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 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.