What Hollywood’s Addiction to The Hero’s Journey is Doing to the Broadway Musical – Part Two

Part One is here.

2. The ‘I Want’ Song – Immovable and Generic

Using Christopher Vogler’s stages in The Hero’s Journey, Julian Woolford observes:

“not every stage of the story necessarily contains a song. There are, however, certain key stages that commonly do contain songs. These tend to be the major stages of the story:

1.  The Ordinary World
2.  The Call to Adventure

4.  Meeting the Mentor …”

That’s fair, and Woolford, who prefers the term ‘I Wish’ to ‘I Want’ goes on [emphases are his]:

“The ‘I Wish’ song can occur at any point in Act One, but is most common at the Call to Adventure or the Refusal of the Call stages; it is one of the cornerstones of any score. The ‘I Wish’ song is about who the Hero is and what he wants.”

But here’s how Steve Cuden applies the Journey’s opening stages to a musical [emphases his]:

“So, you’ve established the world that the protagonist, antagonist, and other characters dwell in. And you’ve shown the audience how those characters interact. You’ve set up what the protagonist wants in his life, but not necessarily his overall goal just yet. A catalyst must occur to drive the protagonist out of his normal world …”

This is the influence of Hollywood thinking: the hero will be longing for something, but not for anything too specific, because The Call to Adventure hasn’t happened yet. So, in Beauty and the Beast (about to be re-made into a live-action film), Belle doesn’t sing:

I’ll stick these peasants with a fucking knife …

No, Belle sings:

There must be more than this provincial life …

There’s an added attraction in putting the ‘I Want’ song so early: the star gets a big sing very shortly after she appears on stage. That makes good box-office sense; but without concrete details in that song, she’ll be stuck singing about some big symbol, which we all know is a mere stand-in for vague self-fulfillment. You know, this kind of rubbish:TGWW1etc.

3. Act One is Bloated; Act Two is Thin

Here are Vogler’s twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. In Woolford’s approach, eight of them will tend to occupy Act One of a basic two-act musical.

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
  8. The Ordeal

Act Two will make use of the remaining four stages:

  1. Reward
  2. The Road Back
  3. The Resurrection
  4. Return with the Elixir

Steve Cuden’s seven plot points look more balanced in print …

  1. Normal World – Opening Image
  2. Inciting Incident – Catalyst
  3. Point of No Return
  4. Midpoint Begins

INTERMISSION

Midpoint Continues

  1. Low Point – The Big Gloom
  2. Climax into Resolution – Final Challenge
  3. New Normal – Closing Image

… but the same problem is hidden therein. You can see it coming, can’t you? Cuden and Woolford point out that Act Two is generally shorter than Act One – and they’re right – but look at the differences in story proportion! To use Cuden’s own analysis of Chicago as an example, Point 3, the point of no return, occurs when Roxie decides to hire Billy Flynn. Between that and Point 4, at the end of Act One, there are twenty-eight pages of script, and six songs. Six, sitting there between two innocuous numbers in a list.

If you’ve ever looked at your watch during Act One, and wondered if this thing could possibly be ninety minutes long, you might be sitting through a Hollywood-style Hero’s Journey musical. If you’ve spent interminable scenes and songs in Act Two in the company of minor characters who don’t matter, because so much of the Hero’s Journey took place in Act One – but it’s too soon to get to the climax – you might be at a monomythsical.

It’s so prevalent now that we’ve grown used to it, even in shows that are not based on screenplays. Here’s what should happen, about ten minutes into the second act of Wicked. Glinda, you will recall, has been telling the assembled Ozians about how she and Elphaba used to be friends.
wicked3

4. Only Two Kinds of Girls

Joseph Campbell, on what he called the Goddess:

“The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love”

And Campbell again, on what he called the Temptress:

“The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond”

If you write according to The Hero’s Journey, and you’re silly enough to think Campbell meant literal women, you’re in great danger of writing a show like this one:


It’s about a guy who …

And he wants …

He meets a girl, who’s … sweet/demure/shy/beautiful/pure/virtuous

There’s also another girl, who’s … brassy/slutty/outspoken/a feminist


This only-two-kinds-of-girl dynamic, which is endemic in Hollywood, is nothing new to the Broadway musical either, and you’ll find it in some great shows (Guys and Dolls, for one). But adopting the Hero’s Journey as a template makes it really, really easy to keep your female characters down to just two kinds – which is bad enough – and to make sure they exist only in relation to the Hero – which is even worse.

This is particularly likely to occur, I think, in original stories, or in stories adapted from an original source without any significant female characters in it.

For example, Avenue Q Jekyll & Hyde is about a guy named Princeton Jekyll who has first met a nice girl named Kate Monster Emma Danvers, but is later tempted by a different girl named Lucy the Slut Lucy the Slut.

At the time of writing, Something Rotten! is in previews. Without going too far into the plot (spoiler: underdogs triumph), there are two main female roles, Bea and Portia. Portia is sweet and unassuming, while Bea is a brassy go-getter. On the message boards, theatrephiles debate the pros and cons of Something Rotten!, but all agree as to the female roles: at this stage, Portia does nothing, and Bea does nearly nothing. Worse, I think, is that these women exist only in relation to their men.

Film Critic Hulk, who loathes the crutch The Hero’s Journey has become in film writing, has some wise, if exasperated, advice for writers: make your female characters more like Princess Leia. Not because she’s perfection in writing, but because she’s an actual character, neither goddess nor temptress, and she has a life when men aren’t around.

But Peter, If It Ain’t Broke … 

I probably seem alarmist, as I fuss over juggernaut successes like Beauty and the Beast, and Wicked. And maybe I seem reductive, when you consider a beautifully structured piece like Fun Home, a memory play as un-Hollywood as anyone could wish.

Also, after all these years, Phantom of the Opera is still running, and if it’s a Hero’s Journey, it’s a very, very thin one. What is it, this weirdly subversive tale, that says it’s OK for girls to get the hots for their Sexy Murdering Mentor-Daddy, provided they settle down afterwards with a Bland Suitable Boy?

Phantom, for all its hokiness, suggests a way out of the Hollywood screenplay trap. Just as detective fiction has, and as science fiction loves to do, Phantom shows how musicals can get away with exploring really interesting, odd, or unpopular ideas, while behaving quite conventionally on the surface.

In any case, if we’re all going to keep writing Cinderella stories, I, for one, would like to see her lift her game. Aim higher, Cinders! Instead of merely being chosen by a Prince, what if you infiltrated and overthrew the whole monarchy?

At least you wouldn’t be boring.

 

 

What Hollywood’s Addiction to The Hero’s Journey is Doing to the Broadway Musical

“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.”


Heroesjourney.svg (1)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 MermaidAladdin, Newsies and Shrek are Triumphant Underdog stories.

And I haven’t included revivals/adaptations (AnnieRodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), several outright flops (TarzanJane 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.