Writing a musical requires no less foresight. Trying to create a musical without a solid plan is likely to lead to multiple unsuccessful starts, and a good chance of outright failure due to not knowing which way to proceed in the telling of the tale.
One excellent way to avoid some of the pitfalls a musical creator may face is to spend a serious amount of time working out the story in some detail prior to writing the libretto. There are well known steps that can make writing the book, lyrics, and music easier. Not easy, mind you, easier. It’s still going to be seriously hard work, but with thoughtful planning the process can be more focused and less confusing.
Where does one start? First, whether or not you are adapting an underlying work or an original concept, write what’s called a “logline,” a term that comes from screenwriting, but is fully applicable to most musicals. Write a paragraph of no more than five sentences that describes the story’s beginning, middle, and end and includes the protagonist, antagonist, a hint at how the story unfolds, its underlying conflict, and a good clue to how the whole thing resolves.
Here’s an example of a logline found in my book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations. This one is from a show I created called, Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical: “When a brilliant doctor discovers a chemical mixture that he believes will cure madness, he is denied the right to experiment on inmates of the insane asylum. He opts to try the chemical on himself unwittingly unleashing his murderous inner self. Unable to stop either his uncontrolled transformations or the numerous murders committed by his evil alter ego, the doctor must face the ultimate solution to his dilemma through his own death.”
A good logline takes some skill to write, but can work wonders for your decision-making process. It will help you figure out if the story is viable enough for you to invest your time in that next brave step—writing a premise.
Premises expand the logline, telling the tale in prose so that you can better envision the story a bit more expansively. A premise can run anywhere from two pages to six or seven pages in length. It should read like a short, compact version of what will ultimately be turned into a much longer piece. A useful premise should hit the highlights of the story, including all seven structural plot points: normal world, inciting incident, point of no return, midpoint, big gloom, climax (and catharsis) and new normal. Writing a premise forces you to slow down and consider the story’s overall arc. Premises help you think about a story globally before you waste a lot of time on even more detailed efforts.
After writing the premise, if you remain excited by what you’ve written and convinced you really have something worthy of further development, then you will want to move with a sense of confidence to the next step—writing either a detailed beat outline or a treatment or both.
A beat outline digs deeply into the nitty-gritty of what will happen in the story. It’s an opportunity to flesh out the protagonist’s throughline (the story’s spine that your hero will follow) and how his or her tale will ultimately conclude, hopefully delivering to the audience a powerful resolution and catharsis. Most importantly, a good outline will explore and expose the story’s ups and downs, the many obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, the overall action as it rises, and how the protagonist deals with all those struggles (both internal and external) that he or she will face.
In Beating Broadway, you will find thirty-five classic Broadway musicals and five famous movie musicals laid out in beat outline form. Studying shows broken down in this way can be extremely enlightening, especially if you are writing a musical that may be similar in tone or genre to something that has been successfully produced.
Most musicals contain between forty and sixty story beats, but there are no rules here. Regardless of the number of beats, almost every Broadway-bound musical will arrive on the Great White Way with a running time of approximately two hours and thirty-five or forty minutes (including intermission). Your story must be big enough to fill that time while not exceeding it.
Beyond the beat outline, a treatment is an excellent way to further develop the story. A useful treatment may run anywhere from ten to thirty double-spaced prose pages. It will indicate where scenes begin and end, the placement of songs within the show’s structure (though it may be helpful, it’s not required that you spot songs at this juncture), where the intermission lands, and so on. Ideally, a treatment should also include every structural milestone. Most importantly, a treatment ought to reveal how the characters will interact emotionally during their endlessly goal-driven, conflict-filled journey.
Writing a treatment is one of the most essential and powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. A treatment is likely to make the challenging task of writing the book, music, and lyrics feel less like a voyage into uncharted waters and more like you are following a familiar, well-worn path of your own making. I highly advise that you take your time and get the story right before plunging into writing the libretto.
May you have great success in writing the world a grand new musical for all of us to enjoy!
Keeping Your Story on Track
Every protagonist worthy of our attention, affection, and time needs a grand goal to pursue that will give him some kind of a purpose or path to follow. If a story is well constructed, the audience will happily go along with the hero as he works his way toward his overall goal. Such a goal, also known as a “superobjective,” must be well established early on in a story or else the hero will flounder, directionless, lost in the weeds of life. Why would we ever bother watching such a story? It is the pursuit of a protagonist’s grand goal that grabs us and keeps our attention. We want to live vicariously through a hero’s struggles. We want to see if the hero can achieve his mission or not.
The protagonist’s superobjective is almost always set up during the second of the seven plot points (story milestones) that can be found in pretty much every memorable, popular story. Plot Point Two is also better known as “The Inciting Incident.” Inciting Incidents tend to appear somewhere in the early part of most stories, typically between five and twenty minutes into a full-length musical. However, it is possible for such a moment to pop up as early as a story’s very first moment. Examples of Inciting Incidents include: in Cabaret, Cliff, unable to write, goes out to the Kit Kat Klub, where he meets Sally Bowles; in The King and I, Anna is told that she must live in the palace instead of the private residence that she had been promised. Offered a chance to leave Singapore, she opts to stay; in The Music Man, Harold Hill’s con begins to crumble the moment he meets Marian Paroo and is smitten.
The Inciting Incident usually dictates the path that the protagonist will follow for the remainder of his quest. It drives the protagonist toward his goal. And it sets up the protagonist’s “throughline,” meaning how he gets from the normal world that he knows at a tale’s beginning to his story’s New Normal at the end. The throughline is also known in the writing world as the story’s “spine.” By establishing a clear throughline for your hero’s journey, then rigorously seeing that the hero follows it, your story will remain on track as it heads to its inevitable ending.
Straight pathways are rarely that engaging, and neither are throughlines. It is far more interesting for a hero take a bumpy path toward his goal. The path must twist and turn and be filled with obstacles and conflict. Audiences want to feel as if the protagonist’s journey is extremely challenging. If it’s too easy then we get bored—without question the kiss of death for any show.
Throughlines must regularly shift direction while the action continues to rise as the story heads inexorably toward a dynamic climax. Yet through it all a hero must stay on target toward his ultimate superobjective—which he may or may not actually achieve. In Sweeney Todd, Sweeney gets his goal—to avenge his wife’s supposed murder, but at what cost? In Hello, Dolly, when Dolly Levi sets her sights on wealthy Horace Vandergelder, he has no idea what kind of irresistible force he’s attracted. In Avenue Q, Princeton determines to find his true “purpose,” which sets him on a journey that concludes in a place that he never expected.
All worthy stories are well integrated. To achieve integration, authors must eliminate all storytelling fat. No extra story baggage can be allowed. Everything must belong to the whole. Doing so helps to keep all the elements tied together and rolling along in a single, unified direction.
If you’re having trouble figuring out why your story isn’t working, especially if it meanders and seems unfocused, ask yourself these questions:
1) Is there conflict in every moment of every scene?
2) Is the protagonist’s goal clearly established at the Inciting Incident?
3) Does the protagonist doggedly pursue his superobjective at every step of his journey—even if he appears to be sidetracked by one distraction or another?
4) Does the goal established by the Inciting Incident result after the climax in a clear resolution for the protagonist? This resolution may have a positive or negative outcome, but the goal needs to be resolved in some way that is satisfying to an audience. “Satisfying” does not mean a happy ending; it means the story delivers to the audience a powerful catharsis.
If the answer to any of the above four questions is “no,” then go back to your story and transform each of those answers to a resounding “yes.” By doing so you may find yourself pursuing your own goal of a legitimate show on a big stage for all of us to see and enjoy.
Tips for Writing New Musicals
What do audiences care about most in musicals? Is it an intricate, multi-layered plot with a great twist ending? Or might it be an array of interesting settings? Or is it crackling dialogue found between soaring melodies that have been coupled with ingenious lyrics? Of course, it’s all of those and a lot more. But what audiences demand most of all is to discover a unique protagonist to whom they can attach themselves and follow as he pursues a powerful goal. The goal is the hook. Pursuing it is what keeps the audience invested in the protagonist and his story.
What Helps Audiences Care about the Protagonist? Of course, before we in the audience will commit our time and energy to follow a protagonist we must first identify with him. In the protagonist we must recognize something readily identifiable to us; we must see something in him that we know to be familiar or true for ourselves, something emotionally visceral. If you have ever felt trapped by a lousy circumstance that you knew to be untrue or horribly unfair then maybe you well may identify with a convict like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. If you have ever felt like your dreams were slipping away from you then maybe you can identify with Cassie in A Chorus Line. Identifying with the protagonist is requisite for us to be able to drop into the protagonist’s point of view. Once we can see ourselves living through the protagonist’s eyes we will willingly follow him almost anywhere.
In plays, screenplays, and teleplays character identification can be established only through what we see and hear—action and dialogue. Novelists can take us inside of a character’s thoughts by simply telling us what he is thinking. Dramatists occasionally do the same through the infrequently used device of voiceover or by having a character break the third wall and speak directly to the audience, but most of the time a character must show us or tell us what he is thinking or else the audience can only guess at it. But writers of musicals have a special tool at their disposal in order to overcome this—it’s this awesome thing called a song. Music and lyrics can go way beyond a character’s exterior to dive deeply into his heart, mind, and spirit in a manner that is far more powerful than dialogue alone ever could.
Characters “Land” with Their First Song One of the most successful composers in musical theatre history, Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked among many others), once remarked, “It’s been said that a character in a musical doesn’t really land until he or she sings, and I think that’s true.” For a character to “land” usually means we get who he is and he has hooked us to follow him on his journey. This most often happens the first time he sings, especially if the song gives us a glimpse into a character’s private thoughts and feelings and exposes his inner desires. Many memorable, popular musicals have been purposefully constructed so that the protagonist’s first song creates a “wow” moment. Such songs can certainly be big, bold, spectacularly staged numbers, but as often as not these kinds of songs are solos—though frequently a solo sung in a crowd.
It is fairly common for a protagonist’s first song to be what is better known in the business as an “I want” song. Why is this so? Such songs express a character’s desire, his want, therefore his major goal or superobjective. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a powerful goal, and so there is no one in the audience that cannot relate or empathize. This means these kinds of songs are often found circling the story’s inciting incident—which establishes the protagonist’s ultimate goal. “I want” songs may well appear to be about some surface desire for something mundane or tangible, like money or a job, but it might also be a more internal and emotional desire for love, power, respect, or perhaps a declaration of principle or a dream. Such “I want” songs are fairly easy to spot and are often highly memorable. Think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing, “If I were a Rich Man”; or in Evita when Eva Peron sings, “I wanna be a part of B.A. Buenos Aires, Big Apple” in the song, “Eva, Beware of the City”; or in Gypsy when Momma Rose sings “Some People”: “I had a dream…all about June in the Orpheum circuit. Gimme a chance and I know I can work it.”
Such lyrics, when coupled with unforgettable melodies, draw us to the protagonist’s desire. After all who among us has never dreamt of doing something bigger and better than whatever it is we’ve already done? Who among us has never wanted for anything beyond what we already have? When constructing a protagonist (or for that matter an antagonist or any character) show the audience from the start your character’s drive, ambition, and fierce will. Doing so will likely drag us inexorably into the world of the story and help us to willingly suspend our disbelief so that we can vicariously enter the life of another—the protagonist—for the show’s duration.
Here are a few more sterling examples of first songs sung by protagonists: Princeton in Avenue Q sets up his life’s dilemma by wondering, “What do I do with a B.A. in English?”; in The Music Man Harold Hill delivers his swaggering con in the infamous, “Ya Got Trouble”; in Camelot King Arthur sings of his anxieties over marrying Guenevere in, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”; in Sweeney Todd Sweeney takes note of the befouled world around him in “No Place Like London”; in My Fair LadyHenry Higgins expresses his sense of superiority via his disdain for Eliza Dolittle’s accent in “Why Can’t the English?”; in Hello, Dolly, Dolly Levi first arrives on the scene by announcing her matchmaking abilities in, “I Put My Hand In”; in WickedElphaba’s first song, “The Wizard and I,” predicts her future, “…I swear, someday there’ll be a celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with me.” This list could be made quite long, but I’m betting you get the idea.
Audience Empathy and the Journey to Resolution Setting up a protagonist’s ultimate goal through an inciting incident early in a story’s first movement in conjunction with a great “I want” song sets up an audience for the singular thing that all of us go to shows to receive—a powerfully cathartic emotional release at the story’s resolution. But you can’t reach that catharsis without first building empathy for the protagonist. And we can’t build empathy unless we identify with the character. If you can achieve character identification early in your story, then you have a real shot at success. And if you can do this through the magic of a killer song then you may have the great good fortune to watch as people you don’t know line up around the block to buy tickets to see your show.
Happy writing to you!
With a Song in Their Hearts
One of the traps that novice writers of musicals frequently step into is the misapplication of lyrics. Although most every memorable musical tells a story, the songs should rarely have the burden of explaining the narrative or exposition or plot. Writers may have heard that songs are supposed to advance the plot, but newer composers and lyricists often rely on the lyrics to carry far too much of the story’s water.
Lyricists sometimes become infatuated with their own words and how cleverly they can tell the tale in rhyme. Songs in musicals written by newer artists often work too hard to explain the backstory or plot details or character descriptions. Unless a musical is mostly sung-through, lyricists would be well advised to avoid detailing the plot or much of the exposition via the songs. In most memorable, popular musicals the songs more often than not act to expand our understanding of the inner emotions, concerns, and lives of the characters – particularly (though not always) those of the principal characters. Audiences prefer hearing songs about what the characters are feeling, not about what they are doing.
Novels are excellent vehicles for revealing the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters. Novelists are able to become omniscient narrators who can seamlessly tell the reader what a character thinks and feels. But few musicals are narrated. Rather, they are dramatized through dialogue and song. Audiences are not good at reading the characters’ minds. Unlike novels, the audience is only able to understand that which can be seen and heard. That means writers of dramatic works, whether for stage or screen, are limited in how they divulge the internal thoughts of the characters so readily offered in literature. The audience must be able to hear or see those thoughts or inner dialogues. In musicals, these are usually best conveyed aurally through song, and visually in the staging or choreography.
The beauty of musicals, as opposed to non-musical dramatic works, is in how songs are able to transcend the surface of a character’s actions and words and dig down deeply into a his or her inner psyche. A character that speaks a line about their “feelings” might seem cloying or too on-the-nose. But those very same sentiments may be more easily accepted by an audience when expressed in lyrics. That is what lifts the songs in musicals to a special resonant place in the theater.
No doubt dialogue can deliver the same emotional impact as songs (it happens all the time in plays, movies, and TV shows), only songs can get us there so much more efficiently. A commonly held belief is that when a character sings in a musical it means that the emotion is too strong to be merely spoken, but this doesn’t always hold true. There are no rules on any of this, but musical storytelling works best of all when the book, music, and lyrics act in concert to simultaneously move story forward while expanding our understanding of the characters’ inner emotions. Songs are particularly well suited to convey a character’s emotions, be they on the surface or very deep, and often do so in a far more potent manner than via dialogue alone. This is because music is absorbed through the ears straight into the heart and soul. In short, music makes all those emotional words easy to grasp and feel.
The problem usually begins when writers set out to determine which pieces of the story to musicalize and which parts to write as dialogue or “book.” Writing believable emotions, whether through dialogue or lyrics, can be challenging to get right. So, lyricists may simply set out to write the obvious part instead—the plot. But that can easily wind up seeming clunky, and can quickly become dull and uninteresting when set to music.
Of course, there are excellent examples that defy this notion: Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, and Evita, come to mind. In the “Prologue” of Les Misérables, Valjean’s background as a petty thief is explained and the men discuss breaking the law. This sets up Valjean’s story and the emotions that will propel him to flee captivity. In the opening “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” the company reveals much about who Sweeney is and a bit about his backstory, but not too much about the emotions underpinning his tale. Or consider the opening of Evita in which we learn that Eva Peron has died and of the impact that Evita had on Argentina during “Requiem for Evita/Oh What a Circus.” These three opening songs are at least as expositional they are emotional. But the above-mentioned shows, and various others like them, are heavily sung-through, so the lyricists have no choice but to use lyrics to carry the story, often as recitative. Each of these examples provides a master class on how to effectively use lyrics to divulge information, plot, and the emotions of the characters via song.
Exposition or Revelation of Feelings….
Of course, those shows are more the exception than the rule. Most shows are written with fairly equal doses of dialogue and songs. That way the songs don’t need to cover so much of the story. The opening of Oklahoma is a perfect example. When Curly sings, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” he is singing about what a glorious feeling he has about the day to come. This will prove to be a poor prognosticator of his near future, but an accurate measure of his emotions at the top of the show. When Henry Jekyll opens Jekyll & Hyde by singing “Lost in the Darkness,” it is a solemn consideration of his deep concern about patients suffering from madness. This establishment of Jekyll’s emotional journey is punctuated at song’s end by a key story motivation – the revelation that the hospitalized madman he is visiting is his own father.
In most musicals, the book ought to set up and support brilliant, lyric-filled songs that, in turn, set up and support the equally luminous book. That wheel ought to smoothly turn round and round to create an integrated whole that we enjoy as a complete “musical story.” If your songs don’t seem to be working well ask yourself if your lyrics are trying to serve as exposition or plot, and if maybe the dialogue would be better suited to handle such information. Ask yourself how the songs can better serve the characters and their deepest inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions. As you craft your musical’s book to tell an excellent tale look for those perfect places to let the songs soar by unleashing the characters’ emotions—and not the plot.
Successful writing to you all!
Ways to Make Scenes and Moments Memorable
Ever wonder why we mere mortals—those of us living without benefit of a photographic memory—upon seeing a musical only once, are usually unable to remember in any true detail more than a handful of scenes and production details? The first time I see a show I’m usually able to recall the show’s tone, the brilliance of one or more of the performers, maybe several of the tunes, and perhaps one or more well-done indelible moments. But a single viewing is more often than not insufficient for me to remember many of the specifics. It is the rare, gifted individual who can recall a show verbatim having sat through it a single time. Yet just about every popular show offers enough “special moments” that many patrons will walk away with the perception that the entire work was both magical and memorable. So, what is that magic, and how can a writer achieve it?
I think you’ll agree that the songs are often the most memorable parts of the majority of musicals. Music and lyrics, and sometimes dance, can definitely stamp a moment in the minds of the audience. Unlike concerts, musicals display intriguing characters in compelling stories. It is most often the placement of a wonderful song in the context of a visceral story that creates a memorable moment. “Somewhere” from West Side Story is an especially beautiful song on its own, but it has a far deeper resonance when sung by the lovers, Tony and Maria. “Popular” from Wicked has become, forgive the pun, popular on its own, but when sung by Glinda to Elphaba it rises to an even higher meaning. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is a truly great song that becomes ever more powerful when sung by Rose at Gypsy’sunforgettable first act close. No question that vast numbers of songs work wonderfully well on their own—otherwise there would be no such thing as radio—but when a show tune is sung by well-drawn characters set against an engaging, conflict-filled story, the emotional depth of the song can be elevated to great effect, and therefore become memorable.
That means a book writer would be well-advised to craft magically memorable moments around or within which songs can be placed. Are there elements that a writer may consider using when developing such golden story opportunities? Yes.
Various people in the know will tell you that if the authors of a musical can devise a minimum of three to five memorable scenes in a show, then it is possible for the whole shebang to become “memorable.” Does this mean there is a recipe for creating memorable moments? No, of course not. If such were the case then there would be no failures on Broadway or anywhere else. You will always need ingredients such as: a fulfilling underlying story; the grace to know what to leave in and, just as importantly, what to leave out; fantastic dialogue; singable tunes, etc. But if you are diligent, have found yourself a grand idea and a moving way to tell it, then here are a few suggestions that may help to cement your show’s legacy in the pantheon of musical theater history.
Here are a few structural elements that can make a big difference. Some of the following may sound obvious and simplistic, yet it is notable how often creators neglect to employ these elements in their work and then wonder why their magnum opus has tanked. Find ways to insert one or more of the following in any number of scenes and watch how the work becomes elevated (NOTE: any combination of these can be employed at the same time):
A) A BIG SURPRISE. As long as the surprise is logical and integrated into the whole story, surprises are always memorable – just like in real life. What could be more devastating than Sweeney Todd discovering that the newly dead Beggar Woman is actually his wife, Lucy, who he thought had dies many years earlier?
B) A BIG DECEPTION. This must be supported by information readily available to the audience – even if not obvious at first blush. In other words, a good deception is set up well. Deceptions cannot come utterly out of the blue. You can deceive the audience, but you must not cheat them. No Deus ex Machinas allowed. In South Pacific, the audience is deceived into believing Emile may be lost forever behind enemy lines on Marie Louise. After Nellie loves Ngana and Jerome, Emile appears, alive and well.
C) TRAP YOUR HERO. Make it so there is no obvious way out of a hero’s dilemma. Traps of all kinds are highly relatable, which is why they work so well to make a scene memorable. Audiences love to see characters work their way out of the impossible – a loveless marriage, a horrible job, prison, a sinking boat, a lousy school, insanity, being born green, etc. Traps can be found everywhere. How much more trapped can a man get than when Henry Jekyll is unable to reverse the effects of his own concoction that turns him into the murderous Edward Hyde?
D) A BIG LOSS. Have your protagonist endure losing someone or something so precious or dear that the pain becomes undeniably profound. We all know what it feels like to lose a friend, family member, pet, job, sports event, and so on. Loss is a universally understood emotion. As such, when a character’s loss is gut wrenching, the audience internalizes the hero’s pain and become drawn in deeply. In Chicago, Roxie Hart loses something seriously significant, her freedom.
E) AN INTENSE PURSUIT. Put your hero through the paces of a chase, whether or not he is the pursuer or the pursued—both ways work well. Going after some goal critical to the hero pulls the audience in making those moments hard to forget. Have your hero chase a dream, a true love, a big goal, or let them be chased by bad guys and trouble of every kind. The appearance of inescapability is all it takes. For how long does Javert hunt down Valjean? At the end of Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom is chased into his lair by a mob determined to catch him. Of course, not all great pursuits are of people being chased. InAvenue Q, Princeton goes in pursuit of his purpose.
F) WHO HAS THE POWER? Determine who in a scene has the power. All great scenes in great shows are about power. Who has it? Who wants it? Who gets it? Who loses it? Take power away from whoever has it and see what happens. Or give power to whoever does not have it. What magic happens then? Gaining or losing power within a scene, or even over the course of a whole story, is, well, powerful – and highly memorable. In the climax of Hairspray, Velma von Tussle is the powerhouse in charge of the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest. Who winds up prevailing in the ultimate shift of power? Tracy.
The reason why the above elements work so well in a dramatic story is that they are powerfully relatable on the most primitive human levels. Each element above draws upon universal emotions. Who hasn’t experienced surprise, deceit, being trapped, pursued, or the gain or loss of power? In short, because these emotions are so commonly experienced, most every audience member will relate to, and therefore empathize with, characters enduring such travails. When a viewer feels emotions down the very core of his or her being, that feeling is likely to be remembered—and so will your show.
When you are working on scenes in your musical, ask yourself if adding one or more of the elements discussed above will make your whole show more memorable.
Best wishes in creating characters, scenes, and stories that come alive. I can’t wait to see the results of your work!
Where to Find Great Musical Story Ideas
A question commonly asked of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Fair enough, though I think it should be obvious. The simple answer is, “Everywhere.” Of course, that’s easy for me to say and doesn’t tell you very much. But it’s true. Great writers often describe themselves as conduits; the ideas and work flow through them. Finding and locking down a good idea can take time, patience, and often a bit of luck. But great stories are all around us. The difficulty is in choosing one that has broad commercial appeal and lends itself to the musical form, a task that has proven to be highly daunting, and frequently elusive, over the years.
The truth about Broadway musicals is that the vast majority of stories come from an existing underlying source. All of the following musicals are adaptations from existing properties: The Phantom of the Opera; Cats; Les Misérables; Chicago; Beauty and the Beast; The Lion King; Rent; Miss Saigon; Fiddler on the Roof; Oklahoma; My Fair Lady; Hello, Dolly; Cabaret; Annie; Camelot; Jekyll & Hyde; Wicked; Hairspray, etc. The list of popular musicals adapted from other material is quite lengthy. This is due to the inherent difficulty of telling a story in the musical form. Starting with a known story has its advantages in two ways; it helps to create the show and it helps to sell tickets. A story with built-in audience recognition gives writers a sense of confidence in the story because it has already proven itself. And because audience members have a sense of familiarity and comfort in a story that they already know, they are more willing to pay a sizable sum of money for a ticket than for a totally unknown title.
Great stories can be found in literature, non-fiction, magazines, the news, the internet, short stories, the movies, in TV shows, in good conversations during daily life, in work, in general experience, and so on. You can make one up out of your imagination, too, but those sorts of musicals have turned out to be the hardest of all sells. It helps if you have an eye toward recognizing what makes the heart of a story potentially appealing to many. Better yet, it is most useful if you have a vision of how a story, and its principal characters, will play out. Is there enough room to tell a wonderful, clear, powerful story amid a whole lot of great songs?
Can you see yourself spending years (yes, years) passionately working on a particular story? If so, then it probably has value – at least to you, and you are the first member of the show’s audience. But even the most successful musical storytellers now and then misread the tea leaves. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts and work on a piece for a bit of time to really know if it’s good enough to complete or ought to be abandoned.
Lastly, are the intellectual property rights available to you? Works that are in the public domain (usually most anything published prior to 1920 is fair game – though you should always clear the rights through a viable search or by hiring an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights). Ideas that you create out of the clear blue are, of course, yours. But be careful when attempting to adapt anything that has an existing copyright without first obtaining adaptation rights from the copyright holder. You would be well-advised to obtain such rights before spending much time adapting it to the musical form or you run the risk of having the copyright holder tell you to cease and desist. Rights can be expensive to obtain, so proceed with caution.
As stated above, where to look for ideas is relatively easy – all around you. Research, read, stay open to all the information assaulting you daily, and be ever on the lookout for that next great musical idea. Study every successful musical you can get your hands on so that you can see how those who came before you made their dreams come true (there are 40 of them broken into narrative beats and plot points in <em "mso-bidi-font-style:="" normal"="">Beating Broadway). Turning an idea into a viable musical is always challenging, but starting with a fantastic concept may help you leap that major first hurdle toward filling a stage with actors in costumes working before beautiful sets and lights.
There are two major types of writers in the world: those who love to write, and those who love to have written. Whichever category you fall into, you must learn to love to rewrite because that is where the art truly comes alive and is made wonderfully memorable. I am unaware of anyone who has ever pounded out a draft of a musical, did no revisions of any kind, handed it over to a production team, and had it successfully staged exactly as is with no changes. I suppose it’s possible that someone has done so, but I’m betting no worthy musical has ever been brought to life in such a manner. These monsters usually take a lot of revisions before they wind up looking like there was nothing to it.
I am no fan of first drafts. First drafts are killers. Some people love writing first drafts, but the blank page (or screen) is bloody torture to me. I can’t wait to cage that first gnarly beast.
Rewriting is everything. I love to rewrite. It’s fun. To me, rewriting is where the heart of the art lies. It’s where I get to sculpt, shape, color, tighten, and make the words dance.
When I was a novice at the writing game, I used to think I had to arduously work on each section of a show until I got it “right,” whatever the hell that means (what is right to me can be so wrong to you, and vice versa). But after laboring endlessly on a bit or a scene or an act I always found that I had to rewrite it later anyway.
It took a lot of failed efforts on my part before I learned that, for me, it is best to get that first draft out as fast as I possibly can, and to spend my time laboring over the rewrite. Not that rewriting is easy. It isn’t. But I find it so much more pleasurable that cranking out that always ragged first throw. I later found out that I wasn’t alone in this. The great writer, Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, calls them “Shitty First Drafts.” And they are.
So, if you know that you will invariably rewrite like mad, why sweat that which comes first? Purge out that first draft as fast as you can. Does that mean you should purposefully do a lousy job? No. You must give it your all. Just don’t beat yourself up over it. In fact, the energy that can be generated by knocking out a fast first draft sometimes will result in the most compelling work of all. In all cases, you must concentrate on making it as good as possible – not perfect (again, whatever that means). Just don’t dwell on the glory of your work until much later. Worry about making it great during rewrites – which you cannot possibly do until you have that miserable first draft in front of you. So, have at it. Get past that first draft in a hurry so you can get at the really good stuff sooner rather than later.
A Note for All Note Takers
If you are the least bit successful in the business of show you will be routinely confronted by the opinions of others. It is inevitable. You must learn how to cope with and manage criticism. This will be as true at the end of your career as it is at the beginning. No one gets to evade all those slings and arrows.
Why is this so? Because we are all dealing with an art form, not a science, and everyone has an opinion about the way the art makes them feel. That is the key word: feel. It isn't intellectual, it is emotional. Emotions are frequently far more powerful than cold, rational thought.
As the creator of a new musical, when dealing with those who control your destiny, i.e. producers, directors, maybe a star or two, you must find a way to ingest and incorporate their thoughts into your process. It will be expected of you. You would be wise to find a way to oblige such powerful people — even if only a little bit. This is a collaborative business and it cannot be your way or the highway. That would be impractical. If you are known as a writer who refuses to listen to others you will quickly develop a reputation for being "difficult." People may not want to play in your sandbox — or want you to play in theirs — for long.
So, how should one handle notes? Here's what I do. If someone has spent the time and energy to read your work, to think about it and develop notes about it, the very least you can do is be respectful enough to listen to what they have to say. I listen to everything — even when I thoroughly disagree with what the note-giver is saying. I am always respectful, even when I know the note-giver has not really read or paid attention to the work closely. I calmly and attentively write down their thoughts. I question mainly those notes that I don't understand. I make a point to gently question those notes that are far off the mark in terms of the story. I do my best to be inquisitive — not accusative. I try to ask as few questions as possible, but I do press for clarity. I really do make an effort to understand their point of view. I try not to pass judgment too quickly — though that is not always easy to do.
And I always leave the notes session smiling, thanking them profusely for their insight and help.
Then I go away. And I think about what they said or wrote. I try to see if what they said can be incorporated into the work. I look for that which makes sense, and which helps to improve the story. Then I throw away or ignore the rest. What frequently happens during this process is that sometimes even the notes with which I wholly disagree turn out to trigger a thought that sheds a brand new light that elevates the entire story — or at least a part of it.
In other words, don't be quick to dismiss notes just because they seem dumb or arrogant or off the mark or completely wrong-minded. Take it all in because sometimes in that pile of nonsense lies unexpected inspiration. And if not, you'll give it the ol' heave-ho.
This becomes a little trickier when you are laboring under a "work-for-hire" contract and someone is your boss. Under such circumstances, your obligation to do as you are told may be a little greater. But this is rarely the case in the world of theatrical musicals (movies are different), where writers almost always retain their copyrights — which translates to the control being yours. Not that powerful producers and directors won't find a way to trump that control — which is a story for another day.
So, when it comes to taking notes, my advice is to swallow your pride (for that is what will hurt the most) and take them all. What have you got to lose except a little time? Look at note taking as all potential upside.
Conflict, How Sweet It Is
These occasional blog entries will focus from time to time on the single biggest issue plaguing storytellers: not enough conflict flowing through every moment of the tale being told. Every fiber of your story ought to be infused with conflict of some kind. Without it, you really have not much that will engage the audience. It is important enough of a topic that I will be returning to it somewhat regularly.
Here is why: conflict is nothing less than the foundation of all drama. It is the one thing that no one wants in their life. Yet it is the one indispensable element of every story.
I know some people think conflict means fighting. Of course, it does. But conflict means so much more than soldiers kicking the crud out of one another during the heat of war. It means more than boxers duking it out in the ring. It goes far beyond two people screaming at each other over their differences of opinion. Conflict is all of those, but it is also found in many more moments you may not have considered as "conflicted."
Conflict includes a parent who is unable to calm a yowling baby. It includes a locked door that a character cannot open. Conflict means a waiter screwing up an order. Being stuck in traffic when you are late is a kind of conflict. A character who can't make up his mind about what to wear is in conflict with himself. Subtler conflicts such as these are limitless.
Musical storytelling is no different than any other kind of storytelling. Your story needs to be eyeball deep in conflict.
Stories are all about a character seeking a goal of some kind. So, here is a way of thinking about how to inject conflict into every scene in your show. It comes courtesy of one of the best teachers of story that I know, Professor Hal Ackerman, who teaches screenwriting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and TV. Conflict is equal to a goal, an obstacle, and an unwillingness to compromise. That is simple to say, but ever so difficult to get right.
Remember this: no conflict means no story about which anyone will care. Fill your stories full of conflict and you stand a great chance that the audience will be yours.
The Two Most Important Moments in Your Show
There are, of course, no unimportant moments in any show. Every moment is critical. Each one must be integrated into the whole, and must be filled with conflict, suspense, and the anticipation of what is next to come. But two moments rise above all others in status: the opening and closing moments. So, why are openings and closings so very important? What makes them so special?
It's always a challenge to lure the audience into the world you've created in a way that grabs them and holds them for the next two and half hours. If you open your story well, the audience will instantly drop down the rabbit hole that you have dug and stick with you as the story unfolds. On the other hand, if you do not open well, it will become increasingly difficult to keep the audience's attention from wandering. Opening moments are obliged to do nothing less than completely hook the audience.
So, you've done a great job of telling your story. You've had the audience eating out of the palm of your hand for two hours and fifteen minutes. And then you suddenly neglect to resolve the hero's objective. The end of your tale does not pay off that which you have set up. Will that be memorably satisfying? Not likely.
The climax of most if not all memorable stories will work to resolve the hero's objective (positively or negatively -- happy endings are not required) in a way that results in a catharsis for the viewers. But even after such a catharsis is achieved the author's job is not done. The closing moments of a story ought to present the audience with some form of a memory that lingers. It might be a song, an action, an actor's look, a line of dialogue, a stage picture, etc. Whatever it is it ought to have resonance. When you achieve such a closing moment, the audience will be unable to push your show out of their heads for awhile -- hopefully for days. And they will tell their friends that your creation must be seen. From such moments long runs can be built.
There is absolutely no slacking off during any part of the creation of your story. None. But pay special attention to how you draw the audience in, and how you ultimately leave them at the end with an enduring memory.