The Bad News
Have you noticed that almost all the books on how to write songs, lyrics or musicals
are written by teachers, not working professionals? Real writers,
composers and lyricists rarely try to explain how they create, because the creative
process is unique what works for any one of them may not work for anyone else.
Teachers can offer theory and analysis of form, but that doesn't shed any
light on the act of artistic creation.
So let’s settle this one right up front no one can tell you how
to create! A seasoned pro may offer pointers, and people with a wide knowledge
of the genre can tell you what forms and approaches have worked up
to now, but the bad news is that no one can give you a method or road map to
creating a musical.
To see how intensely personal the creative process is, let's compare the approaches
used by four great lyricist-librettists
- William S. Gilbert wrote all his drafts in expensive leather-bound
journals, saving every idea and deleted line for possible use in the future.
These meticulous notebooks are still preserved after more than a century,
providing a goldmine for researchers.
Gilbert always wrote a complete version of the book and lyrics for a new
comic opera before submitting anything to composer Arthur Sullivan -- then, as Sullivan
composed, Gilbert would make revisions as needed. Rehearsals usually led to more
revisions, and the material might be edited or even re-written or based on
the reactions of audiences.
- When lyricist Larry Hart worked with composer Richard Rodgers,
they would talk through a potential project (frequently collaborating with a
co-librettist, such as Herb Fields),
deciding where the songs would go, which characters would sing them, and
what each song could do to develop the characters & plot. Then
Hart usually waited for Rodgers to compose the melodies. Hart would
listen to a new tune once or twice, then dash off the lyrics with amazing speed,
scrawling on any available scrap of paper -- sometimes just filling the
spare space in a magazine ad. The libretto would be rewritten through the final
weeks of rehearsal, and was subject to major revisions right
up to its opening night on Broadway.
- Oscar Hammerstein II also worked with Rodgers, but in their collaborations
the book and lyrics were usually written first. After the two men discussed the dramatic
intention of a potential song, Hammerstein retreated to his
Pennsylvania farm, where he curled into a chair and labored over every lyric for days or
weeks at a time, neatly organizing his ideas on legal pads, then typing them
out. While the first drafts of scripts were
finished long before the first rehearsal, they were subject to extensive
revision during pre-Broadway tryouts.
- Alan Jay Lerner's habit of flying
halfway around the world to avoid writing commitments frequently left his
collaborators in a frustrating state of limbo, sometimes for months on end. Lerner
was so crippled by nerves that he wore
white cotton gloves to avoid chewing his fingers raw while working on a new
project. The books and lyrics for his musicals were usually completed
during high-pressure tryouts, adding tremendous tension to the process. (After creating
My Fair Lady, Lerner had a recurring nightmare about a group of friends
coming into a hotel room to ask what he had written after several days
locked inside. Surrounded by mounds of crumpled pages, Lerner dreamt he
would hold up a sheet and read, “Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly”
whereupon his friends would cart him off to an asylum.)
Each of these men had their share of hits and flops, so it is impossible to define
any method as right or wrong. Each writer,
composer or collaborative team must figure out (usually by trial and error) what
works best for them. The point is that they go through the hell of
creating no matter how uncomfortable or terrifying that hell might be.
If you are going to write a musical, you are setting out to offer an audience a
story. What makes a musical compelling, what commands audience interest?
Music? Oh please! A musical must have characters who need or want
something desperately, and that need comes up against an equally powerful obstacle.
The resulting conflict forces these characters to give their all,
risk everything and this is why audiences feel compelled to see how these stories
turn out. All successful book musicals involve characters who have something or
someone they are willing to put everything on the line for. Some examples
- Rent offers a small army of characters who are willing to face
miserable poverty in pursuit of their creative dreams.
- In Guys and Dolls, each major character is eventually willing to
radically redefine their life in order to marry the person they love.
- Sweeney Todd will stop at nothing to kill those
who sent him to prison on a trumped-up charge. Audiences are fascinated to see
Todd's need for revenge consume everything he once loved.
- Singin' In the Rain has movie star Don Lockwood simultaneously
trying to save his screen career and win the love of Kathy Seldin, the girl he loves.
- In Wicked, gifted witch Elphaba is willing to abandon her dreams of
respectable success in order to stand up for what she believes to be right.
How do you know if your story is compelling? Well, how compelled are you to
tell it? Do you care deeply about it, so deeply that you must tell this story or
die? Believe it or not, that's a very good sign. If you are writing because you
think you have a hot topic others will go for, please double check your motives. It is
impossible to judge in advance what critics and audiences will applaud for --
all the greatest talents have miscalculated at one time or another. Your best
bet is always to go with material you care about deeply, a story and characters
that you believe in.
Moss Hart once told
Alan Jay Lerner that nobody knows the secret to writing a hit musical . . .but the
secret to writing a flop is "to say yes when you mean no."
Those are the truest words ever spoken about musicals! If every
fiber of your being says "Yes!" to a potential project,
it improves the odds that others will care about it too.
What's It All About?
When Jerome Robbins agreed to direct the original Fiddler On The Roof, he asked
the authors a crucial question: "What is your show about?" They
answered that it was about a Russian Jewish milkman and his family, and Robbins told them to
think again. He wanted to know what the show was really about at its emotional core
what was the main internal force that would drive the action and touch audiences both
intellectually and emotionally? (Many academics call this core the premiseof a story.) Eventually, the authors realized that the show was really about the
importance of family and tradition, and about what happens when a way of life faces
extinction. This not only gave them the idea for a magnificent opening number
("Tradition") it also gave what could have been a very parochial show
irresistible universal appeal. This is why the fable of Tevya the Russian-Jewish milkman
has moved audiences all over the world.
When writing a musical, you must eventually figure out your premise, what
your show is really about at its core. Then you must make sure that every element of your
material serves that premise every character, every scene, every line, every
song. Anything that does not serve the premise is extraneous and should be
cut. That may sound ruthless, but it is the secret to building a really
A good premise gives your musical project wide ranging (if not universal) appeal.
This does not mean you should limit
yourself to common characters facing common challenges far from it! For
example, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a Victorian barber out to kill
the vile men who stole his beloved wife and sent him off to rot in prison on
false charges. But at its core, the show is really about the terrifying cost of
revenge, how past resentment can cost everything our past, our present and even
our future. This premise makes Sweeney's story the audience's story.
Today, even a revue can have a premise. When Pig's Fly was a set of
hilarious songs and skits built around one gay man's obsession with succeeding
in the theatre -- despite everyone warning that he would succeed
only "when pig's fly." But the show's premise was that the more
outrageous or "over the top" a dream is, the more it is worth
pursuing. That theme resonated with gays and straights alike, and When Pig's
Fly enjoyed a long and profitable off-Broadway run.
Things to Keep in Mind
Consider these key questions posed by the original producer of 1776 and
"The greatest question musical dramatists must answer
is: does the story I am telling sing? Is the subject sufficiently off the ground to
compel the heightened emotion of bursting into song? Will a song add a deeper
understanding of character or situation?"
- Stuart Ostrow, A Producer's Broadway Journey (Praeger: Westport,
CT. 1999), p. 96.
If all songwriters and librettists answered those questions diligently,
audiences would be spared innumerable hours of boredom. Dissect the
worst musical you have ever seen (I am serious about this; pick the one you hate
the most), and odds are you will find that the story does
not really "sing," does not call for the heightened emotion of
characters bursting into song.
Beyond that basic issue,
there are other pointers worth remembering. In the course of my production career
on and off Broadway, I have worked with dozens of songwriters and librettists,
from gifted unknowns to Tony and Academy Award winners. Based on that experience, there
are several things I would recommend if you want to write musicals
- See as many musicals as you can, on stage or screen.
- Study the musicals you like and figure out what makes them tick.
- Study the musicals you don't like and figure out
what prevents them from ticking. You can sometimes learn far more by studying a flop
than a flawless hit -- at the very least, look at flops as practical lessons in what not to do!
- Since musicals are a collaborative art form, do your
best to find collaborators you can work with comfortably.
- Find or invent a story idea that gets you so excited you can spend five or more
years of your life working on it with no promise (or even a reasonable hope) of it
earning you a penny.
- Structure your life in such a way that it leaves you daily time to write and/or
- Be sure this life structure provides a way for you to keep the bills paid.
- Work only on projects you are passionate about never take on a musical
based solely on its commercial possibilities. This year's "hot" idea
often proves to be next year's embarrassment.
- Make sure your work has a genuine sense of humor. Too many new writers and
composers tend to concoct "serious" musicals that bore audiences.
- Don't waste time being afraid of messing up every creative talent in history has
written a clunker. Better yet, every great musical had started as a clunky
first draft. It takes determined effort and revision to bring out the best
in any project. If you treat every project you work on as a learning
experience, I'll make you a promise; you will find that even a
"failed" scene or song can be a very creative
Eight Rules For Writing Musicals
While no one can tell you how to write a musical,
(is there an echo in here?), there are
a few basic rules that may help aspiring authors and composers along the road to
their first opening night. But don't take my word on any of them -- prove them
yourself. They will apply to any great musical currently in existence.
The first four rules apply to good writing
of any kind
1. Show, Don't Tell This is job one for all writers, now
and forever. Don't tell us what your characters are let their actions show
us! Drama is expressed in action, not description. No one has to tell us that
Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors is a gullible nerd; his every
action screams it out. Peggy Sawyer never has to declare that she is
a naive newcomer to 42nd Street's hard-edged world of show business --
her wide-eyed behavior makes that clear from her first scene.
There is another aspect to "show, don't tell." Since theater
and film are visual as well as literary mediums,
musicals are not limited to words and music. Many a great musicals uses
the power of visual images to communicate key information. (Plays are called "shows,"
no?) The waiters in Hello Dolly never have to tell us that they love
Dolly their visible reaction to her presence shows it all. And
no one in My Fair Lady has to announce when Liza Doolittle becomes a lady
her wordless, elegant descent down the stairs before leaving for the Embassy
Ball shows that the transformation has occurred.
2. Cut everything that is not essential Some call this the "kill
your darlings" rule. Every character, song, word and gesture has to serve a
clear dramatic purpose. If not, the whole structure of your show can suffer.
If something does not develop character, establish setting or advance the plot,
you must cut it -- even if it is a moment that you love. The next time
you see a musical that seems to be losing steam, odds are that the writers did not have
the heart to cut non-essential material. Never show your audiences such a lack of respect
ruthlessly cut everything that does not serve a clear and vital purpose to your premise.
3. Know the basics of good storytelling Musicals are just another
form of telling stories, an art humans have been practicing since the invention
of speech. Can you tell me what your show is really about (the premise),
and define the essential dramatic purpose of each character? And does
every scene offer a character with deep desire confronting a powerful
Learning the art of storytelling does not mean
getting a masters degree good news, friend: the basic tools of
storytelling are already in you. Reading a few good books can get
you thinking in the right direction. For starters, try Jerry Cleaver's Immediate
Fiction: A Complete Writing Course (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2002). It will open
your eyes to the unseen elements that make a great story absorbing, and a great
story is the best starting point for any book musical. If you need to go deeper,
read Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing
Fiction (NY: Grove Press, 2005). Both of these books are ground
breaking, and both can save you years of misguided effort.
On the specific subject of writing original musicals, Making
Musicals (NY: Limelight Editions, 1998) by Tom Jones is the only book
on the subject written by a bona fide creator of musical hits (The
Fantasticks, etc.). He offers no magic formulas, but his gentle wisdom
can enrich anyone facing the creative process.
4. Your first duty in writing a musical is to tell a good story in a
fresh, entertaining way NEVER to teach or preach. If you make one or more intelligent
points along the way, that's fantastic, but it won't matter much if your audience has lost
interest, or simply stayed away. Dance a Little Closer condemned war and homophobia,
and closed on its opening night. On the other hand, Hairspray skewered bigotry and
ran for years. And while some critics dismiss The Sound of Music as fluff, it
has probably done more harm to the ongoing threat of Nazism than all the World War II
documentaries ever made.
If you always put the story and characters first, you won't have to hit anyone over the
head with a lesson or message. A well-told story lives in the memory long after
any sermon or lecture. I beg you: if you want to preach, build a pulpit. When you
are really lucky, the one who will learn something from your writing is you.
Now, some rules that apply specifically to the musical form
5. Find the Song Posts - Song placement in a musical is not
arbitrary! Irving Berlin said that he evaluated potential projects by looking for
the "posts" points in the story that demand a song. Call these
key moments whatever you like, but they are the places where characters
have some emotional justification for singing. Think about your favorite
musical; the songs all have something to say, expressing important feelings or concerns
of the characters. Joy, confusion, heartbreak, love, rage at the points
or posts where these life-defining feelings break through, characters can sing.
6. Open With a Kick-Ass Song Every now and then, a successful musical
(My Fair Lady, The King and I) opens with a few pages of dialogue before the
opening number, but these are the exceptions. In most cases, the quickest way to
touch a musical theatre audience is through song. An effective number or musical
scene sets the tone
for the show to come and also allows swift plot exposition & character
development. By the end of the opening
number, audiences should know where the story is set, what sort of people are in it,
and what the basic tone of the show (comic, satiric, serious, etc.) will be.
This is why the opening number ought to be
one of the strongest in the score. A great opening number reassures audiences
that there more good things to come. Think of Ragtime's title song, which
handily introduces audiences to an army of characters and the distant era they
lived in! Other examples: Oklahoma ("Oh, What a Beautiful
Morning"), Les Miserables ("At the End of the Day"),
Urinetown ("Too Much Exposition"), and Hairspray
("Good Morning, Baltimore").
7. Book, Score and Staging MUST Speak as One In contemporary musical theater,
the score, libretto and staging (both direction and choreography) share the job of
storytelling. This results in frequent passages of sung dialogue, as well as scenes
where characters move seamlessly between spoken word, dance and song. Think of
the hilarious "Keep It Gay" in The Producers, the achingly
beautiful "If I Loved You" bench scene in Carousel, or the powerful
dances ignited by the songs in Moving Out the dialogue, lyrics and
staging form a single fabric. The trick is to keep the content smooth and
varied. A hint if your libretto goes on for pages and pages
between isolated musical numbers, something is probably wrong. And if your score
has a stretch of ballad after ballad, give your audiences a break and vary the
tone. In other words, lighten up!
8. Songs Are Not Enough When you turn an existing story into a
musical, you need a fresh vision. Just adding songs won't give you an effective
musical. You have to tell the story with a fresh dose of energy, of
re-inspiration. Annie took the characters from a classic comic strip,
added some new faces and placed them all in an entirely new story. Some of
the best moments in My Fair Lady did not come from Shaw's Pygmalion --
including the crux of the pivotal "Rain in Spain" scene. When you add songs,
you must also re-ignite the material at hand.
9. Sing It or Say It; NEVER Both Rouben Mamoulian, the original director of Porgy
& Bess, Oklahoma & Carousel put it this way: "It's the basic
law that the music and dancing must extend the dialogue. If you say the same
thing in a song you already have said in the speeches, it's without point. . . a
song must lift the spoken scene to greater heights than it was before, or the
song must be cut no matter how beautiful is the melody. The song must not merely
repeat in musical terms what has already been put across by the dialogue and
actions." (Maurice Zoltow, NY Times, 1/29/1950, "Mamoulian Directs a
Musical," section 2, p.1)
Why You SHOULD NOT Write Musicals
Yes, I mean you. Working in the professional theatre can be hell yes, hell.
hat is why several wise people have been credited with saying that the worst
thing they could wish on Hitler was that he "be stuck out of town working
on a new musical!"
Can you stand the merciless judgment of producers, potential backers, fellow
creators, press critics, anonymous internet chatroom snipers, and (gulp!) paying
audiences? Can you handle years (and I mean years) of
anonymous, unpaid struggle? Are you ready to work your butt off eight hours or more at a
demanding day job and then somehow find the energy to write on the side? Can you handle the fact
that most people will have no idea who you are or what you do even if you win a Tony
or an Oscar? Finally, can you handle doing all this for no more than 2% of a show's
profits? (That's the percentage the authors share under the present
standard contract, so if you collaborate, you only get a piece of that!) This is not a career for
the dilettante -- or for the feint of heart:
"This is a tough business, a cruel business. The competition,
especially in New York and especially in the musical theatre, is fierce. Not without
reason is there the saying: "It is not enough that I succeed, my friends have
also to fail." There is a tendency after you have been in the rat race for a
while to open the Times and slowly relish the roasting given to some competitor,
possibly even to some friend."
- Tom Jones, Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of
Musical Theatre (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), pp. 188.
Why You SHOULD Write Musicals
You should write musicals only if
there is no possible way for you not to. If all
the negatives cannot dissuade you, go for it! You might be crazy enough
to succeed in this snake pit. Just be sure that you always have a solid means of paying your bills
and recharging your spirits. And while talent and luck are valuable to any
aspiring composer, lyricist or librettist, there are three things that matter even
more patience, determination, and guts. One of the worlds greatest
musical comediennes said the following about acting in an interview, but it applies to writers
and composers too
"I'll give you a tip it's risk. Once you're
willing to risk everything, you can accomplish anything."
- Patricia Routledge, actress
There are as many ways to write a musical as there are musicals. If you do decide
to venture forth into this daunting field, know that my best wishes and the best wishes of
millions of ticket-buying theatre lovers hungering for something new and
wonderful will go with you.
Next: How to Get Your Musical Produced