“Too many musicals are being made from films!” we cry.
But I don’t think the number of films becoming musicals is the real problem. If we want vibrant, innovative musicals, I think there’s a worse problem headed our way, assuming it’s not here already. Are you already familiar with the history of writing manuals for the screen, intentional and un-? You might like to skip this next bit. Otherwise, behold:
1949 – Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is published. Campbell compares myths from many different cultures and eras, and finds they have so much in common that they constitute what he calls a monomyth. Here’s what Campbell wrote:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Here’s what Campbell did NOT write:
“You guys should write all your stories to fit this model from now on.”
1979 – Syd Fields’ Screenplay is published. Fields’ Ideal Paradigm is a three-act structure (Setup, Confrontation, Resolution) that, despite its critics, permeates film writing and thinking to this day.
1985 – Christopher Vogler, a story consultant with Walt Disney Pictures, circulates a seven-page memo titled A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he points out:
“As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided.”
Except Campbell’s work was never a formula. Don’t worry, it soon will be …
1992 – Vogler’s memo becomes The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. It’s revised a couple of times, and its title is tweaked, but it remains a combination of Vogler’s version of Campbell’s monomyth (now routinely called The Hero’s Journey), together with Vogler’s version of Jung’s character archetypes, such as the Hero, the Mentor, the Shapeshifter, and the Trickster.
1997 – Robert Mckee’s Story is published, based on a seminar he’s been presenting since the early ‘80s. In McKee’s analysis, the closest thing to Campbell’s monomyth is what he calls the Archplot, the apex of Classical Design:
“Classical Design means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.”
But McKee also describes Miniplots and Antiplots, through which he believes other sorts of stories – quiet stories, absurd stories, ambiguous stories – can be told effectively. Nevertheless, Archplots are “the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice, and couscous of world cinema.”
2005 – Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat uses all of these previous works to break a screenplay down into 15 beats, right down to the page number on which story events should occur.
Now, all of these authors – even Snyder – argue against adopting a rigid formula. All of these authors say, with varying degrees of credibility, that their principles are merely a guide. And none of that matters, because here’s what Hollywood hears:
“You guys should write all your stories to fit this model from now on.”
What about the how-to manuals for writing a musical? Behold:
Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto, Lehman Engel, 1977
Writing the Broadway Musical, Aaron Frankel, 1977
The Musical From the Inside Out, Stephen Citron, 1991
Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theater, Tom Jones, 1998
These works take their cue from Aristotle’s Poetics. They emphasise Action, Character, and Conflict as ways of generating Drama, and they emphasise the importance of where and when a librettist enters and leaves a story, in order to generate Plot. None of them mentions Campbell, monomyths, Vogler, or The Hero’s Journey.
How Musicals Work: And How to Write Your Own, Julian Woolford, 2012
Woolford uses Christopher Vogler’s version of The Hero’s Journey, explicitly, and Vogler’s character archetypes. Henry Higgins, for example, is a Mentor who becomes a Shapeshifter.
Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories For Musicals That Get Standing Ovations, Steve Cuden, 2013
Cuden advocates three story ‘movements’ (to avoid confusion over ‘Acts’), and seven plot points that outline The Hero’s Journey, incorporating some of Blake Snyder’s beats and terminology, such as the idea of an opening and closing image.
OK, so a pattern begins to emerge, but really, what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t one form of big, populist entertainment use the methods successfully employed in another form of big, populist entertainment? After all, none of these writers advocates a formula, and “the Hero might meet a Shapeshifter when he crosses the Threshold” is far more specific advice than “additional characters should provide conflict and contrast”.
If The Hero’s Journey (Musical Theatre Version) seemed to be leading us to effective dramatic structure, I’d say that it’s a good thing. And if that structure grew from a central character’s desires and actions, rather than conventional thinking about the page number we’ve reached, that’d be an even better thing. But here’s what I think is happening, instead, to the big, populist Broadway musical.
1. Too Many Cinderella Stories
Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle labels the years 1921-24 ‘The Cinderella Era’, because of the number of shows that imitated such earlier hits as Sally and Irene. Over and over in these shows, a subgenre of The Hero’s Journey ran its course: plucky heroines in lowly jobs pretended to be someone else, met wealthy young beaus, fell for them, underwent misunderstandings about them, watched them renounce their fortunes for love, and then won the guy and the money by the second act curtain.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a good or bad storyline, because it might describe, with a few adjustments, anything from a bad sitcom episode to a great Jane Austen novel.
But today’s musical Cinderella hasn’t been adjusted much, fundamentally, even though today she might be male, or two characters. Maybe, because of changes in her outer garments, the ‘Cinderella’ tag is distracting, and we should call this modern incarnation the Appealing Underdog Who Triumphs. In any case, she’s now at the centre of this type of show:
An appealing underdog is unjustly kept down by opposing forces. She triumphs anyway, without losing her appeal.
Thus, Thoroughly Modern Millie, with its pastiche of Cinderella storylines straight out of the 1920s, definitely fits the bill. But so does Hairspray, and so does Legally Blonde. Memphis, also, is a Triumphant Underdog story, as are Sister Act and Wicked, and The Color Purple, and The Wedding Singer, and Billy Elliot, and Matilda, and Elf, and The Book of Mormon, and Kinky Boots, and Rocky.
Of these, Memphis, Wicked and The Book of Mormon are the only ones that weren’t Hollywood screenplays first, and those last two will become films. Who knows, maybe Memphis will too.
What about the Disney and Dreamworks musicals? All of them are based on screenplays, and of them, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Newsies and Shrek are Triumphant Underdog stories.
And I haven’t included revivals/adaptations (Annie, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), several outright flops (Tarzan, Jane Eyre, Wonderland, Big Fish, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), or works which parody or treat The Hero’s Journey ironically (Urinetown, Spamalot, revivals of Chicago, How to Succeed)
All right, so we like our fictional Cinderellas, onscreen and off. But what about shows based on real life, especially those bio-musical jukebox shows that have been so popular lately?
The Triumphant Underdog approach, it turns out, is one of the most popular ways to tackle a real life story. You start with your Underdog downtrodden, and finish with their greatest success. That’s how Chaplin worked, avoiding the whole problem of “boy, he really liked ’em young, didn’t he?” Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (also to be made into a movie) works that way, and so does Motown: The Musical, thanks to Berry Gordy’s script about himself as the Hero of his own Hero’s Journey.
Even Hamilton, which is refreshing and exciting in many ways, is the Cinderella story you should adopt for historical people whose flaws and deaths are famous: The Triumphant Underdog’s Legacy Lives On.
Upcoming Broadway shows?
Finding Neverland – based on the film that’s based on a play. An underdog triumphs.
On Your Feet! – based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Two underdogs triumph.
Ever After – based on the film, a re-telling of “Cinderella”. An underdog triumphs.
School of Rock – based on the film. An underdog triumphs.
The First Wives Club – based on the film that’s based on a novel. Three underdogs triumph.
You’re thinking of exceptions, I’ll wager. Fair enough, so am I.
But I’m also thinking of Rebecca, The Color Purple revival, Waitress …
Is the Cinderella story played out? No, I’m not asking if it’s played out, because sometimes it’s the best way to tell your tale (suggestion – Believe: The Cher Musical). Is the Cinderella story an attractive lie, perfect for capitalist societies where not everyone can succeed or be happy, but everyone likes to be told they can, and to pay hundreds of dollars to hear it? Yeah, it probably is, but I’m not asking that either.
What I’m asking is this: aren’t you bored?
In Part Two – ‘I Want’ songs, bloated first acts, and only two kinds of girls.