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Stories

The blog site for comments, articles, reports, discussions, and news about the original spy musical Code Name Cynthia by award-winning songwriters Steve and Karen Multer (Multer & Multer)

THE RIVER HOLDS ALL I NEED

Steve Multer

Some people have those exhilarating dreams where they lift their arms away from their body and discover, to their amazement, that they can fly. They hover inches off the ground - or soar gloriously from a hilltop - and psychologists would tell us that this is a dream that speaks of power. In that deep psychic moment, the dreamer is reveling in their own strength, wondering at their new skill, fully accepting of the gift of flight. It seems the subconscious recognizes power even if the superego does not. I don’t have those kinds of dreams anymore. 

My dreams are frustrating and elusive. I’m met with literal closed doors and faceless people slipping around corners before I can discover their identity. Lately, I find myself waking up with a melody fragment evaporating as I struggle toward consciousness. In my dreams, the melody I’ve created is always the most heartbreakingly beautiful motif ever heard. If I could only remember it when I wake up, the earth would shake, empires would crumble. But more often than not, as I scrabble to find a pencil in the dark, what is revealed is either mundane or already gone. Or worse, my id has dreamed up a song written and recorded 40 years ago. So what’s an artist to do when it appears as though inspiration has gone out for a pack of cigarettes and there’s no telling when or if it’ll return? 

I’ve always been fascinated by process. What are the ways in which we create? What are the rituals we ascribe for ourselves to bring about some special voodoo that will lead us to that divine inspiration? For some, it’s a carefully planned work space complete with specific tools or “inspiration” boards. Others follow a strict schedule of writing each day at a specific time, with planned coffee and email breaks. I’ve always been more of a “seat of your pants” kind of girl. With one exception; 

Back when I first began writing I did what many creative people were doing in the early 90s; I journaled my Morning Pages, slogging through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I didn’t find too much that was helpful in that book. After working my way past crippling perfectionism, weeding out the “crazy makers” in my life, and taking myself out on cheap dates, I was left to plumb the depths of my own lackluster creativity all alone. Like any artist eventually learns they must do. And I devised my own secret ritual. 

I sit at the piano bench, belly button centered on middle C. My eyes are closed, head bowed low, and I will myself to relax. I picture a crystal clear river, swiftly flowing and icy cold. In the river are all the notes ever written, every chord ever imagined, every rhythmic possibility. They’re all swimming there like silvery trout, just waiting to be scooped up. Nothing could be easier. The melody I want is already written - it’s just there floating by- and all I have to do is reach into the water and take it out. But just like my dreams, the notes keep escaping my grasp. The net I’ve envisioned is full of holes and won’t hold anything. If I can’t take to the air and I can’t take to the water, where else do I go to reclaim my magic power? And then I remind myself; the river holds all I need and it is bountiful and limitless. And this is a ritual of my own making, after all, so I repair my net and wait until the next wave comes by. With a deep breath, I plunge into the glacial river up to my shoulder and hope the frigid waters don’t wake me up too soon. 

 

THE POST-PRODUCTION BABY BLUES

Karen Multer

THE POST-PRODUCTION BABY BLUES

   Call it the “Post-Production Baby Blues.”  After months of sleepless nights, expanding waistlines, and relentless heartburn, you’ve finally delivered. You’re one of the lucky ones whose musical or play has been fully produced! Someone believed enough in your work to help breathe life into it and hold your hand while you sweated and cursed. Congratulations…here’s your cigar. But after the lights come down and the reviews are in, what then? The producer hands you your darling bundle, all needy and helpless, but no one told you how to take care of the damn thing.

   After the highs come the inevitable lows, when it suddenly dawns on you this little baby depends on you for its survival. Yes, you; the one still moody and irritable and prone to fits of anxiety. There’s no time to wallow; you may be getting more sleep, but your baby may be starting to sleep through the night too…which in this case isn’t exactly welcome news. Remember how hard it was to bring this wonderful creation into the world? Now you have to teach it how to walk until it can stand on its own, then finally start to run and earn its keep. 

   That’s a lot of pressure for artists who already straddle the fence between diffidence and narcissism. As creative types we know our roles well; in order to thrive and self-promote we humble-brag our way into the Twittersphere while teaching a Master Class in self-doubt, all followed up with a chaser of crushing self-defeat as the next rejection letters arrive. But none of this makes us expert stewards for our creations. We need focus! Momentum! Action!

     But who’s got energy for action when you’re still recovering from labor? Where’s the pithy handbook for what to do to get your show to its next production? There’s no “What To Expect When Your Show Closes” guide that details all the joys and foibles of a premiere production, complete with helpful illustrations on the best way to woo an overburdened literary manager - who’s likely recovering from their own traumatic birth story. 

   So you were given the gift of production and now it’s complete. There’s a lot to be grateful for and plenty to feel blue about. This is a writer’s truth, and we can only assume that other writers feel that same subtle let down, that heavy sigh of contentment and slight sadness on the heels of a closing night. The baby arrived and was proudly introduced to a beautiful world ready to embrace it. Now comes the hard part no one ever tells you about; cover letters and queries, relentless research, packages and postage, rejection, or even worse, silence.

   And so, we take a deep breath, look ahead with renewed energy… and wait for selective amnesia to set in. As new parents we have an amazing capacity to forget the pain and struggle and decide to do it all over again. After all, our show baby needs a little brother or sister.

PRACTICE MAKES (MORE OR LESS) PERFECT

Karen Multer

Recently our daughter played piano in a Beaux Arts Festival at her school.  As her parents, we were bursting with pride at her accomplishment; not because she played particularly well, but because three days before the concert the piece she was asked to play was in no shape to be shared with her school community.  Whether it was the fear of public humiliation or just pre-teen procrastination, she finally ratcheted up the practicing and learned the damn song.  

When I was in school, nearly every kid I knew took lessons in some sort of musical instrument.  We held no illusions about careers in pop music, fame and fortune as concert pianists, or the perks of mega-stardom.  We did it because the simple act of learning a new skill was its own reward.  Well, that… and because our parents forced us to despite our protestations.  Of course we wanted to do well, but it wasn’t about perfection or being Number One.  It was about learning the damn song.  

In Malcom Gladwell’s illuminating book, “Outliers”, he details his controversial “10,000 Hour Rule”.  The gist is this; the most accomplished among us achieved their lofty heights by devoting hours and hours of dedicated practice to their craft, whether academic, athletic, or artistic.  Many scholars have refuted Gladwell’s claim that greatness comes not necessarily through precocious talent, but where precocious talent meets lots and lots of practicing.  His detractors tell us that Bill Gates’ relentless drive to write code means nothing without the inherent spark of genius that was already present.  But here’s where things get murky.  If your son simply doesn’t have the arm to throw a curveball like Sandy Koufax, I’m pretty sure 10,000 hours of pitches aren’t going to win him the pennant.  But I bet he will end up a better player than when he started.   And what’s wrong with that? 

Somewhere along the line we’ve lost what it means to strive for goals when we’re not particularly good at something.  As a result, we see kids “trying out” a new activity six weeks at a time to see if maybe they have a natural ability in said activity.  And if they don’t?  Then it’s goodbye to the oboe lessons and off to pottery class.  The unfortunate casualty in this kind of fickleness is the loss of necessary failure.  Without stumbling along the way, how can we tell the difference between what came before and what came after with a little elbow grease and hard work?  

It’s no secret that most artists are notoriously perfectionists and there’s nothing like perfectionism to dampen the most creative of impulses.  What are we so afraid of anyway? Are we afraid of being made ridiculous by showing ourselves to be not terribly good at something?  Is our status or power threatened if we (gasp) make a mistake and look less than stellar?  We do a terrible disservice to our young people and ourselves by expecting excellence right out of the gate.  So cut yourself some slack and do anything- and dare to do it badly.  Then do it again.  And again.  Practice might not make perfect, but perfect is boring. Missed notes, bruised egos, calloused fingers, blistered feet,- those messy days on the way to “better”- that’s where the good stuff is.

A WORD ABOUT DEVELOPMENT

Karen Multer

A wise person once said, “The difference between bad and good is from here to the ceiling. But the difference between good and great is from here to the moon.”  There’s a mysterious alchemy that goes into creating a new piece of musical theatre.  To those of us attempting to tap into this magical world it’s called “development” and without it, shows don’t get to experience the necessary growing pains required to take something that’s good and turn it into something that’s great.  Many writers are eager to rush to production (as if it were that easy) without the tedious and sometimes mind-numbing task of rewriting and shaping a show until it’s ready to be put before a paying audience.  What results is something that may be fine and even entertaining, but rarely is it as good as it can and should be.  

Through the support of wonderful folks at Chicago Dramatists, Porchlight Music Theatre, and Roosevelt University we got the necessary feedback in the earliest stages of writing to make crucial choices and changes.  Our story got clearer with each reading and each talk back. Constructive criticism was crucial at this point and every single audience member filled an important role. 

Then along came Pallas Theatre Collective, a smallish Washington D.C. based theatre with very big ideals.  Over the past year they’ve taken us on a journey of discovery, providing public reading opportunities at the Anacostia Arts Center in Washington D.C., Ball State University, Point Park University in Pittsburgh, and on the horizon, a final reading at the Spy Museum in D.C.  At each step of the process we’ve been able to hear our words and music presented in front of audiences that owed us precisely nothing; not praise or commentary, not even applause at the end of a song.  And they all have been invaluable experiences. 

Pallas Theatre has been a tireless advocate for us as writers throughout this journey.  They have provided guidance and direction, but never asked for something that we didn’t already know in the back of our minds needed to be fixed.  We’ve been posed questions that demanded answers and our show has been made stronger as a result.  Why can’t we can’t rid of the leading lady’s eleventh hour number?  Throw it out.  That song doesn’t work for you here?  How ‘bout we move it to later in the act?  Done.  The prospect of a year long development process with a specific theatre is a luxury many writers crave and we know how lucky we are to have been given this rare opportunity.  

Every writer's development process is different and it can be tempting to never get off the “Development Merry-Go-'Round”, spinning and spinning and never moving forward, forever reading and workshopping until every last drop of joy and spontaneity has been sucked out of the piece.  So how do you know when it’s ready?  For that matter, how does any artist know when any piece of art is ready to be let go of and declared finished?  The truth is, it’s an enormous leap of faith and at some point you just have to say, “This is it, it’s done. This is the best I can do today.” 

One hopes, of course, that the efforts have carried us at least past the ceiling and continued upstairs into our neighbor’s apartment.  Next stop?  The moon. 

Mommy Is A Spy?

Karen Multer

Well, now here’s a twist that James Bond would approve of!  And apparently, I’m the perfect candidate…

Britain's MI5, MI6 Should Recruit Moms as Spies, Watchdog Suggests

LONDON — Attention, middle-aged moms: Britain's spy agencies need you.

The U.K. intelligence services need to start recruiting more mothers in order to end gender disparity, according to a new report from a Parliamentary watchdog. Of the more than 12,000 staff at James Bond's MI6, domestic counterpart MI5 and the GCHQ intelligence agency, 37 percent are women compared with 53 percent across the civil service as a whole.

The parliamentary intelligence and security committee said steps should be taken to target more groups for recruitment. "Women or mothers in middle-age or mid-career have valuable life experience and may offer an untapped recruitment pool," the report said.

It encouraged intelligence agencies to use a number of approaches — including popular mom-blogging site "mumset" — to find recruits. The suggestion was met with some amusement on the site. "If they need someone whose special skill is getting melted chocolate down her dog-haired jumper and not noticing, I'm their woman,” one member posted.

A SPY MUSEUM INSPIRES A MUSICAL

Karen Multer

A SPY MUSEUM INSPIRES A MUSICAL

A few years ago while on a business trip, I visited the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. for the first time.  I’d heard great things about the place and since it was a blisteringly hot day, ducking inside for a few hours seemed like a good idea.  After being given my identity and “cover story” and told I’d need to memorize those details as I prepared for my “assignment", I was already hooked.  I wandered around, thoroughly captivated by the intriguing and often surprising exhibits and an idea began to take shape. 

 As Chicago-based musical theatre writers, Steve and I had been actively seeking out a property to dramatize and had continued to dismiss thoughts of film or book adaptations.  We were looking for a truly great story, something unique and thrilling that could sustain our passion for the material over time.  As luck would have it, a young man in the gift shop helped me find a wonderful book called “Sisterhood of Spies” by Elizabeth P. McIntosh.  The book recounted tales of many remarkable women, all operating covertly during WW2.  In a small passage I came across the fascinating story of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe (code name: Cynthia), an operative for the Allies whose contributions helped to turn the tide of the war.  I knew that we had found our story. 

In researching the lives of Betty Thorpe, her British diplomat husband Arthur Pack, William Stephenson (code name: Intrepid) and Charles Brousse, the French Naval attaché she was assigned to seduce, our research took us to the beginnings of the OSS and the Wardman Park Hotel, the former Vichy French Embassy in DC, and to a fabled chateau in the Pyrenées mountains.  As we wrote and found the voices of these unsung heroes we fell more in love with these people who had done their part to secure freedom around the globe.  What came out of all of this was our musical entitled CODE NAME: CYNTHIA.

This week we’re lucky enough to be working with the terrific students at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, once more shaping and refining Betty’s story.  We’re amazed that we continue to be enthralled by events long since past and so grateful to this next generation of talented performers!

LIES AND DECEPTION

Karen Multer

LIES AND DECEPTION

When God asked Adam if he’d partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, I suspect  Adam’s eyes shifted guiltily to the apple core lying next to him as, wide-eyed and cheeks full, he earnestly shook his head “no”.  Lies and deception.  It’s as old as mankind itself- or womankind for that matter.

In the world of high-stakes espionage, lies and deception are de rigeur.  William Stephenson, widely considered America’s greatest spy, famously said, “The key to deception is authenticity. The best cover story looks like the truth.” A plausible cover story is a spy’s most important ally in maintaining anonymity and protection.  You’re a covert operative assigned to seduce a high ranking government official?  With a pencil behind your ear and a phony PRESS pass you can become an eager young reporter doing a story on French/American relations.  A little small talk, a few glasses of champagne, a flattering remark or two,  and voilà!  Your little lie has yielded big results in the form of classified information. 

For us mere mortals, an entire industry has sprung up to aid us in our pursuit of all things shady.  Turns out you can purchase your very own alibi for almost anything.  A quick internet search reveals there’s no shortage of companies willing to vouch for your whereabouts, your credentials, and your spending habits.  Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these companies are devoted to covering the proverbial behinds of straying spouses.  

Ashley Madison helps you find a like-minded partner, then provides you with the necessary paper trail to make your cover story look like the truth.  All promised with the utmost discretion, of course. The Alibi Network goes one step further.  Your illicit weekend rendezvous in Cancun with the mistress becomes a corporate conference where, not only were you the guest speaker, but you have the brochure and certificate of recognition to prove it.  Can’t muster up the energy or resources to create your own resumé? No worries.  CareerExcuse.com will fabricate an entire work history for you complete with job references, fictitious degrees, and fancy titles.  And that calfskin attaché case you impulsively bought for your paramour? Rest easy.  CustomReceipts.com will magically transform that financial record into a ladies’ afternoon at the local spa.

If you want your cover story to have the whiff of legitimacy, best to pick one that closely resembles the truth- and remember to keep your facts straight.  Getting caught is not an option, whether you’re dealing in state secrets or clandestine affairs.

CRACK THE CODE

Karen Multer

CRACK THE CODE

“Every safe has its own personality, its own rules. Learn those rules, you can defeat any lock in the world.  Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. You can’t hear clicks and stethoscopes are just a sight gag. You gotta feel it.”

                    --The Georgia Cracker (Code Name: Cynthia)

A con of indeterminate age and dubious background, the Georgia Cracker remains one of the most elusive bit players in the Allies’ fight against Hitler.  Having no connection to Georgia whatsoever (he hailed from Canada), he was lucky enough to catch the eye of William Stephenson, master spy and right hand man to Winston Churchill’s British Security Coordination efforts in the United States.  The Cracker had no birth records, no verified name, no paper trail of any kind, yet his encyclopedic knowledge of safes and reputation as a peerless safecracker earned him a get out jail free card from Sing Sing prison in the spring of 1941.  

Churchill had set up his covert organization in New York City with one single-minded purpose; to gather any and all intelligence that would lead to the crushing defeat of Hitler.  Part of that intelligence included secret naval codes that were being held in the Vichy French embassy in Washington D.C.  Locked away at all times and kept under the watchful eye of the code master, the code books were contained in an 1887 Mosler safe with four wheels and a click-click-com lock.  It would take an excruciatingly detailed plan to get into the embassy, get past the guard and dog, get into the physical code room, crack the safe, steal the codes, copy them, and finally replace the originals  without the Vichy officials ever discovering the theft.  It would take an expert peterman like the Georgia Cracker.  

4 left 5, 3 right 20, 2 left 95, 1 right 2, stop.  That was the actual combination to the safe and although the Cracker believed it would only take him about 55 minutes to discover the sequence, instead it took him 3 hours.  The safe was old and rusty and the tumblers didn’t drop the way were supposed to.  

“When you rotate the dial, the spindle moves the drive cam. The pins on each cam connect with the wheel fly. Don’t rush! Wait for the tumblers to drop. You’ll pick up the wheels one by one. When they line up, the fence disengages. Then slide the bolt and you’re home free.” 

The naval codes were successfully obtained which directly led to Operation Torch and the Allied landings in north Africa.  Next would come the landings at Normandy and the world could breathe again.  The Georgia Cracker’s role in the war goes down as just another footnote in the history books, yet without his contribution, WW2 would have lasted even longer with greater loss of life and treasure.  Authorities never discovered his true identity and many documents relating to this highly dangerous caper still remain classified today.  It’s possible he was working for multiple masters.  Maybe he was a double agent himself.  Whatever the case, after participating in one of the greatest intelligence thefts of all time, the Georgia Cracker disappeared and was never heard from again.  

PUZZLE: Writing a musical is hard

Karen Multer

Writing a musical is hard. This is not new news to anyone who’s tried to develop characters out of nothingness, put words and melodies into their mouths, and move plot and dramatic intention through song, all while trying to meet an audience’s expectations.  It’s like putting together a puzzle. Writing a spy musical is even harder; imagine a puzzle where there are no edge pieces, you’re forced to assemble it without looking at the picture on the box, and you wind up with two missing pieces- or worse, two extra. It’s that kind of hard. 

A spy musical is a unique animal; perhaps that’s why there hasn’t been a truly successful one to date. As a film and TV-loving people, most of us are familiar with the espionage genre. It must be suspenseful, sexy, thrilling, dangerous. We expect to be confused at certain times, yet we go along for the ride confident that our plot questions will eventually be answered. We meet characters briefly on screen who disappear for great lengths of time, only to return at a crucial moment and we’re satisfied. Yet a musical doesn’t allow for the same kind of grace. 

Musical theatre lives and dies on structure.  It’s an interesting paradox that the same viewing audience will allow for confusion in one medium, yet demand explicit clarity in another. In a musical, we want to know immediately who the story is about and who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Mama Rose screams from the wings, Sweeney Todd steps off a ship, so if our James Bond doesn’t appear in the first scene, the audience feels unsettled and it’s that much harder to get them back. 

In a musical, we don’t get the luxury of playing around with a non-linear presentation of the story. Characters must be introduced and plot points developed in a logical sequence so they can be easily followed. With film we willingly jump around in time through flashbacks or cut-aways showing simultaneous action sequences giving clues to what lies ahead. Try that with a musical and your audience will be scratching their collective heads. 

So how does one reconcile this tricky puzzle of hanging your necessarily ambiguous spy story on a solid musical theatre backdrop? In Code Name: Cynthia we’ve tried to honor audience expectations by employing a cinematic approach to the material. Like a screenplay, the script is tightly crafted with no wasted words. There’s an economy of thought and action that feels familiar and right, but we’ve been careful to not strip away too much, lest we lose emotional resonance and the chance to revel in the story. Significant underscoring and transition music provide connective tissue that propels the audience from scene to scene and help stabilize the plot. The required espionage elements of intrigue, sex, action, a compelling antagonist, and plot twists are all there. We’ve looked at the pieces from every angle to find the best fit and put them together in a new way to bring the picture on the box into focus. 

This puzzle we’ve put together has been challenging and exhilarating but never, ever dull. As we approach the show’s first production this summer with Pallas Theatre Collective in Washington, D.C., we hope our audiences enjoy hearing Betty Thorpe’s story in a musical format. We hope there’s enough to satisfy the secret agent in all of us and the expectations/demands of a musical theatre audience. We hope all the pieces of the puzzle are there and that they fit.