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How to Write a Musical: The History of Musicals

How to write a musical
This is part 1 of a series on how to write a musical. If you can’t wait to start writing, jump forward to the purpose of the music or how to select song posts!

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a buddy of mine who’s writing a musical about an undercooked piece of pasta named Al Dente. He’s a great musician, but like most of us, he’s never actually written a musical before and had no idea how to get started.

I was immediately taken by the challenge. Musicals are one of the most recognizable genres out there, and yet, I don’t have a great sense of what ties them all together or how to go about writing one. I decided to explore.

Let me start with the necessary disclaimer: I’m far from a Broadway expert. In fact, when I started writing this, I knew almost nothing about musicals (except all the words to “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables). So I called up some Broadway-loving friends of mine, conducted a few Google searches, and set about immersing myself in the song and dance of the stage.

As you can imagine, there’s no way to put all the lessons about how to write a musical into one article, so I’m going to consider this part one: an attempt to trace the history and roots of today’s musicals. For those interested in delving deeper right away, by far the most authoritative source I was able to find online was John Kenrick and his amazing website musicals101.com. It’s an endlessly rewarding rabbit hole of knowledge on musicals that has basically everything you could ever want to know about the genre.

Tracing the History of Musicals

Kenrick often points out that adding music to storytelling is a tradition nearly as old as civilization itself. In many ways musicals have been with us at least since the first Greek chorus began singing about Agamemnon’s return from Troy in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The Romans upped the showmanship of the whole thing (as they tend to do), moving us one step closer to the elaborate stage shows we have today.

That said, because little of the music from those periods survived, it’s hard to say whether they did much to influence today’s musicals artistically.

Operettas

Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance was one of the early worldwide musical hits.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance was one of the early worldwide hits.

In many ways modern Broadway musicals have their origins in the musical traditions of operettas—”light” operas that took off in the 19th century and were often satirical in nature. Composers from France and Vienna such as Jacques Offenbach, Charles Lecocq, and Johann Strauss II became international sensations with their beautiful songs and light-hearted plot lines, often skewering politics, society, and, of course, the grand opera.

For one particularly bombastic example, check out Offenbach’s Overture from Orpheus in the Underworld. You’ll recognize it immediately.

Kenrick argues that the musicals we know today began to develop when this operetta tradition collided with the slightly “cruder” and comedic traditions of music hall in the UK and the variety, minstrel, and Vaudeville shows that were popular in the US. Gilbert and Sullivan took things one step closer with ever more accessible operettas that took off worldwide, built on hummable melodies, relatable characters, and believable plot lines.

Early Twentieth Century Musicals

Oklahoma! represented a dramatic shift in the way musicals were written.
Oklahoma! represented a dramatic shift in the way musicals were written.

To me, the early- to mid-twentieth century is when things really started to get interesting. It’s common these days for some people not to take musicals “seriously”, but from the 1930s to the 1950s, musicals were THE popular music of the day. The best songwriters worked on them, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and many others, and the songs were played by even the most accomplished musicians. Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday each recorded versions of “I Love You, Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess. Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong all sang Threepenny Opera’s “Mack the Knife”. Even the king of cool Miles Davis played from the Broadway songbook.

In 1943, Oklahoma! appeared and really started to pave the way for modern Broadway by fully integrating the music, the songs, the lyrics and the dance all into the story. These “integrated musicals” are the ones we think of today, where every song and every number moves the plot forward or develops the characters in some key way. The songwriting team Rodgers and Hammerstein, who collaborated on Oklahoma!, became the masters of this approach, putting out hits such as South Pacific, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and many more.

The 1950s became the golden age of Broadway in many ways, and lots of the shows from that time are still being performed today.

Mega-Musicals

The 1960s saw the rise of the “mega-musical” out of England—the most notable being those written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, etc). Moving into the 1990s, these mega-musicals became more and more elaborate, each production trying to one up the last, making the shows so expensive that they required the backing of corporate entities to fund them or raise the capital necessary (e.g. The Lion King, Ragtime).

Those masks alone cost more than a production of Oklahoma!
Those masks alone cost more than a production of Oklahoma!

Kenrick conflates this movement with a bit of a low period in the history of musicals (which, from the point of view of someone who loved The Lion King, I might disagree with), but he also argues that things picked up again in the early 2000s with a whole bunch of exciting comedies such as The Producers.

One thing we can be certain of: the sheer volume and popularity of musicals ensures that there continue to be tons of new, fresh takes on the genre, whether hip-hop musicals (In the Heights, Bring in Da Noise), puppet musicals (Avenue Q), or something else entirely that’s yet to be performed.

The Overarching Rule: It’s All About the Story

Throughout these various periods of development in musical theatre, the music has changed a lot. The operettas of Offenbach and Strauss were fantastical and light, often with a fun Parisian lilt to them. The tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan are amazingly Victorian, with a certain stiffness, very bright, almost stately melodies, and a whole lot of rolled R’s. In the early twentieth century, the whole enterprise was influenced by jazz and ragtime, so you start to find all sorts of new harmonies, including more use of the tritone.

Nowadays, musicals are ever more rock- and pop-influenced—relying on the simple progressions and instrumentation you find in radio hits. In fact, many popular song catalogs have been transformed into jukebox musicals where the songs are set to a story. Over the last two decades, these jukebox musicals have enjoyed long running success on Broadway and around the world (MAMMA MIA!, Rock of Ages, and Jersey Boys).

But what ties all of these different traditions together is the fact that in all of them, or at least all the best ones, the music serves the story first and foremost. In the early days, this took the form of mimicking or highlighting the emotions of the characters, while today it’s way more literal—every song drives a plot point in some way. My colleague Jonathan Hack, a former Broadway actor himself, highlighted this point by saying “the songs are really just heightened text.”

Which leaves me with my first, and perhaps the most important lesson for writing a musical: always ask yourself how the music you’re writing establishes or furthers the story in some clear, exciting way. If it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t belong in a musical.

Special thanks to Jonathan Hack, Ani Perks, Andy Ogden and of course John Kenrick for the input! 

This is part 1 of a series on how to write a musical. Click here for the next article!

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.