How to Write a Musical

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Photo Source: “Moulin Rouge!” Credit: Matthew Murphy

When mere words will no longer suffice, it’s time to sing out, Louise!

If you’re looking to transcend the spoken word into that mad hybrid of drama and music we call a musical, we’ve got the starting point, and the expert analysis, to help you turn your Broadway dream into your harmonious destiny.

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What is a musical?

A musical is a show that combines elements we typically associate with a straight play (acting, scriptwriting, performance, emotional exploration, etc.) with the elements we typically associate with music (compositions, lyrics, dancing, accompaniment, etc.).

The combination of music and other performing arts has existed since humans have made art, but the musical has its origins in the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century developments of the opera, an entirely sung-through mode of artistic expression. Composers and dramatists W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan pushed their work into strikingly contemporary-feeling productions like “The Pirates of Penzance.” The 20th century brought us artists like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, who provided frothy showstoppers in between lightly comic plotlines in Broadway shows like “Anything Goes,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” and “Girl Crazy.”

Beginning in the 1940s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein combined drama with music more explicitly, revolutionizing the storytelling efficacy of song; in their works like “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” songs were no longer self-contained larks but plot- and character-pushing explorations and examinations.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundwork for the musical—in which actors perform spoken scenes interrupted by relevant songs—has been followed by pioneers such as: 

  • Stephen Sondheim (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Merrily We Roll Along”)
  • John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”)
  • Andrew Lloyd Weber (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats”) 
  • Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”) 
  • Jonathan Larson (“Rent,” “Tick, Tick… Boom!”) 
  • Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”) 
  • Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon”) 
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights, “Hamilton”)

Musicals are a staple of the screen as well as the stage. Works like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “West Side Story,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and “La La Land” have all become splashy examples of how to manipulate several techniques for maximum impact, with smaller-scale film works like “Cabaret,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and “Once” providing unparalleled intimacy, too.

How to write a musical script

Scriptwriter

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A musical is typically made up of three parts: 

  • The book or libretto, the non-musical aspects of the story, such as its narrative structure, its characters and their arcs, and the actions they take
  • The music, which provides the aural element of the story
  • The lyrics, or words, of each song

How musicals get written can differ from project to project or person to person, as evidenced by the experts we spoke to: Michael Fisher, writer and composer of the comedy-horror musical “Exorcistic,” writes the book, lyrics, and music himself. 

Joy Regullano, whose comedy musical “Supportive White Parents” has played at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City Hollywood, and the Hollywood Fringe Festival, writes the book and lyrics and relies on other composers for the music.

Laser Webber, whose musical “Teaching a Robot to Live” (co-written with E. Aaron Wilson) has played in Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, writes the book and collaborates on the lyrics and music with another composer. 

Musical script format

From a story perspective, all three of these musical writers go to the classics of structure. Fisher starts with the three-act template, while Regullano forms every choice around “some sort of dramatic question that helps pull us through a long narrative to the end.” 

But Webber reminds us that “anytime somebody tells you there is a ‘rule’ for a creative project — always remember that it’s not a law. Your message and your inspiration are the things that need feeding the most.” It’s important for him to use “structure as a tool—lean into it to enhance what you’re doing, subvert it to create surprises and discomfort.” 

From a formatting perspective—i.e., what a musical looks like on the page—Webber suggests looking at samples from places like MusicalWriters Academy, NAMT, and NMI, all of which have samples and templates you can use in Google Docs or Final Draft. Speaking of the software, both Regullano and Fisher use Final Draft’s stage-play templates (or stick with screenplay if you’re writing a musical film). 

Regullano also recommends writing out “lyrics in all caps and [separating] them by stanzas,” Use action lines to describe choreography, as well as the more traditional application of actor movement and stage setting, like in Steven Levenson’s script for the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick... Boom!”

Musical script

Conversely, in his script for “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle simply notes the song that is playing before getting into more detail about the choreography. 

Musical script

Writing a musical song 

From the perspective of writing the lyrics and music to a song, there are multiple ways to, borrowing a Sondheim-ism, finish the hat. Songs will often have: 

  • Verse, where a character explores what’s going on around them
  • Chorus, where the thesis of a song is stated explicitly 
  • Bridge, where a different perspective is presented

However, many classic musical songs use these signifiers as guidelines that can be painted over when needed. “I love those rare moments a lyrical phrase is born together with a musical phrase, but usually finding that perfect marriage is a messy process,” says Fisher. 

Thus, your songwriting will usually require song re-writing, with musical motifs and lyrical snatches affixed and discarded until your final product has been sculpted. Webber agrees that his songs begin with a “magical moment of inspiration,” but after that, “it becomes a matter of assembling the puzzle of rhyme, rhythm, verses, bridges, and themes—which is a weird mess, until it isn’t.”

Regullano, who similarly refers to songwriting as a kind of Sudoku puzzle, prioritizes “comedy, story, and accessibility” in her lyrics over more technical facets like rhyming. “It's important to me that audiences can understand the song in real time,” she says.

What should you write your musical about?

“Back to the Future: The Musical”

“Back to the Future: The Musical” Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Regullano advocates a model posited by Julia Cameron in her influential work “The Artist’s Way.” “Practice being receptive to when you get hit by the muse and [write] it down, and [pay] attention when an idea keeps grabbing you or keeps pulling at you to make it.” 

In Regullano’s case, she loves “taking tropes or stories that are familiar and putting a twist on them…taking a structure that works and adding something fresh onto it to make it feel new.”

Fisher mines everything in front of him for inspiration, including pop culture and history. “The themes need to have enough heart to earn those musical heights,” he says. For him, that includes “transformation, redemption, and community.” For you, it might be something different. “Only write shows that you yourself would actually want to see,” Fisher says. “Musical theater has a rich history of offerings, but I believe we’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible. And certainly no one in history has ever written your musical—the music rattling around your soul.”

Webber believes that “the more personal and specific you can be in your writing, the more it will resonate with people. As corny as it is, the better I know myself, the better songs I write.” 

Regullano credits her experience writing and performing comedy with her audience intuition: “Being in front of an audience so regularly helps you get a sense of what's going to work and what isn't,” she says. “You feel immediately when you lose them and when you have them. And then, of course, it's always helpful to show your work to others and get feedback, whether that's in a class or in a writing group or putting on excerpts here and there at shows.” 

Webber agrees: “Get your words in front of people and see if they care! See if they laugh! It is so valuable to get feedback on what people remember from a show. Do more of that.”

It’s ultimately this act of reaching out that connects all of these writers and should serve as your guiding star as you write your musical. “Having grown up as someone who didn't regularly have access to musical theater and high art, as someone with immigrant parents who didn't necessarily prioritize these sorts of experiences, I like to try to reach those sorts of people, these communities with my art,” Regullano says.

Webber reminds us that “musicals are the most collaborative art forms I’ve experienced,” with his show changing not only with every new craftsperson working on it, but with every new audience member in every new venue.”

If you accept this inherent mutability while staying “true to [your] vision, whatever that is,” says Fisher, “you might find you’ve written a piece that has connected deeply to someone else and become essential to them. That’s the real honor, and the proof that even in our individual madness, we’re not alone as we sometimes feel.”

Now that’s music to our ears. Happy writing!