You have your story, the script, and moments in your show where songs are to occur. Now what? 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.
1. Start With A Title
A good title helps writers start on the mission and purpose of the song. The title may change, but a title should show 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 to how Marvin Hamlisch was expecting them to. It stripped away the punchline of the song and shock factor with "Tits and Ass" as the title; the audience knew it was coming. So they changed the title to "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three." and received the response they expected.
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 moment? What emotional journey does your character take from the first note to the final chord? If this question cannot 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 what has 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, an excellent song needs a beginning, middle, and end. Outline the important moments, lyrics, ideas that you want to convey. Practice stream-of-consciousness exercises in a word document or notebook and pour out all your inner feelings as if you were to play this character at this moment of the show. After some time, take a break and return to see what you come 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 isn’t used as often as it should in contemporary theatre. Keeping the DNA and essence of a musical theme or through-line is critical to the lifeblood of a musical. Without a musical DNA or identity, the show will sound like everything else and won't stand out on its own. Why do people love Wicked? The rhythmic motif in the first few chords during the overture get reused throughout the show and is an iconic part of Wicked. 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 only lyrics and read them with no musical rhythm to see if you can act it out. If there are moments that feel awkward or don't feel natural, then those are suitable areas to examine, rewrite, or tailor. Can you act out the lyrics? Do you feel the lyrics give your actor the words to express what they are feeling at this moment?
Which tips and tricks work for you in crafting songs for musical theatre?