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Stephen Schwartz on Musical Structure

Starting with Structure

Does the music drive the book or the book drive the music?

Schwartz: Basically the structure drives both. It's a cliché but I believe really true, that musicals are about structure. That's what you have to solve is the actual architecture of the show. Once you have that, then that's why you both work with the dialog and songs " at their best they should be inseparable. But I do tend to try to start having the book leading. It's not a thing where like there's a whole script and then you take it and stick songs in it, but I think it's really good if the book leads"is a little bit ahead of you because it lets you know how the characters speak and the language.

"Try to get the story outlined as a succession of scenes, so you can picture how it would flow on stage. Really work hard to get the outline as spare and efficient in its story-telling as you can. Then take a look at it and see what jumps out at you as a possibility for musicalization. And start with that song. In other words, take the path of least resistance.(By the way, sometimes it's more helpful to break the outline into separate note cards and put those up on a bulletin board in "storyboard" fashion -- that can help you to see where musical numbers could go.)"


Another answer excerpted from a public interview between Tom Cott and Stephen Schwartz at Musical Theatre Works in November 2001.

Tom Cott: I was wondering if out of all the sessions that you've run is there a consistent anything that kind of , we've listened to writers work, what's the most consistent thing that you find in it.

Stephen Schwartz: I guess that, you know that ASCAP is an organization of composers and lyricists and the workshops that we do are for aspiring musical theatre composers and lyricists and they come and they present portions of their show which are then critiqued by myself and panels which have included you on occasion. As you know from being there, the songwriters come and present their work and all we ever talk about is the book. (audience laughs) Because it's always about structure. Musicals like films I think are essentially about structure, and if you get the structure right, then a multitude of sins can be forgiven and if it's wrong, the individual brilliance of the writing is hard pressed to deliver anything.

TC: How do you deal with the fact that you start writing songs, once you get what you think is the structure, then you start writing songs and you discover that the structure changes underneath your feet like some of kind quicksand and then you've written all these songs and they're not going where you wanted them to go.

SS: I think it's good if the structure doesn't change under your feet like quicksand, frankly. I think it's good if you actually can do enough preliminary work on the structure. Of course things are going to change. Of course there are going to be scenes that work or don't work. Of course you are going to write songs and discover that there was a whole other way to do the song that's better. Or you did the wrong song for the wrong person at the wrong time, and so on and so forth. But I feel that if the framework doesn't really change because you really worked that out, then the specifics are much, much easier to deal with. It's kind of like building a house. Once that basic frame is there, if it's solid and it's going to stand up then you can add a window or take out a wall or whatever, but I think if you're decorating the room and meanwhile the house is falling down then you're in trouble. So I think it's about really taking a lot of time to test the structure.

TC: Does that mean holding off writing as long as possible?

SS: Yes. I was very impressed, I read an interview with J.K. Rowling a year or so ago. Whether its true or not, the story that she is telling, and I believe it is true because her books are so well structured, is that once she decided to do this Harry Potter series, she spent a year working out the world and the basic structure of all seven books before she wrote a word. They read that way. I mean that as a complement. [Musical Theatre Works 11-8-01]

Q and A about Structure

QUESTION: Dear Stephen! I value all the answers you give in the forum. They give me a very broad perspective about the form of musical writing. And what is a musical, if not (at least) 50% form. I wrote you many times in the past, and recently you answered two questions of mine; one about rhythm and one about the un-rhyming Sondheim (with an example from SITPWG).

I've also written you that I'm beginning to write my musical. It's my first collaboration with a composer, as I want to try the process with a collaborator. We are writing an original piece. It is soooo... h-a-r-d, planing the outline/synopsis. Now you wrote a long response that was posted in the forum- about structure (and how you and Miss Holzman worked out the structure for wicked, for about a year). It seems that you have (naturally...) a very extended experience in dealing with structure and it's techniques. Now I know that this can use (at least) a book, but when you spoke of the usage of story boards and cards/blue prints, story beats I wanted to get better aquatinted with these concepts. I'd be very grateful if you could (very shortly, as I know you're busy with Mr. Anderson) specify in a little more detail, these concepts, techniques and process of structuring a musical idea.

Thanks loads and loads. Nathaniel

P.S: How do you determine when to cut a line, in a lyric? How do you decide when to move on to the next line from the present one you're writing? Are there any rules/conventions? Is it more a matter of feel? And if you feel it appropriate to answer the following: Generally, what do you think of Ragtime and Lynn Ahrens and Parade and Jason Robert Brown? (As your opinion is very important to me and I'm trying to investigate all kinds of musicals and writers to learn from mistakes and successes).


<< when you spoke of the usage of story boards and cards/blue prints, story beats I wanted to get better aquatinted with these concepts. >>

Dear Nathaniel: You're right, it could use a whole book, and maybe some day I'll actually try to write one. But very briefly, for now:

1. First, get clear on your story. You might want to write, in prose, a kind of outline version of it, so you get the basic order of events clear, figure out the plot, and also be clear what your characters want, what the obstacles are to their achieving their goals, etc. Be sure you and your collaborators agree on the theme and the basic plot, and so on.

2. Then get yourself a large bulletin board and some 3x5 or 4x6 cards.

3. Break your story down into specific scenes and try to write the essence of each scene (or portion of scene) on a card. Try to keep each to one sentence if possible -- e.g. "Bob decides he will have to kill Jeremy" or "Susan seduces Father Aloysius", etc.

4. Put the cards on the board and look at them. See if you have repeated beats -- that is, the same thing happening again in a later scene (e.g. "Bob still wants to kill Jeremy".) If you do, there's something wrong with your structure. Also look for story flow and holes in the story, and make sure each card is active enough in terms of what the characters are trying to do. Believe me, you can spend LOTS of time rearranging cards, cutting scenes and adding events, till you get a story board that really seems tight and consistently forward-moving. But the advantage of doing it like this is that you really get a good overview of your story, and gaps and redundancies become much more obvious.

5. When you're satisfied that you have a pretty solid story structure to start from, try to identify some moments to musicalize. I find it's helpful to identify those moments with a card of a different color, say yellow or blue. That way, you can see if there are too many blue cards clumped together and too many stretches of white cards without a musical moment, etc. In other words, you get a sense of the musical flow of the show too.

So that's a brief precis of this technique. I hope you will find this helpful as you begin to plan the structure of your show. Good luck! Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

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


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