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.
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.