The first time I heard the word “incubator” I was five years old (it was 1947 a few months before my sixth birthday). My younger brother, Bill, was born in March. But he was a little guy and couldn’t come home right away. He had to be kept in the hospital in an ‘incubator.” Kudos to my parents for being able to explain to me what that meant!
Today I am talking about a different kind of incubator. It’s not a machine in which to hatch chicks or speed underweight newborns home to their families. It’s an idea, and I think it’s long overdue. The idea, sponsored by the Shanghai Grand Theatre and Beijing Damai Culture of Alibaba, Inc, is to nurture writers and their writing in an ambitious plan to create stageable new works of musical theatre in China.
The idea goes way beyond anything I personally can do to help. In includes using a network of high schools, universities, and other theatres to provide the testing of new musicals as they mature and ripen with audience exposure and feedback. We have a few organizations in the United States who are attempting to do something similar, but nothing as permanent and on the scale of the Fly Plan Incubator program. This is my shout out to TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California, The Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington, the O’Neill Center in New London, Connecticut, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre fall festival of new works in New York, and (sadly) the now deceased Theatre Building Chicago Musical Program. All of these programs have had varying degrees of nurturing support and audience exposure for new works, a respectable number of which ended up with long runs on Broadway. (Apologies to any deserving programs I have left out.)
There are major regional theatres in the United States with a track record of successfully launching new works, namely the Old Globe in San Diego, the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, the La Jolla Playhouse, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta for instance. But each of these institutions works with a Broadway producer’s enhancement dollars, sometimes as much as a couple of million dollars per production, which means these pathways are not available to many talented writers.
I am now in week ten of a ten-week workshop during which five teams of dedicated wordsmiths and composers have performed a series of challenging exercises designed to flex their musical theatre muscles to conquer the basic ABCs of the craft. Now, we are about to enter the second phase of the project, a term of six months. Each writing team will have one-on-one coaching from my team which includes myself, Sheila Wurmser and Ross Kalling, as well as a producer assigned by the Fly Plan project. I am not privy to the developmental plan beyond the end of the second phase, but I do know the general idea is to further test and tighten the material based on experience with actors, directors, and audiences. Sounds like heaven to me.
And what will we be working on? It’s much too soon to say a lot about the shows since they are all works in progress. However, here’s a thumbnail for each of the five teams:
Becoming a Mother, written by CHEN Tianran and Ke Li. Essentially a revue about the joys and miseries of motherhood.
Everything is Fine, written by ZHAO Yu’an and WANG Haibei. A young man is stricken with a potentially terminal disease and must cope with depression, family, and friends as he matures and finds true purpose in his life.
The Assassin and the 10th Princess, written by BI Dan and WU Yicheng. An eighteenth century Chinese princess begins a correspondence with a French revolutionary, also a woman, as they both deal with political and social upheaval.
Painted Skin, Dusting Heart, written by ZHANG Qian, ZANG Sijia and LIU Chang. A traditional Chinese myth comes to life when a fox in human form comes to test love and fidelity in marriage and personal relationships.
Room of Hers, written by CAO Yining and WANG Ziwei. Three famous deceased Chinese women known for their poetry argue about their place in the pantheon as well as the lot of women in the world in general.
Okay. I realized as I was writing the above descriptions that I am not doing justice to the work of the eleven writers involved. These very brief notes are no better than a TV Guide log line, if that good! However, I wanted you all to have at least a hint of the breadth of work these writers are doing, and the wide range of topics and resonance the works are likely to have.
This is such an exciting time to be writing for the musical theatre! The world is in constant upheaval, and the form of the contemporary musical is in flux. On the one hand, a seemingly “traditional” romantic story such as The Band’s Visit, features authentic-sounding Egyptian music and there isn’t a moment in the show that smacks of Tin Pan Alley or Vaudeville, even though the composer, David Yazbek, is comfortable with all those sounds. On the other hand, a seemingly “contemporary” musical with a huge audience such as Hamilton, gives us a theatricalized version of the kind of Hip-Hop music of our day while the staging and storytelling owe much more to Oklahoma than to the Gangsta Rap of today. And on an even third hand, comes a little show from London via the Edinburgh Fringe in which six young women aggressively compete for our attention as the wives of Henry VII in the show Six, which has roared into life on Broadway finally having been stillborn by the pandemic – a revue with a vengeance! And don’t get me started on Hadestown.
My point is that this is not the way Broadway looked in 1955 when there were shows like Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, The Bells Are Ringing and a host of others. Perhaps charming enough, but… These shows had a sort of formula. Maybe 10 – 14 scenes in the first act, maybe 7 – 10 scenes in the second act. About 12 – 15 new songs, several reprises and a “god-help-them-if-they-didn’t” Eleven O’clock number. (For you kids out there, shows used to start at 8:30 p.m. The first act of a musical was usually around 90 or 100 minutes, taking you to 10 or 10:15 for intermission. The second act was 35 – 45 minutes, so by 11 O’clock it was very near the end – time for the star to have a show-stopping number. Shows ended at 11:15 or 11:30, and then the patrons ran to a bistro like Upstairs at the Downstairs to see a revue with 4 – 6 talented young performers singing songs by tomorrow’s Broadway composers. Nowadays they start as early as 7:30 and are dark by 10 and night life in New York is no longer connected to the theatre.)
I’ll keep you posted on the work in China. Watch this space.
Ten years ago, I attended a musical theatre conference at the Beijing Academy of Contemporary Music and gave a presentation on a matter close to my heart: the importance of rhythmic prosody in the marriage of music and lyrics. This matters to me because it is a point of craft, and one that can be taught, in the same way that drawing can be taught. Knowing the points of the craft doesn’t make you an artist, but it does make you a better craftsman.
The opportunity to visit China was a total joy, even though I never got more than a few miles outside of the city of Beijing. There was plenty to discover there. The opportunity to do so and talk about my favorite subject – musical theatre – was a special kind of Nirvana. And I learned that Chinese people like musical theatre as much as we do. Uh – check that. I think perhaps Chinese people like musical theatre even more than we do.
I saw carefully rehearsed scenes from some of my favorite American musicals performed in a spectacular evening at the Beijing Academy. I also saw a performance of Rent at the Beijing Dance Academy. The book was performed in Mandarin and the score was sung in English. Fascinating and completely embraced by the audience the night I saw it.
Yes, yes, I walked on the Great Wall a bit, I visited a silk factory, attended a tea ceremony for tourists in a tea factory, and went to a kind of museum-cum-shop where I saw breath-taking works of ivory being carved and had the opportunity to purchase them at prices only millionaires could afford. I also spent a memorable day in Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City where I took a bath in history. Amazing and Informative and Chinese.
Sadly, what I didn’t see on my visit was a Chinese musical. I spoke to some producers who were in the process of preparing a Chinese musical, including one group that was trying to hire a bookwriter/composer team with Broadway credits to bring a Chinese story to life for a Broadway audience. That hasn’t appeared yet, and I am thankful.
I met writers and composers, young and highly motivated people, who wanted to write musicals for Chinese audiences. And I thought to myself, good. Someday a team will write a Chinese musical that Broadway audiences will want to see, and that team will be Chinese through and through. The story they write and the music that decorates it will reflect millennia of history and culture that will be stunning to an increasingly international Broadway audience. Brava and Bravo!
So, when I responded to a Linked-In message from LI Jing at Alibaba’s Entertainment and Culture division I was more than eager to talk about their plans to partner with the Shanghai Grand Theatre to develop new musicals by Chinese writers, including using a system of high school and university programs to help them test shows in development. They hope to create a farm system, if you will, of developing new works and preparing them for commercial production. What a good idea!
Many months later I am humbled and proud to say I am in week 5 of a 10-week workshop for 11 smart and talented Chinese writers, 5 different teams who have been selected to create new musicals in a developmental program sponsored in tandem by the Shanghai Grand Theatre and Mailive, the entertainment division of Alibaba. As usual I have learned much more from these writers than they will ever learn from me.
As one would imagine, conducting a workshop for writers in a foreign language the group leader does not speak is challenging. Fortunately, serendipity reared its lovely head a few weeks before my first communication with the Alibaba folk via Linked-In. Tony Stimac, a director, producer, and nurturer of new works I have known for decades through our membership in the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, called me to introduce me to a recent graduate of the MFA program in musical theatre writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Trinity Chen is the recent graduate, a Chinese national who was moving to Los Angeles where she didn’t know anybody in the musical theatre world. Tony asked me to introduce her to people I know. I did – but quickly decided I wanted to keep her close to me, since I would need her skills as a translator in my attempt to work with Chinese writers creating new works in Mandarin. Trinity is bi-lingual, with Chinese as her primary language, and her MFA from the Tisch program means she knows the “lingo” of musical theatre. Serendipity doesn’t even get close to describing this juxtaposition of events. Miraculous is more like it – and I am not a believer in miracles!
We are halfway through the 10-week program which I have attempted to design to give the writers experience in the rudiments of musical theatre communication. They are performing a series of exercises intended to give bookwriters, lyricists and composers an opportunity to practice the ABCs of the form before launching into a six-month schedule of helping to develop a specific musical with each of the five teams. The staff at the Shanghai Grand Theatre has just asked the writers to respond to a survey about the workshop so soon we should know what they think they are learning. Meanwhile, I am happy to tell you what I am learning right here, right now.
The time is right for a great Chinese musical – and probably more than one. The audience is there, and the writers are there. If the 5 teams I am working with are any indication, a great deal of work has already been done in preparing the current generation of theatre writers in China to create an explosion of exciting musical theatre. They have done their homework. They are determined students. They are culturally aware and proud. The stories they are proposing to tell are imaginative, theatrical, and Chinese to the nth degree. There is, so far, very little for me to do beyond cheerleading from the sidelines.
With the help of Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and number of books written for children and young adults, I am learning to recognize Chinese symbols and coming to grips with the pronunciation of simple words. I will never get it right, but I hope one day I can make myself understood without causing gales of laughter.
I am learning that it is easy and rewarding to work with smart and dedicated writers. They are on time, they upload their assignments early, and they are respectful of the process and each other.
I am learning that Chinese composers develop a unique compositional voice early in their careers. I had no expectations except that during my visit ten years ago I knew there was a supply of talented and educated composers in China interested in musical theatre. I had no idea how rich this supply really is.
I have learned, as one does while growing older, that I am not really needed. However, I have been welcomed and I am very happy to be part of the Fly Plan project.
Hmmm. It all starts with the book, But everyone wants to come out humming the music. Still the fact is that, since the early 1920s, the American musical has always been distinguished by the sophistication of its lyrics. There was a lot of word play in the beginning:
1925: (from No, No, Nanette, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach)
SHOW THE LADIES EVERY STEP YOU KNOW JUST RAISE HADES TILL THEY TINGLE MINGLE TILL THEY THINK YOU’RE SINGLE YOU CAN DANCE WITH ANY GIRL AT ALL AS LONG AS YOU COME HOME TO ME.
Before too long, inventive imagery and irony crept in:
1937: (from Babes In Arms, lyrics by Lorenz Hart)
THE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS, THE DAILY FIGHTS THE QUICK TOBOGGAN WHEN YOU REACH THE HEIGHTS I MISS THE KISSES AND I MISS THE BITES I WISH I WERE IN LOVE AGAIN.
The 1940s brought us the defining achievements of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration with an almost perfect marriage of music and lyrics both rhythmically and in the “singability” of the lyrics over the contour of the melodies that presented them. The organic nature of the lyrics, often growing seamlessly out of the dialogue, spawned many imitators, right up to the present day.
1942: (from Oklahoma, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
LAUREY Well, you jist can’t go around kissin’ every man that asts you! Didn’t anybody ever tell you that?
ADO ANNIE Yeow, they told me…
IT AIN’T SO MUCH A QUESTION OF NOT KNOWIN’ WHUT TO DO I KNOWED WHUT’S RIGHT AND WRONG SINCE I BEEN TEN. I HEARD A LOT OF STORIES – AND I RECKON THEY ARE TRUE – ABOUT HOW GIRLS’RE PUT UPON BY MEN. I KNOW I MUSTN’T FALL INTO THE PIT BUT WHEN I’M WITH A FELLER – I FERGIT!
Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to experiment and refine their crafts as their collaboration labored on, striving to make the words and music work together to illuminate the moment. Listen to the plea in Lady Thiang’s voice in both the music and the words to the song Something Wonderful from The King And I (also book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II):
1951: HE WILL NOT ALWAYS SAY WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE HIM SAY BUT NOW AND THEN HE’LL SAY SOMETHING WONDERFUL…
The fall and rise of the melody successfully mimics the fall and rise of a voice begging for more understanding from a listener. In this case, the listener is Mrs. Anna. Lady Thiang is asking Mrs. Anna to be tactful, to help the king manage international relationships without suggesting that he actually needs help. Her advice mustn’t sound like advice. Further, Mrs. Anna must go to the king, not wait for him to ask for her help, something he is far too proud to do. Lady Thiang realizes she is dealing with two very strong personalities and that she must be diplomatic in her request. The song, and its placement in the scene, is a marvel of craft, and well worth studying.
The lyric to a theatre song, and the way the music presents the lyric must be carefully crafted to convey the moment. In its diction, the lyric needs to reflect the character’s capacity for language, while honoring whatever social restrictions the setting and other characters present place on the singer. The best theatre songs focus on a single topic (like The Surrey With The Fringe On Top) and yet this topic is not always what the song is about (Surrey is about Curly trying to get a date with a Laurey – the Surrey is merely a means to an end.). Unlike dialogue, the lyric needs rhythm and rhyme, and these elements need to be present in an organized way that literally helps the audience understand both the topic of the song and the reason it is being sung. Making it possible for the audience to hear the lyric is not nearly as important as making it possible for the audience to fully understand the lyric instantly, without reflection. That understanding needs to transcend the mere meaning of the words and achieve the greater impact of the subtextual information and thematic thrust of the moment in the show. The craft of writing lyrics carefully and thoughtfully to achieve emotional truth and serve the character in the moment is what makes this transcendent understanding possible.
It is the craft of lyric writing that makes it possible for the audience to instantly and fully understand the emotional moment for the character.
The lyric must be written in the voice of the character. Every character has a unique speech pattern, and the lyric should reflect this. Where was the character born? What education does the character have? What social position does the character enjoy, aspire to or strive to escape? (Study Adelaide’s Lament from Guys And Dolls, lyrics by Frank Loesser. The woman is trying to educate herself, but ultimately relies on her own common sense to sum up what she is learning: “In other words just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person can develop a cold.”)
The lyric must attend to the social moment of the character. Characters adjust their language according to the circumstances. Think about Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (book and lyrics by Allan Jay Lerner), striving to pronounce everything properly at Ascot, but losing control during the race to shout “Come on, Dover, move yer bloomin’ arse!” Eliza couldn’t contain her excitement during the race, but earlier in the show she is forced to stifle her anger and must wait until she is alone to vent in the song “Just You Wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins!”
The lyric must reflect the character’s thoughts and feelings in the moment of the play. At the end of the first act of Gypsy (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), Herbie asks Rose to marry him and settle down. Louise begs her to say yes. But Rose, angry at June’s desertion, is determined to forge ahead. If she can’t make Baby June a star, she’ll make Louise a star. “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great, gonna have the whole world on a plate!”
The lyric has to do all of this work within the constraints of the musical form chosen by the composer. There are very few syllables to a line of lyric, so it is not wise to waste one. The hearability and understandability of the lyric is affected by orchestration,, choreography, swirling costumes and mechanical scenery. With all those elements competing for the audience’s attention, the lyric has to emerge clearly so the patrons can simultaneously hear and understand the lyric in the voice of the character in the moment of the play.
There was a time when lyrics did not need to flow so seamlessly from the dialogue, when two people could have a “cute meet,” hear a bell tone in the orchestra, and launch into a charming love-at-first-sight tune. We’ve grown past that.
We seem to have also grown past metaphor and simile at times to a state where specificity is rooted in reality – harsh, unromantic and filled with expletives, like this example from Next To Normal (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey):. “Mozart was crazy, flat fucking crazy, batshit I hear.” Over my career I have watched our society lose its innocence and insouciance the way the characters In La Boheme do when Mimi dies. During World War II and its aftermath, we felt indestructible. We were optimistic. We knew things would get better and better as time went on. Somewhere along the way we became skeptical, and we now feel as if things are changing for the worse, not the better. The American psyche is having a dark night of the soul, and this is reflected in our musical theatre as well as other aspects of our lives.
Fortunately, Americans can’t seem to stay sulking in the dark too long, and the culture’s original impulse to optimism and cheerfulness continues to express itself in our entertainment media. On Broadway today: Aladdin, American In Paris, Kinky Boots, She Loves Me, Something Rotten, Book of Mormon, The Lion King, and Wicked. These are only a few of the current shows, a list slanted toward those on the humorous and romantic side, away from the more dramatic musicals like Fiddler on the Roof or The Color Purple, and avoiding non-American musicals. So whether it’s a revival or a new work, the American musical is alive and well on Broadway, and sometimes the lyrics shine with sophistication, wit and occasional wisdom.
At my advancing years (nearly 75 now) one of my favorite lyrics is from Milk and Honey, 1961, by Jerry Herman:
LET’S NOT WASTE A MOMENT, LET’S NOT LOSE A DAY; THERE’S A SHORT FOREVER, NOT TOO FAR AWAY.
WE DON’T HAVE TO HEAR THE CLOCK REMIND US THAT THERE’S MORE THAN HALF OF LIFE BEHIND US, WHEN YOU FACE A SHORT FOREVER. THERE’S NO RIGHT OR WRONG; I CAN ONLY FACE FOREVER, IF YOU COME ALONG. I CAN ONLY FIND MY WAY, IF YOU’RE THERE TO LEAD ME ON;
SO LET’S NOT WASTE A MOMENT, OH, LOOK, ANOTHER MOMENT’S GONE!
I remember hearing that lyric in the Colonial Theatre in Boston at the tender age of 20 (sung by Robert Weede to Mimi Benzell). I understood it completely then, and I definitely understand it now, that I, too, don’t need to hear a clock remind me that there is more than half of life behind me. It hasn’t lost a particle of its truth in the intervening 55 years.
I’d like to hear from some of you about your favorite lyrics, words that moved you in the safety of theatre and continue to speak to you now, in the harsh light of reality where for 50 people forever can be very short indeed.
If, as I believe, it all starts with the book, then what is the role of music in a musical? Big topic.
The well-made Tin Pan Alley tune (usually 32 bars in four 8-bar sections with the form A-A-B-A) was the preferred popular song form in the western world from 1925 until the late 1950s. Consequently Broadway songwriters knew what songs in a musical should sound like, especially if they wanted one or more of the songs in a score to become popular standards.
The early musical comedies of the 20s and into the 30s were an amalgamation of two popular traditions: vaudeville and operetta. Vaudeville provided variety with a capital V-A-R-I-E-T-Y, and operetta provided fanciful stories on which to hang the decorative melodies of Lehar, Friml, Romberg, Kern and others. During the 50s, however, popular music began to morph.
People started to lead more portable lives, probably because returning soldiers were no longer satisfied staying “back on the farm” after they’d seen a larger world. This meant the piano in the parlor, which used to be a standard entertainment tool for American families, was no longer such a welcome piece of furniture. It was not portable. But a guitar is portable, and anyone who can play three or four chords can ably knock out a folk tune. And people who don’t know how to strum a guitar can learn or teach themselves in a relative hurry, as opposed to the hours of scales and exercises needed to master the piano. Music publishers began to push simpler music so more people could play their product. When more people can play the song, more sheet music is sold. The neo-folk era blossomed, reviving old favorites and creating new standards. Rock and Roll happened, then R & B. Country and Gospel music crept out of niche-land into pop standardville. By the turn of the century dozens of sub-genres had emerged: hard-, acid-, punk-rock, not to mention Ska, African and Cuban jazz, and other forms of world music. Technology totally upended the marketing of music for listening and playing.
As it became harder and harder to create a “hit” song in a Broadway show, theatre composers turned to different agendas. Some wanted a more operatic approach, to create more of a “score” rather than an evening of various genres. Others wanted to stay current and popular, by using specific pop genres: Rock musicals, pop operas, gospel scores, and now hip-hop tinged scores from Lin Manual Miranda and others. And there are still “traditional” musicals and even operettas being presented on Broadway, shows like Book of Mormon and A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.
…the answer is as simple today as it ever was…To thine own ear be true…
How does a contemporary composer with an eye on Broadway make any sense out of this chaos? The issue seems to be complex, but I think the answer is as simple today as it ever was. My message to composers is: To thine own ear be true. By this I mean that no matter what the genre of a particular score or particular moment in a score needs to be, write that score or that moment with your ears, not someone else’s. This is largely a question of style. A trained composer (someone with an academic background in composition, that is) can most likely imitate any genre of music, simply by studying it and using the standard elements of that genre - ragtime, pop, hip-hop, etc. And composers who have developed a personal style will impose it on any genre they decide to borrow for a particular moment in a show.
Untrained composers will be limited by what they can “hear” in their minds’ ears, which will most likely be imitating what they have listened to in their formative years (the way my ear was influenced by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters). Talented and untrained composers will want to evolve what they have heard into something more personal, something with their unique stamp on it. But trained or untrained, composers need to honor the character in the moment of their shows based on what their ears tell them is right. No two composers, no matter how similar their backgrounds may be, will “hear” a given moment for a character the same way. Nowhere is this more evident than in the NMI Core Curriculum, where every team is asked to write a song for the same character(s) at the same moment in the same play. And speaking as someone who has heard at least 500 ballads for Blanche DuBois, I can categorically state I never heard the same song twice. Not every song was wonderful, and many (including mine, I can safely admit) were not even good. Each song was as different as its creators were, right down to the young man who wrote a ballad (legato melody by our definition) for Blanche with the lyric: “Stella’s fella’s a jerk!” He wrote that seemingly inappropriate line of lyric because his bent was comedy.
Kudos to him for sticking to his artistic guns. Something all of us should do, all the time.
So here are some tips:
Embrace the character you are writing for – find something to admire or at least understand about the character, especially in the moment you are creating. What is driving the character at this moment? What is the character feeling?
Now that you know what the moment is, what the character is wanting or needing, and especially feeling, listen to your inner ears. What is the sound of your character within the parameters you have determined? Will the song be a wail of complaint, an anthem of pride and confidence, a toe-tapper of delight? And in what musical world? What music is the character capable of singing, not in a general sense but at this particular moment?
Craft the song (with your collaborator, if you have one) according to the answers to the questions outlined here.
If you decide to borrow and theatricalize a genre (see below), what is the function of the genre you choose? Why ragtime at this moment for this character? Or why hip-hop? Or why folk music? How does that choice inform the moment? What does the genre add to the information on the stage? Think long and hard about this.
Genre songs (and pastiche scores in general) are at once useful and dangerous. The pastiche score that gives you a ragtime number, a soft shoe number, a standard ballad, a waltzy comedy song, etc. provides the vaudevillian variety for which the American musical is noted. Any genre you may select, however, ought to be theatricalized in the selection. If you want a song to sound like ragtime because you want the bounce and harmonic charm of a rag, think carefully about how to use this. Listen to the title song from Charles Strouse’s score to Rags, and you will see what I mean. The tune is peppy and rag-like, the message is dark and depressing, very unrag-like, partly because the lyrics are telling a stark truth about the lot of Jewish immigrants in the ragtime era. Listen to the song Real Live Girl from the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh score for Little Me. It’s a dreamy, romantic, almost corny waltz that serves to present a lyric of yearning for sex. In fact, it’s practically the same song as There Is Nothing Like A Dame from South Pacific, but it is that idea as processed by Coleman and Leigh. The writers of the examples cited did their job – they filled the moment of the play in terms of the character(s) and used the music they heard within themselves to do so, honoring both the needs of the play and their own personal styles. None of this is an accident. All of it is just good old-fashioned hard work.
I want to write more about lyrics in the next post. However, lyrics play a large role in theatricalizing any genre a composer might choose for a theatre song. This is especially true if the style of the music is loud and raucous, like stadium rock, where the lyric is not nearly as important as the rhythm and the sheer size of the sound. There are moments in a musical show when the sound of the music can take over, but before that can happen, a successful theatre song needs to make its point. And that takes words. We need to simultaneously hear and understand the lyric, which ought to be written in the voice or diction of the character appropriate to the moment in the show. The previous sentence is a precis of a whole course in lyric writing, one that does not even begin to address the issues of rhythm, rhyme and prosody. Let’s let that be a teaser for the next post.
I’d like to hear from you about the theatre music that impresses you, stays with you, even haunts you a little. If you are a composer, do you emulate this music? If you are a lyricist or bookwriter, do you look for collaborators who write in a similar style? I would like to know how the music you most admire impacts your work as a writer.
Theatre, from the Greeks to the present day, is basically a narrative story-telling form. Certainly grand opera and modern musical theatre support that tradition. The revues and song catalogue shows that do not feature a story are greatly outnumbered by the bulk of shows produced on Broadway and in the West End theatres of London, as well as in smaller, developmental theatres everywhere. And most of the narrative shows have been adaptations of familiar stories: novels, plays, movies, etc. Showboat. Pal Joey. Oklahoma. Damn Yankees. My Fair Lady. West Side Story. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Phantom of the Opera. The Producers. Legally Blonde. Spring Awakening. Hamilton.
There are reasons to write original musicals. Unproven writers don’t need to secure underlying rights to copyrighted material. Producers and those in the royalty pool don’t have to share profits with the underlying rights holder. And there are reasons to write adaptations. Novels, plays, short stories and even poems that are well-known provide topics and titles that can catch a potential ticket buyer’s attention.
Why adapt? First and foremost, it’s a tradition. (Traditions exist for a reason.) Of course traditions stultify at times, and many writers feel compelled to create original musicals, generally to their dismay. When was the last time you saw a production of Paint Your Wagon? And we can’t blame the score, which includes such standard songs as “I Talk to the Trees,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” and “I Still See Elisa.” In his forward to the published libretto of that show, Alan Jay Lerner says, “The value of the basic story cannot be exaggerated. . . So start off on the right foot and select a story that is all prepared for you. The translation of that story to musical form is quite complex enough. Within that frame you will find more than adequate challenge to your originality and enough on which to experiment.”
You don’t have to follow Lerner’s advice, of course. As my mentor, Lehman Engel, was fond of saying, “Everybody has the right to commit suicide.”
But adaptation or original, the book of a musical is a narrative, and one that must keep the audience engaged for its duration, whether it be in fascination (like Sweeney Todd, say), hilarity (like The Producers, say), or drama (like Spring Awakening, say). Successful narratives have at least three things in common:
1. A strong and strongly motivated central character. Even in a so-called ensemble show like A Chorus Line, one character stands out as more important than the others (in this example it’s Cassie). 2. A clearly defined beginning, middle and end. The beginning, or starting point, is an action that upsets the status quo, an action taken because the central character needs or wants something. The middle is a rollercoaster of action, a series of successes and failures that position the central character closer to or farther from the goal. The end is the final action – either achievement, rejection or failure in reaching the goal. 3. Something of importance must depend on the outcome of the story. It doesn’t matter if Joe wants a tuna melt or a BLT for lunch, unless one of the sandwiches is liberally laced with arsenic.
The first two points are mostly about the plot, whereas the final point is probably more related to the theme of the show. The plot is what happens; the theme is why it happens, and why we care. In the best of all possible librettos, every action, every image, every figure of speech will somehow either support or attack the theme of the show.
I believe that good theatre must either affirm or challenge existing worldviews. Generally comedies tend to affirm, and dramas tend to challenge (not a hard and fast rule, though). Both do this by placing characters in morally ambiguous circumstances. No matter what the stakes are at the end, achieving, rejecting or failing to achieve the goal will affirm or challenge the audience’s sense of what is appropriate or right.
You don’t have to follow Lerner’s advice, of course. As my mentor, Lehman Engel, was fond of saying, “Everybody has the right to commit suicide.”
When you are planning work on a new musical, use the structural measuring sticks above to test your idea before it is fully formed. Be journalistic about it. Who is the story about? What is the plot (who does what to whom)? Where and when does it happen? Why does anyone care about the outcome? The questions are valid whether the planned work is an adaptation or an original idea.
Pay particular attention to the ending. Is this what the audience wants for the characters, or does the ending sadden the audience? Have the characters earned this ending if it’s a happy one, or somehow caused this ending if it is a tragic or sad one? If you answer yes to that last question, the show is affirming accepted values. If you answer no, the show is probably challenging accepted values. If your yes or no answer is contrary to your original intention in writing the piece, then your work is not finished.
The best reason to write an adaptation: Something in the original strikes a chord in you and resonates in a way that makes you want to explore it more deeply. Adding music and lyrics to the piece will tend to emphasize the emotional lives of the characters, whereas the source novel, play or movie might be more involved with the plot and action. Ask yourself what you can bring to the source. What will your point of view add to the story’s effect? Shaw’s Pygmalion is a comedy about the class structure of a society and the fate of women in that world; My Fair Lady is a romantic confection that uses the same plot. Does your take on the source give you the impulse to transform it significantly? If so, you might succeed.
The best reason to write an original: Something – an event in the world or in your intimate life or in the life of someone you know – is holding a magnifying glass to a spot in your brain, focusing the heat of the sun like a laser, burning a message on the surface of your consciousness. You are determined to explore this, to ask audiences to pay attention, to help them understand and feel as strongly as you feel about the topic.
I’d like to hear from you on the issue of adaptation. I’m especially interested to hear about shows you have enjoyed that were not adaptations, and whether you enjoyed them more than adaptations you have seen, whether you find original musicals more interesting than adaptations.
I’ve always loved musicals. First in the movies (I wanted to grow up to be Fred Astaire), then in summer theatres in New England (mostly in tents), and finally on Broadway. My first “legit” musical was a pre-Broadway performance in Boston in 1957. The show was Goldilocks (Book by Walter and Jean Kerr, Music by Leroy Anderson, Lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford) starring Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche, featuring Russell Nype, Pat Stanley (both won the Tony for their supporting roles) and Margaret Hamilton.
Wow – Alexander Graham Bell (Ameche) and the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) – movie stars singing and dancing, telling jokes. But who the heck was Elaine Stritch – never heard of her at the time (I was 16). The musical director was later to become my mentor in the craft of writing musicals, Lehman Engel.
In 1972, I was having dinner with Lehman at the Beverly Hills Hotel one evening, and was able to ask him a question that had plagued me for years. I had loved the show Goldilocks, practically wore out the recording of the score, and wondered why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it ran only 161 performances on Broadway in 1958 and 59).
Lehman got a very puzzled look on his face, perched his glasses on the very tip of his soft nose, and said in his most Hitchcockian tones, “Why wasn’t Goldilocks a bigger success?” (dramatic pause.) “Because it was a piece of shit!”
Many of us have seen shows we liked that didn’t make it commercially. We have also seen shows we didn’t particularly care for that ran for years. My angle on this conundrum (to borrow a lovely word from Byron Schaffer, a later mentor of mine) is: That’s why they make different colored jelly beans. Lehman felt differently, though. He believed that every show is aimed at a particular audience, and any given individual may not be in that show’s sights. In other words, it’s OK if you don’t like the show – it wasn’t meant for you, it was meant for other people.
None of this, though, explains why I loved Goldilocks and Broadway snubbed it. It was my first – and we all know the first time is the best time. It dazzled me because I was a teenager and had never seen anything like it. Just like teenagers today who go to see a new show (Spring Awakening or American Idiot, for instance) and come away gushing. More important than whether the show I loved was a hit or not, is that it turned me on. I went home that day and started picking out tunes on the piano. Really. I had no musical background whatever, but I knew what I wanted to do. That was 59 years ago, and I’m still doing it (although I have morphed from a songwriter to a bookwriter). I’m still doing it because I was turned on as a teenager by a charming but forgettable little show that a Broadway maven thought was unmentionably bad. The next time you see a musical that you think is definitely a piece of excrement, remember it might be creating a career pathway for some younger, less jaded, starry-eyed kid.
A quick side note from John: “I’d love to hear about your first legit show – whether it was on Broadway, a national tour or a pre-Broadway engagement. What was the show, and what about it excited you?”
And - If someone tries to tell you he* can teach you how to write a musical, consider homicide because suicide is messy, but one of you has to die. Here is the truth: Nobody knows how to write a musical. People write them. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail (at the box office). But popularity at the box office doesn’t always indicate artistic value or lack of it. Audiences are fickle. They like what they like, not what some critic or aficionado tells them they ought to like. Still, some shows manage to pass the test of time, revived again and again with box office success.
(*Note: I will try to alternate the third person pronoun, using she every other time, except that within a given paragraph or section referring to the same third person, I will stay with the pronoun the section starts with. Capeesh?)
I don’t think anybody can tell you or me how to write a musical. But we can study how other people have written musicals. We can look for those titles that brought repeated box office success years and even decades later to see if they have things in common. This is a little like the way music is often studied, using the principles of composition from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequently known as the Common Practice Period.
It feels to me as if the form is changing, tending to heavier topics, often skeptical stories about the disappointments and betrayals of contemporary life, rather than the previously inimitable American optimism. So before my dotage creeps in, I have decided to commit some of these musings to this blog, in an attempt to make sense of where musicals seem to be headed. I hope readers will join the conversation and leave their comments so the discussion will not be one-sided.
I plan to study a seminal musical from each of the decades from 1920 to 2000. Many readers will (and should) argue with the choices I make from those more recent decades. That’s why they make different colored jelly beans! I’ll define “seminal” as a show that has been successfully revived on Broadway or in the West End (or both) at least once within 40 years of its initial run. With that in mind:
1920s: Showboat 1930s: Porgy and Bess (I know, I know. They say it’s an opera. So what?) 1940s: Oklahoma 1950s: West Side Story 1960s: Fiddler on the Roof 1970s: Sweeney Todd 1980s: Les Miserables 1990s: Rent 2000s: Avenue Q (hasn’t really been revived, but it did “reopen” off-Broadway after the Broadway run closed.)
These choices are not based on whether or not I personally liked the shows when I saw them. In fact, people who know me will recognize two titles as my “unfavorites.” Interestingly enough, some of my unfavorite shows got into that category specifically because they do not exhibit many of the principles I recognize as belonging to the common practice period in the form from 1928 through the 1960s. It seems as if the American musical theatre is experiencing a transition that began in the 60s and continues today. A similar transition in classical music began early in the 20th century, but it was bucking a tradition of 300 years. The American musical is still not quite 100 years old, and it is fair to say it is definitely in flux today. Very traditional looking and sounding shows like A Gentlemen’s Guide to Murder and Matilda compete with shows considered ground-breaking, like Hamilton and Fun Home.
I think this mix of familiar forms and new wrinkles make today a very exciting time to be working as a writer in this form. There is clearly room for invention – in fact, there seems to be a thirst for invention. But new, old or somewhere in between, the form is still selling tickets, and not just on Broadway. Musicals old and new are filling theatres small and large across the country. In recent weeks I saw two full houses in southern California, one for a brand new musical in La Mirada (Empire) and one for a revered Sondheim classic in Thousand Oaks (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).
In between longer analytical blog posts outlining and discussing the seminal shows, I plan to post shorter, weekly posts detailing the most important points of craft in the writing of music, lyrics and books for musicals as exhibited in the common practice period. I hope newcomers to the form will find these posts useful. I hope “old hands” will find them familiar and comforting, and perhaps use them as springboards to newer, more adventuresome work.
Please feel free to respond to my thoughts. Agree, disagree or merely add thoughts of your own. It will be useful to compare notes. Whether we share opinions or argue positions, it’s all good. Leave your comments here, please. I look forward to the conversation.