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
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.
- 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 truly 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
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
"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
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 perfect one's work. This is especially
true when one 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
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 tree 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 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?
On to: Key Players - Who Does What?