not the determining variable in picking a theater, I came up with two other ones. One, free easy fairly accessible parking eliminated everything in Hollywood. Two, comfortable seats.  The Victory Theater in Burbank was the venue that won the prize.


A few weeks before the show opened, a sudden schedule conflict arose and JB had to leave the show. We actually had an audition, and Christina Lindhardt, who knew people from the Faire, but was more from the world of New Vaudeville, came in and was able to learn the part of Anygender and make it hers within a couple of weeks.


The show ran for four weekends starting September 5, 2003. I paid for the theater and the musicians, and the actors (and the stage manager, the recently acquired Kathy Thalman), split the house. Since most of the shows sold out, this helped compensate them for the months of hard work they had put in learning a totally new show with a totally new director.


In 2006 the show was nominated for Best Theater Album from a group called Just Plain Folks. Apparently they got a hold of the cd of the show through my distributor of the album, cdbaby. Cdbaby is a website and company of sterling repute and integrity which distributes real and digital cds with professionalism and an eye to rewarding both themselves and the artist. They have my utmost respect and recommendation.


At any rate, in plowing through 25,500 albums, the good people at Just Plain Folks selected “Oh No, Not Emily!” as a nominee for best Theater Album, but alas we lost to a show called “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a Musical by Dennis DeYoung.


I also got a rather cryptic message from our federal government sometime in 2005ish informing me that “Holy Cow!” was needed to be in the soundtrack of some not identified film. The message was accompanied by a check, and an impressive form letter assuring me that this was legal. My attempts to identify this film has proved fruitless, but the check cleared, so, it’s all good.


That album is still currently available for purchase at cdbaby. It is also available at amazon and itunes. There is an “Oh No, Not Emily!” channel on youtube that has about a third of the show.  There are also pages for the show on reverbnation, myspace and These websites have complete versions of the songs for your listening pleasure


Thank you for reading all this. “Oh No, Not Emily!” is a wonderful show. As you read the script, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I and countless others have. If you happen to be a producer or director looking for a show that has 8 great well balanced parts that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, (especially if you are a campus someplace), and a score that is constantly intriguing and different, drop me a line.


Let’s put on a show.


Dan McLaughlin

Pasadena Calif.

January 16, 2012