Musicals are notoriously hard to get right. And getting helpful musical feedback from others can make or break them. Countless shows, including the most successful like Wicked and Hamilton, could have floundered if the writers hadn’t solicited and listened to critiques over the long development process.

Over the years, experienced musical writers have developed systems for testing their work and enhancing shows through rewrites. In this two-part article series, we’ll look at some of those approaches as we explore how to benefit from feedback. I’m drawing from my research as well as interviews with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked), Winnie Holzman (Wicked), and John Caird (Children of Eden, Jane Eyre) from my Schwartz career biography, Defying Gravity.

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When you “objectify” your work, and hear it as if you are the audience, you can evaluate it in new ways. Composers can record a piece and play it back to themselves. Script and lyrics writers can hear their work read aloud by using computer text-to-speech options. Final Draft script software, WriterDuet, and Microsoft Word each have a read-aloud feature, as does the software ReadThrough. YouTube tutorials are available for these options. You can test rhythms, look for typos, and hear whether or not your text sounds natural (even though it is being read by a digital voice). Of course, you could also try reading the text into a recorder or your phone voice memo and playing it back.

Test Your Work First with a Friend or Family Member

Writers of every stripe need to run their projects by someone who understands what kind of response they need. It’s worth cultivating a feedback-giver you can trust, such as a family member or friend who has a similar background or interests as your ultimate audience.

In his early twenties, Stephen Schwartz married actress Carole Piasecki, who became his listener-in-chief. Throughout his career he has run his song drafts past her at home.

One of the most dramatic examples of her contribution was for the Wicked song “For Good,” which he wrote after interviewing their daughter Jessica. He wrote a draft of the song and played it for Carole. For one image, he drew from a memory from years earlier.

Back when Schwartz was working on Disney’s Pocahontas, producer Mike Gabriel had suggested that footprints were a visual image symbolic of making impressions. Without too much thought, Stephen had written “like a footprint on my heart,” as a lyric in “For Good.” When Stephen first played the song for Carole, she wasn’t going to let that one pass. “That’s such an icky image,” Carole frankly commented.

Stephen tried to defend it, “Well, you know, like footprints on the sands of time,”

“But footprint on my heart? It’s just icky, it’s like someone stepping on my heart,” she insisted.

“All right, uh, ‘handprint.’” And so “handprint on my heart” made it to the final version. “For Good” is one of Schwartz’s most frequently performed pieces. He later resurrected “Footprints on the sands of time” as an image in a key song for The Prince of Egypt stage production, where it was ideally appropriate.

Take Advantage of Collaborators’ Visions

Musical making is almost always a team effort. Even solo writers collaborate with someone, such as directors, choreographers, and producers. And often composers are working with lyricists and bookwriters, so they need to respond to each other’s visions.

Collaborator reactions can be a blessing and a challenge. When Stephen Schwartz worked on Pippin at age twenty-four, he had at first expected everything to come out exactly the way he had envisioned it. That wasn’t possible with director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s instincts for the musical. However, with the artistic push-pull between Fosse, Schwartz, and bookwriter Roger O. Hirson, the show evolved into a piece that ran on Broadway for almost five years.

Responding to and giving feedback on each other’s material has become a collaboration expectation. Over time, Schwartz learned to, as he says, “work with people who share a basic vision for the show. Then a sort of Gestalt thing comes in, where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. And you just never know where a good idea is going to come from and you kind of inch your way forward together” (Theatre Café interview).

For composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years), it was often Daisy Prince who served as his sounding board and sometimes show director. As Brown once said in an interview, in his early days of writing songs, “My first inclination was to make them more Pollyanna…As a result, I was writing things that were patently untrue for me. And Daisy really got me out of that. She kept pushing me back to the things I did well.”

Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote 42 songs for their hit musical Something Rotten, of which only 18 remain in the show. Many of the changes resulted from feedback from their director-choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, who was especially sensitive to the structural and energy needs of the show.

As an example, Wayne explained to The New York Times in 2015 that the number that ends the first act used to be a solo sort of like “Rose’s Turn,” the famous showstopper from Gypsy. “But Casey said: ‘Eeew, you know what? I kind of think we’re going to want the whole company out there and everyone singing. And we’re going to want some dancing.’” The team revamped this and many other numbers to improve audience response.

Use Consultants

Even the most experienced writers may request help from a consultant, mentor, or former teacher. Winnie Holzman, who has an MFA in musical theatre writing from NYU, sent her script to her former mentor, the playwright Arthur Laurents, while she was writing Wicked. He didn’t edit the script, but read it and then met with Holzman and Schwartz over a meal. “It was about us getting ideas in his presence,” says Holzman, “because the conversation that ensued from talking to him was very exciting, and it helped open our minds.”

“Arthur had lots and lots of reservations,” Schwartz later recalled, “and that was really helpful to us because it pinpointed stuff we had to do, and I think we addressed a lot of those issues.”

Sometimes it pays to pay an experienced script reader if you wish in-depth notes on your work (or find one who will donate his or her time). offers a wonderful script review and consultation service (click HERE to learn more) and New Musicals, Inc. also offers consultation services.

Join a Writers Group

A writers group can be an invaluable source of feedback for many reasons. First of all, you will be getting feedback from other writers who are also “in the trenches,” so they are more likely to be both informed and compassionate. Not only that, but the sense of community – and accountability – that you get from a writers group can be invaluable. Finally, some companies and programs even help orchestrate showcase opportunities for their members, which can be a further source of feedback.

All members of the MusicalWriters Academy have the opportunity to participate in a monthly writers group. Click here to learn more about the MusicalWriters Academy.

Theatre Resources Unlimited also offers a program called “How to Write a Musical That Works” with short-segment presentations and feedback from professionals – for more information, visit

Set Up Readings: An Essential Tool for Musical Writers

Because a theater piece is meant for the stage, some level of performance is essential for the evaluation process. Various types of readings can be arranged that help you not only hear how your work sounds in the mouths of actors but also get a distance from your work and review it more objectively.

Wicked went through seven developmental readings and workshops. At first, Hamilton wasn’t even going to be a full musical until audiences heard several pieces performed and wanted more. The development process included workshops as well as an off-Broadway production that helped the creators make final changes before Broadway.

A series of readings or workshops can provide the necessary distance from each draft of your show to reveal its weak and strong points. Stephen Schwartz says there’s no better way to “find out what’s working and what isn’t in the dramatic structure and storytelling.”

Check out these MusicalWriters articles focused on setting up readings, and “From Pizza Readings to Broadway,” an interview with Matthew Sklar, composer for The Wedding Singer, Elf, and The Prom.

Just setting up a reading, however, is not enough. You have to have a strategy for learning from them. First, you note your own responses to hearing the show aloud. And pay attention to your intuitive feelings about the audience’s responses. As Matthew Sklar says, “If something isn’t working, you’ll know. You’ll feel it in the audience… You’ll know when something isn’t quite landing.”

Finally, offers a wonderful Table Read service, in which theatre professionals read your script aloud and provide you with detailed feedback on your show. Click here to learn more about Table Reads.

Observe the Show Through a Trial Production

Can you get your work up on its feet? Some small or regional theaters, or even high schools and colleges, will stage new works in progress.

Of course, when working with big Broadway budgets, writers almost always take advantage of pre-Broadway tryouts. Stephen Schwartz says for his latest work, The Queen of Versailles, “Up until now, the presentations have just been in rehearsal rooms for a very insider audience – theater people. The nice thing about the out-of-town is that regular people come to see it. Some things may play very well for this very insider crowd and not work at all for a [general audience] and vice versa. That’s very instructive. And also, to have a production and see how that affects it, both what’s better with a production, or does the production get in the way in any places – it’s really good to learn.”

Members of the MusicalWriters Academy have the opportunity to pitch their shows for cost-free staged readings through the MusicalWriters Academy Reading Series. Click here to learn more about the Academy Reading Series. Additionally, the MusicalWriters Development Series is a year-long process that culminates with a staged reading of your show. Click here to learn more about the Development Series.

Attend a Festival or Other Feedback-Focused Event

The annual Musical Writers Festival offers opportunities for writers to submit and get feedback on songs, and even full show pitches. Not only are these kinds of opportunities great for learning how to improve your show, they also get your work in front of more artists, producers, and directors who can help take your show to the next level.

Click HERE to learn more about the Musical Writers Festival.

Making the Most of Feedback

Of course, just finding a source of feedback won’t be helpful unless you know how to apply and handle it. In Part 2 of this “Embracing Feedback” Series, we’ll talk about responding to feedback.

TL;DR offers many different services to provide quality, compassionate feedback on your musical, no matter what its stage of development. Click on each link to learn more!