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A Guide to Writing a Musical

Perfect Pitch Award Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth

Playwright and lyricist Chris Bush and composer Matt Winkworth, winners of the 2013/14 Perfect Pitch Award for musical theatre writing, offer a guide to writing a musical.

Be prepared to really collaborate:

All theatre is intensely collaborative, but musicals are especially so. You will be one part of a creative team, surrounded by equally brilliant people who know more about their specialism than you do. Embrace that. Respect it. Everything should be up for grabs – everything should be a conversation. If you begin a musical with a rigid, inflexible notion of exactly what you want and are not prepared to budge from that you’re going to have a horrible time. If you come with an open mind and a lot of ideas you’ll have a blast. Which leads us on to…

Don’t be precious:

It’s better to get the big picture sketched out than to get hung up over the tiny details (which are likely to change anyway). Remain open-minded and willing to take on feedback. Be prepared to shelve ideas, break stuff down and restructure things. Extrapolate new ideas from old ones. If something’s not working, don’t be too precious to figure out why and get it fixed – even if it means making radical changes.

Write the musical you want to see:

“Write what you know” is one of our least favourite pieces of advice. It makes sense, sort-of, but can be unnecessarily restricting. You should always be prepared to step outside the comfort zone of your direct experience. Much better is “write what you care about”. Write the show that you would sleep outside a theatre for to get day tickets. Write the story that made your blood boil, the character that kept you awake at night, the moment that would bring you to your feet. Don’t try and second guess what the market or the industry might want: if you care, that will come across. If you don’t, we’ll know that too.

Don’t forget to always tell your story:

A good musical tells its story through song as well as dialogue. In drama we’re told if a scene doesn’t reveal something new about a character and/or advance the plot we should cut it – same rules apply here. Don’t stop all the action for 5 minutes while your protagonist emotes into a spotlight. A good musical should be as tightly structured as any good play – that means a satisfying dramatic arc, that means characters that develop and change. Kick-ass tunes don’t excuse a flabby plot.

Know why they’re singing:

As discussed above, music is just another medium through which you can tell your story. Any story can be told with music, but it’s still worth asking yourself why your characters sing. Crudely put, words do meaning, music does emotion, and together they’re incredibly powerful. What are the rules about when characters speak and when they sing? Who are the songs delivered to? Is there an awareness of the audience? Establishing an internal consistency to your world can be time consuming, but will really help in the long run.

Find your character’s voice:

When writing songs, use the melody to support the identity of your characters. An elderly woman is going to sing in a different range from a young woman; a nervous character may sing more quickly than a confident one; a young child may have only a very simple melody. Of course there are no hard-and-fast rules here, and characters should change through the piece, but when sitting down to write a song be sure to remember who is going to end up singing it.

Be yourself:

Musical theatre is a vehicle for storytelling through drama and music – not a prescriptive genre.  Be creative, express yourself, and don’t feel bound by a specific style.  Find your own way to tell the story, explore your own stylistic voice, and see what works.  You may find that the radical, outside-the-box ideas are actually the most effective and interesting.

The joke comes second:

This is a silly little thing, but lyricists – when you’re rhyming, where feasible, the funnier/more unexpected word should always complete the rhyme rather than form the first half of it. Trust us, you get a much bigger laugh that way.

Treat your songs like speeches or conversations:

There’s an old musical theatre adage that when characters can’t talk any longer they sing. There’s some truth in that, but equally don’t ask your characters to sing anything that they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say. What we’re getting at here is lazy lyricists who contort their grammar, add extra syllables or insert unnecessary clauses because the musical structure demands it. Here’s a test – read your lyrics out loud. Do they sound like something a real human being would say? If so, great. If not, fix it. Yes, we know we don’t speak in rhyming couplets, but the language itself and the ways you put words together should still sound plausible.

Perfect Pitch Award

Build a sound world:

Repetition is your friend. The humble reprise gives your audience a satisfying light-bulb moment at recognising a previous tune, and if reworked or subverted in an unexpected way can be very powerful. While you may decide not to go down a strict route of leitmotifs (melodies for specific characters, emotions, places, and so on) it is important to have an element of repetition to build a cohesive world. Instead of always writing a new song from scratch, consider extracting some minor element from another song and expanding it into something new. Even if the result is largely unrecognisable from the original, it will help create an internal consistency to the music of the show. This is also a useful process if faced with writer’s block!

Break these rules, but know why:

Even as we write these tips, we can immediately think of occasions where we haven’t heeded our own advice. Sometimes that’s for very good reasons, sometimes it’s out of sloppiness, and if it’s the latter then the hope is we’ll go back and change things. Of course you can must break the rules sometimes, but you should always know why, and what the rule was in the first place.

Chris and Matt were the winners of the inaugural Perfect Pitch Award in 2013/14, and are currently writing the musical ODD which was commissioned for development by Perfect Pitch in association with Royal & Derngate Theatre. Chris Bush was the 2013 Pearson Playwright-in-Residence for Sheffield Theatres and has won the National Young Playwrights’ Festival, a Brit Writers’ Award, the Perfect Pitch Award and the Sunday Times Edinburgh Competition. Matt Winkworth trained at Goldsmiths College, London, and is currently based in Oxford working as a freelance composer and musical director.  He won the inaugural Perfect Pitch Award in 2014 and was also a finalist for the Cameron Mackintosh Composer-in-Residency (2013) and the RSC Song Competition (2015). 

The 2015/16 Perfect Pitch Award, offering a £12,000 commission to develop a new musical, is open to applications. No previous experience of writing a musical is necessary, and the final deadline is 20th July. Find out more here