The "Basic" Elements of a Musical
Updated: May 31, 2019
We've all heard of the:
I WANT song Eleven O'Clock Number
Every musical has them.
I want to spend a little time on these elements and provide some examples because they tend to get forgotten or "glossed over" in the scripts that I review.
I believe they get forgotten because as writers, we are all looking to "do something different", to do something that pushes Musical Theatre to it's next level. But even the current "smash hits" that critics and audience claim have pushed the Musical Theatre to another level, still involve these basic elements.
Why do I believe they are necessary?
I learned the hard way that most producers of musicals expect the story of your musical to be about a character that "wants" something. At the beginning of the story, the main character(s) is/are struggling for a better life, or have been tasked with completing something... and at the end, they either get it or they don't.
I found this out the hard way when I submitted my one-character musical to producers for feedback. It was clear many of them did not understand the differences between a one-character musical and a book musical.
One character musicals/shows tend to be a series of stories related to a single "lesson" or universal truth that we all share. These stories do not have character arcs, they build their energy through the complexity of each story until they climax with an "a ha!" moment. They work because they are a "shared experience" among the entire audience.
Book musicals are another animal completely.
And the producers that read my one-character show, expected the format of a book musical. The truth that I gathered from the experience was that Producers are looking for the next big thing, but it's got to look like the last big thing.
Let's talk about "Dear Evan Hansen" for a moment. Let me say, it's an incredible show with a great contemporary story that creates an all around enjoyable night at the theatre. Many critics and audiences claim it to be ground-breaking.
I believe we have muddied up the definition of ground-breaking.
For our purposes, definition 3 applies.
Dear Evan Hansen doesn't do anything new. If you think it does, I'd like to know what they are in the comments below...
No, in my opinion, Dear Evan Hansen doesn't do anything different that Rent does, or Hamilton for that matter.
What they do, and very well is tell a very powerful CONTEMPORARY story that touches the nerves of its audiences.
I'll clarify. We all struggle to relate to Hello Dolly these days because none of us have ever paid a woman to act as matchmaker to find us a spouse. It's a story from a long-gone time that is very enjoyable to watch. But though it may have at the time, it doesn't have us leaving the theatre "thinking" about its story, or the implications there of.
Dear Evan Hansen does have us thinking - maybe we're thinking about a social media post we made that might have been misinterpreted, or maybe we're thinking about the reach that we have, or how we may have affected someone else by something we posted... either way we're thinking because it's something we all deal with on a daily basis in our current time. In other words, it's topical and current. (On a side note, I'd be interested to see how Dear Evan Hansen holds up over the next decade as new technology comes about - will Facebook and Youtube seem dated?)
I am not saying Hello Dolly doesn't have a message or messages, I'm saying that the journey of the main character, the arc if you will does not feel contemporary in the story setting.
In the case of Rent, it also dealt with a contemporary story that was happening when the show debuted. It tells a story that many of us were experiencing at the time, our artist friends were dying of AIDS while the area we grew up in was rapidly gentrifying and didn't care about us. It touched our nerves because we were living it.
Hamilton for me, just tells a story in a very dramatic way with a contemporary sound. It does not have a contemporary story, but it does an excellent job telling it's story. And we all know that's how classics survive. Without going too far off topic, it brings the Book Musical back to the days when it had a message, rather than a fluff meta piece that exists only to make fun of the Musical genre itself.
Yes, all of these shows are excellent additions to the Musical Theatre Genre with great stories but what makes them "different" is that they address contemporary subjects in a
non-preachy way utilizing dramatic structure to tell their story.
And not to sound elitist, but I think people get caught up in the immediacy of these stories and believe that something new has taken the stage. Where they may be considered groundbreaking is in their "freshness" and audience demographics...
Meaning: They sound different and attract different theatre audiences...
So Producers are looking for the next Dear Evan Hansen, the next Rent and the next Hamilton, but fortunately any copycat shows based on them will never make it into the mainstream conversation because "they've already been done". Yes, there will be musicals about Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretary of State but they will always be compared to Hamilton. There may be shows about how Cinderella lost her mother, but it will be compared to Wicked, and there will be more shows about Social Media, they'll always be compared to Dear Evan Hansen. And those shows won't be Broadway successes. They'll be like the knock-off movies that Hallmark Channel creates that are similar to mainstream movies.
Many writers unnecessarily struggle with that mental block - the block that they are trying to do something different, when in reality, you should be trying to tell a contemporary story with a unique sound using the proven elements of dramatic structure.
So what are they? I've combined years of research on Musicals with years of research in storytelling to create, what I believe, is a complete list of the absolutely necessary elements of a musical.
Whether it's a song, a sequence or a short dialogue scene, the Opening is meant to grab the audience and drag them into the story. By the end of the Opening, we know most of the characters, the current situation they've found themselves in and we might know what they need to do to change it. We also know the tone of the show, the setting and any special "language" used to tell the story we are watching.
I WANT SONG Sometime early in Act One, a main character will sing something like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" or "Somewhere That's Green" - basically a song with a desire for something different than what they have. Or it could be a song that doesn't specify an exact wish, but instead gives us a profile of the character (which will change at the end of the story) like "The Jet Song" or "I Put My Hand In". And sometimes the song will foreshadow a change like "Something's Coming" or "Two By Two".
SHOWCASE THE VILLIAN
Or introduce the antagonist. They usually get a scene or two to themselves so that the audience can understand their point of view and perhaps why they are up against the protagonist.
BOY GETS GIRL, OR BOY, OR DREAM Many musicals have a love story either in the main plot or a sub plot. Just as many musicals don't. If it does have a love story, it will be introduced early on, sometimes stated directly like "Wonderful Guy", sometime stated indirectly such as "He Bought Me Ice Cream" and sometimes the stated opposite like with "If I loved You" and "People Will Say We're In Love."
Sometimes to lighten up a heavy story, sometimes to add comedy. Production numbers usually include almost the entire cast with a simple lyric and lots of dancing to "wake up" the audience.
END OF ACT ONE
Send the audience into the lobby and the restrooms with a question "What will Seymour do next?", or "Will Rose force Louise to be a star", whatever the question is, your audience has to care, they have to want to find out the answer. They have to want to come back for Act Two.
OPENING ACT TWO
Now the audience is back, and eagerly awaiting the answer to their question. You have some work to do. First, you need to get them back into the story with another sequence, usually this number goes to a secondary character, or has a comedic bent to it. Other times it's reflective for the main character. Whatever you choose, it must get your audience back out of the real life and into your story. Again.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
It's time to start wrapping up all the loose ends, time to settle the subplot (if it is significant to the main story line) and time to push energy to the climax.
ELEVEN O'CLOCK NUMBER The final release of tension before or as the climax of the story. When your protagonist goes head to head against the antagonist.
CLIMAX If your Eleven O'Clock number was not the climax, you will have an additional scene of dialogue or perhaps a song to deal with the main problem that your character has been working towards for the entire story.
FINALE Some musicals end with a rip-roaring, full cast song, others end quietly with majestic chords of music and still others end their own way. No rules of course, just what the story requires.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be addressing these Basic Elements of a Musical in this blog - how to apply them to your musical and how to use them to look "different." Check back!
Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com
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 WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!