An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
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Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
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Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
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1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.

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