Writing musicals is hard.
What comes first, music or lyrics? The answer: the STORY.
Writing a musical has more to do with building a house than it does with writing a song, a play, a screenplay, a poem or any other of the individual arts collected by the form. Like building a house, each choice affects the work of another, equally important party. Collaboration is essential.
Story, in musical theatre, is comprised of:
- Book, text to be spoken (the primary responsibility of the bookwriter)
- Lyric, text to be sung or spoken in rhythm (the primary responsibility of the lyricist)
- Music, pitches and rhythms to be sung or played (the primary responsibility of the composer)
Indeed, story is a “fourth piece” of the puzzle, the roof over which the other pieces exist. They are subservient and at the mercy of Story and unquestionably must write in response to it and it alone. There is no additional need for a “story by” credit; it is implied in the job description of the other writers.
The stage writers’ un-Union (for we are not employees so therefore are unable to have a real “union”) is The Dramatists Guild, and that features a word I think is useful to our understanding. A “dramatist” writes plays, and we are clear that playwrights write stories. All musical theatre writers are actually “musical dramatists,” and therefore, all musical theatre writers (bookwriters, lyricists, and composers) are all musically inclined writers who also write stories.
All musical dramatists contribute to the CREATION OF STORY in varying degrees according to their interest and ability.
Writing Book Does Not Necessitate Controlling the Story
It is a common misconception that bookwriters are the sole writers of "the story," and that they create and later control characters, plot, time, place – and songwriters contribute songs after the fact. Though this works for some, including many Tony winners (read Marsha Norman and Harvey Fierstein’s take), this is a mistake, generally speaking.
A bookwriter, lyricist, and composer have different skills, and forward narrative in different ways. The dance of the components, taking turns, is part of what makes the musical theatre form so interesting.
Imagine for a moment a director that is not a choreographer conceiving a dance. A brain surgeon conceiving how best to treat a tricky bone spur. A window expert creating plumbing lines. There is some crossover in these field pairs, but they are inherently different forms with a completely different set of traditions, strengths, and weaknesses. One ought not speculate on the solution of the other, despite their familiarity.
What a song can do is not what a scene can do; and vice-versa. A bookwriter would not wish the songwriters to conceive of the intent, duration, and location of their scene; and so bookwriters should not conceive of the intent, duration, location of the score’s songs.
Indeed: how may a bookwriter speculate the depths to which music and lyric may tell the story? It is with this understanding that story is best when conceived by all parties with some sense of equality.
Once the story is set, for at least the first draft, each dramatist has the opportunity to let their private creative juices flow within the confines of the agreed-to story. All parties understand that in this scene and song, X will occur. HOW is the fun of the various creatives.
The creatives agree that in this scene and song, Jerry will kill Ronald due to jealousy of Ronald’s new (and secret) affair with Pamela.
The bookwriters conceives that the scene opens with a comedic bit for Jerry and his Maid, giving way to Ronald’s arrival. The composer-lyricist consider a short four-line reprise for one of Jerry’s earlier songs would, now as sung by Ronald, demonstrate how The Tables Have Turned. The scene continues as the bookwriter begins a debate which heats up with an initially lukewarm discussion of Pamela – but it starts to simmer (the composer brings in the underscore) and a debate begins. Knowing the challenge of musicalizing arguments, the bookwriter continues the challenge of the two in dialogue until the composer and lyricist arrive at a strong, singular musical idea for Ronald, about Ronald’s Love for Pamela. As Ronald sings his song, the bookwriter conceives of Jerry’s fury in response (preparing to get him to kill Ronald) through stage directions and dialogue asides. By the end of the song, which the composer-lyricist felt would climax best with Ronald’s murder, the bookwriter directs Ronald to grab a letter opener and plunge it into Jerry’s back. The composer creates a musical moment as the attack gives way to death.
You may get the sense above that this group of writers idyllically formed a musical theatre moment, hand-in-hand. In the “book-first” version of the scene, it wouldn’t surprise me if the bookwriter thought the dialogue-debate ought to be a song too early; and in the “score-first” version, the songwriters might have weakened the suspense of the scene with music, would not have conceived of the “calm before the storm” comedic bit – and at any rate, one is less without the other.
Writing a musical is a COLLABORATION among numerous components and the people that contribute them. Collaboration is unavoidable.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of "The House that Story Built," next week.
RYAN SCOTT OLIVER wrote the music and lyrics for Darling, Mrs. Sharp, 35mm, Jasper in Deadland and more. www.ryanscottoliver.com
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