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Have you ever sat in the audience of a musical and wondered how it all came together—or even how to write a musical of your own?
A passion for musical theater and a basic knowledge of the elements of a musical are the first steps in creating your own work of lyrical art. Combine them with creativity and an original story idea, and you’ve got all of the building blocks that you need to write a musical for fun, for school, or just for a unique challenge.
And while it’s certainly not easy to do, writing a musical could be a great way to start developing your creative voice. It can also give you a fuller appreciation for various musical theater elements and what makes a show so powerful or memorable.
Here’s what to know about how to write a musical, including a look at the characteristics of musical theater and how to develop your talents in the field.
Being a good storyteller and lyricist are key to writing a musical. Beyond that, though, there are a number of more specific musical theater elements that you’ll want to be aware of as you begin to get your idea onto the page.
The elements of a musical are what bring the story to life and give it emotional substance. There are a few different ways to define them, but many theater professionals tend to rely on the elements of drama as stated by Aristotle. According to the Aristotelian definition, the primary elements of musical theater are:
- Plot: What happens, i.e., what the story is about and the action that takes place.
- Character: Who is in the story, and more specifically, what their motivations and moral qualities are.
- Thought: The theme of the story, including what the author was thinking about as they wrote the play and what the audience is supposed to think after watching it.
- Diction: Dialogue, both verbal (speech and song) and non-verbal (expressions and movement).
- Melody: The music in the play; particularly the use of music to move the story forward and convey emotion from scene to scene.
- Spectacle: Stage design, costumes, makeup, and other visual elements that the audience sees on the stage.
You could also break down the characteristics of a musical in the same way that you break down the elements of any type of story, simply outlining the who, what, why, and how of the piece.
What are the 3 Main Components of a Musical?
The three main components of a musical are its book (also known as its libretto—Italian for “little book”), its music, and its lyrics. The book is the story, as defined by the Aristotelian elements of drama noted above. It is enhanced by the music and the lyrics, which together make up the score of the piece.
These components are why you may see musical book used as another term for a musical play. A musical book is a theatrical work that incorporates song and dance into the story for dramatic purpose. In this way, the songs are just as essential to the musical as the dialogue, and both are instrumental in moving the story along.
What is the Structure of a Musical?
Central to knowing how to write a musical is having a feel for the structure, or blueprint, that most musicals follow. It may vary slightly from play to play, but it usually looks something like this:
An opening piece of music that plays before the curtain rises. It is purely instrumental and sets out the general theme of the music and story to come.
The first song of a musical. The opener is often used to introduce the main character and the situation that they’re in and includes both music and lyrics.
First Act Song
A main characteristic of musical theater is that early on in the first act there will be a song that sets out the protagonist’s problem and what they hope to achieve moving forward. Think of this like a plot device laying the groundwork for the climax to come.
Also called the “eleven o’clock number,” the show stopper is a big musical number that takes place toward the end of the second act. In it, the protagonist (and possibly other major characters) make some sort of major realization, which is then laid out in the lead up to the conclusion of the play.
The last structural element that you’ll want to include when you write a musical is the all-important finale. This is the closing number and should leave an emotional impression on the audience, perhaps by bringing back music or characters from previous acts.
Your own musical will very likely have more songs than just the ones listed above, plus a well-placed instrumental interlude or two (music without lyrics, usually used as lead-ins to or breaks in a song).
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Now it’s time to start thinking about writing your own musical libretto. Becoming a skilled librettist is something that takes many years and lots of practice, so don’t put pressure on yourself to write something Broadway-worthy right out of the gate (not that it’s not possible; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, was written when he was a sophomore in college in 1999 and made its Broadway debut in 2008). Instead, try to focus on mastering the art of musical writing, including gaining more familiarity with the characteristics of a musical and what makes a libretto great.
You’ll develop your own rhythm for writing musicals as you start working on them, but here are some rudimentary steps that you can follow if you’re just not sure yet where to start.
Source Material and Inspiration
In musical writing, as in all writing, the best way to begin is by immersing yourself in the work of those who have come before you.
Read, watch, and listen to successful musicals that you enjoy, as well as classic works such as Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, My Fair Lady, and Guys and Dolls. What do you like about them? What songs are your favorite? How are they structured and what sorts of storytelling tactics do they employ? Studying other musicals will provide you with a lot of inspiration, and it will also help you identify the various elements of a musical libretto that just click for you and that you can incorporate in your own way in your work.
This early stage is also when you’ll want to start pulling source material and figuring out the story that you want to tell. Work out the plot and characters of your musical (or a general outline of), and then you can move on to thought, diction, melody, and spectacle.
Composing music is a different skill than writing dialogue, but it’s not impossible to learn without formal training. If you’re new to the craft, take a course on how to compose music and read up on the basics of songwriting. You should gain familiarity with the main elements of musical composition: rhythm and melody and harmony and form.
Whether you’re starting from scratch with composition or putting to use previously learned skills, how you go about writing the music for your play is up to you. It may be helpful to go step by step through your musical’s main numbers, or perhaps you’ll just end up composing the songs in the order they come to you.
You may choose to do the music first and then write lyrics (or vice versa), or you may choose to create a full score all at once. In either case, your lyrics should move the story along just as spoken dialogue does. Play around and do plenty of brainstorming until you find the words that fit, and keep a notepad handy for jotting down ideas as they come to you.
If you’re writing an integrated musical (meaning there is both music and dialogue), consider whether it makes sense to write the lyrics at the same time you write the spoken parts of your play. Both work together to tell your story, so this is a common approach to take.
Designing Musical Choreography
Musical choreography is how your characters move around on the stage. It doesn’t have to be dancing necessarily, but it should be purposeful movements that align with your score and lend additional context to your narrative. Aim to keep things simple, and don’t forget to make full use of the stage. Even a one-person musical should be thoroughly choreographed to ensure that your story comes across accurately.
Start your foray into becoming a librettist as you would start any creative endeavor—that is to say, start wherever it feels right to you and then build out your piece from there. (Learning about the fundamentals of the craft is always a good place to begin, so you’re already doing great!)
If you get stuck, switch your attention to something else, be it storyboarding, writing lyrics, designing costumes, or any of the other steps involved in writing a musical book. Eventually, all of your hard work will come together into something clear and cohesive—and ultimately, something you can be extremely proud of.
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