How to Write a Musical 101

The bro and I get asked a lot of questions regarding how we started out writing our first musical.  With our second one pretty much done (minus the never ending revisions) and another project in the works, we’ve been getting even more.  Normally I direct them here and here, but for people looking to get started on writing their own I thought I would give a more detailed post about the actual process of where to start and what to do.

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I am far from the expert on this (believe me, half the time it’s fake it till you make it!) and I’m sure my brother would agree, but there are a few things we’ve learned along the way that might help you out.

1. Come up with an idea your passionate about

This sounds pretty self explanatory, right?  You need, need, need to be passionate about what you’re writing, otherwise don’t bother.  You will be sacrificing a lot of your time and sanity energy into this, so it better be something you’re invested in.  If you see that everybody is writing a musical about socks and it’s going to Broadway tomorrow, but you don’t really care about socks, don’t write about it.  Don’t try to fit the mold.  Chances are, if you do, your result will be less than satisfactory.  For On the Air, Robby and I accidentally stumbled on Jack and Loretta and we automatically felt a connection to their story.  It’s not a rock story.  It’s not contemporary and we struggled with that at the beginning thinking, “But everybody is writing ROCK.  Nobody is going to take us seriously.”  Let the material speak for itself.  If you’re passionate about it and believe in what you’re writing, it will show.  People will take notice.  Trust me.

 

2. Listen and Read

You’ve come up with an idea. Great! Now, don’t start writing yet. Go and read. Read, read, read. Read great books, but more importantly, read great scripts.  Robby and I binged on scripts before we ever touched our outline.  We learned just through osmosis. Same thing with scores and soundtracks.  You’ll learn to see what made successful musicals so great and what made the others not so great.

 

3.  Research

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But make that more like hours of research for one line.  If you’re doing a show about a specific person, place, time period, etc. you better have your facts straight.  You think you have all your main research finished and you’re all set to go, but it’s the little things that getcha. For instance as we were writing On the Air, some of the following things came up:

“Wait, when did the Statue of Liberty turn green?”
“What was the average rent for a studio/one bedroom/two bedroom apartment in NYC in 1925?”
“Did they use that word back then?”
“What was some slang that they used?”
“Who else was famous during that year?” “Wasn’t so and so?” “No, not till the following year.” “Crap.”

And that was just a very small sampling from ONE show.

Fact check.

Then do it again.

 

4. Give yourself a deadline

Do it. Otherwise you won’t finish it.  We’ve talked to numerous composers/writers about this and I can tell you, the majority of them feel the same way.  Unless you have this date hanging over your head with the fear of not turning it in on time, you will not sit down and write it.  We wrote most of On the Air the month before the NYMF deadline.  The Store Under the Portico was mostly written the month before the PiTCH deadline.  Nothing makes you write faster or concentrate more than the sweat created by the sheer fear you will not finish in time.

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5. Educate yourself

Take classes. Meet with people who have gone through this.  I can tell you that Robby and I knew nothing about this side of the business. We thought we had a general idea since we’re actors, but honestly we had no clue.  The second people started noticing our show, I called my friend Matt, who’s been a PR agent for years, in a panic.  He asked me if anybody has offered me an option contract yet–“A whositwhat?!”

I can now tell you all about option contracts, front money agreements, what the rules are for an equity reading, lab, or workshop, the different kinds of producing options–commercial or non-profit, and a whole bunch of other business-y stuff.

I can tell you about them, because Robby and I worked our butts off educating ourselves.  We took classes here and here. We called everybody we’ve ever worked with–actors, friends, colleagues, directors, teachers–and picked their brains for knowledge.  We went on lots of coffee dates.

But Cristina, why do we need to do this?  Isn’t that what a literary agent/lawyer/producer does? Yes, but in this business, people will smile and promise you the world and then turn around and stab you in the back.  You need to be aware of what you’re signing and what it means. Also, what are their reputations like? Are these the kind of people you want to be working with–day in and day out?  What other projects have these people worked on? Have they been successful? Part of your research is going to go see current Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Regional shows.  What’s working this season? What’s not?  What producers/directors/actors would be great for your piece? Most of these people have a preference in style with what they work on.  Find out which ones would be interested in yours.

Educate yourself so you can protect yourself.  Don’t walk into it blindly and don’t take people’s word for it.  Form your own opinions.  Nobody will have your back like you will.

 

6.  Register

You’ve finished writing your musical.  First off, congratulations! Celebrate–go shopping, take a mini vacation, drink vodka!

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Once you’ve celebrated and before you show a single person that script, register your show with the U.S. Copyright Office and the Dramatists Guild of America.  You need to have some level of security before you submit it to any festival or show anybody anything. It can be an annoying and long process (especially the copyright office), but do it.

Once again, protect yourself.

 

7. Table Read

Table read your script.  Call a bunch of your friends over, provide them with food and alcohol, assign parts, and read through your script.  This can be one of the most exciting and horrible parts of the whole process.  It’s exciting because you’re thinking,

“Wow! I’m hearing it for the first time! People are saying the lines I wrote!”

and it’s horrible because

“Omg, I’m hearing it for the first time! I wrote that?!  It’s complete crap!”

You enter a table read thinking you’re a genius and leave it thinking you completely suck.  And that’s ok.  That’s normal.  Just be open to feedback you receive because that’s the whole point of a table read.  Before every table read we tell everybody to be completely and brutally honest if need be.  If we need to change a whole act, we will.  We know so many writers who have stalled in the process of going forward because they’re unwilling to make the necessary changes.

Don’t be that writer.

After the table read, you’ll sit down with all the notes and feedback you got and start rewriting your script. After our first table read for On the Air, this part was actually quite embarrassing and painful for us.  We like to refer to our first draft as “The Lifetime Movie” draft.

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The great thing about them is you get to have as many as you want! We felt so much better after our second table read (and I think everybody else did as well) because we implemented a lot of the suggestions that were given.  Just remember though, you don’t have to take every suggestion.  We picked what we thought would improve the story.  If we felt it deviated from what we wanted or the overall feel of the piece, we didn’t do it.  Take everything with a grain of salt.

 

8. Network

Ah, networking.  I can’t tell you how important this is.  Like any business, networking is the key.  It’s what will get your musical noticed.  I have to be honest, I hate networking.  I always find it ridiculously awkward.  You’re trying to pitch your project to somebody and it feels like bragging.  The good news about it?  It gets easier the more you do it.  Just practice.  Start off small with your friends.  The more you talk about it, the easier it becomes.  You’ll know what to say and how to say it.  A lot of the networking we’ve done has been at producer classes we’ve taken.  Not only are you introduced to some major head honchos, but you meet writers and composers just like you.  It’s really a warm and welcoming community and most of your colleagues are interested in what you’re doing and want to help you out and vice versa.  It’s not so much a cut throat competition, because all your material is different.  One composer told us that you just need to find your niche in the community and people are more than willing to help you.  We’ve found this to be true.

Get yourself out there.  Attend cabaret shows, singer-songwriter nights, and go anywhere theatre goers are going.  GET YOUR STUFF OUT THERE.  You also never know who, where or when you will meet somebody who will help you.  I was on line getting rush tickets to a show and chatting with a couple behind me.  They asked what I did and I told them I was an actor and that I had just finished writing a musical.  The person behind them overheard our conversation and was a Broadway producer.  I gave that producer my card.  Be prepared.  I always have business cards with me and depending on the bag I’m carrying, you will most likely find a copy of our demo as well.  Opportunity doesn’t always come knocking, but be prepared for it when it does.

 

Writing a musical is an ongoing process.  You’re going to have days like this:

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and this:

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and even some days when you’re going to want to do this:

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That’s ok.  Because you know what?

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If it wasn’t, everybody would be doing it.

Just remember

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because

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Happy Writing!

 

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