5 Tips On Crafting A Song For Musical Theatre

06-27-22 02:06 PM Comment(s) By Kevin Lynch

You have your story, the script, and moments in your show where songs are to occur. Now what? For some this can be a daunting task. Maybe you're staring at a blank piece of staff paper or an empty Logic Pro session waiting for creativity to strike. Here are some tips on crafting a song for musical theatre. There is no one method that is guaranteed to work for everyone.

1. Start With A Title
A good title helps many writers get started on the mission and purpose of the song. The title can change many times but I feel a title should give a good idea of what the song is about. It can also purposely deceive the audience too. Take for example "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three." from A Chorus Line. Originally the song was titled "Tits and Ass" but the audience wasn't responding how Marvin Hamlisch was expecting them to. The punchline of the song and shock factor was stripped away with "Tits and Ass" as the title; the audience knew it was coming. So the title was changed to "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three." and they received the response they were looking for.

2. Point Of The Song (aka "POTS")
Ask yourself what is the point of this song. Why does the character need to sing at this particular moment? What emotional journey, if any, does your character take from the first note to the final chord? If this question can not be answered, then there is not a reason for a song. A character doesn't need to have a cathartic emotional transformation either. Take "I Know Things Now" from Into The Woods. Little Red sings about what she has learned from being in the woods and tells the story through song about what happened to her and her Granny with the Big Bad Wolf. She ends the song where she began and merely expresses what moral she has learned.

3. Outline Your Song Like You Would A Scene
Like with scenes, a good song needs a beginning, middle, and end. Outline the important moments, lyrics, ideas that you want to convey. I like to do this by doing a stream of consciousness exercise in a word document or notebook where I pour out all the inner feelings as if I were to play this character at this moment of the show. After some time I take a break and return to see what I came up with. I read through and extrapolate possible rhythmic patterns and phrases of prose that I feel express what it is the character is going through and I build lyrics around those ideas and concepts. You can also do a bulleted list and chunk the song. Break it down into Verse, Chorus, and Bridge material to start. If your song is more through-composed and less strophic, you can expand beyond song form but I recommend starting there.

4. Include Thematic Material If Possible
The leitmotif is one that doesn't get used as often as it should in contemporary theatre. Keeping the DNA and essence of a musical theme or through-line is, in my opinion, critical to the life blood of a musical. Without a musical DNA or identity, the show will sound like everything else and won't stand out on it's own. Why do people love Wicked? The rhythmic motif in first few chords of the overture are reused many times throughout the show and are an iconic piece of Wicked and gives it it's own musical identity. There are many other motifs in Wicked that functions the same way. Les Miserables has very familiar thematic material that too creates a music palette from which to paint with. If you're having trouble identifying musical themes in your musical, it might be time to explore some. Start with listing story and plot themes and crafting musical moments around that. Also creating music around who your characters are. What would my characters walking music sound like?

5. Read & Act Your Lyrics Like Dialogue
If you can act it like a scene then you can sing it like a song. Strip the song down to just lyrics and read them without any musical rhythm to see if you can act it out. If there are moments that feel awkward or that don't feel natural, then those are good areas to examine to rewrite or tailor. Can you act the lyrics? Do you feel the lyrics give your actor the words to express what they are truly feeling in this moment?

There are many more tips and tricks to crafting a song for the theatre. Which ones work for you?
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