Sweet Treatments

by Carol de Giere on March 10, 2017

Organizing Your Story — Tips for Musical Writers

In this guest blog post “Sweet Treatments,” writer Steve Cuden sheds light on the early phases of writing a new musical, including writing a logline, premise, beat outline, and story treatment. When you complete these pieces of the writing puzzle, you’ll have something substantial to share with potential collaborators, as well as a good foundation for further work. Note that the term “treatment” is used in many ways, from a brief story overview to a full-blown story summary. Here we are using it to mean a document written in present tense that reveals how the audience will experience the flow of the story.

Steve CudenSweet Treatments

by
Steve Cuden

Anyone who has ever attempted to climb a steep, rocky mountain knows exactly how tough a task it is, how long it takes, and how dizzying the experience can be. So many things can go wrong along the way; so many opportunities to slip and fall. To attempt such a journey without mapping a reasonable path prior to striking out can be incredibly foolhardy. Only the bravest, most experienced among us would take on such a task without knowing in advance which way presents the greatest chance of success.

Writing a musical requires no less foresight. Trying to create a musical without a solid plan is likely to lead to multiple unsuccessful starts, and a good chance of outright failure due to not knowing which way to proceed in the telling of the tale.

One excellent way to avoid some of the pitfalls a musical creator may face is to spend a serious amount of time working out the story in some detail prior to writing the libretto. There are well-known steps that can make writing the book, lyrics, and music easier. Not easy, mind you, easier. It’s still going to be seriously hard work, but with thoughtful planning the process can be more focused and less confusing.

Starting with a Logline

Where does one start? First, whether or not you are adapting an underlying work or an original concept, write what’s called a “logline,” a term that comes from screenwriting, but is fully applicable to most musicals. Write a paragraph of no more than five sentences that describes the story’s beginning, middle, and end and includes the protagonist, antagonist, a hint at how the story unfolds, its underlying conflict, and a good clue to how the whole thing resolves.

Beating Broadway book coverHere’s an example of a logline found in my book, Beating Broadway. This one is from a show I created called, Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical: “When a brilliant doctor discovers a chemical mixture that he believes will cure madness, he is denied the right to experiment on inmates of the insane asylum. He opts to try the chemical on himself unwittingly unleashing his murderous inner self. Unable to stop either his uncontrolled transformations or the numerous murders committed by his evil alter ego, the doctor must face the ultimate solution to his dilemma through his own death.”

A good logline takes some skill to write, but can work wonders for your decision-making process. It will help you figure out if the story is viable enough for you to invest your time in that next brave step—writing a premise.

Writing a Premise

Premises expand the logline, telling the tale in prose so that you can better envision the story a bit more expansively. A premise can run anywhere from two pages to six or seven pages in length. It should read like a short, compact version of what will ultimately be turned into a much longer piece. A useful premise should hit the highlights of the story, including all seven structural plot points: normal world, inciting incident, point of no return, midpoint, big gloom, climax (and catharsis) and new normal. Writing a premise forces you to slow down and consider the story’s overall arc. Premises help you think about a story globally before you waste a lot of time on even more detailed efforts.

After writing the premise, if you remain excited by what you’ve written and convinced you really have something worthy of further development, then you will want to move with a sense of confidence to the next step—writing either a detailed beat outline or a treatment or both.

Beat Outline

A beat outline digs deeply into the nitty-gritty of what will happen in the story. It’s an opportunity to flesh out the protagonist’s throughline (the story’s spine that your hero will follow) and how his or her tale will ultimately conclude, hopefully delivering to the audience a powerful resolution and catharsis. Most importantly, a good outline will explore and expose the story’s ups and downs, the many obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, the overall action as it rises, and how the protagonist deals with all those struggles (both internal and external) that he or she will face.

In Beating Broadway, you will find thirty-five classic Broadway musicals and five famous movie musicals laid out in beat outline form. Studying shows broken down in this way can be extremely enlightening, especially if you are writing a musical that may be similar in tone or genre to something that has been successfully produced.

Most musicals contain between forty and sixty story beats, but there are no rules here. Regardless of the number of beats, almost every Broadway-bound musical will arrive on the Great White Way with a running time of approximately two hours and thirty-five or forty minutes (including intermission). Your story must be big enough to fill that time while not exceeding it.

Treatment

Beyond the beat outline, a treatment is an excellent way to further develop the story. A useful treatment may run anywhere from ten to thirty double-spaced prose pages. It will indicate where scenes begin and end, the placement of songs within the show’s structure (though it may be helpful, it’s not required that you spot songs at this juncture), where the intermission lands, and so on. Ideally, a treatment should also include every structural milestone. Most importantly, a treatment ought to reveal how the characters will interact emotionally during their endlessly goal-driven, conflict-filled journey.

Writing a treatment is one of the most essential and powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. A treatment is likely to make the challenging task of writing the book, music, and lyrics feel less like a voyage into uncharted waters and more like you are following a familiar, well-worn path of your own making. I highly advise that you take your time and get the story right before plunging into writing the libretto.

May you have great success in writing the world a grand new musical for all of us to enjoy!   ###

This article is being published in conjunction with Musical Writerzine issue 37, Spring, 2017.

About Steve Cuden

Steve Cuden is the co-creator of Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical with Frank Wildhorn. He’s the author of the popular books, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations and Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays. Cuden is also one of the consultants listed on our Critiques page.

For more about Steve, please go to: stevecuden.com, beatingbroadway.com, and beatinghollywood.com.

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The Research Phase – Essential to Musical Writing

by Carol de Giere on March 10, 2017

Research Tips and Examples for Musical Writers

Come From Away album coverWhen David Hein and Irene Sankoff decided to write the new Broadway musical Come From Away, they realized that interviews would be key to their success. So they traveled to Gander, Newfoundland. They wanted to musicalize the story of an extraordinary week after 9/11 when 38 flights from across North America were re-routed after the World Trade Center towers were hit. Nearly 7000 strangers landed in Gander, Newfoundland, where the local community did what they could to make them comfortable. So many positive emotional bonds had formed over those dark days that there would be a 10-year reunion that Hein and Sankoff could witness. After many interviews, they began to sort and write.

“What we came back with was hundreds of stories and all of these people we’d fallen in love with,” says Hein. “We’d fallen in love with Newfoundland; we wanted to tell every single story and we came back and we went up to this cabin in Northern Ontario and just spread out everything, all the newspaper articles we’d found, all the interviews we’d transcribed…and tried to find out how are we going to tell 1600 stories in a 100-minute musical with 12 actors?” Many cuts, rewrites, and revisions later, Come From Away began Broadway previews in February, 2017. (The full article is here – Nationalpost)

While Come from Away is an unusual show based primarily on real stories, every musical can benefit from research for deep background and colorful details.

Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea of the hit musical Hamilton while reading an 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, and he drew material from his reading and research. David Zippel prepared for writing lyrics to City of Angels by binge watching film noir movies. Wicked librettist and screenwriter Winnie Holzman uses coffee-shop eavesdropping technique to collect real conversations for inspiration of young women’s banter.

Taking field trips, conducting interviews, reading, viewing period photos, watching related movies, and even eavesdropping can be invaluable for writing musicals. 

memphis-playbillWhen Joe DiPietro wrote the book and co-wrote lyrics for the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis, he traveled to the city of Memphis to soak it in. He told Playbill that his trip included a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum and a walk historic Beale Street, among other things. “’It was ambient research… My aim was to make the lead characters fully rounded people, and I think that going to Memphis really helped me.” In addition he looked through old photos of African-American clubs. “You look at some of the faces and some of the scenes, and they tell you so much about the time.”

Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz regularly advocates research and even has a slogan for it: “In lieu of inspiration, try research.” To write “For Good” for Wicked, he interviewed his college-age daughter about a lifelong friendship she had. He used many of the ideas for the song (adding his own similes, rhymes, and perspectives).

When he wrote lyrics for the musical Rags, set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side around 1910, he read related books and Rags album covermade several trips. Rags is an immigrant story (book by Fiddler on the Roof librettist Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse). It has been performed around the country since the mid 1980s and will receive a production in revised form at Goodspeed Musicals in the fall of 2017.

Schwartz comments, “I always do a great deal of research for a show such as Rags. I did an enormous amount of reading about the Lower East Side and the immigrant experience of that time, making note as always of specific details that would help give verisimilitude and visual evocativeness to the lyrics. I went out to Ellis Island and looked around there (it had not yet been opened to the public), did walking tours of the Lower East Side, visited museums such as the Jewish Museum in New York, etc. I read novels of the period such as The Rise of David Levinsky. There is of course a rich photographic record of the time, which was also very useful. I always enjoy the research part of a project, and working on Rags was perhaps my most enjoyable and enlightening research experience.”

Musical writers today may be tempted to rely on Google searches, social media, and imagination. But traditional research is still valuable for exploring ways to transport the audience into the world of a show.

This article is being published in conjunction with Musical Writerzine issue 37, Spring, 2017.

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Writing Christmas Musicals

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Battle of the Christmas Musicals

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Inspiration from “Something Rotten!”

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Director and Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz

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