Elements of a Musical
The Book (Libretto)
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)
- What is The Book?
- Key Elements
- Scene Structure
- Ending Act One
- Ending Act Two
- Thankless Task
What is "The Book"?
The book (also called the libretto) is the least appreciated and yet most dramatically important element of a musical. It is the narrative structure that keeps the score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs.
For many years, the main point of most shows was to showcase a score and/or a major star. As a result, the books of most Broadway musicals were a series of scenes, jokes and sight gags designed to get from song to song. As long as the script provided excuses for Al Jolson to sing a few hits or Marilyn Miller to do a dance routine, theatergoers were satisfied. By the 1940s, audiences were ready for something more, and shows like Pal Joey, Lady In the Dark and Oklahoma! made it imperative that the book and score interweave to tell a cohesive story. Now for a performer to stop the show, the action had to build up to a key moment of song and/or dance. This made for a much more satisfying kind of theatrical entertainment.
More than one expert has observed that musicals with great scores and weak books tend to fail, while those with mediocre scores and solid books have a better chance of succeeding. After all, the first job of every play or film musical or not is to tell a good story.
Key Book Elements
A musical book must do the following:
- Keep the story line clear and easy to follow.
- Create characters that are easy to relate to, without resorting to stereotypes. (Good luck!)
- Create situations that call characters into song.
- Move in and out of songs as smoothly as possible.
- Hand over much (and sometimes all) of the plot and character development to the songs and choreography.
- Make the audience care at all times. (If the action gets dull, nothing guarantees an audience will stay to learn the ending!)
And all this must be done within a script that seems skeletal compared to a full length drama. At least fifty percent of a musical's running time belongs to the songs and dances. Small wonder that so few playwrights are willing to attempt musical librettos they are a separate art form.
Only a few successful musicals use 100% original story lines. Most are adapted from novels (Les Miserables, The King & I), plays (Oklahoma, Hello Dolly) or films (A Little Night Music, Nine, The Producers). Others are inspired by historical figures (Rex, George M) or events in the headlines (Call Me Madam, Capeman). When selecting a story for adaptation, the creative team must first determine that music will add to the effectiveness of the story. Not all stories sing, and relentlessly tragic tales are better suited to grand opera. The main requirement is to have a situation that allows characters to experience a wide range of emotions. It is in the transitions from hope to joy to despair to (hopefully) final triumph that characters can find something to sing about.
So why bother turning an already effective story into a musical? Since time immemorial people have found it easier to connect with sentiments set to music. Songs help audiences relate to charactersl. That is why murder mysteries and French farces usually do not make good material for musical adaptation many of their characters are plot functions, not believeable individuals we are called to care about. The Mystery of Edwin Drood does not disprove my point in the end we learn that Edwin is not dead, so it is not really a murder mystery!
Getting historical figures to sing can be tricky, since many in the audience approach famous characters with pre-conceptions. 1776 successfully made John Adams and Thomas Jefferson sing, in part because American audiences wanted to like them. (British audiences loathed the same show, forcing it to close in just a few weeks.) Henry VIII's murderous marital habits made him desperately unlikable in Rex, but such popular figures as Jackie Robinson, Marilyn Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt all inspired flop musicals.
Successful musicals with truly original stories are few and far between. While it is neither impossible nor undesirable to build a musical on a completely original story idea, it is just not done very often. Why? Many have theorized on this issue, but no one I know of has come up with a convincing explanation. But approximately 9 out of 10 successful musicals are based on pre-existing stories, plays or films. Some musicals people think of as completely original were actually adaptations. Company was based on a series of one act plays by librettist George Furth. And, despite Alan Jay Lerner's denials, Brigadoon was based in part on Friedrich Gerstacker's German tale Germelshausen.
Some examples of how original story ideas were hatched for hit musicals
Betty Comden and Adolph Green developed the idea for Bells Are Ringing from the picture of an overworked operator on the back cover of a Manhattan phone book.
Michael Bennett was approached by two dancers looking to create a troupe of Broadway chorus dancers that could develop new musicals. Taped workshop sessions with various dancers sharing their memories led to the birth of A Chorus Line.
Composer Marvin Hamlish's rocky love affair with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager was the primary inspiration for They're Playing Our Song. Of course, it helped having Neil Simon shape their stories into a touching but hilarious book.
As in non-musical plays, the ending of each scene in a book musical must project the action forward, pointing the audience's interest into the scenes to come. Since good showtunes often capture a moment of transition, realization or decision, a song (or a brief reprise) is often used to bring scenes to a neat close. This is why librettists must work in close collaboration with composers and lyricists to determine where songs fit and how to get into song as seamlessly as possible. Audiences now cringe at obvious song cues ("Tell us about it, Jane.") Ideally, the book and score should be written simultaneously, rather than have either one built around the other.
Ending Act One
The modern musical libretto is almost always written in a two-act format. Audiences are accustomed to it, and intermission sales (refreshments, souvenirs) provide theatre owners with crucial income. If nothing else, an audience forced to sit for hours is tougher to entertain. To put it bluntly, if you don't give audiences a pee break, they will take one in the middle of crucial scenes! Those who write a one or three act show can rest assured that others will eventually re-format it to two acts. (This fact of life has plagued the authors of Man of La Mancha, a one-act that is frequently performed with an unauthorized intermission). If nothing else, intermissions force book writers to make sure the story gets somewhere by a reasonable point at least enough to make an audience want to come back for Act Two. The first act does not have to end with a cliff-hanger, but we should be curious to see what happens next. Examples of memorable Act One endings:
- Fiddler On the Roof A horrific pogrom ruins Tzeitel's wedding. How will Tevye's family carry on?
- My Fair Lady As Liza dances off with the scheming linguist Zoltan Karparthy, will her secret be exposed and Professor Higgins' work ruined?
- Annie Will an orphan find her long lost parents?
- Les Miserables How will the many characters we've met in Act One get through the imminent revolution?
If you have not hooked an audience before intermission time, odds are you have a flop on your hands This problem holds especially true with stage adaptations of screen musicals. The Broadway version of Meet Me In St. Louis turned "The Trolley Song" into a dream sequence, robbing it of any significance and doing nothing to point to the next act. The stage version of State Fair ended with "It's a Grand Night for Singing" a great song, but one that did nothing to set up what lay ahead. Both shows failed despite classic scores, primarily because their cinematic story lines did not adapt well to the two-act stage format.
Ending Act Two
The end of Act Two is even more important. It is what audiences walk out with, and a powerful final scene can make up for a lot of shortcomings earlier in the show. Having a great song helps many shows reprise their strongest ballad but the book writer must structure the play so that the last scene packs a genuine wallop.
- The Sound of Music has the Von Trapps escape to freedom over the Alps as a chorus of nuns sing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."
- A Chorus Line brings all the dancers back for the socko dance number, "One." Although this illogically contradicts everything that occurs beforehand (when most of these dancers were eliminated), no audience really cares. Its a sensational coup de theatre.
- Annie has the orphan girl's long-lost pooch Sandy pop out of a gift box on Christmas morning, winning a guaranteed cheer from the audience.
- Secret Garden has Uncle Archie embrace his niece Mary as the ghosts of the past depart to the strains of "Come To The Garden."
- The Producers has Bialystok & Bloom surrounded by the marquees for their future tasteless (and hilarious) hits like "Death of a Salesman - On Ice."
Check a dozen of your favorite musicals, and you will find that most offer a solid dramatic or comic kick as part of the finale.
All writers had better like rewriting! It is the nature of creation that one has to reshape and polish one's work. This is especially true when a writer has to appease the army of collaborators involved in a musical. With the exception of Kiss Me Kate, every musical that ever opened out of town (or in New York previews) required book revisions. Some problems do not become evident until a show gets on its feet in front of paying audiences.
When a musical is in pre-opening performances, two issues become paramount
Keep the plot line clear - People won't sit through a musical if the story does not make sense at all times. Nearly everyone knows the basc plot to Hamlet, but few could make sense of the rock musical Rockabye Hamlet. Although it was directed by the great Gower Champion, this incoherent mess died a quick death.
Get the curtain down by 10:45 PM It is no accident that contemporary musicals are usually less than three hours long. This avoids expensive union overtime charges and gets audiences home at a decent hour. If you are positive your show is the next Les Miz and can afford to run till 11:15, more power to you but my advice is to get yourself better medication, show your audience some mercy and start cutting.
A Thankless Task
When a show is in trouble, it is easiest for those working on a show to blame the book. After all, it costs amazing amounts of time and money to add new songs or replace cast members, while changing the book simply means ordering the author to cut or revise. I once worked on a musical (which shall go nameless) that was having a disastrous pre-Broadway tour. The score sucked, the director was inexperienced and the big-name star was hilariously miscast but everyone insisted that the book was to blame. Baloney! The book was probably the one solid thing the show had going for it. Thankfully, the star became ill and the show closed out of town, leaving the book writer's reputation intact for better projects.
Now that many musicals are virtually sung through, librettists are less appreciated than ever. The international hit Phantom of the Opera is often thought of as the work of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, while librettist Richard Stilgoe is practically unknown outside of his own family. (Of course, the same can be said for Phantom's lyricist, Charles Hart.) In sung-through musicals like this one, where does the book writing end and the lyric writing begin? There is no set answer it varies from team to team and show to show.
The book writer gets almost no credit if a show succeeds, and most of the blame if it fails. Peter Stone, the most successful librettist alive, got demeaning reviews for 1776, Woman of the Year, Will Rogers Follies and Titanic and received Tony Awards for each of them! So it is not surprising that good librettists are few and far between. Most of the people who might once have worked in musical theatre take their talents to television. Who can blame them? When writing for a sitcom can bring a six-figure annual salary, why spend years writing a musical that may never make a cent? And yet, the madness still infects a few. Those of us who love the musical will keep our fingers crossed in the new century and hope that a fresh crop of solid librettists are set to appear.
With the book and score accounted for, who has to come on board to make a musical happen?