This might be the summer to advance your storytelling craft by catching up on relevant musical writing books. Here are some ideas for 1) public domain material 2) “how-to” books from the musical and screenwriting worlds, and 3) “making of” the musical books.
Are you waiting for inspiration? Check the public domain.
Settle down with a tablet or iPad for a free read from Project Gutenberg’s ebook collection. Not all books there are in the public domain but many of them are, and therefore could be considered for stage adaptation (although you will still want to double check before actually using something as the basis of a musical).
The website Public Domain Review has a newsletter they send out every two weeks. The site and newsletter aim to “celebrate the most curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas — all works which have fallen into the public domain….” You might not find something to adapt into a musical on this site, but it could add some whimsy and interesting cultural flavors from the past to your quest for ideas.
Every author has an angle and there’s always something to be gleaned. Don’t forget screenplay books because many of the same storytelling principles apply.
I’ve recently been inspired by Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. This popular book for screenwriting is one of the rare sources for details about creating a storyboard with index cards (Final Draft software has an electronic version of this). Many musical writers use storyboards for working out the structure of a show. Save The Cat is a good place to learn the process.
Robert McKee’s Story is one of the classic texts for screenwriters. McKee explores how story structure works to inspire an audience, based on some of Aristotle’s principles and his own analysis. Note especially his comments on layers of conflict, the gap between expectation and results, and cast design.
Books Specific to Musical Writing:
Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations by Steve Cuden, 2013. This interesting guide focuses on story construction for musicals, from the inciting incidents to the resolutions. Then Cuden outlines the narrative beats of over a dozen musicals, laying out how their storytelling works.
How Musicals Work: And How To Write Your Own, By Julian Woolford, 2012. Julian Woolford is a long-time director, teacher, and writer in the UK. His book is easy to follow and provides a solid foundation for the musical writing craft. For his points about story structure, he draws from the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), showing how the “hero” of the story makes a journey that ultimately inspires the audience. Woolford also covers song spotting, development of characters, lyrics, music, and more.
The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide by David Spencer, 2005. Spencer has been a critic as well as a musical writer, and he shares his opinions along with craft notes in this interesting book. He has been on the faculty of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. As an experienced teacher, he wisely shares examples illustrating his points when he examines book, music, and lyrics. He also covers some of the practical aspects of musical making.
Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theatre by Tom Jones, 2004. Tom Jones is best known for being the lyricist/librettist of The Fantasticks. He draws from his theatrical experiences for Making Musicals, and in this short book, he shares stories related to the components of the musical art form.
Writing the Broadway Musical by Aaron Frankel, 2000. Frankel’s book is almost more of a reference source than a “how-to” guide. It has a rather dense academic style, but he does offer insights and examples that may be useful to lyricists and other readers.
Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus, second edition 2017. Both Cohen and Rosenhaus are experienced composers who teach musical theater writing at the college level. Their book includes foundational material but also ventures into some advanced music and lyrics commentary. It provides craft details and examples that could be especially helpful for experienced writers, although novice writers report finding it valuable as well.
Writing & Staging A New Musical by Jye Bryant, 2018. I’d also like to mention this 120-page volume by Australian musical writer Jye Bryant. It focuses mainly on what happens once the musical has been written, such as workshopping and full productions. It includes a “job description” for each collaborator that may help your team clarify your roles.
“Making of” Books and Musical Writer Biographies
Musical writers today can benefit from knowing how the artists of the past struggled to move their works from idea to production. You can find biographies, memoirs, and history books that cover every era.
If you like the “Golden Age” musicals, don’t miss Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum. The author explores colorful stories from the famous collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
If you like Stephen Sondheim’s work, you’ve probably already glanced through the “Hat” book series, and perhaps others like Sondheim & Company—so maybe this is your summer to read for details, or try Everything Was Possible about the development of Follies.
In my own book, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, I cover not only the making of Schwartz musicals, but the advice and “Creativity Notes” from this successful musical writer who has guided other musical writers for over three decades through the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshops.
For an unusual take on the musical making process, try producer Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical, which includes a fascinating analysis of shows in terms of their required parts.