Phil Willmott Considers: How to write a musical

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Phil Willmott wonders if there’s a formula to writing a musical.


A few years ago with a couple of commissions to write new musicals on the horizon, I thought I’d take some time out to think about the craft of creating a show. Fortunately, this coincided with a kind invitation from the magazine Musical Stages to review fledgling shows in New York and the nice people at The Stage encouraging me to shape my thoughts into an article.

So I began my research with two weeks at NYMF (New York Musical Theatre Festival) the fantastic annual taster New Yorkers get of 30 new shows in semi-staged productions at venues throughout mid-town. The standard was exceptionally high with first-rate Broadway performers and creative teams showcasing a huge range of material and barely a dud musical amongst them.

I followed this up with two days at the NAMT festival (National Alliance for Music Theatre) also in New York, where directors from America’s regional theatres gather to view 45 minute presentations of the 8 best pieces being developed nationwide. And then, returning to London, I enjoyed our own Perfect Pitch Festival, extracts from 4 new Brit musicals presented over two nights at the Trafalgar studios.

The UK work displayed plenty of promise but we are way behind the Americans. Mainly I think because our cousins regard their craft as something to be rigorously studied and honed. In fact most of their successful young writers, of everything from Avenue Q to Spring Awakening to this years Tony award winner Next to Normal all studied, hard, on the same course provided free to lucky applicants by America’s music licensing organisation, B.M.I. I’ve watched those inspiring tutors in action. They’re not embarrassed to drill their writers in the basics of musical theatre before anyone is allowed to spread their wings.

But can you condense the fundamentals of musical theatre construction into a few basics?

Here’s a few conclusions I’ve reached after my marathon month of watching over 25 new pieces.

If you want to attract a producer and an audience write a musical with a title and concept that’s so snappy and attention grabbing that huge numbers of theatre goers will be immediately enticed. Anything less and your wasting your time. Nobody’s interested in your quirky thoughts on modern dating and the eccentricities of urban life. Yes, Sondheim did it, but he’s a genius. You’ll have to come up with something more interesting then that.

Don’t write a note, not one note, until you’ve carefully structured your show’s plot around moments that justify the characters bursting into song. They must be so happy, so sad, so in love, so frightened, confused, inspired etc that mere dialogue won’t suffice and they have to sing. If your plot doesn’t have those moment it doesn’t warrant being a musical and you should write a play. Pre-written songs shoe horned in won’t do. They wont be specific enough to the action.

Theatre songs work best at moments of realisation, decision or change. Work out what your character has discovered by the end of the song and structure its repetitions, tempo and key changes, big notes etc around dramatising that journey. It’s so much more exciting to watch a character make a discovery then just reeling off something they and you already know. Crack this and artists will love performing your material too.

Start the composition of each song with a simple, effective and catchy hook line that sums up the character’s situation. Keep it at the heart of your song and refer back to it constantly as their attitude towards the statement evolves.

Mix up the type of musical numbers you use and don’t place similar numbers side by side. So follow a group number with, say, a duet then an up tempo number then a solo, then a dance number etc etc. I saw a promising musical adaptation at Perfect Pitch seriously bogged down by the fact that virtually all the songs were in the same tempo.

Do not put more then two ballades in your show. These should be some distance apart and make sure you’ve made us know and care enough about your character before they sing. A stranger wallowing in self pity is as alienating on stage as it is in life. Engage us with their will to make it “through the rain” rather then bore us with the fact they’ve got wet feet.

Use humour, Regularly, Through out. No one wants to watch your dreary sub Les Mis historical pageant about some long-dead stuffed shirt unless you portray them as someone fallible that we can relate to, laugh with and care about.

Embrace the fact that all successful musical have the same formula at their centre: Something or someone staid, A, collides with something or someone anarchic, B. B disrupts A’s equilibrium, A rejects B, A misses B, A and B are reunited. Don’t fight it. Use it. How can you put that formula at the heart of your show? It’ll give you a head start.

The additional magic, the X factor that turns all that into a hit? Well that’s up to you. Good luck.

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Guest Bloggers on Twitter
Guest Bloggers
MyTheatreMates welcomes submissions from guest bloggers and other occasional contributors, including theatremakers commenting on aspects of their shows. Please email your suggestions to Mates co-founder Terri Paddock or submit them via our Contact Us page.

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