What makes a good musical theatre book?

Here we are. Back together again, talking about musical theatre… Last time, if you remember, we took a look at what makes a well written song cycle – a fun little animal of a musical piece that’s assembled with only music and lyrics. But now, I’d like to explore something different: the book musical. More specifically – the book itself.

In my mind, book writers are highly under-appreciated. Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx are amazing, but what would Avenue Q be without Jeff Whitty? Into the Woods without James Lapine? In the Heights without Quiara Hudes (a Pulitzer Prize recipient, by the way)? The book is an integral part of any musical. In many ways, it’s the hardest piece of the puzzle. And yet, people frequently don’t acknowledge that – like when the Tony Awards producers intermittently decide to remove the award for “Best Book” from the telecast. Which, by the way, makes me feel… well… do you know Madeline Kahn’s “flames” monologue from “Clue”? Like that.

Ed. note: best movie of all time.

Ed. note: best movie of all time.

Anyway, a book couldn’t be more important in the new musical theatre world. Emerging writers can do concerts of songs day in and day out. They can build fan bases and be called the “next big thing” by everyone who sees them. But that won’t get them to production if they don’t have a show bound together by a solid book that people can rally behind.

So what makes a good book? For the short answer, I’d say go look at the 2005 Tony Award nominees for “Best Book”: Rachel Sheinkin (one of only four playwrights to win the award) for …Spelling Bee, Jeffrey Lane for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Craig Lucas (my playwriting idol) for The Light in the Piazza, and Eric Idle for Spamalot. This is a great cross-section of musicals. Both original and adapted. Comedy and drama. All of them successful. But most importantly, each of them boasts a book that tells an engaging story – all while staying true to the tone, musicality, and style of its show.

But then again, maybe you’re looking for a couple specific kernels of wisdom? Ask, and you shall receive.

A book is more than connecting tissue.

Ivan Hernandez as Cinderella's Prince and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella in Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theatre.

Ivan Hernandez as Cinderella’s Prince and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella in Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theatre.

I’ve seen this with new musicals a lot, actually. A musical is more than just its songs, no matter how good they are. And your book can’t simply be the thing that gets you from one song to the next with a couple plot points thrown in. It’s got to be just as substantial as the songs. Take Into the Woods. One of the most powerful moments in the show – in my opinion – is when Cinderella and her prince officially end their relationship in the second act and he leaves her behind with a motherless baby in her arms. There’s not a song in sight here. It’s all book. And if you don’t believe me that this is a great scene, look at its final lines:

Cinderella: I think you should go.
Cinderella’s Prince: Leave? But I do love you.
Cinderella: Consider that I have been lost. A victim of the Giant.
Cinderella’s Prince: Is that what you really wish?
Cinderella: My father’s house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between. Please go.
Cinderella’s Prince: I shall always love the maiden that ran away.
Cinderella: And I the faraway Prince.

Woof. That’s heavy. Thank you, James Lapine.

Use scenes – not just songs – to build character.

Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in The Light In The Piazza. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison in The Light In The Piazza. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

One of the things I think most new musical theatre writers have in spades is the ability to take a character on a journey in their songs. But the thing to remember is that in a musical, the book has to do the same thing. I know that seems obvious, but too often, I’ve seen new musicals that leave all of their character development to songs.

Think about something like The Light in the Piazza. Near the top of Act II, Clara sings the title song to her mother Margaret – revealing how she sees the world and how it’s so different from what her mother wants for her. But there’s a huge dramatic lead-up to this. Clara fights so hard to get her mother to see who she is and what she wants. We learn so much about Clara in this scene, and it’s only when all else fails that she launches into song.

Now that’s good book writing.

Pay special attention to secondary characters.

Stockard Channing as Rizzo in Grease.

Stockard Channing as Rizzo in Grease.

In music theatre history, secondary characters have had some amazing songs. “Mr. Snow” from Carousel. “There are Worse Things I Could Do” from Grease. “Miracle of Miracles” from Fiddler on the Roof. These are some of the few songs these characters have – in some cases the only song. But Carrie, Rizzo, Motel, and others like them are still memorable despite few singing moments. That’s because the book writers have taken the time to breathe life into them outside of song. So if you want your secondary characters to live on in the minds of your audiences, make sure to devote some extra time to them in your scene writing.

Keep it consistent.

Minglie Chen, Rod, Nicky, and Robert McClure in Avenue Q at The Old Globe (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Minglie Chen, Rod, Nicky, and Robert McClure in Avenue Q at The Old Globe (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

One of the things I appreciate most about Avenue Q is its consistent style. The songs are fun and witty with some surprisingly poignant moments. But what’s awesome is that its book has the exact same tone. And it’s this consistency that makes the musical such a fluid, well-constructed piece. There are plenty of other examples, too. Piazza’s book mirrors the romanticism of its music. …Spelling Bee is wholly quirky and charming. When a book and songs work together, that creates something that really leaps off the page, onto a stage, and into a theatergoer’s heart. And that’s what every musical theatre writer wants, isn’t it?

OK. That’s all I’ve got for now. But I hope you gleaned a little insight into musical theatre book writing. See you next time!

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