I have no hatred or ill will towards musicals, but sometimes, it feels like I’m seeing the same elements over and over without enough variety or toying with the details. This is not my song, this is my manifesto. Thus I present…
How to Write A Musical
First of all, you need a protagonist. If you want them to be almost a well rounded character, you’ll need to start with clear flaws- seclusion, poverty, raucous friends, disconcerted conformity, reclusive tendencies, or not singing good enough. However, more important than any flaw that can be glossed over later is the dream. It’s preferably selfless, but the selfish ones are just as viable as long as you sing it good enough. It can be of fame,a voice for the voiceless, fortune, true love, boundless knowledge, castles in sky, rock and roll or unguided unfounded rebellion. There’s never a manuscript, but always a song.
Optional is the antagonist. They need to be slithery, but not slimy. Their ugly sides must be covered with a mask, italian suit or curtain (as in man behind the curtain). However, if there is a villain, they must be somewhat appealing. They’ll need to have a number later. It could be their tragedy, or how they’re a sexy murder fiend. They need to be undoubtedly evil but there needs to be a story to make it passable. If you’re going to hate humanity, there needs to be a song explaining the pain that makes it not tragic but slightly more ‘human.’ If you’re going to try to kill the protagonist, you need to have some reason that the somewhat flawed character before you is representative or indirectly responsible for some wrong against thee. I have never seen the scenario where the protagonist has made the first or worst measure against the antagonist.
Now is a good time to introduce the love interest. They need to be ‘true of heart’, perhaps a silent admirer or aloof subject of hidden affections. They shouldn’t be too hard to stomach- the protagonist with the beautiful dream shouldn’t settle too much for the audience to handle- but there’s always a reason why the lovers aren’t together at the top of the show. Midway through the show you’ll have to include a ‘discovering feelings’ number. Plan accordingly.
You don’t need any more, but it’s always nice to throw in a little more of exactly what I’ve seen before. A matriarch or patriarch makes good for heart to hearts, having concern or distaste for character development in the protagonist. They often serve as the token character of familial love, but make sure their arc ends before all the others, because the audience really has a hankering for some pecks of friendship and then the final smooch of true love. They can be a believer, finishing with more pride in the protagonist than thought imaginable, or a skeptic, won over by the overall brilliance of the protagonist and regretting that they weren’t in full support of the main character the entire time. If you want to subvert these roles, throw in a common twist like killing them off or secretly being the antagonist.
The protagonist should have friends or comrades. You’ll be seeing a lot of them, so it pays to make sure you used different cookie cutters. Have the meek one- give them a rousing number and be certain they’re played by a cute thespian. You can’t go wrong with the rowdy one either- somewhat abrasive but with a heart of gold and inexplicable, unwavering loyalty. The friends are more important than the assuredly funny and not evil henchmen- primarily because the protagonist, the desirable one, has desirable traits like trustworthiness, friendliness and leadership.
Now, with the simple structure of world-as-is, call-to-action, new context, training, imminent demise, final conflict and then resolution, the plot writes itself. Give a song to each, with numbers in between checking up on the few major characters. It’s often a good idea to include a funny song, where you have a happy or soothing tune and content that isn’t often in that context. Do not do this with mad or sad songs. If you subvert those, how will the audience know to be mad and sad? If you’re not inclined to write your own tired showtunes, why not give Jukebox musicals a spin? They too can use this simple, effective format.
The beautiful part is that there is not much left. Now is the time for bonuses and details, which is where the oppressive engineering becomes visible like cracks in the pavement. You can’t go wrong with having people in drag. People love drag. It makes the old blush, the drunk smile and teenage girls swoon. You don’t even need to have a reason for it- everyone will smile and laugh and leave the theatre just dandy. Men in women’s clothing has become traditional now- to not include it would be revolutionary. Bonus points go if you do an entire number in drag.
Recurring jokes are good, but recurring innuendo is better. Beating it to death is bad, but beating it is okay…beating it…. beating it… beating it. That was an example. You can use it, if you want.
Don’t subvert too many cliches. Subvert as many as to be funny, which is often just one. You’re aiming for ‘uproariously funny’, ‘positively brilliant’ and ‘funny and charming’, not ‘dreadfully introspective’, ‘unconventional’ or ‘a/an experimental failure’.
Now I am finished. I have not written a musical but rather a cynical, simplistic condescending excuse for a theatre review. Perhaps it’s been a long year and I have taken my reputation for cynicism, sass and snarkiness to heart.Sister Act is playing at the Orpheum Theatre through the first of June. It is not a bad musical, it’s funny enough and original enough to get by. I recommend it to anyone who wants to see my point proved.