Pitch Perfect, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the development of musical theatre in the UK, provides us with their advice and tips for writing for musical theatre.
How do you write a musical?
It’s probably a question that few writers have thought about. Not simply ‘how is a musical written’, but how could you, someone familiar with writing on the page but maybe not so accustomed to writing for the stage or through song, develop a piece of musical theatre to draw simultaneous laughs, tears and cheers from audiences packed into a theatre?
First of all, you don’t have to know how to write music. This is a naturally collaborative medium and out of the three things that form a musical – music, lyrics, and book (script) – writers can write or co-write any combination. Very few writers do everything.
At its core, the key is in the name; musical theatre is simply storytelling through drama and music, a tradition that goes back through the centuries, starting from when stories first started being told. It’s a powerful form and more versatile than many people realise as it uses that unique fusion of music and lyrics to immerse us in a story, developing plots and characters while capturing their inner lives through song. And musicals don’t have to include large ensembles but can also act as fascinating, intimate character studies.
There are no set rules for how to write a musical, and there’s definitely no magic formula for how to construct a successful one. Still, below are some suggestions to get you started on developing your ideas.
Developing the concept
Identifying the core concept for a musical is comparable to any medium, and it boils down to finding a story, idea or character that speaks to you. Be creative and imaginative. Don’t think too hard about what other musicals you’ve seen and what you’d normally expect from a musical. For years, shows have addressed all sorts of unexpected, obscure subjects. Go with the story you want to tell.
Now ask yourself the essential question: does it sing? Don’t feel you need to hear a large, sweeping orchestra. Smaller, character-based stories work just as well; all those interior monologues in novels and soliloquies in Shakespeare work on similar principles to songs, and often music can highlight an essential emotion or idea running throughout your piece. It’s worth taking the time to work out the heart of your concept, not just ‘what happens’, but what it is truly about. This will feed into the songs as well as the story, which should always be leading back to this central idea.
Once you have your concept, it’s time to expand it into a dramatic, compelling narrative. Imagination is still essential, but now you need to be more disciplined, as there is no time for meandering in a musical. First, identify your fundamental conflict and work out the bare bones of your story around this, being merciless about what is really essential. Afterwards, develop it to layer on the depth and complexity that will keep us engaged. Is the plot dramatic enough? Does enough ‘happen’? Whether or not your story involves tangible, conventionally dramatic events, make sure that the story is always moving and the audience always wants to know more.
Remember that drama is character driven and ensure that your story can be channelled through the characters as they experience the events moment by moment. World-building needs to come from dialogue rather than description, and plot occurs through the characters’ actions. The advantage a musical has is that not everything has to be visual as we can access the characters’ internal thoughts through the songs. You can also make use of music’s flexibility to use songs as essential storytelling devices, whether you want to make time move faster or slower or break the fourth wall.
It is essential that you create compelling, unique characters because they are your storytellers; there is no third person narrator. Make sure to define the main characters clearly so that we know their goals as we follow them through the piece. This doesn’t mean your characters have to be instantly likable, but it is important that we understand their motivations as this is how we access the wider story. How will they change over the course of the musical and what will they learn?
Significantly, when deciding which moments take place in song, remember that songs come from character. The traditional idea is that characters sing when emotions become too much for plain speech, but songs can also be used in quiet, internal scenes, or to explore a particular idea. Take this as an opportunity to experiment with pushing your characters as far as you can to reach these extreme moments that can best be conveyed through music.
A musical’s structure is one of the hardest things to get right. The best musicals weave songs and scenes together seamlessly, making use of every second to capture the audience’s imagination. The songs should help with structure, not hinder it, and you can use them to highlight particular turning points or moments when you are ramping up the tension. At the same time, songs also allow structural flexibility, and you can decide whether your story is best served by sticking to the conventional three-act structure, or whether you’d rather throw it out altogether and craft something entirely unique. Even so, make sure that the opening grabs the audience from the start, and if your musical has two acts then build the act break into your structure.
When breaking your story into scenes, try to be as concise as possible. Time wasted is time when the audience starts thinking about their train ride home, so be certain you know why each scene exists and what purpose it has within the piece as a whole. The same applies to songs, which can function as scenes. Does it move the story along? Develop character? Establish setting? You can intersperse sung lyrics with spoken dialogue or use songs to cut away from a particular strand of the story.
Consider what kind of musical it is. What size theatre and cast are you writing for? Who is your audience? This will affect everything else, from the tone to the musical style. Is it a more traditional musical, or something no one will have seen before?
If this has sparked your interest, you might consider applying for the Perfect Pitch Award to win a £12,000 commission to complete a draft of a new musical. Writers are asked to submit three contrasting samples of their work to demonstrate their skills, which can be songs or extracts from a musical, play, screenplay, novel or short story, and no previous experience of writing a musical is necessary. The deadline for applications is October 31st.