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Wrestling With the American Musical

Story posted July 21, 2009

Sam Waterbury
Sam Waterbury '11 gets down to business.

Considering the incongruous subject matter of recent musicals such as Tony-winner Urinetown—a political and social satire about a urinal—Sam Waterbury '11 might have a future hit on his hands. Or around his throat.

The Bowdoin music major is writing a Sondheim-inspired musical based on professional wrestling.

"I actually think it's the perfect subject matter for a musical because there is so much pageantry in professional wrestling," Waterbury says, crouching over a keyboard in the Gibson Hall practice room he is calling home for the summer.

"It's all about the costumes and makeup and this crazy story line. Everyone knows the fighting is not real but you still get really into it because everyone's acting. Why not put it up on stage? Plus, the idea of these extremely muscular, gigantic men coming out and instead of beating each other up they start singing ... it's very funny."

The musical is based on a 1993 short story by Tony Earley titled, Charlotte. It features two professional wrestlers in Charlotte, N.C., who are in love with the same woman. One is a poem-spouting Romantic named Lord Poetry; his nemesis is Bob Noxious, a charismatic, animalistic muscleman prone flexing his "pecs."


Their "worked shoot" plays out in the background of a real-life love affair between a dreamy, if not passive, bartender and his unsentimental girlfriend. The bartender identifies with Lord Poetry, who sometimes stops into the bar for a beer and a bit of the Bard.

"The bartender sees people come in every day with their fake tans, just looking for fun," notes Waterbury. "His girlfriend doesn't believe in love, she just sees it as chemistry. He wants to prove to her and to the rest of Charlotte, that love is real, that it's beautiful and the only thing worth living for."

So how does the hero wrestle with love? In a song, naturally. Waterbury has spent the better part of a week on this particular song, exploring dissonant intervals and oscillating note patterns that create a sense of mounting yearning.

Unselfconsciously, he flips on a midi version and belts out a complex melody that is slightly outside his range:
A dingy, mold-ridden mistake of a taproom, this is where dreams go to die/ or pass out/ or probably worse ... There's a woman I found in the crowd waiting softly for me/ so I wade through the debris/ while avoiding the mines.

waterburyThe drama of the musical builds as the wrestlers face off in a final Battle for Love, in which, uncharacteristically for a musical, love and poetry do not triumph over raw aggression.

Waterbury is working intensively with Louis Weeks'11, who is writing lyrics for the dozen or so songs Waterbury plans to include in the musical. The two had taken several music classes together prior to this collaboration.

"I discuss what the song's going to be about and he sends me lyrics," says Waterbury. "If it's not working, I'll be, like, I need an extra two syllables here. He's very flexible. I have to change my stuff too," he adds. "He's a fantastic lyricist."

Waterbury received an Edward E. Langbein Summer Fellowship to work fulltime on the musical, an opportunity he describes as both "unbelievable and daunting."

"It's surprising to see how much time and effort goes into every note," he says. "I'll get a set of lyrics from Louis, sketch out a melody, sing it into a tape recorder then start writing it out. You think, 'that's it ...'


He smiles ruefully, adding: "That's not it, that's not it at all. What I didn't think about before this was the importance of texture. The sound you create is not just the notes. It's how you play them: triplets or plodding quarter notes, crazy rhythms. A lot of musical theater is very similar to pop music, using the same four-chord progression, ... but I'm trying to use much more complicated harmony."

Waterbury says he gets much of his musical inspiration from Stephen Sondheim, about whom he did an independent study in 2008. But it's his faculty mentor, Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende who "keeps me up to speed," he says.

"I'll meet with Vin and sometimes he says, 'That's great, fantastic.' Other times, he'll tell me it's not working, we're getting too much of that C sharp. And he's usually right. It's extremely helpful."

The project is perhaps more demanding than Waterbury bargained for and will likely take many more months to complete—"I'm kind of a perfectionist," he admits. Still, he says: "I can't imagine a better way to spend my summer than to be writing music."

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"A lot of musical theater is very similar to pop music, using the same four-chord progression, ... but I'm trying to use much more complicated harmony."
— Sam Waterbury '11