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How To Write A Musical - A Guide to Helpful Books

New Books on Writing Musicals

Can anyone learn about writing musicals from a book? We think so! The books listed on this page have much to offer, whether you are a composer, lyricist, bookwriter, director, or involved in musicals in other ways.

Book: Beating BroadwayBeating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations - [Amazon USA]  by Steve Cuden, 2013. [Also available in the UK at Beating Broadway]

An excellent and interesting guide that focuses on elements of story construction for musicals (part I) and examples of narrative beats (part II) with helpful examples from over a dozen musicals. Steve Cuden's perspective has proven valuable for many musical writers.

Book: How musicals workHow Musicals Work: And How To Write Your Own (Theatrebook)  
By Julian Woolford, 2012

Woolford outlines every step of the creative process, from hatching the initial idea and developing a structure for the work, through creating the book, the music and the lyrics, and on to the crucial process of rewriting. He then guides the reader through getting a musical produced, with invaluable advice about generating future productions and sustaining a career. The book includes dozens of exercises to assist the novice writer in developing their craft, and detailed case studies of well-known musicals

Dramatic Writers Companion how to write playsThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)  

This book is not specific to musicals but it is a best selling book on playwriting and is highly rated by readers for its value. The author is Will Dunne who has led over fifteen hundred workshops on the subject.


Books for Musical Writers Reviewed by William Squier

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William Squier, a journalist and musical theatre writer, has contributed the following reviews to musicalwriters.com

Writing Musical TheaterWRITING MUSICAL THEATER by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus

(Palgrave McMillan; $26.95) BUY Writing Musical Theater 304 pages, released in February 2006, this is the newest book on the subject.

REVIEW: About midway through their appealing new book 'Writing Musical Theater,' authors Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus set down three principles for writing an effective theater lyric. It must be concise, comprehensible and specific. That struck me as the perfect way to describe this practical guide for beginning and journeymen writers.

Both Cohen and Rosenhaus are experienced composers who teach musical theater writing at the college level. One of their stated reasons for collaborating on the book was an inability to find a text for their students that dealt with theatre music in any depth. Nevertheless, the first few chapters of Part One are devoted to the book and lyrics. The authors discuss the choosing of a project to musicalize, the shaping of characters, song placement and even some basic stagecraft. Though most of the material is familiar and can be found in other places, it has rarely been as patiently explained. This section of the book is thorough without being condescending and detailed without being overwhelming.

Non-musicians may find the chapter that addresses composing a little daunting, especially when faced with a sentence like "Most often this is done by using a suspension on the dominant "either a dominant chord with suspended fourth, or a suspended chord such as the subdominant above the dominant root "rather than the dominant triad or seventh." But, stick with it. The authors are consistent about defining how each of the compositional elements can be used dramatically. Given their motivation for writing the book, they can be forgiven for employing a bit more technical language to do so than in earlier chapters.

Part Two of 'Writing Musical Theater' is its crowing achievement. There the authors apply the principles that they've already discussed to the writing of two new musicals: an adaptation of 'The Prince and the Pauper' and an original work. Cohen and Rosenhaus walk the reader through the development of their case studies, from idea to treatment to programming the score to writing the first few numbers. They weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and readily confess that there's "no such thing as a single correct approach." Composers will, again, benefit the equal time that is given to the development of the music.

The only prerequisite to reading this book is a working familiarity with some of the more popular American musicals of the past century. The authors assume that most of their readers know these shows well enough to make going into great detail to make specific points unnecessary. 'A Little Night Music' and 'South Pacific' are discussed at length, however. If you don't already own copies of their original cast recordings, do you need a better excuse to go shopping? [For recordings see A Little Night Music and South Pacific]


(Limelight Editions; $16.95) Buy Making Musicals - By Tom Jones - by Tom Jones of The Fantastics fame.

Making MusicalsREVIEW: 'Making Musicals' is book writer and lyricist Tom Jones' intimate introduction to the business that he and composer Harvey Schmidt have been associated with since their first collaboration at the University of Texas in the late 1940's. There the boys scored big time by writing an extra-curricular musical revue titled 'Hipsy-Boo!' They opened the show with eight scantily clad co-eds vamping the lucky fellas in the first row of the theatre to the rattle of a ragtime tune. "I hardly need tell you," Jones assures us, "That this show was a smash."

No man in that audience was more seduced by the experience than Tom Jones. And so began a love affair with a theatrical form that he continues to practice nearly sixty years later. It is an affection that infuses this book that combines a primer with a mash note to the stage.

'Making Musicals' is a very readable work. Genial wisdom tumbles out of the author like apples from an overturned basket. Jones relates the struggles of other well-known writers with a been-there-done-that sense of kinship. "The best a 'teacher' can do," he states modestly, "Is to point out the problems and possibilities." And so he does.

"The shape of musicals is always changing," Jones asserts. To support his claim, he devotes the first half of the book to a compact history of American musical comedy. Much of the information is familiar, but Jones uses it to demonstrate how we've arrived at the elements that comprise most modern musicals. Minstrel Shows begat Vaudeville which begat the kind of varied musical programming that is common in successful theatre scores. The Princess Theater's small, contemporary shows bridged the gap from operetta's stock lovers to the rounded relationships in Rodgers and Hammerstein's work. And that opened the door to the complicated characters that present day audiences meet.

The later, longer half of the book works as both practical advice to the beginning writer and a series of gentle reminders for those of us with more experience. Jones avoids oversimplification. He never turns his approach to writing into a formula. "Rules make me nervous," he confesses. "They limit the possibilities." Yet, Jones manages to distill a lifetime of experience into eight useful chapters. He often uses his own shows to illustrate what he feels does and doesn't work.

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from 'Making Musicals' is one that isn't actually in the book. During its writing, Jones was also deep into the development of 'Grover's Corners,' a musical based on 'Our Town' that was to have starred Mary Martin. When Ms Martin succumbed to cancer the rights were withdrawn, then reinstated, and then withdrawn again. 'Grover's Corners' has remained largely unseen.

Yet, Jones has soldiered on and written two other musicals since: 'Mirette' and 'Harold and Maude' "the later with music by Joseph Thalkin. As the lyric hook to one of his most popular songs states, Jones' "cup" continues to "runneth over with love" of making musicals. Fortunately for us, he shares that love in this wonderful book.

NOTE: As a companion to 'Making Musicals,' I recommend that you get a hold of a copy of the original cast recording of 'The Show Goes On.' It is a revue of Jones and Schmidt's theater songs with Tom as narrator and Harvey at the keys. It is available on cd from DRG Records, Inc.


Revised and Updated by Aaron Frankel (Da Capo Press; $18.00) Aaron Frankle Writing the Broadway MusicalBuy Writing the Broadway Musical - (updated to include the developments of the 1990s)

REVIEW: There are people who clearly like to explain things. And other people who like to explain things clearly. Author Aaron Frankel appears to fall into the first group. But, the guidance to be found in this revised and updated edition of his 1977 book might be better served by the later.

Don't get me wrong. 'Writing the Broadway Musical' is a worthwhile effort written with considerable insight. You just have to do a lot of digging to get to it.

Frankel favors an academic style of writing that is laced with italicized jargon and a tad long-winded. He rarely uses a word like "purposeful" when he can go with one like "purposive" instead. When Lehman Engel, founder of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, tackled the same topics in his several books it was in a manner that was equally authoritative, but far more engaging.

The funny thing is that Frankel actually does "pithy" quite well. He peppers his text with such quotable axioms as: "A show is not written but wrought." "No point is ever as persuasive or lasting as a good story." "As rhyme defines rhythm, rhythm may make its own rhymes." "To plot in not to plod." I may embroider that last one on a pillow.

Frankel's thoughts on book writing fill the first seventy-seven pages. Much of what he outlines seemed like it would be better applied to analyzing an existing work than creating a new one. Fortunately, his text becomes more focused when he turns from theory to technique. As Frankel discusses the music and lyrics, he frequently uses apt examples from the scores of 'My Fair Lady' and 'Company' to illustrate his points. He also draws on illuminating anecdotes from a musical theater writing workshop that he led at the New School for nearly four decades.

In the final chapter of the book, Frankel delivers his most pointed observations. A director of some twenty new musicals (although he neglects to name any of them in either his book jacket bio or on his own website), he offers a tidy tutorial on the steps that a finished script takes from the page to production.

Perhaps when Frankel revises the next edition of his book he'll bear one of the wisest of his own aphorisms in mind: "Economy comes from selecting the essential."

Musical Theatre Writers Survival Guide


by David Spencer (Heinemann Drama; $19.95) The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide

REVIEW: Does reading certain books make you feel as if you've had your brain in the shop for a tune-up? It does me. Suddenly I find that I'm forming clearer sentences and drawing surprising conclusions. That's how I felt while I was reading David Spencer's 'The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide,' a frank and funny look at what the author feels musical dramatists need to know "to keep going."

Will you agree with every single piece of advice? I didn't. Do you learn as much about Spencer as his intended subject? I suspect so. Will you cringe at his take-no-prisoners assessment of the work of some of our industry's icons? Only when other people are watching.

Spencer doesn't deny the success of the Andrew Lloyd Webbers of the world. He simply debunks it. 'The Capeman' is characterized as "more than a little absurd even on its own terms." 'The Phantom of the Opera' "earns its steadily-treading keep as tourist fare." Even 'The Producers' is described as "a comic parlor trick peppered through with novelty numbers." The candor of Spencer's criticism is reflected in every other aspect of the book and that is its strength.

For example, though he readily admits that the information he includes on crafting the book, music and lyrics of a musical is available elsewhere, Spencer leavens each of these sections with what he describes as "immutable truth." He carefully examines each of these elements, dwelling on what has and hasn't worked in the past. He then forms guiding principles that are based on the evidence he presents. You would be ill advised to dismiss his conclusions.

As on target as are his thoughts on book writing, Spencer really hits the mark when he covers less familiar ground "such as the chapter on comedy, which contains the snappy truism "the punch line is really a sucker punch." His advice on song writing ring equally true, but it's his notes on demo recordings that really sing. He deals well with the writing of adaptations, but there are even better tips about adapting your own script for readings and backer's auditions.

In the end, it is Spencer's overall approach to writing that is of greatest value. "Examine the situation, discuss it, don't be rash," he says. "And almost always you'll find a principle, just under the surface, that will guide you safely." Or you can keep a copy of Spencer's book in your back pocket.

From an advertising blurb: David Spencer's book published in July, 2005 provides a fascinating handbook for anyone contemplating writing a musical or working through the complications of the process. 216 pages. Includes chapters on collaboration, secrets of succesful libretti, knowing the score, adaptation, writing for young audiences, writing comedy, the art of the reading, advice on demo recordings, and more.

More Books on How To Write A Musical

 The Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

The Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories is designed to help writers explore their own ideas in order to develop the script in front of them. No ordinary guide to plotting, this handbook starts with the principle that character is key. “The character is not something added to the scene or to the story,” writes author Will Dunne. “Rather, the character is the scene. The character is the story.”

The Musical From Inside Out

This book is basic but interesting. As one of the reviews states: "Fledgling musical comedy writers and fans of the musical stage curious about how a musical is conceived, composed, and produced need look no further. Citron, himself the composer of two musicals, takes the reader from the selection of the property to its final financed and staged production..."

Story - by Robert McKee

Although Story is designed for Screenwriters, it is one of the best books on how storytelling works and is therefore valuable to all writers of fiction and drama. In Story, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his $450 seminars. It includes intriguing diagrams that are worth the price of the book.

As one of the book blurb's states: no one is better qualified to explain the "magic" of story construction and the relationship between structure and character than Robert McKee.

If you listen to the Audiobook - Story - Audiobook - read by McKee, you will really get a deep feeling for how story operates and how McKee thinks.

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

Get ideas from Stephen Schwartz in the Stephen Schwartz biography, Defying Gravity

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