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What to remember when writing your first musical

Tips & Resources

by Joseph Rothenberg

So you want to write a musical? Let’s talk about food.

Food, as you know, comes in many flavors. The richness of Fettuccine Alfredo. The tanginess of sweet and sour chicken. The spiciness of enchiladas con carne. Hot dogs. Every culinary tradition caters to different tastes. Despite the diversity of flavors, textures, and ingredients, the purpose is always the same – providing the nutrients people need. The different flavors are simply different ways of making the contents appealing.

Films, too, come in a variety of flavors, or genres. Genres serve to make the contents of the film – its story – appealing. Genres are differentiated by the types of setpieces they use to move the story forward. By setpieces, I mean the chunks of entertaining content that make up a film. For example:

Action films like The Amazing Spider-Man or Pacific Rim progress the story with spectacular setpieces like fight scenes, explosions & chases.

Psychological thrillers like Vertigo or Gravity use set pieces like hallucinations, anxiety dreams, and distorted reality to show us the story inside the protagonist’s mind.

Dramas like Twelve Angry Men or Driving Miss Daisy rely on setpieces composed entirely of dialogue: heated exchanges, heartfelt speeches, confessions, and the like.

Despite these differences in approach, spectacular fights, frightful dream sequences, and subtext-rich exchanges of dialogue all serve the same purpose – keeping the audience engaged with the story.

The musical genre features the most easily identifiable setpieces of all – songs. Songs are easy setpieces to distinguish because they divide the story into distinct fragments, each fragment set to its own music & lyrics with accompanying choreography. Songs in musicals are usually bookended by brief dialogue setpieces in between.

Some types of song are common to many musicals: the opening number, the love song, the protagonist’s “I want” song, the show-stopper, the villain’s plotting song, and so on. These songs are familiar because these moments appear in many stories.

When writing your musical, remember that you’re really just telling a story. It’s a musical because the type of setpiece you’ve chosen to feature is songs. Like any setpiece, a song must relate a new part of the story. The structure will look something like this:

  • Your first few songs will set up the story: the world your characters live in, the goal of your protagonist, and who or what stands in the protagonist’s way.
  • The next several songs will advance the story. The protagonist enters another world where there’s no turning back. Friends are made. Minor setbacks occur, but progress is made toward the goal.
  • Somewhere along the way, the songs will intensify. The villain or antagonist triumphs, temporarily dashing success from the hands of the protagonist. The protagonist briefly despairs in a reprise of an earlier song but then rises anew.
  • The last song or two finds the protagonist taking back control & dethroning the villain. We exit on a song showing the world in its final resolute state.

Note that if you replace “songs” with “action sequences,” “conversations,” or other setpiece types, this structure still applies. Any story can be told in any genre. All that changes is the type of setpiece. (And of course, all films use more than one type of setpiece; the genre or genres simply reflect the type used most.)

Remember, your story shouldn’t flatline during a song. Instead of reiterating the same story point for 3 minutes, it’s typically better for the song to progress the story. In other words, by the end of the song, something should be different than than it was at the beginning, and/or the audience should learn something new about the story. Take “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King, a seemingly story-lite song. By the end of the song, Simba has become an adult and adopted a carefree philosophy and a new diet, and the audience has learned Pumbaa’s backstory and explored the paradise where Pumbaa and Timon live. The catchy ditty covers a lot of story content.

So if you’re stuck and you don’t know what song to write next, remember: your musical, like every other narrative film of any genre, is a story. Songs in a musical only exist to convey story points. Figure out what story points need relating to your audience; then write songs to convey those points. And remember to progress the story within each song.

Wanna see a great example of animated musical? Check out our Film of the Week, Ladies Knight, produced by Joseph himself.

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