MY THIRTY YEARS IN MUSICAL THEATER WILL HELP YOU.
Music Critic: Los Angeles Times
Theater Critic: L.A. Herald-Examiner
Agent: Stage Musicals and Plays
HOW TO WRITE A MUSICAL
This web site is for playwrights, composers, and lyricists who are writing a musical, and aspire to see the musical they are writing produced on a high professional level. In years of working with many a musical, I have seen few that were producible as submitted to me. But I have seen many that could have been and were made producible with the proper revisions. Even a musical with no weaknesses has a hard road to fruition - one with flaws is destined for perpetual limbo. Creative artists writing a musical must present the strongest and most polished writing possible.
I only work with musicals. I do not believe in writing critiques - they occasionally point out a few things that could be improved, but fail to tell you how. Instead, I do an exhaustive analysis of every aspect of writing a musical: book; dialogue; character; tone; structure; and more. I study the music and lyrics of every song (up to eight). I will discuss writing music and lyrics below. The script is read at least twice through. After I have done all this, I will give you specific suggestions for revisions to the musical you are writing, and general information about writing a musical. Where I feel revision would be beneficial, I will tell you why I feel it is needed, and exactly what needs to be done to effect improvement.
About writing theater music. I have heard a lot of theater music that was very good, yet it was all wrong for that particular song. What you sometimes hear can best be described as generic music. A composer once sent me a musical that had problems, though the music was quite good, but generic. I ran into her a few years later and inquired about the musical. She told me she had used most of the music for several other musicals she was writing. This was only possible because the music was not specific.
The above applies to writing lyrics and dialogue as well. One musical I was representing is an excellent example. This was a fairly serious dramatic piece, and yet the librettist had his characters begin nearly every speech with some kind of quip or wisecrack. Now most of these were sharp and funny. But they were wholly incongruous and served to destroy the tone of the musical. I warned him what the critics would say. I told him that these quips were "irritating," and furthermore that "they roll a layer of FAT onto every speech." Here's what one critic said: "The book is LARDED with cloying witticisms." That kind of writing could have worked in a musical like "Grease" or "Funny Thing" for example, but not there.
A word of caution about marketing a musical or play. Beware of theater companies engaged in this process they call "play development," wherein they have the gall to actually rewrite the playwright's work, instead of simply offering some insights and recommendations for revisions. After railing against this for years, I finally got fed up after reading the scornful review of a musical that had been subjected to this process, and I wrote that letter to the New York Times that caused such a controversy some years back. For this I incurred the wrath of the non-profits, but I received a slew of letters from playwrights thanking me for writing it. Below is reproduced the letter. In reading it now after years, it is as valid and true as it was then.
The New York Times
Arts & Leisure
January 14, 1990
To the editor:
The article about Joe Papp's "play development" of William Finn's musical ("A New Musical Finds Comedy and Romance in Hard Times," Dec.24) illustrates perfectly why American theater is moribund. There has been an insidious movement by theater companies away from their proper function of performing plays toward a gratuitous attempt to "help" the playwright write his play. "Play development" is simply a euphemism for an unwarranted intrusion into the playwright's rightful domain, and really amounts to an attempt to write a play by committee, with results that are invariably exactly what one might expect. In no other art is it not assumed and expected that the artist is capable of creating a fully formed work of art on his own. Imagine a museum director saying to a painter, "Pardon me a moment while I just add a few brushstrokes here."
The proffered rationale for this practice is that theater is a collaborative process. The tacit and false premise suggested by this half-truth is that all the collaborators' efforts are somehow equal. Without denigrating the contributions made by others, many of whom are talented in their own field, the fact remains that their creativity is of an interpretive nature. They are given material to work with - the script. Only the writer must utilize original creativity, in that he must create from nothingness. Without the playwright, all those other collaborators would be unemployed. Only when the playwright's unique vision is once again allowed to stand or fall will theater be reimbued with the vitality it once had.
(The writer is the president of Harry Cohen Agency, authors' representatives specializing in stage plays and musicals.)
I would like to say I made a difference, but unfortunately such is not the case. The situation with "play development" is worse than ever, and those who should be fighting it are not. The Dramatists Guild, for example, has even acquiesced to the degree that they actually run articles in their publication explaining to playwrights how to comply. This from the very organization that should be in the vanguard of vigorous protest, and one of the entities that might have helped to put an end to this pernicious practice.
My analysis can guide you to make your musical producible. My fee for a comprehensive analysis and detailed blueprint for revision is $500.00. If I feel a musical that I have received and analyzed is exceptionally good, I will waive all fees and send a refund, then continue to consult with the authors on how to write a musical, and provide marketing advice as well.
If you follow my suggestions, you can vastly improve those facets of your musical that need improvement, to make it the best it can be, subject only to your own degree of ability and talent.
All submissions are acknowledged via email immediately upon receipt.
Please carefully read and follow the guidelines below to avoid delays. Here are the guidelines for mailing:
* One complete script (soft bound) of a full length musical, with all songs, lyrics, and dialogue completed. Script must be in proper stage play format. E-mail Samuel French Inc. for format guidelines booklet. firstname.lastname@example.org
*All lyrics must be in all caps.
*The name of the character speaking is centered.
*Do not enclose sheet music.
*A separate page with a list of main characters and a general synopsis, not too detailed.
*A tape of up to eight songs. No home-burned CDs unless accompanied by a tape. Send what you consider to be the most important songs. Songs on the tape should be chronological. If you wish, you may also enclose a separate tape of the entire score or additional songs.
*A separate page with the eight song titles and corresponding page numbers in the script.
* An SASE is not necessary.
* A check or money order for $500.00 payable to Harry Cohen. Foreign countries enclose check or money order payable in US dollars.
* Mail to:
New York, NY 10471
Response time is approximately four to six weeks.
Web site address: www.MusicalsConsultant.com
This site is administered and maintained by Mr. Cohen's Executive Assistant, Ms. Judith Mirnah. Please address all e-mail to Ms. Mirnah's attention.
If you would like a telephone consultation on general questions about how to write a musical, marketing a musical, or if you are writing a musical in progress, please leave - via e-mail - your name, number, and best time to call, and Mr. Cohen will call as time permits. This assistance is pro bono.