Aug 06

Writing a Musical – the Ins and Outs

During the second semester of senior year at my high school, seniors are required to create a “Senior Project.” Seniors are given the freedom to independently pursue an interest of their choice for five months and then present their project to the school at the end of the school year. These senior projects range from using a 3D printer to build prosthetic arms to putting on a recital to raise money for a charity to renovating an area on campus. While watching presentations this past school year, one in particular caught my eye. A senior boy had decided to write a screenplay, as his passion in particular was movies. He hadn’t finished, but he was still working on it, and his presentation of how the project went got me thinking.

I could write a musical for my senior project! Right? How hard could that be? My passion is theater, so why not? I mean, yeah I’d have to figure out how to write songs, but if I have a good idea, well there we go! Yeah….no. There are so many components to writing a musical, and even if you have an idea, once you get started.

First the idea: the story has to be something original, nothing that’s been used before since it’s an original musical. My initial idea turned out to be a slight deviation of The Light in the Piazza which I hadn’t even seen until my friend pointed out how similar it was. And so onto the next idea I go. Not only does the story need to be original but it needs to captivate an audience for two or more hours. It can’t be predictable, slow, or too complicated think Inception…that wouldn’t go over so well onstage. There’s too much going on.

Next the music: Woah okay so I’m a singer, I play guitar, some piano and that’s about it. A musical would be hard to put on with just those three instruments though. To write music for a musical, not only do you need to know what instruments are going to sound good together, or what feeling this instrument’s tone will make, but also the range of the instruments. Crazy right? For example a violin’s highest note is going to be higher than say, a timpani’s highest note (and what is a timpani?)

What you don’t think about when you’re watching a musical in real time is all the little cue marks and stage directions that are written in a script. Well maybe you do, but the average theatergoer might not. On top of regular dialogue in a script, to write a musical you must envision what the show will look like. Do the characters enter after this line or before that one? What’s the general mood of the scene? Sure directors take care of a lot of the blocking on a stage but the writer of the script has to make sure the intention of a scene comes off correctly.

Clearly there’s more to writing a musical than just putting down some ideas and writing a couple of songs. And of course then to get the musical on stage you need actors, techies, directors, producers…you name it! Broadway shows have been through a lot to be where they are today!

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