I Write Musicals. I Don't Write Music.

January 8, 2016

As someone who writes musicals, I have a confession to make, I can't write music. I can just about hum you a tune but give me staff paper and I'll probably use it to make a collage. It's really strange as a bookwriter / lyricist to admit this sometimes. Whenever I tell people I write musicals the most common responses are "What do you play?" or "Can you play me something?", and every time I am put in the embarassing position of explaining I don't actually write music. You're more likely to find me leaning on a piano than sitting at one.

In a world where musical theatre is dominated by composers and lyricists and producers, the book writers sometimes fall between the gaps. Even in texts about Musical Theatre (which should often be taken with a pinch of salt) a large part of studying the craft is about composition. I've come from a background of making theatre, so when I began to join the community of people who write musicals it came as a shock to know I was strange. I'm not just a playwright because most people would argue that the craft of MT bookwriting and playwrighting are vastly different crafts, and I agree although I think they can learn a lot from each other. But also, I have often felt that I'm not a musical theatre writer because I can't jump on a piano and play a song when someone asks me to. 


I think we're now in a time where Musical Theatre is in great need of book writers though, people who can manipulate story craft in a way that they can't necessary manipulate musical craft like composers. Commercial musical theatre for years has been full of revivals and dukebox musicals, and although I love to boogie on down to Mamma Mia (I know half the dance routines) I would also like to see some new material on commercial stages. I think this is demonstrated so well by Hamilton the musical, it is in no way a perfect example of storytelling but it does tell a story in a new and innovative way. It learned its own sound from outside of musical theatre, the sound of Hamilton did not come form the traditional MT canon. 

If Musical Theatre is going to be learning from outside of its own canon (I am fully supportive of collaboration between genres) then we need storytellers that can also adapt to that, people who are composers of narrative, not music. One example I would pick up on, which is an itneresting take on the dukebox musical is Waitress. Instead of taking Sara Bareilles' songs and putting them into a plot, she got to write new songs working with Jessie Nelson who is a narrative-maker to craft something new. This way Waitress has the commercial appeal of having Sara attached as the songwriter and also gets to make use of her amazing, unique sound as an artist while creating something very new. 

In order to keep doing this, in order to keep adapting and inventing and finding new things we don't just need new composers, we need new book writers who can compete with them. The only way we, as a community, are going to attract these new voices at the lower end fo the career ladder is by making them feel welcome. If we are going to innovate, then we have to innovate from all aspects.

So next time you meet a musical theatre writer, don't ask them about what they play, ask them "How do you tell stories?". That might be through words, it might be through conventionally composed music, they may storytell through sign lanaguage, or with DJ decks, or with finger painting but the only way we will know is if we invite them in and work with them. 

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