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avoiding feedback: Vlog 44 – TELLING A SHORT STORY

Post #44. A short discussion on telling a SHORT STORY in musical form.





What I’d like to do today is chat just a little bit about the short form musical.

At New Musicals Inc, where I work, the people who come into our Core Curriculum (that’s our first year program for writers who are new to us), finish off the year with an assignment to write a 15-minute musical. And there are various other places where there are 10 minute musical contests, and there are other opportunities that would give you a reason to want to write a short musical: 15 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes. And so I wanted to talk just for a moment about the short form, and how it affects your storytelling.

The biggest issue that I see when people sit down to write a five-minute musical, as opposed to a five-minute play, is that they have a tendency immediately to think about sketch comedy. If you watch a Saturday Night Live sketch, or some other art form like that – you tend to have a little short scene that’s comic and ends with a silly punch line of some kind— so that the whole thing is sort of a joke, which is fun. I think we all love that sort of storytelling sketch comedy, and certainly the short form musical lends itself to comedy.

You don’t only have to go for comedy, but it certainly does lend itself to comedy because it’s tricky to tell a really detailed, robust story in such a short amount of time - although not impossible. So if you know that comedy does sort of reach out to you - and you’re writing a short musical - why not try a comedy? But I would urge you to try to remember that it is NOT sketch comedy. And let me talk to you for a moment about why I think that.

Sketch comedy has a tendency to end with a punch line that is meant to be a joke, and that works great for sketch comedy. The reason I think that doesn’t work well for a musical is because, generally speaking, at the end of a musical you’re going to have some kind of a musical moment. It might be a recap or a reprise of a song that you’ve done earlier in the piece; it might just be a couple of lines; it might be a whole new song; but likely, because it’s a musical, you’re probably going to end with a song.

And I don’t think that you can translate the punch line of sketch comedy into a song or a musical moment. Because by definition a punchline is short, and snappy, and funny, and you get it out of the way and everybody laughs.

A song doesn’t work that way. A song can certainly have laughs in it and can be very funny, and can have a lot going on. It’s even possible you could fashion a song where the very last line of the song is, in essence, a punchline. That would not be impossible. I personally think that would be pretty difficult to do, because the purpose of a song is to tell some kind of a truth, even if it’s a funny truth - to sum up the theme of your show - the journey of your characters. It’s fine if it’s doing it in a very comic way and totally intended to get laughs, but usually a punchline is something sort of unexpected, something that jumps in at the end and changes all of your expectations. And that’s why you laugh at it, because it’s not at all what you expected. And that’s great for sketch comedy – but tricky for musical theater because it’s hard for a song to do that.

Go ahead and prove me wrong! Go ahead and write a song that has a punch line at the end, and where that punch line ties up the story, and makes us feel like we’ve gone on a journey with the characters. I’m sure it’s not impossible, but I would urge you to consider - when you’re writing a short form musical that is intended to be a comedy - to try to get away from the idea of ending it with a punchline, and think about ending it with the culmination of your lead character’s story in a song, which can be funny without a doubt and can even be somewhat unexpected, but my guess is it’s not going to translate directly to a punchline.

Now to add on to that, I do want to encourage you to believe that you can tell a serious story - an extremely serious, heartwarming, important story. Something that really has something important to say. You can do it in 5, 10, or 15 minutes. You have to work a lot harder, I think, to make sure that you get enough depth out of your characters to be able to tell that in the short form, but you can. So there’s no reason to shy away from writing a serious short musical.

But if you’re writing a comic short musical, I beg of you: try to understand the difference between a short musical and a piece of sketch comedy with a punchline.