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Dialogue for a Play VS Dialogue for a Musical

Today, I'm going to expand upon my last post "Donuts for Dinner"

Every play writing guide tells us to focus on subtext in dialogue. What the characters aren't saying is more important than the words they say.

Then in musical writing guides, we are told that the dialogue must get us from one musical sequence to the next in a concise and brisk pace so to not slow down the momentum of the story.

A quick comparison might look like this:

> Plays have 2 levels, the words spoken and what is not spoken.

> Musicals have 1 level, the words spoken must advance the story line without bogging us down in unnecessary details, redundant ideas and poetic language.

Then, musical writing guides will also say, "on the nose" dialogue can come across as preachy.

There's our dilemma.

To mean, it's makes clear that dialogue in a musical does more than get us to the next musical sequence, otherwise it becomes utility-like and that leads to an evening that feels lacking in substance.

How do we write dialogue that isn't "on the nose", keeps the pacing and momentum and reveals character/setting while advancing the plot?

Let's look at an example from a musical:

In this brief excerpt, we have discovered:

1. Dolly talks a lot.

2. Dolly understands how to manipulate Vandergelder's strings

3. Dolly is willing to go so far as suggesting Irene murdered her last husband to get what she wants.

4. We also see that Vandergelder is clueless about Dolly's plot to marry him.

Is this dialogue effective?

> It is not "on the nose" because at no time does she reveal she wants to marry him.

> The pacing is correct and in fact builds the momentum as we marvel at her word salad and it's effect on the story.

> It reveals Dolly's character traits - talks a lot, manipulating, will go to great lengths

> It advances the plot by planting doubt in Vandergelder about his proposal to Irene

There is nothing redundant, nor extraneous in these few lines but we've now learned a lot about both of them. As a bonus, we in the audience, are well aware of her intentions to marry Vandergelder and are now hooked into the story to see if she will marry him. We are let in on her secret (through her previous numbers) and she hides nothing from us.

Here is an example from a play:

Upon first read, it appears Daisy is talking about shirts that a man friend showed her. But in context of the story, the last two lines reveal her true feelings - she is sad that they are no longer friends with him now that he is rich.

Play dialogue is full of this style of subtext. You believe they are talking about shirts, until you are able to take a step back to see that it means something entirely different.

In my opinion, what the character DOESN'T say is what provides the meaning in a performance. It's what makes us think about the performance, it offers us internal questions that we want to see answered and if they aren't, it makes us think about it after we leave the theater.

So the dilemma is, how do you pack subtext into the dialogue for a musical without destroying the pace of the show?

I believe the subtext comes from the musical sequences. The songs are the subtext - with lyrics representing what the character is thinking, and the music representing what the character is feeling.

Or vice versa in some cases. See this example:

This song not only was a brilliant stroke of character development by taking a threat, and minimizing it in a 60's Beatles style composition and surrounded by an inspirational pep talk.

But, it functions exactly as Play dialogue too. The words he sing, combined with the upbeat music tell us everything we need to know about this character.

In a musical, the subtext comes from the songs and underscoring. The lyrics represent what the character is thinking. There can be no subtext in the style of Play dialogue when a character sings directly to us.

And if they lie to us, that creates another problem with your musical.

My takeaway is this...

The dialogue for a musical should be quick, snappy, comedic and clever whenever possible in order to "rise" to the level of musical sequences. The dialogue for your musical must have a sing-song element to it to stand out among the songs.

There can be no waxing poetically about flowers and bees (unless your character is that way and it's necessary to the plot). Every sentence of dialogue should lead to discovery and illumination not only for the characters but also for the audience.

The dialogue spoken is spoken by a character because it makes a difference - at that moment.

There can be no misleading of the audience, but the characters can mislead each other. For technical people this is referred to as "Priviledge Subtext" meaning, the audience knows the truth, the characters don't.

It's a lot.

I think this really points out the importance of knowing your characters intimately. By knowing them thoroughly, you will be able to approach their dialogue with ingenius ways that advances the plot, reveals character without stating it obviously or "on the nose" and still gets us to the next musical sequence.

I've only touched upon this subject, and I will write more soon!

Alan Saunders,

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!

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