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Behind the Curtain: The Making of the DrupalCon Prenote

Adam Juran

Senior Front End Developer, Forum One

We knew we had to up the ante, make something new and different from previous years, and LA seemed like a gold mine of possibilities.

DrupalCon Los Angeles

I am never missing the #DrupalCon #prenote again. So brilliant.” — Kelley Curry (@BrightBold) May 12, 2015

DrupalCon always leaves me full of energy, and Amsterdam 2014 was no exception. The three of us – Adam Juran, me, and my wife Bryn – sat together on the short train ride back home to Cologne. Some chit chat and reminiscing quickly led to anticipation of the next DrupalCon, in LA. We were excited about the possibilities of this world-class host city. The home of Hollywood, Venice Beach, and Disneyland sounded like a great destination, but after three years of co-writing the DrupalCon “opening ceremony” with Jam and Robert, we were more excited about the possibilities for the Prenote. We knew we had to up the ante, make something new and different from previous years, and LA seemed like a gold mine of possibilities.

Every DrupalCon, before the keynote from Dries, this small group has staged a “pre-note.” The goal of the prenote is to break the ice, to remind everyone present that Drupal is a friendly, fun, and above all, inclusive community. It’s often themed after the host city: in Munich, Jam and Robert taught everyone how to pour a good Bavarian beer, and brought in a yodeling instructor for a singalong (yodel-along?) at the end. In Portland we held a “weirdest talent” competition, featuring prominent community members juggling and beat boxing. Every year it gets more fun, more engaging, and more entertaining for the audience.

On that train ride home, we threw around a lot of possibilities. Maybe the prenote could be set on a muscle beach, with Dries as the aspiring “98 pound weakling.” Or the whole thing could be a joke on a hollywood party. We briefly considered a reality-TV style “Real coders of Drupalcon” theme, but nobody wanted to sink that low. That’s when the idea struck: we could do it as a Disney musical!

Part of Your World

The Prenote was Jam and Robert’s baby, though. We knew that we would have to have some absolutely knock-down material to convince them of our concept. With beer in hand, the three of us started work on Part of your world from the Little Mermaid, as the client who is excited for the worst website idea ever.

I’ve got sliders and icons a-plenty, I’ve got OG with breadcrumbs galore. You want five-level dropdowns? I’ve got twenty! But who cares? No big deal. I want more!”

We quickly moved on to the song for the coder who would save the day, You ain’t never had a friend like me from Aladdin. We got halfway through this fun number before we realized that the song titles alone could do a lot of the convincing. Another beer, and we had a list of potential songs. There was so much material just in the song titles, we knew that the music would take center stage. Some of our favorite titles from this first list were ultimately cut. Maybe someday we’ll flesh them into full songs for a Drupal party, but in the meantime you can let your imagination run wild. Hakuna Matata from The Lion King was to become We’ll Build it in Drupal! The Frozen parody, Do You Wanna Build a Website was a big hit, and so was Aladdin’s A Whole New Theme. We showed our idea to Jam and Robert the first chance we got. They took one look at our list of songs and said the three words we wanted to hear: “run with it.”

You Ain’t Never had a Friend Like Me

We divided up responsibility for  the remainder of the songs and started to experiment with the script. What kind of story could we wrap around these crazy songs? How much time did we really have, and could we do all this music? We were all absorbed in our normal work, but every chance we got, the group of us would get together to throw ideas around. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as while we wrote some of these songs. Writing parody lyrics is entertaining on your own, but as a duo it’s a laugh riot.  More than once we checked the Drupal song lyrics project for inspiration. We riffed on ideas and tried different rhyme schemes until things seemed to just “fit.”

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

In the last few weeks leading up to DrupalCon, Adam and I met two and three times a week for long sessions, brainstorming new lyrics. We powered through writing the script around the whole thing, and started to address the logistical problems of backtracks, props, and costumes as well.

Finally we set about casting the different songs. Adam and I had always wanted to sing the Agony duet from Into the Woods, so that one was easy. We had a tentative list of who we wanted in the other songs, but we had no idea who would be willing. All of a sudden the whole endeavor looked tenuous again. Why did we think Dries would be OK to make a joke about Drupal 8 crashing all the time? Would Jeremy Thorson (maintainer of the test infrastructure on Drupal.org) even be interested to get up on stage and sing about testing? We realized that we’d never heard these people sing karaoke, much less in front of thousands of people!

One by one we reached out to the performers and got their approval. Some of them were more enthusiastic than others. Dries replied with “OK, I trust you guys,” while Larry Garfield and Jeremy Thorson insisted on rewriting some of their lyrics and even adding verses! The day before the show, Larry was disappointed that we couldn’t find giant foam lobster claws for his version of Under the Sea from the Little Mermaid. Aaron Porter bought a genie costume and offered to douse himself in blue facepaint for his role, and Ronai Brumett spent a weekend building the perfect “hipster Ariel” costume.

When You Wish Upon a Star

On DrupalCon – Monday the day before the show – the cast assembled for the first time for their only rehearsal together. I arrived a few minutes late, direct from a costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Jam had built karaoke tracks on his laptop, and Robert had put together a prompter for the script, so the group huddled around the two laptops and tried to work through the whole show.  

The rehearsal showed us what a hit we had created. The performers had embraced the motto: “if you can’t sing it, perform it” and they started to feed off each other’s energy. We all laughed at Ronai’s dramatic rendition of Part of My Site, and the Agony Duet raised the energy even further. It turned out that Dries had never heard When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio before, but he was willing to learn as long as he could have someone to sing along with him! The rehearsal really started to hit it’s stride when Aaron delivered You Ain’t Never had a Dev Like Me. Aaron had never sung in public before, and we could tell he was nervous. Then the backtrack started playing with its blaring horns, and he came alive. It’s a difficult piece, with lots of fast moving text and a rhythm that can be hard to catch. Aaron launched into it with gusto. He had us in stitches when he shouted “can your friends do this!” and grabbed Dries’ laptop to start typing with his butt. When he nailed the high note at the end with a huge grin on his face, it was a deciding moment for the group.

From that moment on we were on a ride, and we knew it. Simpletest (to the tune of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast) turned out to be a laugh riot, and Jeremy led us naturally into a kick line for the grand finale. We cheered Larry’s choreography skills during the dance break of RTBC, and Ben Finklea was a natural (as ever) at leading us all in Commit, to the tune of Heigh Ho from Snow White. Forum One UX lead Kristina Bjoran, had protested the most of everyone about having to sing, but the moment she started with our version of Let it Go from Frozen, we were caught up in the feeling of it. I don’t think anyone expected the goosebumps that happened when we sang that chorus together, but we all appreciated what it meant.

Let it Go

The morning of the show saw the whole cast up bright and early. Though we joked about doing a round of shots before going on stage, no one seemed nervous. In fact we spent most of the setup time laughing at one another. Larry discovered that he has great legs for red tights. Aaron got blue face paint everywhere. We cheered at Jam and Robert’s Mickey and Minnie costumes, and laughed at Ronai’s perfect Hipster Ariel.

Some of us had last minute changes to make: Jeremy spent his time crafting oversized cuffs for his costume. I had forgotten the belt to my ninja outfit, so we made one out of duct tape. Kristina discovered that her Elsa costume limited her movement too much for the choreography she had planned. Dries was the only one who seemed nervous to me – this guy who has spoken in public countless times was afraid of a little Disney! We sang through the song together one last time, and it was time to go on.

Everyone knows the rest – or at least, you can see it on youtube. What you probably don’t know is how hard we all laughed as we watched the show backstage. Even knowing every word, the energy from the audience was infectious. In the end, there’s nothing quite like standing in front of three thousand people and shouting together: “we come for code, but we stay for community!”

Written By

Adam Juran

Senior Front End Developer, Forum One