The Almighty Blueprint
We’re all very aware that there are a million and one ways to approach writing a musical. Some musicals are built around a collection of preexisting songs. Other musicals are devised with a group of collaborative artists. And of course (when adapting a preexisting work into a musical) you have the ability to use the source material as a guide to writing scenes/songs. But when I’m approaching a musical, nothing feels more accessible, helpful, and motivating as one simple tool: an outline.
I know several writers outline their show before diving into their keyboards and MacBooks. And I can say I’m a proud member of that community. One time I was asked the question, “What kind of a collaborator are you?” It felt like a rather silly question. Some responses (in this college class) included things such as, “I’m the type of person who asks questions about the piece,” or “I’m constantly throwing different ideas into the mix, whether they make total sense or not.” But after much self-evaluation in collaborative settings, I’ve realized what type of collaborator (and ultimately what kind of artist) I am. I’m obsessed with looking at the big picture, seeing how the entire product looks from a distance. If one piece of the Jenga tower looks suspicious, I notice it rather quickly and remove it in order to create a more perfect whole. It’s the “getting up close” and examining the details of each Jenga piece (since we’re running with that metaphor) that has always been an obstacle in my past experiences.
With the few full-length musicals I’ve written, I have noticed one strong element about each process. Each of them consisted of a trustworthy and encouraging outline. Outlining a musical can take anywhere from a couple months to several years. Nevertheless, once I feel satisfied with how an outline looks, I relentlessly dive into composing the score or libretto until I complete each moment of that outline (almost like a checklist or a fill-in-the-blank).
If you were a devotee to NBC’s “Smash,” you might have seen Debra Messing (as Lyricist/Librettist, Julia Houston) talk about her “Board.” What might look like a “Law and Order”-esque diagram of connected suspects, Messing’s “Board” was a bulletin board of colored index cards displaying song titles and pivotal plot points in a show. She even spoke to a fellow Librettist as if it was insulting that he did not have a “Board” of his very own. And thus she had her own means of looking at the big picture of whatever project she was working on.
While I may not utilize Julia Houston’s method identically, I can definitely understand the desire to see an entire musical theatre piece displayed before your very eyes. However, I enjoy using the plain and simple Microsoft Word. Seeing a list of events (with potential/several musical moments included) helps write not only a song stand by itself, but a song functioning as one puzzle piece that will ultimately rely on it’s preceding and following events in order to be successful in the show itself.
Even devising song titles in an outline can prove to be rather beneficial. They can be as simple as “She Enters” or as specific as “A Sonata on Pizza.” It really doesn’t matter. But having that song title can help understand what musically has to happen at that point in the show. Several years ago I accompanied a musical theatre workshop in which Stephen Schwartz discussed his artistic process while writing Wicked. He spoke about the power of drafting a song title, whether or not it is used in the final product. He mentioned how titling a moment in the show by giving it an imaginary song title not only helps emphasize what has to happen in the show, but also simultaneously gives a small but necessary jumpstart to writing the lyrics or melody to a song. His song “Making Good” ultimately turned into what we now know of as “The Wizard and I.” I am by no means comparing myself to Mr. Schwartz, but I was relieved to hear that we have one sliver of similarity in our artistic processes in regards to musical theatre writing.
Every writer is different. Some writers do not respond well to knowing every step or bullet point of their project. But I know that once I have devised a coherent outline towards a musical theatre work, the actual writing becomes exponentially easier/more fun. It helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel, and understand how each song or scene functions in the grand scheme of things. After all, when you are developing a potentially empowering and visceral musical theatre experience, you cannot help but wonder how that audience member feels the moment they leave the theater. And more importantly, you cannot help but wonder how they arrived at that feeling. And looking at that sacred and imperfect blueprint can lead to a greater and more fulfilling understanding of that feeling. After all, people will not necessarily walk away from your work by knowing every single word uttered or note sung. More often than not, they walk away from experiencing the big picture.