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Writing Musical Theater: Short(ish) Thoughts About Story Sources

May 19, 2016

Musicals are usually based on one of three things: A pre-existing story or other source (such as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera), an original story or idea (Company or The Music Man), or a collection of songs intended as some sort of revue or “jukebox” musical. As with all things there aren’t always clear lines of demarcation between them, but that’s not an issue, really. One question I often get when in discussions about writing for the stage is “What makes a good pre-existing story for a musical?” There is no single answer to that, though; in fact it’s a darn-difficult question to even begin answering. But I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to get some of my thoughts about the topic here, in no particular order:

  • The most difficult shows to write are about real people who create/perform music. Some time ago my wife and I saw a show about Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine (his wife). It had a solid storyline, telling how they met and how she became his specialty-number composer. Except for “Tchaikovsky” by Kurt Weill and Oscar Hammerstein II and “Ballin’ the Jack,” which was an old song when DK started singing it, all of the songs Kaye is known for were pretty much written by Fine. Therein lies the problem. To write a show about Kaye and Fine you have to have the music she wrote for him to perform. To write a musical about, well, anybody, has to have new music written to suit the needs of the characters and the story. Combining the two approaches is dangerous, because as soon as you use existing, already-known material the audience (subconsciously at least) compares that with the new music — and the new music always loses. Heard on its own the new material might be wonderful, but taken in context with other, better-known music it will always seem to have been “stuck on” and, therefore, as inferior. The show about Kaye and Fine ultimately didn’t work for that reason. If they left out the new material and just kept the music Kaye was already known for, in other words, as a jukebox musical, it would have been, well, fine. That said….
  • The second most difficult shows to write are jukebox musicals. The tunes are already written, so that hard part is done, right? But integrating those songs into a coherent story and having those songs come up in a natural way is tricky at best. Some shows, like Jersey Boys, does this very well indeed, and mostly because the show uses the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in the context of the story. Sometimes show creators will have a musical that uses songs from a wide variety of sources (like shows about 1980s “hair bands”) and while that can work care must be taken to make it seem seamless and natural.
  • Surprise: Revues are also difficult to write. You’d think this type of show would be one of the easier ones, but it’s not. Why? After all, there are no specific characters to deal with and no specific plot to unfold. The answer is, that’s why. Since there are no actual story to tell about specific characters, how to get an audience’s attention and keep it for a couple of hours? What that revue-type show needs is a premise, a single idea that carries us through from beginning to end and demonstrates what I call a logical progression of thought. Even if — or especially if — there is no storyline, the creator of a revue has to ask “What is this show about?”

All of the above is about pre-existing stories in one form or another: straight plays, films, short stories, and novels. A discussion of sources like poems is for another day.

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