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Stephen Schwartz on Writing Music and Lyrics for Musicals

Stephen Schwartz answers questions on the order of writing and how song moments are selected.

music or lyrics first?

Stephen Schwartz: Many people ask whether music or lyrics come first in writing a song, but if I'm doing both words and music, the answer is that I take the path of least resistance. That can mean either music first, or part of a lyric, or as you describe, an accompaniment figure. In almost every case, though, I like to start with a title -- not always, but usually -- because it helps to define the landing place of the lyric and the feel of the music.

But if you're feeling trapped by your accompaniment figures, maybe it's time to try shaking things up by starting with at least part of the lyric.(When I write just lyrics, though, in collaboration with someone like Alan Menken, we always work music first -- I find it makes for a more natural marriage of words and music -- though again, we will usually have a title and often I'll give Alan a few lines of lyric to get him started. I know what you mean about the difficulty of trying to find lyrics to fit the existing meters, but although it takes time, I do like working this way when I'm collaborating.)

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Another version of an answer: As to my approach to writing, I personally always follow the path of least resistance -- start with the song that is clearest to me, and start with the aspect of that song (music, lyric, rhythmic feel, accompaniment figure, etc.) that comes most instinctively. The point is to trust your instincts and try to please yourself (which is often more difficult to do than pleasing others.) If the music is fresh and appealing to you, it will likely be that way to others. And as Stephen Sondheim so aptly and eloquently wrote in "SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE": "Let it come from you/then it will be new." Good luck!

How they work together

Where do songs fit into a structure? What is it that makes some moments demand a song and once that moment has been identified, does the character or the mood become the major concern in the physical construction of the transition?

Stephen Schwartz: This is always a decision based on the instincts and experience of the songwriter(s). The classic response is the dictum ascribed to Oscar Hammerstein (I have no idea if he actually said it or not) that a character should sing when the emotion has become too high for ordinary speech. That's certainly one criterion, but I can think of several successful musical theatre songs to which it doesn't apply. Another consideration is that a song extends a given moment or beat and focuses on it more. Therefore, the choice of what is musicalized is an indication of what characters and ideas the writers think are important.

It's been said that a character in a musical doesn't really land until he or she sings, and I think that's true. And if there are important themes or ideas, they need to be sung about too. Lastly, there is the sense of the rhythm of the story-telling that leads one to feel "We need some energy here" or "We need to laugh here" or "This is the point where we should find out what the show is really saying". All these factors go into making the decision, which as I say is usually instinctive. For instance, when I worked on animated features for Disney and DreamWorks, I (or I and Alan Menken) would look at a board with the story outlined on individual note cards very early on in the process. And we would be able to say something like "I think this card should be turned into a song", or "I think there should be a song between these two cards" or "These two or three cards can be combined into a song". In other words, it has to do with a sense of the architecture of the whole show.

Once the decision is made, I would say both character and mood are important in constructing the transition into song. You want to feel that it is as seamless as possible. (from the Forum at StephenSchwartz.com).

In what ways do you attempt to make the transition as "natural" and as acceptable to an audience as possible?

Schwartz: In one of my ASCAP workshops, lyricist Susan Birkenhead said something I have always remembered. She said she often asks herself, when beginning a song for a character that comes out of dialogue, "What is the next sound the character must make?" The transition from dialogue into singing is the trickiest aspect in writing the traditional book musical and the one that most often separates the amateur from the professional. A few factors that help: The line or lines preceding the song need(s) to build into it, so that there is a kind of gathering of momentum or emphasis that flows into singing. Sometimes a joke or a strong declaration can help. Underscoring preceding the song can be useful, setting the musical mood before the character actually starts singing. Conversely, simply launching into the song out of dialogue and having the music come in under the first line of the song can also work.

I was just wondering what your process was for writing songs for musicals. What do you start with? How do you pick the right 'moments' for songs?

To me, musicals are about structure. Therefore, before I do any writing of songs at all, I try to get some idea of the structure of the show. This can be in the form of an outline, or a story-board with note cards to show the story beats. The outline gets refined and clarified until the writers have a sense of how they want to structure the story.

For instance, on WICKED, the new show I'm writing, my bookwriter, Winnie Holzman, and I, spent almost a year devising and revising the outline before we began writing dialogue or songs. That's not to say the specifics haven't changed enormously as we have worked on the show, but oddly enough, the basic outline has really never changed in its essentials since the beginning. By that I mean, it still begins and ends in the same way and the basic story progression has not changed.

Anyway, once there is an outline to work from, I begin to figure out what portions of the story should be musicalized. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules, so instinct plays an enormous role. But clearly, the moments of higher emotion and the moments where characters need to express their inner desires and conflicts tend to be among those chosen. Often, I will know that a specific place needs to be musicalized, but it will take me a few tries to get the right song for it. I tend to start at the place of least resistance -- that is, the song that I am clearest about and that comes easiest for me. That gives me a way into the score and the musical world of the show. It is not necessarily the first number in the show (in fact, opening numbers tend to have to be rewritten many times as the overall show becomes clearer; often, the final version of the opening number is one of the last things written for a show!) And I keep proceeding by doing the songs that reveal themselves to me. Eventually, of course, there will be those moments which I know need to be musicalized but I don't really know what to do with, and for those, I simply have to write something, find out what works and doesn't about it, and then write something else, until I solve the moment.

About Starting With Titles:

The following came up at the end of a talk to students at Yale.

Q. If you could write a musical about the story of your life, what would the title be?

Stephen Schwartz: It's interesting you should ask about titles because I actually believe in titles as a songwriter. More and more as I've developed a craft and technique, I like to start with a title because it defines a song and because it defines the content and experience. So to impose a title on my life, it too narrowly defines something. And I think that's why I'm going to avoid that one.

How do you decide that a pivotal moment is a dialogue and not a song? Like the fight scene/dialogue between Glinda and Elphaba, at the end of act 2? And how do you get a sense of the deeper meaning a show and it's character's has for you? ...Does it just come to you while you're exploring the story? How do you get the show to a more personal level that you can write about?

SS: These questions that you raise are good ones. But the truth is that I think it's basically a matter of theatrical instinct. You're closest to it when you ask "does it just come to you while you're exploring the story?" I just trust my instincts about these things -- what feels like a song and what feels like dialogue, and the more I think about and work on a show, the more personal it gets, though my reason for taking on any project in the first place is because I feel a personal connection to the story, theme, and main character. I know these are general answers, but this description I think accurately reflects my process.

All best to you, Stephen

When Music Leads

Do you create a stanza of lyrics in a poetic form, or create first a melody then try stuffing lyrics into the various rhythms, or do youconcoct the lyrics and tune simultaneously?

Stephen Schwartz: When I am writing both music and lyrics, it varies. I like to start from a lyric idea, at least a title, and maybe a quatrain or so. But as I am coming up with the lyrics, they will suggest music anyway. So fairly early in the process, as I say, I tend to write at the piano. Therefore, the music tends to lead, and therefore lyrics will get "stuffed", as you put it, into the various rhythms. Of course, there is a back and forth involved; where a lyric is particularly important to character or story-telling, the music has to be tailored to accomodate it. But usually I let music lead, and when I am writing just lyrics, as in my collaborations with Alan Menken and Charles Strouse, we pretty much always work music first, though usually I would bring a "starter lyric" (again, a title and four lines, say) to get the process started.

It's my belief that music has a certain internal emotional logic, and therefore it should rule the song. The craft of lyric writing, to me, involves making the words fit on the music in a way that seems inevitable.

...Aren't lyrics written from the heart as well?

To me, lyrics are more of a "craft" than an "art" -- one must take the raw emotion and find a way to communicate it articulately and artfully. But when the craft is well-executed, the emotion of course remains and is communicated. The whole purpose is communication. I find it rare that lyrics come pouring out fully-formed, whereas that is very often the case with music, at least in my experience. But I think both music and lyrics, at their best, come from the heart.

About Writing Melodies and Harmonies

Question: Do you find that, when writing a piece, it is best to stay strictly melodic at the start, or do the melody and harmony kind of converge naturally? Or do you begin with a clear idea of the piece's harmonic progression?

Stephen Schwartz: I don't have one set way of approaching a song, though for the most part I do find that melody and harmony tend to converge naturally. But sometimes a harmonic progression can be the starting point for a song before I have a melody (this was true of "Stranger to the Rain" from CHILDREN OF EDEN for example, one of my favorites of my songs). And often as I'm noodling around at the piano and singing the melody of a new song over and over, I'll change the harmonization to something more interesting (to me) than my first instinct. The point is, there are no fixed rules. If you want to experiment by beginning with a chord progression and putting a melody over it, by all means do so; it may lead you to write something you otherwise wouldn't have. I'm all for anything that stretches you and broadens your range. Good luck with your composing, thanks for writing, and best wishes, Stephen Schwartz


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


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