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Pieces That Change the Puzzle

Date: Oct 27, 2009


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When you’re writing a musical, the smallest changes can make all the difference. Just ask Adam Gwon. He was in previews for Ordinary Days, his new musical about New Yorkers with intersecting lives, when he discovered the power of tiny edits. A tweaked line here, a new song there, and he felt a seismic shift in his audience.

In the song “Calm,” for instance, a graduate student realizes she’s lost her notes, so she e-mails her advisor for an extension on her thesis. Originally, she just kept asking for more time, but after a few performances, Gwon decided she should end her e-mail with a ludicrous request. “Ever since I did that, it has stopped the show every night,” he says. “It boggles my mind. It’s one line I changed, but it consistently gets the biggest laugh.”

Just days before the show’s official opening at the Roundabout, Gwon made another change that radically altered Claire (Lisa Brescia), a woman whose painful secret keeps her from fully connecting to her boyfriend Jason (Hunter Foster.) “Probably the biggest challenge for me in writing this piece was figuring out how to make that character someone we connect and relate to without knowing what she’s going through until the very end,” he says.

After three years of working on the show, Gwon still wasn’t sure that Claire was empathetic enough, and then he and director Marc Bruni realized that her opening number, which made her seem manic, might be the problem. “It just occurred to us one day that maybe there was a better song for that moment,” Gwon says. “It had always been on our radar to make her very relatable, but for whatever reason it never occurred to us to look at her first song.”

Now Claire is introduced with the funny-sad number “Let Things Go.” As she’s trying to get rid of the clutter in her apartment, she realizes there are certain things she can’t throw away. It’s a tune that both hints at her secret and gives her a universal quirk, and Gwon says audiences have been warmer to Claire since it was added. (Critics have praised it, too.)

What a difference a song makes, right? It’s impact is even more remarkable considering Gwon wrote it in just a few hours. “People were teasing me, ‘Oh, you wrote a whole new song in a day,’” he says. “And I guess I wrote it in one day, but it feels like it came out of three years of working on this show. The mechanical process of plunking out the notes and thinking up the words happens fairly quickly for me, but I think about things for a long time without being near a piano or touching a pencil.”

Maybe that’s one reason small changes can change so much: Once a show gets into their bones, writers know exactly which piece will affect the entire puzzle.

Gwon says that without years of development, he wouldn’t have known where to put a song like “Let Things Go,” which introduces ideas of loss, stasis, and missing life’s bigger picture. The process of creating the show helped him discover these themes and know how to write about them.

“These are not things I was aware of three years ago,” he adds. “It took that long to get to this moment where I find out what the real song has to be.” 

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor