How to Write a Song for the Musical Theatre

PC: Dayne Topkin

Consistent writing with consistent quality requires consistent habit. There are always a lot of variables when you’re writing something new – new characters, new circumstances, new voices, new points of view. Given that there will always be lots of new unknowns, when it comes to your process you don’t want to have to always be reinventing the wheel.

When I’m writing a new song for a musical, I start by asking myself a series of questions. The order of the series is not important, and I will usually stop at whichever point I feel I’ve answered enough to begin writing the song. (I am taking for granted that at this point I’ve created a musical language for the world of the piece as well as the individual characters.)

1. What is the EVENT of the scene/moment? This is often but not always coupled with the second question on the list (What is the conflict of the scene/moment?) This question allows me to identify what the major dramatic event is. The story in a musical is communicated and moves forward via song, therefore in theory the song will always encapsulate the major event in any given scene. The dramatic event can be defined as “the reason the scene is taking place.” What brings the characters onto the stage? Dealing with this event should affect your characters in so strong a way that they leave the scene different than when they entered it.

2. What is the CONFLICT of the scene/moment? Stories and Characters only move forward through conflict. Therefore, as I mentioned above, if a musical moves forward via song, then it stands to reason that the song will rely heavily on the conflict of the scene. Who is in conflict with whom or what? What actions are taken to move beyond the conflict? Sometimes, a character is in conflict with herself, and therefore the song moment becomes a soliloquy, working out his thoughts or emotions before us.

3. Where do we start and where do I need us to end? (i.e. What is the ARC of the scene for the characters?) This question is also important to moving your story forward. Do the characters end the song in the same [emotional/psychological/physical] place they began? If so, you might want to take another look. Beginning and ending a song in the same place implies a certain amount of stasis. Even in songs where “time freezes” and we go inside a person’s head we expect that some new, deeper insight arrive at the end of the song, moving the character and the story forward for the audience.

4. What is the underlying emotion of the song moment? Is it pain? Fear? Anger? Sadness? Joy? Trepidation? How specific you are will help inform your song structure, your lyrical diction, and your choice of musical palette. Music is in and of itself an emotional medium. Identifying the emotion you want to communicate will allow you to be more intentional and effective in doing so.

5. What does the character(s) want? There is a very well-known structural device in musical theatre called the “I Want” song. It usually happens early on in the show and crystallizes the main character’s want, thus triggering the events of the plot. However, I like to think of every song as an “I Want” song – even a chorus number. Knowing what each character wants within a song is hugely helpful in keeping your song active, and keeping the conflict alive. (The flip question to “what does the character(s) want” is “what are the obstacles in the way?” See question #2.)

6. What does the character do to get what she wants? Think of the most physically active ways to answer that question. I.e. She punches. She turns the tables. She manipulates. The more colorful and specific you can be in answering that question will elicit ideas that translate easily into lyric and music specific to your character and her circumstances.

7. What are the sensorial elements of the song moment? Is it cold? Raining? Hot? Is the character looking at seagulls on a beach? The dying embers of a campfire? A forest thick with brush? Does she hear her mother laughing? The sounds of pots and pans in the kitchen? The cry of the wind on the moor? What taste does it put in his mouth? Sweet and salty taffy? The fire of a chipotle pepper? And finally – what’s in the air that your character might smell? Is it the fresh grass of her new home? The sterile disinfectant of his workplace cafeteria?

Sensorial experience is not only a great place to mine lyrical magic, it can also help fill in subtext, perspective, and underlying emotion. Put yourself into your character’s body and describe what you feel. Are they sick to their stomach? Have their fists turned to stone? Is there a trickle of sweat at the back of the head?

Again – the order of the questions is arbitrary. Certain given circumstances will make one question more important than others. Once you feel you’ve answered enough questions to have the information you need to begin, dive in. Sometimes that’s only one question, sometimes it’s all seven or more.

There are definitely other questions you might think of asking as well. Likely your characters and given circumstances will open up avenues specific to them. Explore them all as you work your way towards the best possible song.

Published by

Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

Share your thoughts