10 Reasons Project Runway Is Like Musical Theatre

I have a confession to make.

Mock me all you want, but I haven't missed an episode of Project Runway in ten years or more. In my defense, it's the only reality show I watch.

But I realized years ago that at its core, Project Runway is really just a show about making art, a different kind of art from mine, sure, but still art. Many of the same rules, fears, uncertainty, and panic applies. The show also addresses on a weekly basis the age-old tension between art and commerce.

In a surprising way (or maybe not), the process we witness over the course of a Project Runway season is parallel to the music theory classes I took in college. A series of exercises in which we learned to write music to other people's very narrow constraints and very strict rules. The idea was to write good music without breaking the "rules." Music theory homework was often very frustrating for me, because at that point I had already written three musicals without those limitations.

But my second year theory professor put it in perspective for me. His name was Peter Lieberson, one of the best teachers I ever had, son of Goddard Lieberson (RCA record producer of many legendary cast albums in the 1940s and 50s), and Vera Zorina (Balanchine ballerina and Broadway musical comedy star). Peter grew up siting in on the recording sessions for the My Fair Lady and Camelot cast albums. Holy. Shit.

He told me that music theory had an important purpose, but not exactly what They told us. As with any art, it's always better to know the rules and know that you are breaking them, and why, than to blindly break them out of ignorance. The rules are there for a reason. And -- here was the mind-blower -- music theory isn't really "rules," as much as a description of how Bach wrote his chorales. Yes, that's a bit of an over-simplification, but not much. We study those chorales because they're amazing, and it's worth learning what "rules" -- or maybe habits is the better word -- make Bach's music so good.

On the other hand, if I'm writing a score for a musical and I want to break those "rules," there's nothing stopping me. If it sounds good, I'll do it.

On the other hand, knowing music theory helps me in two ways. First, it allows the music I write to get more complex, which is more interesting, because it gives me a bigger musical vocabulary. I noticed that once I started studying theory, my music suddenly acquired more sharps and flats. That meant my music was moving outside the key now and then, and again, that's interesting.

Theory also helps me when I get stuck, like iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. Music theory (voice leading, chord theory, counterpoint, all that) is usually way at the back of my mind, but when I have to reduce a vocal arrangement for eight down to five, that music theory comes in mighty handy. I know what function each note plays in the chord, what we can do without, and what is necessary. Likewise, when I'm writing, sometimes my song will wander from the original key -- in a really interesting way -- but if I want to repeat the first section, without moving the voice drastically, I have to find a way to modulate back to the original key. Music theory gives me the toolbox to figure out a chord progression that gets me back where I started.

I think Project Runway does the same for those designers, and for everybody watching. It's a master class that happens to get great ratings. Without most of the usual reality show bullshit.

Project Runway also reminds me of my hero Hal Prince's rule while he was actively producing, that the morning after every opening night, he had the first meeting for the next show.

And the world goes 'round and 'round and 'round...

As you can see, I'm a big fan of this show. So here are my ten lessons Project Runway teaches us that also apply to New Line's work...

1. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the artist thinks; only what the audience thinks. Art is communication. That's why Sondheim says the only legit measure of a show's success is whether or not it is clear to the audience.

2. It always comes down to telling a story (like almost everything else in life). How often do Tim and the judges ask, "Who is your customer? Who is this woman?" It's like Obama's 2008 campaign staff kept saying, "Just tell the story."

3. You have to balance other people's input/reactions against your own gut and instincts. That's usually not easy.

4. Almost always, pushing it further is a good idea. And yet at the same time, you always have to get rid of anything that doesn't have to be there. A tough balancing act.

5. The tighter the limitations, the greater the creative output will be. It's the same reason lyrics are often better if they're written to existing music, and forced to conform to rhythms and phrasing.

6. If it comes down to a conflict between what you want and what the piece of art "wants," the piece of art wins. I've cut some great songs from shows I've written, because despite how good they were, the story and/or pacing did not want them there.

7. You have to know when to change roads. How often do we see a designer on Project Runway start over, in an entirely new direction? Luckily, New Line's relatively leisurely rehearsal schedule allows the same thing.

8. You have to leave it all on the field. In other words, give it everything every time. I often tell our casts that if they're not utterly drained by the end of a performance, they're not doing it right.

9. "Art is never finished, only abandoned," as DaVinci said. So. Fucking. True. I kind of like that theatre has a "deadline." You create the best show you can by the time the audience gets there. But it never seems like there's enough time to "finish." I'm well known for responding to small problems during Hell Week with a smile and, "Well, it is what it is." You can't solve every problem, perfect every moment, find all the answers. There's always a clock ticking. You do what you can do. And that's okay.

10. Art is art. Fashion art, theatre art, musical art, movement art, studio art, it's all pretty much the same at the core.

And that's why I watch Project Runway. Thank you, Tim and Heidi.

Long Live the Musical!