How To Write This Musical, Part 1: The Opening Number

I’m doing it. I’m living the dream.

In just seven weeks’ time, my new musical Fanatical will receive a professional workshop in London – the first step towards its premiere production. Yikes.

The development of a new musical is an exhilarating and scary process for any writer. Moss Hart once said that you never really learn how to write a play, you only learn how to write this play; the same goes double for musicals.

In this blog, I’ll be exploring the creative challenges that I face as I figure out how to write Fanatical. And, as Maria would say, where better to start than “the very beginning”?

The Opening Number. Every musical needs one. What makes an effective opening number for a musical? Specifically, what would make an effective opening number for my musical?

Making a promise

In volume 2 of his collected lyrics, Stephen Sondheim repeats a lesson that he learned from Oscar Hammerstein: “the opening number must tell the audience everything they need to know.” It’s a good start, but what are the most important things to know when the curtain rises? What’s happening? Who it’s happening to? When and where it’s all taking place?

In fact, the first thing an audience needs to know is what kind of show it’s watching. For me, it helps to think of an opening number as a promise to the audience: “Hey there! This is the show you’ll be seeing tonight.” Funny or gloomy, naturalistic or abstract, all-sung or spoken or danced – whatever tone is set in those first few minutes is what the audience will expect all night long. It must be a promise that the show will deliver!

Fanatical is a warm-hearted comedy set at a science fiction convention, so there are several things I want to promise from the get-go: fun! Energy! Unabashed geekery! A Damn Good Time! My opening number needs jokes and pop culture references to set that tone. It also needs upbeat music; to me, nothing promises ‘geeky fun’ more emphatically than the manic energy of video game music, and I want the opening number to capture that energy.


Now back to those questions of ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. How do you feed information to the audience?

It’s a tricky question. Sondheim elaborates on the lesson that he learned from Hammerstein: yes, he says, you should tell the audience “everything that they need to know – but, as I discovered over many years, only what they need to know.” Or, as Officer Lockstock puts it, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition!”

Fortunately, there are handy shortcuts to be had. ‘When’ and ‘where’ can be established with a musical style or a mode of speech. Fanatical is set in the present day, and the general contemporary pop style of the music and lyrics will reflect that.

I’d also argue that it’s important for an opening number to convey what the story is about. Much like setting the tone, it will put everything that comes afterwards into context. Fanatical is about a community of people who all want to escape reality; it seems right that the opening number should therefore be an ensemble number, the convention-goers united in their excitement about spending two days away from everyday life. The title I’ve chosen, “Ready To Launch,” conveys that sense of anticipation and eagerness to escape, and has just the right sci-fi ring to it to boot!

Songs that get it right

1. “Tradition,” Fiddler on the Roof

What’s the story about? For sheer crystal clarity, you can’t beat this song, memorably answering that question “in one word”:

Watch this video on YouTube.

But what’s most impressive is how neatly it conveys everything you need to know about life in Anatevka. This little village lives by a strict family hierarchy: the Papa comes first in the song, as he does in everything, and the daughters come last. A really ingenious touch is the opening gesture of the score: the ‘Papa’ and ‘daughter’ melodies playing against one another, which is the story of the show in a nutshell.

2. “Hello,” The Book of Mormon

Watch this video on YouTube.

The musical doorbell motif captures perfectly the Mormons’ sing-song, naive, happy-go-lucky outlook, which is going to be severely tested when they reach Uganda. More importantly, the song has establishing moments for each of our two heroes: Elder Price (the first person to appear on stage) as the poster boy for Mormonism, Elder Cunningham (who enters to a ‘wrong answer’-like door buzzer) as the awkward misfit who makes things up.

3. “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Crossing Swords

An example from a new musical that featured in the 2013 NYMF, and a personal favourite of mine! The song drops us straight into the action – the very second that the school play is announced – and uses each character’s reaction to the announcement to reveal their attitudes and desires. At the end, the ‘girls / boys in the play’ melodies are sung in counterpoint, setting up the battle of the sexes that’s to come.

What’s notable about each of these songs is that the music itself is revealing information to the audience. This is musical theatre, after all, and when it’s the music doing the storytelling, the effect is electric.

All very well in theory, but will my opening number work in practice? Join me next time when I’ll have a demo to share, and I’ll be moving on to other challenges!

The post How To Write This Musical, Part 1: The Opening Number appeared first on The Green Room.