Why a Musical?
When working on musicals, we writers should fearlessly ask ourselves why the piece needs to be a musical in the first place. Even more important; why do we want to write for theatre at all? Why not tell the story through prose or poetry instead? Unless the answer includes a love for collaboration, then we should step back and reconsider the stage as our canvas. Unlike poetry or fiction, which are intended to be enjoyed in quiet solitude, the stage is a medium that intrinsically requires community to make it consumable. Dramatic pieces are not intended to be enjoyed privately and silently. They are intended to be live, multifaceted, indulging all of our senses and experienced side by side with other people.
Any book writer, lyricist or composer will tell you that they have no idea how progress on a piece is going until they have heard it out loud. Not only does musical theatre require a live audience, but it also demands a vibrant team of performers, designers, directors, technicians, and more. As a musical theatre writer, you are not simply writing a story, you are planning a creative party, and you better be worth the time and efforts of your guests (audience) and co-hosts (entire creative and professional team).
You better make it a glorious journey from day one of preproduction, cultivating everyone’s creative Petri dishes. You better be pleasant to work with and you better have a professional standard that is exemplary. Finding success as a musical theatre writer doesn’t spring from simply gifting the world with your writing ingenuity. It also springs from your sense of respect, cooperation and joy of working with other creative humans. If your plan is to write musicals in solitude, I have a news flash for you: It won’t work.
Want to work alone? Don’t write a musical.
However, if that is how you prefer to work and experience success, there is a solution. Don’t write for the stage. Write a novel instead. Or a poem, or a children’s book. Yes, they require their own set of logistics, but you can do the bulk of the work alone. You can write, revise and submit work from the privacy of your own home, deal with an editor and perhaps an agent, hopefully a publisher, and that’s it. In a perfect world you would embark on a book tour, but after that you’re finished with that project. There is no shame in that, so go for it! However, if you plan to write for the stage, a love for collaboration is essential, for you will be inviting others to stick their fingers in your work and stir. That is what it takes to bake this cake we call musical theatre and, truth be told, the piece is never really finished even once it is published. Why? Because there is always another director, another cast of actors, another team of designers and another fresh audience just waiting to put their stamp on your work—if you are lucky, that is.
This tacit yet fundamental reality of the theatre industry is undeniable but rarely addressed intentionally in undergraduate or graduate programs. The legitimate focus of most MFA programs is on the craft of writing, but little attention is directly paid to the intangible role of community. Maybe that is because in a perfect world community grows organically. However, if you are new to writing for the stage and have no background in theatre it may take years to figure this out before you give up on your script and go back to writing short stories.
Community and Networking are not the same.
“Building community is an active desire to cultivate, support and celebrate the successes of others in the industry.”
Do not confuse building community with networking. Networking is the somewhat contrived first cousin of community. Networking is a concerted effort to meet people who can help sell your product or advance your career. Building community is an active desire to cultivate, support and celebrate the successes of others in the industry. Not only does community offer a rich pool of fellow theatre enthusiasts for your enjoyment, but it holistically offers a conduit for earning a reputation as an artist that other professionals want to work with. It spreads the word about your latest work. It inquires about your availability for a commission. It invites your wisdom to a classroom. It asks for referrals. The outlier to the law of community is the play contest world. Ten-minute plays often serve as a writer’s calling card and an introduction to the production world. They provide legitimate opportunities. However, a more significant production than that will require a level of gravitas that is born of a history of playing well with others and writing well.
“a … significant production … will require a level of gravitas that is born of a history of playing well with others and writing well.”
This unspoken fellowship should not be confused with nepotism for it is not that. It is wise and careful consideration of creative and financial investments. Theatres, directors and producers have worked hard to build honorable reputations and they want to maintain them while at the same time avoid awkward unpleasant experiences. Nobody wants to marry someone they know nothing about, and productions are little micro marriages. No theatre is likely to take a chance on a significant production written by someone they have never even heard of, so start now establishing a sterling reputation. Like it or not, most writers will admit that their productions have been supported by at least one connection to someone else connected to the producing theatre. As your community grows more robust, you will find yourself being invited to participate in more festivals and seasons.
Learn to respect your team’s professional roles.
If you embrace everyone’s role in the production process, work becomes a party. If you feel threatened each time your collaborator or director questions a scene, a lyric or a stage direction, you will not last long in the industry. There is no place for insecurity in a production meeting. Well-suited directors will identify revision needs for good reasons. Set designers will identify descriptions that are inconsistent. Costumers will point out that you have not left enough time for an actor to change costume before their next entrance. Embrace their perspectives and expertise. Thank them and carefully consider their thoughts. Be open and while you are at it keep these harsh but universal truths in mind:
Harsh truth #1: No writer’s work is brilliant enough to earn a production without personal and professional endorsements by others in the industry. Sorry, but nothing you write will land you a full production if you don’t bring an honorable reputation to the table as well. Nobody wants to work with an egotistical pain in the neck, even if it’s Brilliant You.
Harsh truth #2: Your reputation doesn’t build itself. You have to authentically, intentionally and enthusiastically serve as cheerleader for your fellow theatre artists and their work. Community means that we are all in this together.
Harsh truth #3: Temperamental theatre writers tend to be filtered out early in their careers. You are not the center of the universe and neither is your musical, so be nice, professional and receptive to the creative license of others. There are hundreds of other writers out there whose work is equally as good as yours. Sorry, but it’s true. Many of them welcome robust collaboration. You and your work are replaceable.
Harsh truth #4: The theatre industry in the United States is remarkably small. People move around and work in a plethora of theatres and universities. Word spreads about shows, new scripts, writers and other creatives. Word about you and your work will travel, so make that word exciting and inviting.
The Good News: Community is worth it!
The good news is that vibrant new musicals tend to find their way to production if the writing team is diligent, patient, and as authentic in their enthusiasm for community as they are for their own work. So, keep writing for musical theatre and enjoy the teamwork of it all. It will pay off for you and for those who have the good fortune to work with you.