I had been looking forward to that weekend in May. Nothing was on my calendar except two full days at my laptop, working on writing projects. First two assignments for the weekend were finishing up applications for two big awards; the deadlines were the following week and I just needed to
How To Write A Musical - 1: The Idea
You have an idea for a musical! “What if …”
· What if a slick traveling salesman finds himself in a small town in Iowa, facing the most stubborn customers he’s ever met, and his goal is to sell them the most far-fetched product ever imagined: a boys’ band?
· What if the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t really that wicked?
· What if an out of work actor pretends to be a woman in order to be cast in a Broadway musical?
It all starts with a “what if…?” Your idea might be completely original, like Meredith Willson’s for the plot of The Music Man. Or it might have originated as a novel, like the source material for Wicked, or from a movie, like the source material for Tootsie. Or maybe your idea is based on a play, like Oklahoma! or an historical event, like Come From Away. All can be great sources for the basis of a new musical. If you’ve never written one before, it’s best to start with a story that has already been dramatized in one format, such as a play or a screenplay; there will still be plenty of creativity and imagination for you to add as you adapt the source material, but it’s easier to start with something and adapt it than it is to create a script of dialog out of thin air as must happen if your inspiration is a novel, an historical event, or a story of your own imagining. Be aware, of course, that if a novel, a play, or screenplay is under copyright, you will first have to obtain the rights to the material. There are also plenty of novels and plays in the public domain which can be a great source for a musical.
Is It Worthy?
Before you spend too much time on your Great Idea, evaluate its worthiness. Is this a story you are passionate about, and one which you will still be passionate about after you’ve lived with it, intimately, for 6 to 10 years?
Is the best possible telling of this story on stage as a musical? What would make the story better by being a musical? What can you add to the story? Ask yourself what you love about the source material, and then ask yourself if it is already perfect just the way it is. If it is, move on to a different idea.
Finally, be sure this story is worthy of being told in the theater. Novelist/playwright Thornton Wilder wrote, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Ever since Show Boat and Oklahoma! people have come to expect a musical to be more than simply entertaining; there needs to be a reason, an idea percolating under the surface to elevate it to ART. Sure, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud comedies in the musical theater repertoire, but if you look at most of those you will see a deeper soul, a meaningful message at the heart of it all.
Avenue Q will elicit unending laughter from audiences all night long, and then the big finale, while still comedic, lets us in on the moral of the story:
“Life may be scary
But it’s only temporary
Everything in life is only for now”
(lyric by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx)
It turns out Avenue Q isn’t only a little parody of Sesame Street, nor a little comedy about a recent college graduate trying to find his purpose in life. It’s about more than that; it’s about each of us, dealing with the harsh realities of day to day living and –hopefully—finding an appreciation for the adventure along the way.
Whatever story you decide to tell, be certain that your idea is one worthy of elevating to the art of musical theater.
There are many more things to consider, questions to ask, and elements to plan before you write your musical. But if, after considering the above, you still think your idea is perfect … and if you are so excited about your idea that you can’t wait to get started, well, then: start. If you have a clear vision of a crucial song, write it. If you know exactly how a particular scene will go, write it. Capture your inspired vision right away and let it flow while the inspiration is fresh. Once you’ve done that, put that brilliant scene or song aside for a bit, and come back to planning your musical. The next article will give you specific ways to organize your creative work in order to write the best musical you can.
But for now, go ahead and start. “What if…?”
I hate the word “just.” It’s just so, um… just so ugly. And usually, just so unnecessary.
It’s the lyricist in me that hates “just.” Because when I think of it being sung, there isn’t anything pretty or satisfying in the sounds. The short “u” vowel is boring and dull. The “j” sound which begins the word is mushy and indistinct. And the “st” to end the word is complicated, with the two consonants “s” and “t” combined. Go ahead, say it out loud. Ugly, isn’t it? Now, sing it. Pick your prettiest, most perfectly-placed note for your own voice and sing, “Just—” Simply awful.
When I’m writing a lyric and I come up with a line that includes the word, “just,” I go back and challenge myself to re-write the lyric without the word. Because it’s not only the ugly sound of the word, it’s the meaning. Or rather, the lack of meaning. It creeps into our sentences as a filler word, maybe for emphasis (“it’s just ugly”) or for attitude (“she’s just a writer”). For some reason I don’t mind the word if it is being used as an adjective to describe an act of justice. But when otherwise used, it’s a warning sign to me that maybe I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say. I remind myself of the meaning I’m intending to write, and then rewrite the lyric or line of dialog with a more exact word to convey a more exact meaning.
Sometimes, you don’t succeed in replacing the offending word. Even if you’re one of the greats. Oscar Hammerstein, in Lyrics (a book which includes his extensive essay on lyric writing), declares that some words have lost their value due to overuse, and he gives the example of the word, “divine.” Hammerstein used the word, “divine” in the last lines of the song, “All The Things You Are,” but he didn’t like the word when he wrote it. He didn’t like the word when he presented it to the song’s composer, Jerome Kern, and Kern didn’t like it, either. The last two lines of the song are: “Some day I’ll know that moment divine, When all the things you are are mine.” Hammerstein loved the final line, but to use the final line he had to have an “-ine” rhyme to set it up. He tried to replace the word, but couldn’t:
“’Some day I’ll know that moment…’ What? Sign, line, fine, shine? Nothing served as well as the unwanted “divine.” I never could find a way out. The song written in 1937 shows signs of being a long-lived standard ballad – but I shall never be happy with that word!”
* LYRICS by Oscar Hammerstein II, Copyright 1949, 1985 by Estate of Oscar Hammerstein II, Hal Leonard Books
I’ve been there, too. The big turning point song for the character of Margaret Reed in Meet Your Mountain is called “Just Me.” There’s that stupid word, not only in the song, but right there in the title! This was one of the few times where Eric and I worked music-first, and I was writing a lyric to fit an existing melody from a song we had written for the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop several years earlier. The melody was hauntingly lovely, and Eric suggested it suited Margaret’s refined character. He was right.
I wrote a lyric for Margaret at the moment when she is feeling lost and sorry for herself as she finds, for the first time in her life, she has been left without anyone to help her. Her husband is gone. Her mother is gone. She has several children depending on her, and they are facing hardships of unbelievable proportions. All she has is herself (“…just me”). By the end of the song, though, she is determined to triumph and has made the realization that “… perhaps all I need is me. Just me. Just me.”) In the title phrase of the melody, I only had two syllables to work with. I couldn’t write the lyric as “only me.” I thought long and hard about the word, but ultimately decided I liked the ugly rawness of the word “just;” it contrasted with the lush beauty of the music, and it suited Margaret’s predicament in the story. It’s a good thing I ended up liking the word because the structure of the melody included repeating it twice at the end of the song!
For me, though, this song from Meet Your Mountain is the exception that proves my own personal rule. I will still work towards never again using the word “just” in a lyric.
I have done it, but just once.
Listen to the wonderful Vivienne Cleary singing “Just Me” from Meet Your Mountain. Lyric by Margaret Rose. Music by Eric Rockwell. Demo produced by Frank Galgano & Matt Castle.
STORIES IN THE DARK
Many years ago I played “Katie, the Maid” in Beyer High School’s production of George Washington Slept Here. I had about eight lines in the whole play, but I remember getting some good laughs on those lines. About the same time, I saw some friends in Downey High School’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, and I laughed and laughed over their antics on stage. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed the film version of You Can’t Take It With You, the film The Man Who Came To Dinner, and the 1954 Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. Those scripts are an important part of my early theatrical experiences, and what they have in common is their author: Moss Hart.
Mr. Hart is a legend of Broadway, with a writing and directing career that included far more credits than listed here. His autobiography, Act One, was required reading for any drama student back in my day, and I still have my copy of it. But I recently downloaded the audiobooks version of Act One and for several happy hours commuting in my car, I revisited Mr. Hart’s tales of his childhood in the poverty of the Bronx and the path to his first hit Broadway play. It’s a fascinating tale of a lifestyle and a Broadway in an era that has long since disappeared. But the essence of Mr. Hart’s story and the lessons he learned are still relevant today.
I particularly enjoy Mr. Hart’s description of the moment he discovered his gift for drama. It’s a moment in a specific time and place, yet it is a scene that has recurred time and time again since the dawn of humanity.
He was 12 years old, spending the endless summer days as all the boys did, in the street in front of his home. Young Moss, not being athletically inclined and something of a bookworm, was never asked to take part in the street baseball game. Instead, he sat on the curb and read a book while the other boys played. When it grew dark, it was customary for the boys to gather on the little stoop in front of the corner store, and Moss was happy just to be allowed to sit there with them. He picks up the narrative now:
“There the boys would sit, talking aimlessly for hours on end. There were the usual probings of sex and dirty jokes, not too well defined or clearly understood; but mostly the talk was of the games played during the day. Ultimately, long silences would fall and then the boys would wander off one by one. It was just after one of those long silences that my life as an outsider changed, and for one glorious summer I was accepted on my own terms as one of the tribe.
I can no longer remember which boy it was that summer evening who broke the silence with a question. ‘What’s in those books you’re always reading?’ he asked idly. ‘Stories,’ I answered. ‘What kind?’ asked somebody else without much interest.
I launched full tilt into the book I was immersed in at the moment. I told them the story for two full hours. They listened bug-eyed and breathless. Not one of them left the stoop until I had finished. The next night and many nights thereafter, a kind of unspoken ritual took place. As it grew dark, I would take my place in the center of the stoop and begin the evening’s tale. Some nights, in order to savor my triumph more completely, I cheated. I would stop at the most exciting part of a story and without warning tell them that that was as far as I had gone in the book and it would have to be continued the following evening. It was not true, of course; but with a sense of drama that I did not know I possessed, I spun out the long summer evenings until school began again in the fall.”
In the years that followed, Moss left the streets of the Bronx behind and took his rightful place on Broadway. What I love about Mr. Hart’s story of those summer evenings on the stoop is that it boils down the art of creating theater to the most basic necessity. We playwrights, songwriters, directors, actors, designers, and theater craftsmen come together to create elaborate musical theater productions, but sometimes it’s useful to remember that theater doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective. “Theater” has been happening whenever and wherever there are people who want to hear a good story. Ultimately our work – as well as Mr. Hart’s amazing Broadway & Hollywood career – boils down to that centuries-old habit of humanity: telling stories in the dark.
“Other words of mine have been listened to by larger and more fashionable audiences, but for that tough and grimy audience huddled on the stoop outside the candy store, I have an unreasoning affection that will last forever.”
How about you? When did you realize you had a flair for the dramatic? When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Excerpts from Act One by Moss Hart. Copyright, 1959, By Catharine Carlisle Hart and Joseph M. Hyman Trustees. Published in New York by Random House, Inc.
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So there we were, Annie and I,
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