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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Elizabeth Gray March 23, 2017 at 12:19 pm

This is so encouraging! I am in the re-write and deeper research phase of my musical “Opportunity”. It’s set in the mining areas along the California and Nevada border after the Civil War, 1879, and after the initial Gold Rush. I am finding that the best books at this stage are diaries, as they give an everyday person account to what life was really like. Seeing through their eyes is a real eye opener! I am also planning a research trip to these areas as well. So good to know that this is part of the process!

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