Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“How do I get into musical theatre? I haven’t tried writing songs before, but I think I could do it.”
Dipping your toe into a new swimming pool can be daunting, especially if you’ve never had swimming lessons. It’s quite possible you could drown, or be bludgeoned to death by the frantically windmilling arms of a butterfly stroke aficionado. Thankfully, there’s no risk of death when trying out a new genre of play. Unless you type it on your laptop in the bath, which I wouldn’t recommend.
My very first piece of advice to you is to have a bit more confidence in yourself. If you think you can write a musical do you really need my backing? Without meaning to sound harsh, just go ahead and try it. Experiment. All you have to lose is your sanity. And you’re a playwright so that’s probably on the way out already if we’re honest.
If you find writing songs really isn’t for you by all means go back to writing verbatim theatre pieces about the fall of Stalinism. If you find you love doing it and can pen a decent ditty go ahead and write musicals until your brain drips out of your ears.
At the risk of writing the shortest blog post ever, and infringing dangerously on Nike’s copyright, just do it.
There are certain conventions you should make yourself aware of when writing songs. An awareness of the various structural components such as choruses, bridges and verses will come in handy. Study your favourite songs from musicals and elsewhere, pay attention to how they’re put together.
Structure can be a useful jumping off point as it gives you some restrictions. A good chorus should be infectious, which often means repetitive. People should be able to memorise the words very easily so it gets lodged in their heads almost automatically.
While a song doesn’t always need to tell a story or have a purpose, in musical theatre the music has to be an integral part of the narrative. This means the songs should move the story forward as much as the dialogue would in any other sort of play. The best songs in musicals give us a glimpse into a character’s frame of mind, they show us the motivation behind the character’s next course of action. Make sure your songs serve a purpose in the plot and also accentuate your character development at key points.
There’s also an expectation that at least some of the words in a song will rhyme. How you accomplish this is up to you, there are infinite rhyme schemes you can take advantage of. Listen to songs you love and pick apart the rhymes to give yourself an insight into how they work. You can even steal rhyme schemes from popular songs; as long as you change the words it’s unlikely anyone will ever notice. By the time different music is also added and the tempo changes you’ll have created something completely unrecognisable.
My top tip for those who are not able to compose and play their own music is to team up with an accomplished musician. It’s entirely possible to write an entire musical by yourself without ever knowing how the songs sound. But it’s obviously infinitely better if you can give it the occasional test run with a collaborator playing the songs live. Much like hearing a play read aloud by actors, this will allow you to pinpoint anything that’s not working and make vast improvements.
Without hearing any of the songs aloud you’re really going on blind faith.
A musician will also be able to make insightful suggestions because they have a greater understanding of the structure of music. They’ll be able to tell you what fits together, how you can transition from a verse to a chorus, when you have too many words in a bar and how to evoke emotions with a song.
You’ll also need to develop your understanding of music genres. If you want one of your characters to sing a mournful dirge about the death of her father it’s no good taking your inspiration from Happy by Pharrell Williams. You’ll want something slow and emotional like End of the Road by Boyz II Men or Candle in the Wind by Elton John. Always think about the most appropriate type of song for the emotion you want to put across.
As you’ve never done this before I would strongly recommend listening to a lot of music and watching a lot of musicals. There are challenges you’ll come across working in musical theatre that you won’t really encounter anywhere else. For example, you’ll need to think about how the characters break into song. It can be deeply unsettling if songs come out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation. Successful musicals often provide little clues to the audience when a song’s about to start. The music will start to build quietly in the background or a character will say a line which foreshadows the start of the song.
You’ll also need to consider the physical actions characters are performing during songs. There’s often some kind of repetitive task happening during the music which allows for physical action onstage without distracting from the words. You want the audience to listen to what your characters are singing, so try to find actions which reinforce the meaning of the song. For example, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Lumiere and the other supporting characters of the Beast’s castle are setting the table for dinner as they sing Be Our Guest. Don’t have your protagonist cleaning a toilet as she sings about wooing her love interest, unless you’re doing it for the comic effect.
One of the keys to writing a good musical is coming up with a story which lends itself well to the format. A lot of musicals heavily feature romance as this evidently makes for many great song opportunities. Don’t limit yourself though, comedies like The Book of Mormon and Urinetown have been phenomenally successful with outlandish and frankly ridiculous plotlines. You can write songs about absolutely anything, and if you can write a song about it you can write a musical about it.
In terms of breaking into musical theatre, I’m afraid I have limited experience. Look out for musical writing competitions and workshops as these do come up fairly frequently. The West End is always in need of new writers with fresh ideas so if you’ve got something that feels original it’s worth pursuing. Bear in mind musical theatre can be extremely competitive and there are a huge number of people passionate about breaking into the industry. If this is nothing but a passing interest to you I wouldn’t get your hopes up, there are people out there who would literally kill to have a successful musical staged.
A lot of the competitions I’ve seen have quite specific entry requirements. This is where collaborating with a musician becomes vital because you’ll often be asked to provide recordings of one or two songs from your proposed production as well as the script. Booking studio time can be very expensive so if you’re going to take this route it’s vital to get in a lot of rehearsal with your musician beforehand. By getting the songs polished in your own time you can save yourself wasting time, and therefore money, in the studio. Of course if you’re lucky enough to be working with a musician who has a decent home studio setup this won’t be an issue.
Whether your musical ends up being a success or not I’m sure you won’t regret putting in the time to explore the genre. It’s liberating for a playwright to throw realism and subtext out the window and have a character belt out their deepest desires directly to the audience. This is something we rarely get to do when writing more naturalistic plays.
Some of what I’ve said above may seem daunting at first glance but often all it takes is the confidence to try something new. Never be afraid to dip your toe in the water of a new genre. What’s the worst that can happen? You write a terrible musical and go right back to doing whatever you were doing before. If it’s that bad you don’t even have to show it to anyone.
On the other hand, you may fall in love with the genre and subsequently carve out an enduring career penning smash after smash.
Obviously as with swimming there’s a learning curve involved in writing musicals, but you can’t drown in a piece of paper so dive in head first and start writing if that’s what you want to do.
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