Lessons in Storytelling from a Muscial Theater Nerd

I am a huge musical theater nerd. It’s something that’s been a part of my life since I was two years old and Grease was my favorite movie. However only recently have I become aware of the part of me that is absolute trash when it comes to Broadway shows.

Over the past year I’ve only seen three professional productions: Something Rotten, Fun Home, and Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. I was in a school production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, saw my friends production of Assassins and after much more of this extensive… research, I’ve concluded that despite the huge differences between musicals and books as mediums, there’s a lot that authors can learn about storytelling from musical theater.

Rule number one about musicals: they can be about anything. Assassins is about famous successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts throughout history. Hamilton is about the American revolution and early political history, 25th Annual is about a middle school spelling bee, Chicago is about prison, Lightning Thief was an adaptation of my favorite book series. There’s a musical called Urinetown about a dystopian future where you have to pay to use the bathroom. All of these wildly different, bizarre ideas work to create compelling stories and an entertaining adventure for the audience.

So rule number one for writers: don’t limit yourself. There’s no one right way to write a good musical, and there’s no one right topic for a book. Write about something you find interesting and people will find it interesting. Write about anything: a spelling bee or a political revolution. The quality of a story isn’t determined by the popularity of the topic.

Rule number 2: it’s all about the characters. The whole point about musicals besides the singing and dancing, is that it’s a live performance. There are people on that stage and they’ve memorized lines, but more importantly they’ve stepped into this character and brought them to life. That’s what the audience will be interacting with. The characters and what they’re saying and what they’re doing. That’s all the audience has access to. These characters and the way they live on the stage.

While in writing we have points of views and narration in a way that musicals don’t, we shouldn’t forget about the characters. That’s what the audience wants to see: the people and the things they do. If you aren’t focusing enough on that, you’ll have all these actors on stage, not paying attention to each other, or sitting around, doing nothing while you talk about something else. If you don’t know your characters well enough to play them on stage, the audience won’t be convinced. They won’t see a person, they’ll see an actor reading off lines.

Rule number 3: Opening numbers. Musicals open up with a song that introduces you to the story. In Spelling Bee, each character is introduced as they complete their registration for the bee. You get a sense of who they are, but most importantly you get names and faces, the setting and the premise. In Assassins, the opening sets the tone. A twisted carnival game inviting our characters to take aim and shoot a president so they might win a prize. The premise, the topic, the characters all introduced in minutes. Into the Woods begins with each main character stepping forward and saying “I wish…” You learn what the character wants and what stands in the way of them getting it. Then the story is on it’s way.

From the beginning you should bring your audience right into the story. Who’s important and what do they want, what’s in their way? Where are we, what’s at stake? Opening numbers are big and usually involve the main players. Get your people onto the stage and start showing the audience what they’ve sat down to watch and why they should care.

Similarly, rule number 4: finales. Just like they start off strong, musicals also end big and bold. Hamilton ends with a synopsis of the rest of Eliza’s life, plays back into the bigger theme of legacies. Spelling Bee shows each of the kids growing up, overcoming their insecurities and becoming adults. Assassins ends with a reprise of the opening number, showing that none of the characters have changed and that they’d probably do it all again. Lightning Thief while being adapted from the first book in a series, ends with the uncertainty of unsolved conflicts, but still highlights how the characters have grown and ties back to themes of inner strength and bravery.

Ultimately you end your story however you like, with all your character or just a few. Their future can be as stable or as uncertain as you feel necessary. But just like your opening establishes a place, people, and tone, your finale should in some way tie back to a theme, what your story is about and why it matters. The audience should feel some completion and leave with some emotion or some idea.

When I left Assassins I was blown away and not just by my incredible friend’s incredible performance, but by the new ideas in my brain. The songs were catchy and the characters were compelling despite being detestable. Something about it stuck with me and made me re-listen to the soundtrack, seeking out the emotions that caught me in the theater. Just like any great story it pulled me and made me feel something. When I left,, it made me think. It made me want to come back for more.

So before you write your story, sit down, pick a musical and listen to the soundtrack from beginning to end. Take note of what it makes you feel, what it’s trying to tell you. And if nothing else, at least you might gain a new favorite song out of it.
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So I’m back from hiatus. I finally have more free time and I felt compelled to write a little bit about musicals because I’ve been really into them lately. I have more to say on this topic though so stay tuned, and I’ll also be talking more about People Like Us and the sequel. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this and will go check out some cool musical. Feel free to hit me up for refs because I have a lot to say.

Construction City

The world looks different when your days are numbered. 

It’s really all the same as before. The same streets, same buildings, same trees, same trains, but it all means something new. Knowing that these staples, this backdrop to your life won’t be yours for much longer.

They’ve been building that apartment complex since you were a freshman. You’ve spent all sorts of days, standing on the platform at Queensboro Plaza, sometimes reveling in the fresh air, sometimes huddling against the cold, the rain, the snow. You’ve bounced in place with an urgency, cursed the MTA gods and the 7 train. You’ve felt soul-consuming relief at the sight of an express rounding the turn, screeching to a halt in front of you.

And every day it’s been there. Construction workers hopping up and down the floors on a cleaning scaffold. They’re building a building from scratch, hard hat workers of the 21st century. Sometimes you’ve watched.

It’s taller than when you first saw it. Obviously. It keeps climbing. You wonder when they’ll stop.

You take the 7 train towards Flushing Main Street. Or the N towards Astoria-Ditmars. You leave the building behind, exchange it for a ride through Construction City.

Your building- you feel a sort of ownership of it, like it belongs to you and your mid-afternoon adventures to the LIRR- is one of dozens in varying states of assembly. 

There’s a machine placing steel rods in the cement foundation. There’s one with the first five floors complete. There’s one missing windows. Another that’s just a frame. One that’s a hole in the ground, a perfect square.

It reminds you of a game you used to play on your computer. You had to build a city, buy buildings to make money to buy more buildings. You would drop down an apartment complex and in seconds and three frames, the building would go from a patch of grass to a wooden frame to a perfectly complete new structure. 

These won’t take seconds. They’ll take years before they’re actually places, years before they stop reaching towards the sky, years until this little area in Queens, right by the river, right by the bridge, will be mistakable for the concrete jungle on the other side. 

You won’t be here to see it.

You wonder, if you come back, will you even recognize it. You wonder how it’ll be different, more people. You wonder if you’ll get a seat on the train in this new city. You wonder if you’ll go a few stops down and see more holes and frames and starts, construction city, always growing.

You wonder, if others come back, look around, and see holes in the ground where their buildings- the ones they claim some ownership of, witnesses to their routines- once stood.

You can leave Construction City behind, but its spirit follows you home. 

It’s cold out. New York heading back into the Ice Age for a few months. Despite this you walk, coat pulled tight around your shoulders. 

You pass a sign for the new Home Goods at the mall , the one that stands where Barnes & Noble, your Barnes & Noble once stood, the sacred ground, housing your childhood memories, hours of reading on the grey carpeted floor, your first Harry Potter book, laughing with friends before you all became so busy. It fills you with a wave of nostalgia and then rage. 

What good is a Home Goods anyway? Who needs curtains or pans anyway? (It’ll never feel like a home, and the irony is not lost on you.)

You pass the Brazilian Massage Therapy – center?, shop? – and the Caffe Bene, the one you never went to but always said you would. There used to be a Tiger Schulmann’s on this corner, but who needs karate when you can get a coffee and a massage instead?

Across the street is the Pizzeria Uno. They repainted it. You hadn’t noticed yet. It used to be green wood and now it was white and red with a blue trim. You’re not too bothered by the change. The service is still probably terrible and the pizza probably still tastes like cardboard, they’ll still have dinosaur chicken nuggets on the kid’s menu and the one in Astoria will always be a million times better.

You keep going, down the Boulevard, still the one busy place in your neighborhood, the only place to go to do anything. Except you never do anything.

You didn’t realize they opened a new Greek place, a half a block away from the other Greek place, the one you love. You don’t know where the pet store went, and it seems their closing the bakery and their little chalkboard sign always advertizing fresh cupcakes and ‘Help Wanted’. 

But there’s a new this and that store. They painted over the mural at the gas station, the one on the side of the street closer to the park. They put a Santa hat on the plastic cow on the window of the Milk Farm Market.

They may not be knocking down buildings and putting up new ones, but you wonder the same things.

You grew up here, lived your life here. This little town that you hate and that seems to hate you. Yet there was a time, before you spent most of your day outside of this town, that you knew it like the back of your hand, could recreate the streets in your mind without a second thought. 

And now it’s different. But you’re different too. 

You remember a time when the only building that reached more than three stories off the ground was the apartment complex by the bay. But now, right in the middle of the Boulevard, at the edge of the commercial-residential border of the town, there’s a building soaring above the street. Nothing like in the city, maybe a mere six stories, eight max, but calling itself a plaza, claiming to be the home of corporate offices. It’s grey and rectangular, and it makes you feel…

It makes you think that construction city will follow you home. It makes you think that home won’t look like home for much longer.

You reach home, pull out your key and go inside.

This is home, changing, but quickly before your eyes, every day a variation, yet the important things remain the same.

Only it won’t be home for much longer. You wonder how long before you come back and don’t recognize it at all. 

You wonder how long until you come back and none of this, not home, not the town, not the city, will recognize you.

How to Get Away With a Season Finale

I don’t know what I’m doing with my life anymore. Now that season three of How To Get Away With Murder is over, I just don’t know what to do with myself. I suppose I could do some homework, maybe study for a test or two, write a little more of book two. But it all feels so meaningless now. 

HTGAWM is maybe my favorite show on television. For an hour every Thursday, I put my phone down and lean back on my couch, clutching a pillow to my chest and muffling all my unearthly sequels. And then I’ll spend the rest of the week rambling to whoever will tolerate me about the drama and holy shit what suspense and what’s happening next and who’s in danger and why is it not Thursday already?

I was in the middle of a jog (because I hate myself enough to try to be healthy) when I stopped in my tracks, still shook from the end of the penultimate episode. 

Just as a warning, this will not be the only HTGAWM article I will write. There’s so much to talk about, so many characters that I’ve pseudo adopted (much like Annalise). There’s so many beautiful things in the show, so many incredible moments that make you admire the writers who pour life into these incredible characters. This show is my #storytellingporn. The stuff that makes me want to be a better writer, the stuff that inspires me to sit down and write something half as good as this year’s midseason finale.

Today, to keep myself in control, I’m just going to be focusing on the season three finale that aired last night and how I feel about it (and I have A Lot of Feelings) and then also maybe where I think season four will take us. Please be prepared for spoilers and rambling streams of consciousness. 

A quick recap on my emotions towards each character and everything I yelled at them through the screen last night:

Frank. I am over Frank. I was over Frank in season one, and then season two gave me a million reasons to hate him even more. I like that he’s been trying to take the bullet for Annalise, but I actually wanted him to go to jail because he is an actual murderer. But no. My mom loves him so I have to listen to her coo about Frank, meanwhile I was literally begging Annalise to slap him, just once for all the shit he’s pulled. He’s definitely right when he says it should have been him, not Wes.

Bonnie. Bonnie is a terrible lawyer. I don’t mind Bonnie that much as a character and I didn’t want her to be the one that died, but man, she just can’t win. She tries so hard to be like Annalise but just fails every. Single. Time. It’s like watching a kid walk in their parents shoes. She just can’t pull it off. Here’s to hoping she gets a little better at manipulating people in season four.

I don’t know when it happened, but somehow, Asher has become the greatest character on the show. Through season one I was ambivalent; he was the worst of the Keating Five and didn’t even know anything about the murder stuff so he was boring. In season two I even grew to dislike him after the whole Emily Sinclair nonsense, and at the beginning of this season I was prepared to let him go if it meant sparing my other faves from the Sheet of Death. Now he’s the highlight of Thursday nights. He’s so lovable and goofy and in the midst of murder and drama, he’s a silver lining of comedy. Asher’s highlights from last night (aside from every time he was on the screen): admitted he would sleep with an old person for money, “With the state of my bank account currently”; ate Cheetos very loudly after Oliver’s heartbreaking plea for everyone to help him find Connor; made Laurel literally throw up because he was eating pizza so grossly; told Michaela he loved her like fifteen times; “Maybe you’ll love me if I have abs”; that little face he made when Michaela said she loved him too. Here’s to more of Asher in season four, being the lighthearted breath of fresh air this show really needs.

On the subject of Michaela. I’ve loved this girl since season one. She’s ambitious, hard-working, and can get shit done. Everyone always speculated which of the kids is most like Annalise and I think Michaela is definitely a carbon copy of Annalise’s no-nonsense, I-can-destroy-you-with-a-single-sentence attitude. I love her and Connor and their amazing friendship and watching her support him throughout the episode was amazing. I feel like we got to see Michaela’s vulnerable side in the finale and that’s something that doesn’t happen a lot. Seeing her and Laurel talk about boys in the bathroom was painfully cute and her entire reaction to Asher’s confession was amazing, from “I think Laurel is calling me” to finally responding in kind confidently in a women’s restroom in a bar in New York City with an amazed look on her face. I really enjoyed seeing Michaela take charge this season (She stepped up to the plate more than Bonnie, tbh) but next season I hope she gets a break and explore her relationship with Asher a little better.

Laurel. Oh, dear sweet Laurel. She has been a hot mess since Wes’s death, and I understand you’re grieving and I love you so much, but seriously, you need to calm the heck down. My issue with Laurel lately is that she acts like Wes’s death was her tragedy and hers alone. This episode was chock full of Laurel yelling at people who are just trying to help and making bad decisions. She was planning to straight up murder Charles Mahoney on the hunch that his family had something to do with Wes’s death. I know you’re in pain, but that doesn’t mean you get to do really dumb things like send your friends to go flirt with creepy rapists and then pull a gun out in the middle of a bar. Also telling Connor to kill himself was not cool. You didn’t know about the whole bus thing, but still, not cool. Wes was his friend too, and you were also in the house and did not save Wes, so please, chill out and stop attacking the people you care about. Hopefully season four Laurel will take a deep breath, stop being a trainwreck, and quit hurting the people around her so that maybe she can mourn properly with her friends. (Unfortunately I don’t think this will happen, and dear Lord I hope everyone clears a path when she finds out that her father killed Wes.)

Annalise has been killing me ever since the mid season finale. She has been through so much. She lost Wes, she got sent to jail, her mom has Alzheimer’s, her house burnt down, she literally got punched in the face a few times. She has been through the wringer, and it was uplifting to see her kick back into battle gear. Trying to help Bonnie do her job better, meeting with Mrs. Mahoney, preparing her case to straight up destroy DA Denvers. But those last moments with her at her support group was especially moving. She was painfully honest for once, confronted her feelings, and I’m relieved to see that she’s finally going to put effort into healing. Viola Davis always stuns me with the power of her acting and the way she can convey Annalise’s pain. While I love watching Annalise destroy people in and out of the courtroom, I hope next season she gets to take a step back and start to piece herself back together a little bit. It’s been a rough year and I think she deserves a break.

Oliver. Hampton. My poor dear child. He’s finally a part of the Murder Club TM. I loved Oliver in this episode. He may be new to the club, but he’s become confident enough to push and shove everyone else around enough. He and Michaela yelling at everyone to freaking stop blaming Connor made my week. This is Oliver’s first finale as a knowing member of Team Murder and he stepped up to the plate. From kitty porn to proposing to Connor, Oliver went through a journey last night. He’s spent so long wanting to know all of the gang’s secrets and inside jokes, and in the last few episodes, we’ve seen him realize what deep shit he’s gotten into, but I think last night he realized just how serious and dangerous their situation is. His concern for Connor throughout the episode was pure and adorable, and I can only hope he holds onto that adorableness throughout season four.

And finally, Connor. I don’t know where to begin. Connor has been my favorite of the bunch for a long while, because he’s one of those characters that are so goddamn tragic. I’ll probably dedicate an article to him one of these days, but in this finale he just got walloped. I spent most of last night shouting at him and crying about him. For starters, what the heck was that opening scene? What the hell did he think he was doing almost stepping in front of that bus like that? Does he know how freaking worried I was? “What do you know?” I screamed at the screen a total of fifteen times during the first twenty minutes of last night. This is the thing about Connor, he acts like he doesn’t care about anything, but secretly cares a lot, and after three seasons of blaming Wes for everything and calling him Wait List and being his usual “I’m too cool for this” self, seeing him try and fail to resuscitate Wes was killer. And then thinking he was to blame. It put a whole new perspective on his adamant declaration that it was Annalise. He just wanted to believe it wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t. Connor is the type of character that has so many emotions but shares about two so I loved, loved seeing him stop being so cold faced and being genuine with everyone for once. Finally protesting that Wes was his friend, calling Annalise out for trying to replace Wes with him, literally crying for once instead of just letting everything fester. And then the unwavering loyalty to the cause suddenly. Throwing himself out there to go on the stand and potentially be incriminated, going to Denvers to tell him what happened, knowing it would put him at risk, Connor felt so damn guilty for no damn reason and it pained me so much to see him try to make amends. He was starved and locked in a bunker for over a day and still refused to turn on Annalise. I think it’s high time Connor got a freaking break. I hope in season four he goes somewhere warm with Oliver and turns off his cell phone.

Also just a quick note about Connor and Oliver. I let out an unearthly howl when Oliver proposed. After such a stressful episode for my two favorite dudes, seeing them together again and then having Oliver. Propose. I may have exploded just a little. I expect full scale wedding mode for season four since aside from Laurel’s dick of a dad, there’s not much more murder plot. How to Get Away With Planning a Wedding. Michaela is best man, obviously. Asher makes dumb comments about flowers and rings and stuff but then gets drunk and proposes to Michaela at the rehearsal dinner. Laurel calms the heck down and takes up floral design or something to help them out. 

If anyone has Shonda Rhimes contact info please let me know because I have ideas and feelings and I will consider writing for season four. I don’t have anything to do know that speculating about my favorite show is over so I could easily fit that in my schedule. Or I could rewatch the whole show from the beginning…

Riverdale: A Great Place to Get Away with Dark Thematic Commentary on the American Dream

Our story is about a show, a CW show, and the people who live in the show. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other shows all over the prime time TV block…Angsty.

Dramatic.

A little cliched.

Get closer, though, and you start seeing the intriguing thematic commentary underneath.

The name of our show is Riverdale. 

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I love Jughead Jones, I really do, but his writing style… 

There are two TV shows that I care about enough to watch live every week: How to Get Away With Murder and recently, Riverdale. (I’ll be writing an article soon about The Murder Show™.) You would think that there wouldn’t be enough in three episodes to write a whole article about, but I’m convinced that there’s this deep meaning beneath the surface of this seemingly simple teen drama. 

Riverdale is based on the Archie comics series (one of many comic based shows on the CW). I’m not an expert on Archie comics history and characters, but a quick Wikipedia search has confirmed my long held impressions. Archie Andrews is the all American teenager, Betty Cooper is your typical girl next door, Veronica Lodge is a slightly spoiled socialite, and Jughead Jones is the every lazy yet supportive best friend. It’s a harmless, goofy, colorful comic, not meant to be taken too seriously. 

Riverdale, however, opens with Jughead Jones narrating the death of Jason Blossom. The whole scene is idyllic, aesthetically beautiful, with the Blossom twins in matching pristine white contrasting with their blood red hair. Everything is so bright and pretty and yet there’s this darkness that we don’t get to see: the death of Jason. 

At the end of the episode we learn that Jason had been shot in the head, and Jughead Jones narrates us out of chapter one saying the Riverdale was not the same town after the discovery. 

But I disagree. I think Jason’s murder didn’t mark a change in Riverdale at its core, but rather the first cracks in the perfect idealistic front of the town. 

Our characters are not just the perfect archetypal characters from the comics. Archie, our ideal American teen, is having an illicit affair with his adult music teacher. Sweet girl-next-door Betty is dealing with mental health issues as a result of her abusive mother and absent sister. Veronica is coping with her father’s arrest and being a stranger in a new town. Jughead is a social outcast who shakes down Boy Scouts and writes murder mystery novels. 

They’re undoubtedly based on the characters from the comics, but twisted in intriguing dark ways. 

Meanwhile a character like Cheryl Blossom who you’d expect to embody the mean girl archetype, is given many moments where the audience sympathizes her. She may be mean, but she’s reacting to her brother’s death and whether you like her or not, you feel for her. 

The show also employs some… problematic throw away lines, specifically concerning characters’ sexualities. When first meeting Kevin, Veronica immediately decides that he is gay and that subsequently they must become best friends. This is a trope that a lot of people are done with, because it implies that gay characters are mainly there to support their straight leads instead of possessing their own agencies and motivations. I cringed when I watched that scene, but just a few scenes later Cheryl is there, calling it out with a flippant retort, “Is being the Gay Best Friend still a thing?”

Even later in the episode, to ‘shock’ Cheryl and show that they have the fire to be cheerleaders, Veronica kisses Betty. Once again this trope utilizes the shock of two girls kissing like it’s something strange and unexpected instead of something genuine and normal. Cue another cringe. This time the moment is barely over when Cheryl is once again pointing out the moment, “Check your sell-by date, ladies, faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.”

These are just two examples, but most of the time, when one character says something that makes the audience (me) cringe with its offensive connotation, another is there to make some retort that calls it out. The fact that it’s typically Cheryl, our villainous queen bee, adds a whole other layer of complexity to the shows already muddled lines of good and bad. 

The closer you get, the more Riverdale seems to be shouting out a message through all of its subtext and juxtapositions. Our clean cut American teenagers are not perfect. They have issues that get glossed over and ignored by the plot and the other characters, but that wrongness remains in the forefront of the audience’s mind. Our perfect American ideals aren’t perfect, and this isn’t something that happened suddenly. 

In episode three, Betty decides to start up the school newspaper with Jughead to investigate Jason’s death. “Jason’s death changed Riverdale. People don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. We all feel it. Nothing this bad was ever supposed to happen here, but it did,” she says. I think she’s wrong. Jason’s death didn’t change Riverdale. 

During the episode, she and Veronica decide to fight back against the slutshaming and other misogyny perpetuated in their school by the football team. When they start investigating, they end up with a room full of girls who had been harassed and shamed by just one guy. This is not something new to Riverdale. The difference is that now, it’s coming to the light. Betty and the others are reporting about it, going to principal, not letting the issue hide behind Riverdale’s clean cut facade. 

Riverdale was never a perfect town. It had these problems beneath the surface, being glossed over, hidden from sight. But they’ve always been there. In episode three, we learn that Jason didn’t drown at the river, but rather was faking his own death to run away, to get out of Riverdale. Jason’s death wasn’t the start of the darkness in Riverdale, it was the end of ignorance, of hiding behind pretty suburban aesthetics. 

And that’s only with four episodes of content to examine. As the series progresses, I’m excited to see more of the darkness get called to light by Betty and Jughead and the others. As we learn more about Jason’s death, as Riverdale’s pristine facade crumbles, I’ll be sitting raptly every Thursday night.