Notes on the Musical Book | A Page of Post-Its

Marsha is currently working on her book about the Musical Book.  These are quotes from some other book writers, and some from Marsha and some from Peter Stone and John Weidman.  Look at this page as a page of post-its. Many of these ideas are from, “Writing Musical Theater” by Allen Cohen and Steven Rosenhaus. 

Since musical theatre is about the expression and enhancement of emotion, it follows that stories that contain and evoke strong emotion, serious or humorous, are more suitable for musicalization than those that do not.


The emotions must be strong enough that it feels appropriate for the characters to sing. (Will a song add a deeper understanding of character or situation?)


The story must contain enough emotional content for an audience to care about the characters and be willing to follow them to the end.


Writers must consider what it is in the idea that appeals to them, and how likely it is to appeal to large numbers of other people.


The characters do not necessarily have to be larger than life. But they have to be amenable to larger than life treatment.


The musical adaptation must enhance the story in some way that is not present in the original material


A musical adaptation does not have to be better than the original, but it has to be at least as good, and different.


The libretto includes the structure of the show as a whole.


A good libretto will necessarily feel incomplete without the songs. It needs songs to make it a dramatic whole. It must contain all the elements that make good drama, but in order to work as a part of a musical, it must not work on its own.


Clearly it is easier for an audience to get involved in a story, to accept the dual conventions of singing and speaking, if there are no jarring breaks between one mode of discourse and another.


Librettists are usually blamed if the show doesn’t work, and almost never given the credit if it does. Although they are often responsible for the show’s structure, and sometimes its concept and tone as well, they make no more money than the lyricist or the composer. In short, librettists must be conversant with the principles and conventions of musical theatre, skillful with language and structure, ruthless in cutting their own work, and willing to let their best ideas be taken and used by their collaborators. On top of all that, they must have a thick skin, and no need to share the spotlight or the glory.


Golden rule of musical theatre writing – Don’t tell them, show them. Audience needs to know the main characters as soon as possible. Protagonists are who they seem to be. Songs carry a presumption of sincerity. Main events happen onstage. Narrative momentum builds toward a resolution. Musicals don’t preach to the audience.


Principle of opposition – one of keys to musical theatre. In order to induce the audience to have a certain feeling about a character, it is necessary for the character to evince the opposite feeling. A character in terrible circumstances expresses hope and a positive view (Maybe from Annie.) Makes audience want the good life for the character. A good librettist doesn’t tell us how miserable the character’s life is, he/she shows us. Lyricists don’t use words like “I know,” “I believe,” “I’m certain” because a person who uses these phrases in real life is usually lying. So in a musical these phrases almost always convey the opposite meaning.


First act sets up situation, second act resolves it. Some new musicals have just one act. But regardless of acts, musicals take place in a short period of time. If there is a jump in time, the scenes on either side of the jump tend to cluster in a short period of time. Act break occurs when the audience most wants to know what will happen next.


Every song advances the story in SOME way. Every scene ends with something important unresolved, leading the audience to the next plot point.


Essence of musical theatre is conveying an emotional experience, an illumination of some aspect of human life. None of the great musicals has had an explicit message.


Even when the audience expects that things will turn out well, in a successful musical, the audience still wants to know HOW.


Most musicals have fourteen or fifteen songs in their score.


If the most dramatic moments in the main characters’ lives are not musicalized, there is probably something wrong with the storytelling.


The theme is the essence of the story, and it must be kept in mind throughout the entire process of writing, rewriting, rehearsing and performance. What is this show about? (In Fiddler, for example, it’s about the changing of old traditions. Brigadoon is the story of a romantic who is searching and a cynic who has given up, and at the end, the cynic is proved wrong,


When adapting a property for a musical, almost anything may have to be discarded EXCEPT the central core of the work, the theme or feeling that made the writers want to adapt it in the first place.


In literary fiction, most of what the main characters experience is internal – psychological and emotional, which makes it extremely difficult to translate into theatrical terms. When a non-dramatic work is being transformed into a dramatic work, the chief problem is to ensure that the result contains the essentials of drama: action, conflict, characters who change, variety, the dramatic arc or some other workable structure.


Biographies are perhaps the most intractable sources for adaptation into musicals.


Writers face a still greater degree of difficulty when adapting history. Few historical accounts have an inherent dramatic structure and therefore a structure needs to be superimposed. It is also difficult to decide which of the historical characters should be used as characters, and which of those will be the protagonists.


In good musicals, the subplot is not simply another group of characters. IT is another plot with its own arc and resolution, although it is related in some way to the main plot. The best subplots are tightly integrated with and complement the main plot, supplying what the main plot lacks – humor, a different age group, dancing rather than singing, a sad resolution rather than a happy one, and so on.


The main difference between theatre songs and pop songs is that theatre songs must serve a specific purpose.


Good theatre songs move the show and its characters in their journeys, whether these journeys are physical, emotional or intellectual.


The first ten minutes of any musical are the most crucial because these first minutes tell the audience what to expect from the rest of the evening, making clear where the piece is set, and what the tone and style of the whole piece will be.


Another major task of the opening number is to present the theme or spine of the show. After the opening number, subsequent establishing numbers can occur at any major scene change to set the new scene or mood.


Good writers don’t want a song that stops the show; they want a song that moves it forward.

Another way to use songs to propel story, is the montage. While montage is difficult in plays, it is relatively easy in musicals, because of the nonrealistic and almost magical power of adding music. It can bridge the gap in time, just as it bridges the gap in scenes.


Songs can also help to move a show forward by revealing character more quickly and tellingly than is possible in a play. A song can also reveal a character’s desires, or the motivation for an action about to be taken.


Songs can also serve as relief, either comic or otherwise. There are also songs whose only purpose is to entertain.


The first step in routining the show, is to decide which places in the libretto should be musicalized. Good writers follow the principle of musicalizing the emotional peaks of the story. If a story is suitable; there will be four or five of these. They will comprise the spine of the show.

The most common locations for high points of the score are the opening, the end of the first act, and the climax of the show, sometimes called the eleven o’clock number. (This from the old days when shows started at 8:30, thus putting the big number about 11:00 o’clock.) Examples are Luck be a Lady Tonight, I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face, and Rose’s Turn.


There is no show without some optional numbers, and it can be useful to distinguish between the essential ones and the optional ones. For example in The Music Man, You Got Trouble is essential, Shipoopi is optional.


The vast majority of musicals have 14-15 numbers. But this number can drop as low as 11, in, for example, Pacific Overtures.


Overall balance between music and dialogue is about half-and-half. The interval between musical numbers is never very long, ten minutes or less.


Even in shows where the music is virtually continuous, the audiences needs songs to be set off a little bit from each other. Otherwise the show begins to seem like a concert or a revue.


A score needs not only variety overall, but contrast from one song to the next. This contrast can involve the number of people singing, the gender of the singers, the type of song, the emotional tone or mood of he song, the musical style of the song, and the amount of dance or choreographed movement.


In the lead-in to the song, you cannot give away where the song is going, but you must make a real transition between speaking and singing.


A reprise is a reiteration of any song previously heard in the show. It can involve new lyrics, new people singing the song, or a new situation in which to find the song. Some composers reprise songs in order to drill them into the audience’s heads. This is not a good reason.


In a good show, dialogue and lyrics must seem appropriate for the time and place of the show, but must remain comprehensible to a contemporary audience. A few well-placed phrases will often convince the audience they are hearing gangsters, gang-members, courtesans in the court of the King of Siam, etc.


Some types of songs are ballads, comedy songs, rhythm songs, charm songs, list songs and musical scenes.


Shows can run from an hour and a half without intermission, to two hours and a half with intermission, or between 90 and 110 pages, Any shorter and a piece will not feel like a complete evening. Any longer and the producers will complain about having to pay overtime to the musicians, and you will not get good tables at after-theatre restaurants.

The main characters in a musical must have charm. They do not have to be thoroughly wonderful people, but there must be something in them that the audience responds to. They must also have an internal logic – every word or lyric, every action must be true to her character. In life, characters may do something out-of-character, but in a show, this is disconcerting. A Character must behave consistently because the audience wants to root for the character. If their actions are too predictable, the show becomes boring. But if they are too surprising, they can break our suspension or disbelief.


Characters who remain optimistic in the face of adversity are appealing. Also characters who are direct and honest about who they are and what they want. We can easily be won over by characters who are optimistic, courageous or honest.




A line is the equivalent of a complete or incomplete sentence – Oh what a beautiful morning.

A couplet is two lines in immediate succession which share a metric pattern. Oh What a beautiful day

A group of two or more lines in a pattern that will be repeated is a stanza

Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling, Everything’s coming my way.


A refrain is a recurring phrase, line, group of lines, or stanza. It gives the essence of the song. Wouldn’t it be loverly.

A chorus is usually longer than a refrain, typically consisting of three or four stanzas or sections.


The AABA form is the most common today.

There’s a small hotel With a wishing well.

I wish that we were there Together.


There’s a bridal suite,

One room, bright and neat, Complete for us to share Together.


Looking through the window you Can see a distant steeple.

Not a sign of people.

Who wants people?

When the steeple bell

Says goodnight, sleep well We’ll thank the small hotel Together.


OR AF l’ER INTERLUDE When the steeple bell

Says Goodnight, sleep well We’ll thank the small hotel We’ll creep into our little shell And we’ll thank the small hotel Together


The B section is called the release or the bridge. It not only serves as a release or relief from the A section, but is also a bridge between the second A section and the final one. The B section shows a clear contrast in metrical and rhyming patterns, but also has a different melody and harmony from the A section.


A good release gives a shift in perspective, and changes the rhyming pattern.


There are other forms ABAC and AAB, for example. But all theatre songs have an A section which repeats 2 or 3 times, allowing the audience to get familiar with the structure and the melody, and then a B section which is different in lyric structure, point of view, melody and often rhythm.


Beginning lyricists would do well not to try to write in complicated forms.


In a BALLAD, the lyric will establish a situation, build to a climax and lead to a moving conclusion

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. Every good ballad incorporates the dramatic arc in some simple, economical way.


A COMEDY song can be one long joke, or a series of jokes, that is, a line or stanza intended to make people laugh. Comedy songs must allow time for the audience to react and laugh, so the laugh lines are often placed before the end of the stanza where the singer can continue without losing any of the meaning. The music must stay out of the way of the lyrics to get a laugh. Example from Gypsy:


If Momma was married we’d live in a house, As private as private can be:

Just Momma, three ducks, five canaries, a mouse Two monkeys, one father, six turtles and me… If Momma was married


A RHYTHM SONG – the more of a shape the song has, the more satisfying it will be to the audience. Get Me To the Church On Time is a good example -a short intro, two AABA sections, followed by a big dance. There needs to be an increasing drive to the song that leads steadily to the climax


CHARM SONG – these only need a short, gentle journey. But it is a very specific character who can have one. These songs usually demonstrate the likableness of the character.


Lyricists must think about what is going to happen during a song. Only rarely can a character stand on stage and simply sing.


If you don’t want a word to be the most important word in the line, don’t rhyme it.

Good lyrics rarely invert idiomatic word order. The comprehensibility of a lyric depends on how singable it is. Always avoid near rhymes, sibilant sounds, and the sounds t, k and p at the end of a line.