The 7 Deadly Sins of Musical Theatre Writing

There are approximately 8 billion things that can go wrong for a musical between the time a writer first touches pen to paper and the moment the actors take their final bow.

From a writing perspective, here are the seven that I find to be the most deadly.

On the surface, they may seem pretty obvious, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lose sight of such big-picture issues when you’re entrenched in the process.

  1. No Reason to Be: People spend a lot of time bringing a musical to the stage.  Hopefully, other people spend their hard earned money to see it once it gets there.  There had better be a really good reason for its existence.  Somebody had better be pretty passionate about the story being told.  That story should make us think, feel, or see the world in a different way.  Of course, sheer entertainment value ain’t so bad either…
  2. No Reason to Be a Musical:  There are a lot of great stories out there.  Some of them are novels.  Some of them are films.  Some of them are plays.  If the decision is made to tell a story as a musical, there should be a compelling reason to do so.  The music should enhance the storytelling.  This is particularly true if the story in question has already been told through one of the aforementioned forms.
  3. Unclear Major Dramatic Question:  The Major Dramatic Question is a simple, yes-or-no question that provides the framework for a story’s structure.  The audience’s interest in learning the answer to the question keeps them invested in the story.  Will boy get girl?  Will hero save the world?  Will mermaid get to be human?  The question also lets the audience know what they’re waiting for, what they can expect to see by the end of the show.  If they don’t know what they’re waiting for, the results are often less than satisfying.
  4. Low Stakes that Don’t Get Any Higher:  The Major Dramatic Question is driven by the main character’s want, which is driven by a deeper need.  The potential of not fulfilling that need should present a significant threat to the character, and that threat should increase as the story progresses.  Ideally, shortly before the climax, the stakes should be (literally or figuratively) life and death.
  5. Inactive Protagonist:  Typically, we experience real life as a series of events that happen to us.  You know what’s really boring to watch on stage?  Real life.  In a dramatic story, the main character should cause things to happen as he/she actively pursue his or her goal.  This pursuit often manifests as some form of quest (again, literal or figurative).  The protagonist should constantly be doing things that can be described in a variety of present tense action verbs.
  6. Lack of Conflict:  The choices made by this active main character should bring him or her into direct conflict with some kind of opposing force, internal or (preferably) external.  Conflict is the heart of drama.  Otherwise, everything happens too easily.  And there’s nothing less interesting than watching people live happily ever after when they haven’t earned it.
  7. Songs that Go Nowhere:  I have the attention span of a flea, and sadly, I don’t think I’m alone.  If I get the sense that a character is singing for singing’s sake, that is, if a song is not either advancing the story or deepening my understanding of the character (and hopefully the character’s understanding of him or herself), I tune out immediately.  A song should take the characters and/or the story to a point they weren’t capable of reaching before the song started.  Otherwise, I’m wondering if I left my iron on.  And I probably didn’t even iron that day.
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This entry was posted in kooman and dimond, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The 7 Deadly Sins of Musical Theatre Writing

  1. inigomontoya87 says:

    Great post!
    I’d love to read more about your advice for the creative process of any show 🙂

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