Starmites – Rebuilding an Unplayable Guitar Book
Music & Lyrics: Barry Keating
Book: Stuart Ross & Barry Keating
Year: 1998 (Broadway opening), 2010 (current revision)
Recently I was hired to play the 1990s cult sci-fi comedy musical “Starmites” for SecondStory Repertory in Redmond, near Seattle (well actually I was hired in 2019 to play the show in 2020 but Covid put a stop to that, then there were two further postponements, and we finally played the show in October-November 2022, but Hey! we got there!). Starmites is a quirky little sci-fi comedy that suits small theatres, with a bunch of really great songs and a bonkers, parodic comic book plot. I had a great time playing the production, which benefitted from a cast that leaned hard into the silliness and a really nice band led by the wonderful Tatiana Boggs. But that’s not what this article is about… This article is mainly about show’s Guitar book, which is very, very problematic.
In this article I take a brief look at the history of the show and why there are so many versions of it. I examine the current Guitar book and explain why it is in such a mess (with examples – it’s name and shame time!), then describe how I approached a rewrite of the entire book. Finally, I review the equipment I used for the show and provide links to some useful resources.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF STARMITES
Starmites is kind of a “lost show” which only theatre nerds have heard of, that lurks in a dusty corner of the musical theatre repertoire. It tells the story of shy comic-book obsessed teenager Eleanor who is sucked into her fantasy comic book world (Innerspace) when her mother threatens to confiscate her comics. In Innerspace she meets the Starmites, who hail her as the superhero “Milady” and together they fight the evil Shak Graa.
It is one of the more obscure shows to have made it to Broadway in recent times and has an unusual history. Composer Barry Keating had never written music and had apparently planned to write the show with Jim Steinman (yes, the Jim Steinman), who was an old college friend – the two worked together several times over the years. Steinman pulled out of Starmites, and Keating wrote the music himself.
The show premiered in 1980 and had a brief off-Broadway run in 1987. It ended up on Broadway almost by accident. While Starmites was gearing up for another off-Broadway run in 1989, a new Broadway theatre opened (the now-defunct Criterion Center Stage Right). In a lackluster year for new shows, Starmites was offered the chance to open the new theatre. It opened in April 1989 and closed after only 60 performances in June. Despite its short run and a lukewarm critical reception, the show was nominated for six Tony Awards and the cast performed at the 1989 awards ceremony. It didn’t win any.
In a 2022 video interview, Barry Keating says that the show might have fared better with a longer off-Broadway run and I am inclined to agree with him. The show has a distinctly low-fi vibe, like Little Shop of Horrors and is better suited to smaller spaces. After the Broadway run, Starmites sank into obscurity. Keating released a self-funded cast recording in 1989, featuring most of the Broadway cast. The recording is quite keyboard heavy, almost as if they couldn’t reproduce the original guitar parts – some guitar parts are even played on keys.
A revised version of the show appeared off-Broadway in 2001, and further revisions were made in 2010. The 2010 version of the show is the one currently available for licensing, although confusingly it is available in three versions: Starmites Lite (for middle school productions), Starmites High School and Starmites PRO (professional productions). The pre-recorded tracks currently offered by the licensing company do not precisely match the printed scores, adding to the sense of confusion.
The musical style of Starmites has evolved over time. While the Broadway version had a light 60s pop feel, the 2010 version uses a lot more 70s and 80s pop styles and the current pre-recorded tracks are so keyboard-heavy that they sound like cheesy synth-pop.
The long gaps between the Broadway run, the cast recording and 2010 revisions, combined with the evolutions in musical style and multiplicity/inconsistency of current versions mean that there is no “definitive” version of the show. Some of the 2010 updates work well, while others already feel dated. Some of the older “Broadway” versions of the songs work better than the current versions, and productions often use the older versions (ours used the Broadway version of “Starmites” for example). It feels as if the show could use one final round of revision to incorporate the best bits of all the previous iterations. Having said that, the current script and plotline are considerably better than the Broadway version.
The show is orchestrated for Piano, Synthesizer, Guitar, Bass and Drums. A Sound Effects CD is also provided with the materials. While the two keyboard books are in reasonable shape, the Guitar book is a mess, as I found when I was asked to play it (I am not sure about the condition of the Bass and Drums books).
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS WRONG WITH THE STARMITES GUITAR BOOK?
There are many, many errors in the Starmites Guitar book. Some are more serious than others, and the combination of all them makes the book unplayable. An exhaustive listing of individual errors would be pointless, because the book is irredeemably bad; the only way to fix it is a complete redraft. Sloppy music preparation is a perennial problem to varying degrees in many musical theatre scores. Starmites is a particularly spectacular example and provides an opportunity to describe many types of problem in once place. For this reason, I provide below a summary of the different types of errors on the book, from the most to least serious.
The first five categories of error are serious problems.
- Unplayable orchestrations: this is the biggest problem with the book. Several of the slower numbers include flowing arpeggiated finger-style passages which have either been lifted straight from the piano part or have been written on a piano by an orchestrator who doesn’t understand guitar. I’m sure they sound very nice on a piano, but they can’t be played on a guitar. This problem affects #8: “Love Duet”, parts of #13: “Beauty Within” and #18: “Finale”. The excerpt from #18: “Finale” below is typical of this issue. It doesn’t even look like a guitar part.
- Idiomatically inappropriate parts: this one is harder to explain. There is an “idiom” or style to guitar parts. A part written on another instrument (in this case piano) often doesn’t sound right played on a guitar, even if it is (just about) possible to play it. It’s like a less serious version of “Unplayable orchestrations”. There are many such passages in the Starmites Guitar book.
- Missing notation: #7: “Diva”, has whole measures of notation missing, right through the song. The error occurs in all every verse (a total of 8 times): measures which should be repeats are shown instead as rests. The example below illustrates both the error and the notation as it should be. It is likely that repeat measures were intended but didn’t get inserted either through human or software error.
- An entire missing chart: in the Piano-Vocal score, charts for #8: “Love Duet” are provided in two different keys to accommodate the possible vocal ranges of the male actor playing Space Punk. One of these two charts (the lower key version) is entirely missing from the Guitar book. This is a big deal, because it’s not a straightforward transposition to the lower key.
- Incorrect notation and rhythms: the book is littered with minor errors such as incorrect notes, incorrect or wrongly located chord symbols and incorrect rhythms (clashing with the drums and piano). The example below shows two such errors from #2: “Superhero Girl”; there are dozens more.
The second group of issues is less serious, but their cumulative effect is to make playing even the playable sections of the book a frustrating experience, because they occur so frequently.
- Confusing layout: it is good practice when preparing a score to have the distribution of measures on each staff bear some resemblance to the phrasing in the score, to make it easier to follow (for example, double barlines at the end of a staff, starting a new section of a song on a new staff etc.). This requires some thought by the music preparer, because left to its own devices notation software will assign line breaks according to internal spacing rules, like word processing software. No such care has been taken in the Starmites book, as shown in the example below. Another odd feature of the book is that in many numbers dynamics markings are closer to the staff beneath them than the one they refer to.
- Terrible page turns galore: poor page turn locations are a particular nuisance for guitarists, because you have to stop playing to turn a page, unless you decide to play from a tablet. Starmites has bad page turns in #2, #3, #5, #7, #8, #13b, #20 (actually #14 – see below), #15, #17 and #18. That’s too many, and points again to a lack of care in the preparation of this book.
- Missing key and time signatures: there are many instances in the book where no time signature is provided. The example below is the opening line of #3: “I Want My Cruelty Back”. The same problem occurs at the starts of #3a, #4, #7, #7a, #7c, #8a, #8b, #12a, #13a, #16 and #16a. There are a few others in the middle of numbers. This isn’t usually a fatal flaw: you can work out the time signature by reading the chart. But it is incredibly sloppy engraving. There are also a few places where key signatures are missing, or do not match the Piano-Vocal score. Again, these can be worked out during rehearsal, but they are frustrating.
- Duplicate and repeated measure numbers: in #13: “Bizarbara Wedding” the measure numbering restarts at m.1 after12, as shown below. In #15: “Reach Right Down”, there are two measure 12s.
- Inconsistent and duplicate song numbers: both versions of #8: Love Duet” have the same number. One should have been #8-ALT. “Bizarbara Wedding (Processional)” sits between #10 and #12 but is numbered #13, duplicating the numbering of actual #13: “Beauty Within”. “The Cruelty Stomp” which is preceded by #13b and followed by #14a, is confusingly numbered #20. I suspect in both instances these might have been their numbers in an earlier version of the show.
- Messy engraving (but not the worst): the book looks like it was produced using an early version of some notation software with a feature set that would be regarded as limited by today’s standards. The font looks somewhere between handwritten and printed, but it is legible. However, many of the annotations and articulation symbols have been handwritten onto the score. This is bearable and you do get used to it after reading the score for a while. There are a few instances where bar lines are obscured by articulation symbols. For example, in #8: “Love Duet”, the bar line at m.69 is obscured by an arpeggio symbol.
As an example of really terrible engraving, I offer the original score for Evita, which may be the most illegible Guitar book of all time. The original book for Grease is pretty bad too. Honorable mention goes to p.26 of the original Little Shop Of Horrors book, where the left edges of the staves are cut off by poor photocopying of the original. None of these scores are “unplayable”, but they are hard to read. Most have now been superseded by software-generated scores.
HOW DID THE GUITAR BOOK END UP IN SUCH A MESS?
While I don’t know exactly how the Starmites Guitar book ended up in its present state I can offer a few educated guesses, having spent many hours with the show’s materials. I suspect a combination of the following factors:
- The orchestrator did not know how to write for Guitar. Instead (s)he either:
- wrote parts on the piano that had the right feel, without knowing whether they could be played on a guitar, or;
- cut and pasted sections from the Piano part directly into the Guitar book.
- The materials were prepared hurriedly, cheaply and without adequate review or quality control.
- The materials were prepared using an early example of notation software, with a limited feature set, so that errors crept in, and some details had to be added later, by hand.
- The materials were not properly “road tested” via performance after being prepared.
Fixing the problem of an orchestrator without adequate experience is best solved by hiring an orchestrator with the right experience, or at least having a guitarist work with the orchestrator to produce playable parts. Testing the material via performance is a great way of refining and checking the notated parts. Additionally, the licensing companies could do a far better job of tidying up materials when they receive them, before charging theatres real money to use them. There is no reasonable excuse for crappy materials.
REWRITING THE GUITAR BOOK
I decided to play the show despite the terrible state of the book, which meant doing some rewrites. I worked through the book and made a list of areas which needed attention (the naughty list), and those which were in reasonable condition (nice). The “naughty” list grew very long, and it became clear that a complete rewrite of the book was the best way to proceed. Fortunately, I had several useful resources for guidance:
- The existing Guitar book: while it’s useless in many respects, parts of the existing book were salvageable, or at least provided an idea of what was intended.
- The current Piano-Conductor score: the PC score is in much better shape than the Guitar book and provides a good idea of the feel of the music, the correct rhythms, time signatures and so forth. It was also useful to know what the Piano would be playing, so that I could shape the Guitar parts to work well within the ensemble.
- The pre-recorded tracks: Concord provides pre-recorded tracks of all the music for productions which decide not to use a live band (apparently, for Starmites, many productions choose this option, not a surprise considering the state of the materials). The tracks differ slightly from the books in a few places but are about a 95% match for the PC score. Interestingly, they are predominantly keyboard-based arrangements. Guitar is included where it’s obvious what it should be doing (the opening solo in the Overture for example) but is often absent. I suppose whoever recorded the tracks decided not to attempt to work out sensible guitar arrangements. The result is an adequate, but bland synth-pop version of the show. However, the tracks do at least provide an idea of what the current arrangements are meant to sound like.
- The post-Broadway cast recording: the 1998 cast recording is also very keyboard-heavy and presents the original 60’s pop-feel version of the show. Where the guitar is audible it again gives some idea of what is intended. For example, I based my chart for #8: “Love Duet” on the part heard on the cast recording. I am told it is quite common for productions to use the original arrangements for some songs instead of the newer 2010 versions (for example we used the original arrangement for #4: “Starmites”). Only PC scores are available for these original versions, so the band has to work it all out for themselves.
- McCallum Fine Arts Academy Performance Video: this is a YouTube video of a 2018 production which used the pre-recorded tracks. The video includes the whole show and has excellent audio. It was useful because it placed all the music in context, so that I understood what would work on Guitar to suit the action in the show at any moment.
As noted earlier, the different versions of the show have different musical styles. The Broadway production and cast recording have a light 60’s pop feel, while the current 2010 arrangements lean into a more 70’s and 80’s pop-rock style. I was working with mostly the latter arrangements and decided that a more guitar-heavy pop-rock feel suited the energy of the show better than the anemic synth-pop of the pre-recorded tracks. For that reason, my parts use a lot of rhythms that work well with light overdrives (such as #7: “Diva”) or distortions (most numbers involving the villain Shak Graa!). I used nylon-string and acoustic guitars for some of the quieter numbers but overall the book is about 90% electric guitar.
The rewrite took a while, but by the time rehearsals started I had a complete draft version of the revised Guitar book, and I used the rehearsal process to adjust the parts based on my own impressions and feedback from the Music Director. I finalized the book by opening night. The end result is a much punchier but still poppy set of arrangements which adds a new energy to the show and is fun to play. The book is also well laid out, neatly engraved and easy to read, as shown in the excerpt below.
I used my Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic (the finest electric guitar I have ever played) for the show. The Anderson’s versatility suited the variety of material; I used several different pickup settings. For the hard rock numbers I used the Bridge humbucker; for brighter overdrives I used the Bridge pickup in single-coil mode. For lighter pop I used the Bridge + Middle combination, for songs with a Motown vibe I used the middle pickup. Finally, for “Cruelty Stomp” – a jazzy number – I used the neck pickup.
For the quieter songs I used acoustic instruments.
- Nylon String Guitar: I used a Takamine P3FCN for #8: “Love Duet” and #18: “Finale”.
- Acoustic Guitar: I used a custom-built Atkin Guitars 2004 Small Jumbo for #12: “Milady”, #13: “Beauty Within” and #18: “Finale”.
Effects – Electric Guitar
I used a Line 6 Helix throughout the show. Generally speaking, I have a preference for stomp-box based pedalboards but there is no doubting the flexibility and quality of the Helix. Starmites has a lot of “sci-fi” moments which call for unusual effects (spacey sounds, weird tremolos, “Innerspace Chaos” etc.) and the Helix makes it easy to dial in all sorts of unusual sounds to meet these needs.
I adopted my usual approach of setting up a template patch for the show containing several basic tone snapshots (sub-patches): Clean, Light Overdrive, Overdrive and Lead tones. I copied the template multiple times so that I had one patch for each song in the show, then modified each patch to suit the needs of the song, adding delays, reverbs, tremolos, wahs and other effects as needed. I adjusted the EQ and levels of the snapshots during rehearsal to suit the needs of the production; again, the Helix makes this very easy to do on the fly.
Effects – Acoustic Instruments
I used no effects other than EQ for the acoustic instruments. The Takamine P3FCN Nylon String has an onboard preamplifier and graphic EQ. I have switched out the stock 9V preamp with its 3-band EQ for an 18V version with a 5-band EQ and notch filters, giving a more transparent tone. I ran the Atkin Small Jumbo acoustic through a Fishman Aura Spectrum preamp for EQ and compression.
Both guitars were routed through a GigRig Quartermaster QMX-4 loop switcher, which has nice noiseless optical footswitches, and then via an Ernie Ball VP JR volume pedal into the acoustic instrument amplifier. Everything was mounted on a Pedaltrain JR pedalboard, with a Cioks DC10 power supply mounted beneath, and a GigRig Cinco Cinco patch bay mounted below the right-hand side so that all of the in/out cable connections were routed to one place for tidiness.
For the electric guitar, I used the digital amplifier modeling functions of the Helix. The signal was routed directly to the house desk via the Helix’s XLR outputs. I also routed the signal via the ¼-inch output to the power stage input (Effects Return) of my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe for monitoring.
The acoustic instruments were routed via to an AER Compact 60 amplifier, which I used for monitoring. The amplifier has an XLR output, which was sent to the house desk. For both electric and acoustic amplifiers, I was able to adjust the monitoring level without affecting the signal sent to the desk.
Other equipment I used for this show included:
- D’Addario Micro headstock tuners for the acoustic and electric guitars (the nylon string had a built-in tuner)
- Kyser nylon string guitar capo
- Herdim picks (the .63mm yellow ones) for the electric guitar.
- Dunlop .46mm white nylon picks for the acoustic guitar
- Sally Hansen Hard As Nails nail hardener (to protect my nails and stiffen them for a better nylon string guitar sound)
- Standard Manhasset music stand with add-on plastic shelf (I’ve tried others, but I swear by the simplicity of these!)
- Aria Forte LED rechargeable stand light – a recent and very fabulous purchase.
- Big Dog drum stool (no longer available, but an old favorite of mine. A stool makes your setup more compact in a tight pit space, and this was very tight).
THE LITTLE SHOW THAT COULD
After multiple pandemic-induced postponements and a rewrite of the Guitar book, just getting to opening night felt like a triumph in itself. But Covid threw one last curveball at us. A key actor tested positive after opening weekend and the second week of shows was canceled. But we came back, resumed the run and closed on a high with a string of packed houses and rowdy audiences, all buying into the madcap silliness of Starmites. This production felt like “The Little Show That Could”; it was a treat to play it and I’m very happy to have been a part of it.
All links were active at the time this article was published.
Starmites Wikipedia entry
Starmites 1998 soundtrack CD and YouTube Playlist
Starmites Broadway Cast performing at Tony Awards 1989 (video clip)
McCallum Fine Arts Academy performance of Starmites PRO (2018 – used pre-recorded tracks)
Video Interview with composer Barry Keating (2022)
Licensing: Concord Theatricals “Starmites PRO” page
SecondStory Repertory Theatre
I am grateful as always to Mark and Jen at SecondStory Repertory for hiring me to play Starmites. SSR is a lovely place to work, and I have played some very cool productions there. Thanks also to Music Director Tatiana Boggs, who worked patiently with me as I tweaked the revised Guitar book to a state that worked for me and the production.