Crystal Skillman

Let your play sing: top 6 tips for musical theater bookwriting

Musicals, or the idea of musicals may unleash a lot of feelings. It may be a hatred of, or possibly a crazy obsession for musicals! It can get emotional! This article is for those dramatists who are thinking of exploring music in their own work. Here are six simple observations I have made, based on my recent experiences. I hope they will jazz your musical theater writing heart!

“What is your quest?” Wait…! What is your source material?!

Having worked on original stories and stories inspired by existing works (film, comics, novels) it is clear now why so many musicals are created from pre-existing material. That material provides a story that is already three-dimensional, which allows your team to begin with something concrete. With an original work, the story is being built, and then you craft with your partner(s) how you will tell it. In both cases, you get to take the elements of playwriting and discover new ways you can use this medium to create a different kind of theater-going experience. As a musical book-writer, I do a lot of talking through key moments with my collaborators. But my role is to always keep an outside eye to the whole story. It takes a deep, deep love of dramaturgy. And patience.

To sing or not to sing?

The most important question of all. Why do the characters in your world “burst into song”? What an infuriating question! It’s a musical, duh! But your answer to that question is crucial. What are the rules of your your world? Do your characters sing because breaking into song is a part of the world (diegetic songs, á la Cabaret the film), or it is because they are poets, and the poetry is always sung, or is there a whole other fabulous rule you figured out? In your musical, are songs internal thoughts? Or thoughts expressed within a scene to others? Or as in most shows, both? When deciding what might be a song, challenge yourselves. Lyrics should not have the burden of “telling the story.” Perhaps the moment you are trying to capture as a song –  a father grieving the loss of a son is – is simply about cleaning the dust from his son’s empty room. Know that it is human behavior on stage that we as the audience  or  “the collective living, breathing thing that Oscar Hammerstein dubbed ‘the big black giant’”* crave. We crave connection as opposed to information.

The scene IS the thing.

Yup. The song and the scene are one. While we often think a book-writer’s job is to “lead-in” a song – this is misleading. Both the song, the scene that lead up to it, and how we get out of the song are one scene. They are connected to the driving action of the scene and overall plot. Regardless of why your characters burst into song the stakeshave to be high and we have to understand them. The dramatist’s role is setting up those stakes, so that it is not only clear in the world, but to the audience. Cause and effect in dramatic storytelling are always important, but in musical theater they are crucial. This might be the biggest piece of advice I can give. Every word, should move the project forward – be it sung or spoken. Musicals, more than any other art form, have no room to be “precious.”

“Pure imagination”

It was after my play Geek!, written for and put on in NYC by the wonderful Qui Nguyen’s theater company Vampire Cowboys, that my good friend Bobby Cronin approached me to work on Mary and Max the musical. “Your play is just like a musical!”, Bobby exclaimed. He loved the layers of the show. I began to realize others wanted me to work on musicals, after reading my plays and seeing what I could do. I kept asking why? And then discovered, musicals have to be non-naturalistic. And I write pieces that are theatrical. In a musical theatre world, we have characters breaking into song. We are making something natural out of what is unnatural. Isn’t that insanely liberating?! If ever lost, think: “What if?” Imagine the possible outcomes. I bet a new answer will come to you.

“Time IS the one thing YOU ARE master of!”

The bold Matilda points out in her stories: “Time is one thing no one is master of”, but how lucky for you the truth is it is that as a book-writer YOU are the master. Musicals can achieve a “cut-to” effect (like in film!) and for writers who love theatricality, it is like being handed the keys to the kingdom. A song can travel over the Twelve Day of Christmas in a three minute song (She Loves Me), a Bat Boy can become an educated man, and Eliza Dolittle can become a “lady”. Musicals can jump through time and present dual realities at the same time (City of Angels). For all of this, the compression of time and how time builds on stage and how this raises the stakes, is very much in your hands. As the writer, the way you see time, and the creative solutions you offer will greatly help yourself and your team.

If you build it… they better produce it right?!!

THIS PROCESS TAKES TIME. Keep the faith. Keep making your piece as clear as it can be, as imaginative as it can be, as true and wild and wonderful. Just like you found your collaborators, you will find those that see value in your show. Drive your process to show them what you see. What makes it special. Workshopping musicals is EXHAUSTING. But it teaches you not to wait. It teaches you that the only way that people will find you and your piece, is by making it the piece you believe it should be and communicating the piece to the best of your ability to them. For every play or musical we see, there are versions of that idea that failed. This is what will lead to your success. Learning from what worked and didn’t. The point, I think is, that with musical theater writing, more than any other form of dramatic writing, the journey is the most important thing. In this way, it is really less about what you’re writing, and more about how writing this piece affects the skills you gain to write your next play, musical … or play with music, perhaps?!

*quote from The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel. This book is invaluable. I also highly recommend Julian Woolford’s How Musicals Work.

About the author
Crystal Skillman

Plays include Geek, Cut, King Kirby, Pulp Vérité, and Rain and Zoe Save the World - just announced as the winning script for the 2018 Earth Matters On Stage (EMOS) New Play Competition. Crystal is the musical theater bookwriter of Mary and Max, with composer/lyricist Bobby Cronin, as well as Postcard American Town (composer/lyricist Lynne Shankel), both with director Stafford Arima. Featured in earlier this month in American Theatre, Mary and Max was just workshopped at Pace New Musicals and will debut at Theatre Calgary in their new season this fall. Crystal is represented by UTA.