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So You Want To Write A Musical? 7 Steps To Getting Started

I’ve rarely ever come into contact with someone who didn’t have an idea for a musical. Everyone wants to write one or be in one or just be on the team. I read nearly every day about musicals that are being made based on beloved films, truly mediocre films or films amazingly inappropriate for a musical. However, ideas for musicals are not just confined to movies, plays and books. They come from board games, TV shows, rides at theme parks — anything. It’s “What I Had for Breakfast Today: The Musical.”

It seems no subject matter is off-limits when it comes to making a musical. However, it takes more than an idea to create something onstage that will capture and hold an audience’s attention and make them feel, or laugh or hate you.

Today, I will touch on the necessary steps (in my humble opinion) that it takes to create a musical your audience hopefully won’t hate you for.

Step 1: Source Material

Nothing is more important than the story you are telling. Whether it’s an idea out of your own head or based on already existing source material, this is the foundation of your show. Source material can be a novel, play, film or even a TV show — I’m sure someone is creating “Mr. Ed: The Musical” right now. If you’re too young to remember “Mr. Ed,” it was a sitcom in the ‘60s about a talking horse, and yes, someone somewhere thinks this is a good idea for a musical.

But still, even the worst idea imaginable will be a good idea to someone. And that’s the real point: All art is subjective. So, even if you really are planning to obtain the musical rights to “Mr. Ed,” you still have a shot at making it a good show if you do everything else right. It’s a very, very small shot, but a shot nonetheless.

The story you choose for your show is the story you will be living with for the next many years, if things go well, so it should be a story you love. It should involve characters you love (or hate for all the right reasons) and want to spend time with. It doesn’t matter whether you have a profound message to share with the world or if you just want to make people laugh and have a good time. That’s up to you. Just know that the story is everything. If you don’t have the story, you have nothing. It’s the foundation on which you will build everything else. If your foundation is shaky, your musical will be shaky. Make sure you get this part right.

Caution: I know the trend is to try to musicalize all the movies we love, and I believe film is a very valid choice for source material for musicals. But be careful. First, you’re going to have to acquire the film rights, and that takes lawyers and money. Unless you’re extremely well-connected, I do not suggest it. If you don’t have an original idea, I suggest taking a novel or play in the public domain and using that as your story. You can update it so that it feels more contemporary. Any novel or play 75 years after the death of the author is in the public domain, and you don’t need permission to adapt, sabotage or plagiarize the works of your favorite dead author.

I’ve adapted several works in the public domain. I started with “Jane Eyre.” I literally had no idea what I was doing. I read the novel, highlighted the parts I thought I should include and then just started writing the book and score. Amazingly, 10 years later, the show would go to Broadway (after 7 million rewrites, countless readings and out-of-town tryouts). Oh, did I mention writing musicals is all about rewriting them? We’ll get to that later.

Tip: Don’t try to guess what the audience wants. No one knows. It’s all a crapshoot. Yes, if you have Hugh Jackman starring in your show, you probably could do “Mr. Ed: The Musical” and it would kill. But we don’t all have Hugh on speed dial, so you’re better off choosing a story you love, whether it’s an original idea from your very own brain or based on previously existing material. If you have your foundation, you’re ready for the next steps.

One more thought: Here’s a very crucial question to always ask yourself when looking at source material:  Do these characters sing? Look, I’m very opinionated. Personally, I don’t think Spider-Man sings. Maybe that’s just me (apparently it wasn’t just me). Some characters sing, and some don’t. How do we know? I’m not sure. To me, it’s intrinsic. I just know. I’m hearing about a musical being developed by Broadway producers right now that has characters I know shouldn’t sing. But often, Broadway is more interested in a brand than what makes a good musical. That’s why the world needs us. Notice how I’ve included all of you without knowing you — it’s my way.

Step 2: Who’s Writing This Thing?

The next most important step is deciding who your writing team is, and more specifically, what your role is.

Are you a musician? Are you a playwright? Are you someone who likes to eat ice cream and watch a lot of TV? (Don’t underestimate TV watching. We are in the Golden Age of TV, and you can learn a lot about dramatic structure. Also, it’s a little known fact that ice cream is essential to writing musicals.)

When I write a show, I write everything (at least in the first draft), including the book, music and lyrics. My background is in songwriting, so naturally, writing the score comes easiest to me. But even though I had very little experience writing the libretto to a musical, I decided to do it all myself for “Jane Eyre,” since at that time, I had no writing partner. This was done with the understanding that eventually, I would bring in a book writer. I did, but I had no idea it would be the director of “Les Misérables.” Holy shit.

This improved my skill at writing librettos. Though I did not end up writing the book for “Jane Eyre,” I did write the librettos for several of my other shows, including “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Working with John Caird was an education in creating musicals. I was very fortunate to have had that experience. But it started with my commitment to do it all myself. Just try to get the work out there so that it could be heard — eventually by John.

Tip: Figure out what you do. If you like to write music but you don’t feel you are strong with lyrics, collaborate with a lyricist. If you are the book writer and you think you can write lyrics, go for it! Do whatever it is you want to do, and find out whether you’re good at it. If not, so what? The biggest tip I can give anyone is this: Don’t be afraid to suck. We all have to start somewhere. And sucking is a reasonable place to begin. We’re here to grow and learn, and there’s no better way to learn than by doing. That’s what worked for me.

Step 3: How Do I Start Writing?

You still haven’t watched Season 3 of “Game of Thrones.” It’s a beautiful day outside, and if you had a dog, he would need to be walked right now. Your boss needs you for an extra shift, and working at Starbucks is sucking out your soul and all your creative juices.

Look, there’s no easy way to say this: Writing is hard. But getting started is harder. So do whatever it takes. Set a time of day where you have time to write and make sure you sit there. Even if nothing happens, it’s okay.

I read once that Paul Simon, one of my favorite songwriters, goes to work from “9–5” every day and just writes, whether he’s inspired or not. I thought that was pretty cool. So, find a system that works for you and stick with it. This game is all about self-discipline. Most of my work is not commissioned, and if I don’t force myself to write, I’m not going to have a career. If you can self-motivate, you are golden.

When adapting from a novel, I would strongly suggest reading the novel before you start to write your musical. I know this seems stupidly obvious, but believe me, I had to force myself to not start writing songs for “Jane Eyre” before I finished reading the book (that fucker took three weeks to read. So many pages). But I was so inspired by the early chapters that I was just bursting to start writing. But of course, that would be stupid. I didn’t know the story yet. I didn’t know the arc of the story. How would I know which bits to include and which bits to leave out? This is the key when adapting a novel — they’re long. When we did our first production of “Jane Eyre,” we basically performed the whole novel onstage. We were so true to the book, we didn’t leave anything out. The show was over three hours long.

Tip: When adapting a novel, the most important decision you can make is what to include and what not to include. With “Sense and Sensibility,” I wasn’t keen on telling the stories of the mother and the youngest Dashwood sister because I felt they were unnecessary to the plot. So, I killed them off, and it worked like a charm. In “Emma,” I got rid of Emma’s sister and brother-in-law. They bored me, so I left them out. The decision is all yours. These works are in the public domain, and you can do anything you want. However, if there really is an afterlife, I have an uncomfortable feeling that Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens are going to kick the shit out of me.

I find that plays are the easiest to adapt to musicals. If you’re working with a good playwright, he or she has already done a lot of the heavy lifting already. Honestly, I would much rather adapt a play than a novel. With a play, I can focus entirely on the score because the story is already mapped out. Chances are, I’m just “musicalizing” the sections of the play I want sung instead of spoken. I am currently adapting the play “Reflections of a Rock Lobster” by Burgess Clarke. It’s based on the true story of two boys who wanted to go to the high school senior prom together in Rhode Island in 1980. After they were turned down by the high school principal, they sued the school and won. The play has so much pathos and heart, and it’s been a dream to take Burgess’ words and make them sing. I love putting myself in the heads of the characters and trying to find new ways to express different emotions. There is a tremendous joy and satisfaction in working with truly smart writers who push you to do your very best work. It doesn’t always happen, but if you have the rights to a great play, it’s a good place to start.

Making a musical based on an original story is the trickiest. When I am adapting Jane Austen novels, at least I know that my story is solid and has worked for almost 200 years. Almost no one is going to leave the theatre saying, “Weak story.” But with an original piece, you have your work cut out for you. Musicals are hard to get right to begin with, but original musicals are even harder. So if you do have an idea you love, then tell your story. Sing your story. Be original. Figure it out as you go.

Be sure to map your story out completely before you start writing songs. One of the biggest mistakes I constantly make is writing music before the idea has settled. Of course, writing the songs can often help expand the idea — and may help in discovering new places to go — but it’s generally a far better idea to have your story completely worked out and a good working draft of the script before you begin writing the score.

Step 4: Where Do the Songs Go?

I play the game “Where’s Waldo?” when I’m working on a new musical (though honestly, I don’t know who Waldo is). Discovering what should be musicalized and what shouldn’t be is the key to writing a good musical.

When I first started working on “Emma,” I came to a place in the novel where Mr. Elton sends Emma and Harriet riddles, which Emma thinks provides clues about his romantic interest in Harriet (when he’s really interested in Emma). I saw many opportunities in this moment to write a great comic song for the three characters. It would have worked wonderfully, and the audience would have eaten it up. But I never wrote the song because it would not have moved the story forward. It wouldn’t have given the audience more insight into the characters. And we find out the same information later in another way. So the best decision I ever made was to not write that song.

“But if the song would have been as great as you say, wouldn’t it have helped the show anyway?”

No. Though it would be an audience pleaser in the moment, it would have made the first act five minutes longer. And then later, there’s a “double beat” in storytelling, which would have taken the air out of later scenes because things are feeling long when they didn’t have to. Everything is finely stitched together in a musical, and pulling one thread can change everything. That’s why musicals are workshopped so much. They are really complicated things to write, because there are so many parts of the puzzle. We never know how it will turn out until we’re up in front of an audience, where we find out everything immediately and it’s often very scary.

Step 5: I’ve Written the First Draft. Now What?

That’s so amazing! And you haven’t even finished this article yet! Bravo to you.

Okay, so you’ve written a first draft. That means you have a book and a score. That is amazing. Seriously, your first musical could be terrible, but you have a first draft and you should absolutely celebrate. Why? Because musicals are hard to write — even bad ones. And you finished something, which is big, especially since musicals take a ton of work. You’ll be rewriting this for the rest of your life, but you have a finished draft and that’s fantastic.

Here’s what’s really great about where you are now. Rewriting is everything. Rewriting is where most of the magic happens. Look at it this way — you are no longer staring at a blank page, which I’ve come to believe is one of the evils of the universe. But now you’re looking at a page that has actual words, and that’s good! You’ll be rewriting those words soon enough, but it’s all part of the ongoing process. You’re in good shape. Just back away from the TV and put down the ice cream.

Caution: Are you really done with that first draft? How is the structure? Don’t worry if it’s too long — it should be too long at first. It doesn’t have to be perfect in your mind yet, but just make sure you are mostly satisfied with this as a first draft. Then, go treat yourself. You deserve it.

Step 6: I’m Ready for My First Reading — I Think

Not only have you finished your first draft, but you’re so happy with yourself that you want all your friends to hear it. So you plan your first reading.

What’s a reading? In New York, we have what’s called a “29-hour reading.” This allows the creative team to work with a group of actors and present the material for either a small or large group of friends, family and industry peeps. You actually have about 26 hours or so to “rehearse,” and the other three hours is the actual reading itself.

However, before you put a reading together, you have to put a creative team together. You already have your writing team, whether it’s just you or you and one or two others. But now you need a director.

This is a big deal. You know how I said that the source material was a big deal? This is the next big deal. Your director will not only guide you through the production, but a good director will also be your dramaturge. A dramaturge is someone who really understands storytelling and will help guide you into making your story as clear as possible — and will lovingly inform you when you are writing something that is total crap. So, choose your director wisely. They are your new creative partner, and they run the show — literally. This needs to be one of your wisest decisions.

Sidebar: When John Caird heard my first demo of “Jane Eyre,” he was in Los Angeles directing “Les Misérables” and wanted to meet. I went to the house he was renting in Westwood. We sat in his backyard as he went through my script with a red pencil, correcting my spelling and occasionally muttering things like, “This isn’t 19th century,” and “This is American, not British.” I felt like an idiot, yet he still somehow asked if he could direct my musical. Yet to this day, I don’t know why the hell I didn’t just use spell check.

“Okay, so I have my director. Do I need anything else?”

I’m so glad you asked that. Yes. You need your next important creative partner: your music director. We call them the MD. (It’s really fun to call them MDs around your parents. It confuses them endlessly.)

Your MD will be the guardian of your score. They will make all the necessary notations and changes, keep the singers happy and make the composer’s’ life much easier.

Sidebar: I’m a college dropout, and though I studied music, I don’t read music well. I deeply rely on my music director to be my conduit to the singers. Other composers, such as Jason Robert Brown, are brilliant musicians. They read and play extremely well and can do everything themselves, though they will still rely on great music directors to make their jobs easier.

I’m hopeless when it comes to reading my own scores, and I deeply depend on my music directors to save me and make me look good. They are an integral part of my work, and I’m grateful to all of them for validating my reason to drop out of college.

“Okay. Is that it? Do I need anyone else?”

Yes. You need a casting director, stage manager and someone to transcribe your score into Finale, if you’re anything like me.

Doing a reading of your musical is absolutely necessary for the development of your show. It will be the first time you hear the piece out loud, and it will inform you of the work you still have to do. People are generally not going to laugh if it’s not funny. Listen to how loud or soft the applause is after a given song. Hear when people start to cough during scenes or songs, since this is usually a sign of boredom.

Nothing whips your show into shape like a few good readings and hearing how an audience responds.

Tip: Be sure to cast your show well. One of the issues we always face when casting actors is whether to cast an actor who sings or a singer who acts.

The short answer? Find both. Yet in my opinion, Broadway-caliber performers are a unique breed. There is literally no one else in the world who can do what they do. To act brilliantly and sing brilliantly is a rare thing to find in one person (and we’re not even talking dancing). Often, an actor will audition for me and be a great singer, but their reading is weak. Or the opposite will happen — they embody the character perfectly, but their voice just isn’t quite up to it.

That’s why performers who both sing and act brilliantly are rare. I would argue that many celebrity performers on Broadway would not even be considered if not for their fame. And I mean that with no disrespect. It’s not like they don’t act and sing well — they do. But those who can take it to the next level — say a Sutton Foster or Brian D’arcy James — are the performers who make theatre magical. They are special, and no one can do what they do.

Step 7: That Went Well! What Happens Now?

Congratulations! You’ve just done a reading of your musical, and all your friends told you they absolutely loved it.

Caution: Not all of them really loved it. Some of them are just saying that because they don’t know what else to say. Also, some of your friends who “loved it” also loved Cheetos lip balm, celery jello and the McLobster (actually, the McLobster does sound sort of interesting).

However, let’s just say you got through this reading fairly unscathed and you’re ready for the next steps. If you have a proper team in place, your next step is to rewrite. Your director and/or dramaturge (or producer, or annoying neighbor) will inform you of what they think you need to change.

Tip: Everyone will have an opinion about what is wrong with your musical. Your mom. That weird dude at the grocery store. Ben Brantley (though his opinion will come when it’s much, much too late). The best advice I can give is to take everything in, weigh it and see what resonates for you. Somebody really will hate your work. But that doesn’t mean your work is bad. They just may not have the same taste as you.

Sidebar: One of the most frustrating moments in the evolution of “Jane Eyre”came right after our La Jolla Playhouse production. There was a negative review in a local publication called the LA Weekly. It’s not a major newspaper, but it was one I’d grown up reading. The first line of the review said, “I hate musicals,” and it went downhill from there. I’ll never forget that. I was furious, thinking, “Why the hell are you reviewing my musical that I’ve been passionately working on for the past 10 years if you hate musicals?” Clearly I have anger issues. But the point is, I should never have cared a whit what this guy thought. He didn’t like the medium I was working in. And that’s the point. You have to be confident enough in your own taste and sensibility so that inevitably, when someone of note says your work is crap, you don’t have to necessarily believe them. Unless your work really is crap. Then I’m afraid they have a point.

Sidebar: Opening night of “Jane Eyre,” John told the creative team and cast not to read the reviews. He said if you believe the reviews that tell you you’re a genius, you have to believe the ones that say you suck. It’s true.

So, once you’ve sifted through the critiques, the praise and the apathy — and you’ve done your rewrite — you’re on your way to creating your first full production.

“Okay. So how do I do that?”

That’s a long story, and we’ll cover that next time. But thanks for taking a moment to read my overly opinionated thoughts. I love musicals, and I’ve learned so much through this process. It’s a pleasure to be able to share my experiences with this community.

I hope in the future I can guide a few of you on your own musical journeys. Good luck, and remember: If you’re afraid to suck, then don’t even bother~

Learn more about Paul Gordon and his projects here:

Written by Paul Gordon

Paul Gordon in a Tony-Nominated Broadway composer, lyricist and librettist whose works have played all over the world. Whether he is musicalizing a Jane Austen novel or writing an original story with a contemporary score, Paul is dedicated to bringing new musicals to the world and making theatre a sustainable business for everyone.


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