It’s a strange thing when you decide all of a sudden to do something with little prior knowledge. People don’t declare that they’re going to try out for a professional sports team without having, at the very least, knowledge of the fundamentals of that sport. People don’t decide to pursue an interest in painting without at least knowing a little bit about art and what someone can do with it.

Yet here I am, deciding that I’m going to write a full-fledged musical, without really knowing anything about musicals other than “It’s like a play but there’s a lot of singing.” The first step of the journey, then, is to have a better understanding of what a musical is, including structures and rules, so that I can have a general idea of what exactly I’m getting into.

I’m very lucky to live in an area that has a public library with access to a variety of resources (and you might be, too. Please check out your local public library, because there’s some pretty cool stuff going on in there), and was able to get my hands on a book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus.

In general, I’m a fan of “insider”-type knowledge. The podcasts I listen to are usually ones that provide insight into the creation of some of my favorite things, and any time I can read or consume something that provides more history and context to things I enjoy (such as reading the oral history of Saturday Night Live), I come away awed and inspired.

The first half of the book is “nuts-and-bolts,” going over all of the minutiae of the different elements of musicals, from what goes into the libretto or book of the show, down to the nitty-gritty of the different musical elements. Even if you’re a Broadway Superfan, I’m sure that you would enjoy learning more about what goes into the show, as well as tips and tricks for making sure that nothing in a musical goes to waste.

The first half of the book is where I learned the most about what exactly a musical is. It’s where I learned, for example, that songs and music are not simply shoehorned into an existing play, but they, in fact, serve a dramatic function in the whole story, whether it’s to move the story forward or to make a character more likable and appealing.

(If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s just common knowledge,” keep in mind that I didn’t realize there were Nazis in The Sound of Music until years after I first saw the movie. I always assumed the story ended at what is actually the halfway point.)

The second half of the book is all about actually writing a show, and, for someone about to wade into those waters for the first time, the information they provided was extremely helpful. The authors “write” two shows at the same time, illustrating the differences between adapting an existing work into a musical compared to conjuring up a new, original idea. They go through writing character sketches, scene summaries, and go through the process of “song spotting,” or identifying the optimal places for music and song to be introduced. The authors also go through the process of writing some of the songs from both of the shows, providing insight into deciding not only what character is singing, but also what they are singing and how they are singing it.

In summary, I gleaned a lot of knowledge from this book, and I took a copious amount of notes. While reading this book may not guarantee that I’m going to write a smash Broadway hit, it has given me the knowledge and the confidence to go forth and see what I can create.

And who knows, maybe if this musical does become the smash hit I hope it becomes, maybe I’ll save a couple of tickets for Allen and Steven. After all, they’ve been tremendous teachers for the last month or so.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Writing Musical Theater”

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