How To Write A Best Selling Musical
I found the secret formula. Sure, there are lots of books and articles out there telling you the best way to write a Broadway play or musical. Some have good tips, some with poor advice. So, here is the secret to writing the next hit musical:
...wait for it
...there is no secret formula!
Some of the best musicals are classics, and others are completely revolutionary. Every year we see many new Broadway and Off-Broadway plays and musicals. The one thing we learn is that there is no true formula.
Ok, So Maybe A Little Formula
When we look at which shows are successful, many do have some basic elements. These include a plot, staging and characters. Not all are necessary, which makes it even more difficult to find the formula.
Blue Man Group, for example, really has no plot. Maybe a little. Having seen their show, it is a lot of fun, but not necessarily a story. Yet, watching these amazing musicians and actors perform stunts and create music is wildly entertaining to many patrons and has led the show to have an incredible run throughout the world.
Many successful shows have some sort of story, and characters to advance the story. There is some type of staging generally required.
Most successful shows have some story to tell. Think about writing a story that evokes some emotion. The emotion could be sadness, laughter, anger, or even fear.
The emotional elements may come at various points in the show. Some may lead with an emotion, evoke other emotions and then come back around. Some may guide the audience through a series of emotions.
A writer should consider what emotions they hope to evoke out of its audience.
Most successful shows have characters. The characters can be simple or complex, kind or devilish, real or imaginary, even human or puppet. When developing characters, think about how they work together to serve the purpose of the show.
Hand To God used a sock puppet as a character interacting with its human host, acting as an alter-ego type of character. Blue Man Group has similar characters with similar skills who work together for a greater purpose. Some shows, like Annie, have a protagonist and a villain. Others, like On Your Feet, have a couple of key actors, with clear supporting actors, with the mother of the key actor playing more of the conflict role as opposed to a villain. School of Rock’s antagonist was the hypothetical “man” always trying to bring the kids down.
The characters can be whatever you want them to be, but try to have each serve a purpose in the show.
How Does The Plot Advance?
I heard Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) ask a composer at a recent ASCAP Workshop how a particular song advanced the plot. The composer had to think about the song’s purpose, not just in the show but also where it was placed in the show.
For a musical, a composer may consider what the purpose of the song is and where it may best fall in the story. Consider it with the emotional element. Are you taking the audience to a particular emotional point in the show? Think of Defying Gravity in Wicked. The audience is blown away by the power of the song and empathy for Elphaba, and then the lights go dark and it is intermission. This leads to the next point.
Did You Plan For Intermission?
I heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote Phantom of the Opera to have the chandelier fall, and then break into intermission. Many shows have that “moment” to break for intermission. It could be a big ensemble number, or a plot twist, or a dramatic moment, but composers and writers should consider the intermission break and how to handle it.
A play I saw in development recently struggled during rehearsal to find a place for intermission, so they decided not to have one. That is risky. Audiences may need to stretch or use the restroom, and may not be able to concentrate as the show goes on. They never considered intermission as an element when writing their show, and when it came to staging it, they didn’t know where it could fit so they took it out.
Think about intermission as one part of the show’s development. You may not want one or need one, but at least consider whether or not to have one. If you do use one, consider how it plays into the story and how you want to use the intermission. Should it be a plot twist leaving the audience in suspense waiting on the edge of their seat to see what happens next, or just a break in the story so they could go to the bathroom?
Just For Fun Song
A lot of successful musicals have a “Just For Fun” song. This song may have nothing per se to do with advancing the story, or developing a character. Rather, it is just for fun. It could of course have a purpose, but doesn’t necessarily need to.
Some good examples:
Master of the House (Les Miserables)
Freddy My Love (Grease)
The Internet Is For Porn (Avenue Q)
The Song That Goes Like This (Spamalot)
It could be used to bring the audience back to baseline after a heavy emotional song, or after intermission to bring them back into the show after a bathroom break, but whatever the purpose, it can be fun.
How Does It End?
I always find it interesting seeing how shows end. A show I saw workshopped recently changed the ending the day before we saw it. The writers went from a dark, sad ending to an uplifting, happy ending. It worked. The message became one of hope and inspiration despite the bad things we go through.
The ending should be a consideration of the writer. What message do you want to leave the audience with? How does it work with the rest of the show?
Some shows want the audience to feel good, like On Your Feet or Mamma Mia. In others, like Les Miserables, everyone dies. Some plays just end, leaving the audience in suspense as to what happens next.
For whatever it is worth, at least consider how you want the show to end. It could make the difference in how an audience perceives the entire production you worked so hard to create.
The Secret to the Next Hit Musical
When you look at shows like Wicked or Hamilton or Jersey Boys that return multiples on investment back to its producers and investors, there are some common themes that we see. The most common, is that audiences are willing to pay full price or more than the ticket price to see those shows. Perhaps it is a compelling story, or amazing music, or something new that audiences have never seen before in theater. Whatever the reason, the hit musicals make some connection with their audience. Maybe that is the secret - find the connection and go for it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Turchin is an attorney, entrepreneur, producer and owner of InvestingBroadway.com.