For Michael R. Jackson composing a piece of music starts with the “flame” of an idea that a writer needs to chase. First there’s an impulse, the “tickle” of a muse, the award-winning playwright said, and it’s up to the composer to harness it, and turn it into material that can be used.
“For me, it’s just about constantly coming back to it and coming back to it and coming back to it, like ‘Can I catch it? Can I catch that lightning bug in a jar?’” Jackson told Harvard students, sitting in the Horner Room of the Agassiz Theatre.
Jackson, best known for his hit Broadway musical “A Strange Loop,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 and a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2022, was the keynote guest at the annual Harvard Student Composers Festival (CompFest) April 12, where he led a workshop with student composers before a live audience, listening to students perform songs from original musicals and offering feedback.
Students took turns performing songs for Jackson from three original student musicals: “Queen of Magic” by Veronica Leahy ’23 and Andrew Van Camp ’23, “OUT” by Kalos Chu ’23, and “Atalanta” by Mira-Rose Kingsbury Lee ’23.
In several instances, Jackson recommended the students add characters to their musical scenes to help the audience visually see a source of conflict the lyrics describe. The “Atalanta” song “Playing God” describes the protagonist facing blackmail, needing to choose between resigning her job and betraying her brother. Jackson suggested that Kingsbury Lee bring the character’s blackmailer onstage for the song to make the tension more visible.
“Anytime you can, in music, bring two or three people in conflict with each other, you’re really cooking with gas there,” Jackson said. “It’s always going to be a lot stronger than having them alone.”
Jackson also recommended that student composers think carefully about the order of the ideas in their songs. He used the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as an example, explaining how the nursery rhyme establishes first that Mary has a lamb, then that its fleece is white, and then that it follows Mary everywhere.
“It’s not necessarily being on-the-nose. You can still be quite lyrical and poetic with it,” Jackson said. “But it’s one idea as opposed to mixing multiple ideas within one verse.”