Advice From The Greats to People Like Us

If you’re like me, you started writing your first musical when you should have been paying attention in math class. You slaved over your “serious” adaptation of whatever short story your English class was reading. You thought it was brilliant, but three years later, you threw the completed first draft away, fearing someone might actually see it. And if you are like me, you’re still writing musicals, constantly battling the temptation to throw every single thing you write into the trash can.

As a writer, I am always looking to improve my work and learn from others in the industry, so I’ve compiled a short list of advice from four of the most successful musical theatre writers. If you’re like me, you’ll find it helpful.

John Kander:

In an interview with New Music USA, the legendary composer of Cabaret, Chicago, and most recently The Visit offered some advice to young songwriters. John Kander began working in a time when so much work was being done in the musical theatre that if someone heard your material and liked it, then you probably had a job. He goes on to lament how expensive it is to produce musicals today, and he’s absolutely right. But that’s not a reason to give up. He says:

“Your passions are what sustain you through life, and you just have to find some way to survive to support your passions…If you love something, don’t let go of it.”

Mr. Kander’s sentiment is one that I think all young writers need to hear, and it applies to everyone in this business: follow your passions. Just make sure you have a way to live while you do it.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Stephen Sondheim:

In 2005, Stephen Sondheim was interviewed by the Academy of Achievement. During that interview, he was asked what advice he could give to young composers and lyricists. His response: Off-Broadway. He says that when he and his contemporaries were starting out, the only option for getting a show done was on Broadway. Fortunately, we now have many other avenues for staging new works, including regional and Off-Broadway theatres. Sondheim suggests trying to get your shows up there. Sure, it may not be the big-budget production you had been hoping for, but at least your work is being done, and with any luck it will find a following and transfer.

*If you’re interested in more advice from Stephen Sondheim, I suggest that you read his books Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. Both contain his commentary on his own lyrics and experiences, as well as invaluable pieces of wisdom for anyone wanting to write for the theatre.

Jason Robert Brown:

Earlier this year, Jason Robert Brown spoke to students and performed at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. During his program, he was asked what advice he could give to anyone starting out in musical theatre. At first, he quipped, “…don’t do this unless you have to do this.” He then responded with five minutes of the most realistic advice he could give, the culmination of which is that young artists must fight to prove their worth. If you are unbelievably talented, then success will happen for you, he says. But for the rest of us, we must always be making our own opportunities and working hard to show that we are valuable. “You have to insist on it,” he told a room of theatre students.

His advice is very down to earth. There are many stories of successful writers and performers who were fortunate to be unexpectedly plucked out of obscurity, but that isn’t the case for most of us. Mr. Brown warned the students that they will have to fight their whole careers, saying, “You have to be ready to go out there and fight for it and not just until you’re 25.” Many of us dream of being one of those rare cases where we are discovered and success instantly falls into our laps. JRB reminds us, however, that we have to forge our own paths to success, and that hard work and persistence will pay off.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Andrew Lippa:

This past May I spoke with Andrew Lippa. I had just finished staging my own song cycle and was curious to know what some possible next steps might be. Naturally, I asked for some tips. Without missing a beat, he quickly yelled, “Run! I don’t need any more competition.” Funny. Andrew Lippa has a lightning-fast wit and is always quick with a joke, but once he was through having fun, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. He simply said to write, telling me to write as much as possible and to write everything I could. He then stopped and said “Write SHOWS. Not song cycles or collections of unrelated songs.” He told me to write stories, saying that you can better develop your craft that way. He also suggested writing shows based on existing source material. This is something many writers have suggested to me. They’ve said that there is so much to be learned about structure while adapting a story that isn’t your own.

On his way out, Mr. Lippa shook my hand and said two words to me that have been echoed by every other composer and lyricist I have spoken to. He said, “Keep writing.” I took the advice, and if you’re like me you will too.

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