If you are the least bit successful in the business of show you will be routinely confronted by the opinions of others. It is inevitable. You must learn how to cope with and manage criticism. This will be as true at the end of your career as it is at the beginning. No one gets to evade all those slings and arrows.
Why is this so? Because we are all dealing with an art form, not a science, and everyone has an opinion about the way the art makes them feel. That is the key word: feel. It isn’t intellectual, it is emotional. Emotions are frequently far more powerful than cold, rational thought.
As the creator of a new musical, when dealing with those who control your destiny, i.e. producers, directors, maybe a star or two, you must find a way to ingest and incorporate their thoughts into your process. It will be expected of you. You would be wise to find a way to oblige such powerful people — even if only a little bit. This is a collaborative business and it cannot be your way or the highway. That would be impractical. If you are known as a writer who refuses to listen to others you will quickly develop a reputation for being “difficult.” People may not want to play in your sandbox — or want you to play in theirs — for long.
So, how should one handle notes? Here’s what I do. If someone has spent the time and energy to read your work, to think about it and develop notes about it, the very least you can do is be respectful enough to listen to what they have to say. I listen to everything — even when I thoroughly disagree with what the note-giver is saying. I am always respectful, even when I know the note-giver has not really read or paid attention to the work closely. I calmly and attentively write down their thoughts. I question mainly those notes that I don’t understand. I make a point to gently question those notes that are far off the mark in terms of the story. I do my best to be inquisitive — not accusative. I try to ask as few questions as possible, but I do press for clarity. I really do make an effort to understand their point of view. I try not to pass judgment too quickly — though that is not always easy to do.
And I always leave the notes session smiling, thanking them profusely for their insight and help.
Then I go away. And I think about what they said or wrote. I try to see if what they said can be incorporated into the work. I look for that which makes sense, and which helps to improve the story. Then I throw away or ignore the rest. What frequently happens during this process is that sometimes even the notes with which I wholly disagree turn out to trigger a thought that sheds a brand new light that elevates the entire story — or at least a part of it.
In other words, don’t be quick to dismiss notes just because they seem dumb or arrogant or off the mark or completely wrong-minded. Take it all in because sometimes in that pile of nonsense lies unexpected inspiration. And if not, you’ll give it the ol’ heave-ho.
This becomes a little trickier when you are laboring under a “work-for-hire” contract and someone is your boss. Under such circumstances, your obligation to do as you are told may be a little greater. But this is rarely the case in the world of theatrical musicals (movies are different), where writers almost always retain their copyrights — which translates to the control being yours. Not that powerful producers and directors won’t find a way to trump that control — which is a story for another day.
So, when it comes to taking notes, my advice is to swallow your pride (for that is what will hurt the most) and take them all. What have you got to lose except a little time? Look at note taking as all potential upside.