Musical Theatre Writing in the Classroom

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This post first appeared on August 10, 2015.

Playwriting teachers occasionally encounter students interested in musical theatre writing.  Unfortunately, they may feel that they do not have the skills or time and may, unwittingly, discourage potential authors.  To combat this tendency, I have lately made a concerted effort to nurture students interested in writing musicals.  After all, one could argue that musical theatre is where theatre is healthiest.  Musicals represent a theatrical genre that does not need to justify its existence:  Broadway continues, thanks to the musical, and musical plays sell seats in high school and community theatres across the nation.  We should, therefore, not discourage those who want to write in this form.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to musical theatre writing is that scripts require many separate skills that hardly ever reside in the same person.  They are usually written in teams—book writer (script writer), lyricist, and composer.  Whereas most playwrights would be perfectly happy writing the script—and, possibly, the lyrics—it is unusual that they would have the musical expertise to write all those darned notes.  Musical theatre writing then would best be taught as an interdisciplinary endeavor—music and creative writing—possibly with students taking different roles within the class.  While I believe that such team-taught courses exist in larger universities, I doubt that the average college would have the resources.  What to do then at a smaller school when faced with a musically-inclined student?

From a practical point of view, I do a few things.  First, I lay out the realities:  I am not qualified to teach music theory, but can help with words.  I make sure that the student knows that musicals are extremely time-consuming and usually written in teams.  Second, I urge students to become acquainted with musical theatre literature—especially the integrated book musical, as exemplified by Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the U.S.A.’s most significant contributions to drama.  I also make a few general statements regarding musical numbers.  I discuss basic formatting:  song lyrics are written as verse, with line breaks, and in all caps.  I describe how songs are used in the integrated book musical:  the action of the play does not stop for the song; rather, the song comes at the height of drama.  An old adage states that what cannot be said in words must be said in song; and what cannot be said in song must be said in dance.  Songs, then, are for intense moments—climaxes and decisions.  Last, I suggest that the student have a melody in mind while writing lyrics:  the melody does not have to be good, but it will allow the student a stronger sense of structure as the lines are written.

Usually, with just these bits of advice, students can make forays into musical theatre writing.  Later, more advanced students continue in independent studies with me or with faculty from the Music Department.  Most important, though, is acknowledging that budding musical writers should be encouraged, not discouraged.

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About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.