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How Musicals are Made

How To Write a Musical

by John Kenrick

Copyright 2000 (Revised 2009)

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 –

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.

Compelling Need

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 –

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 Really 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 premise of 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 good show.

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 Pippin --

"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 Ened 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 Ened 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 –

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 obstacle?

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 S 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 A Musical

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 A Musical

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, Tony-winning 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