Questions from aspiring Musical Theater Writers

June 3, 2008

Wow — it’s been a really long time since I blogged. I think this last month has been one of the busiest ever for me. We did the reading of THE WATER in Los Angeles. I did a concert at Birdland in NY. I spent a week in Connecticut watching my husband’s show “13,” which is on track to come to Broadway this fall. I’m now in preparation for a workshop of SING ME A HAPPY SONG in California, and I’ll write all about that in another blog entry. But I realized that with so much going on I haven’t had time to absorb or reflect on any of it.

On the plane ride from NY to LA yesterday, I responded to several emails where students were writing me seeking advice about songwriting. And as I was answering them, I thought maybe it was info that was worth sharing. So, for today, here’s some Q&A on the topic of songwriting. And in a few days I’ll write another blog telling you more about all the rest of the stuff that’s going on. Thanks for being patient with me!


Something I noticed and really like about your lyrics is how naturally they capture real life and modern speech patterns, but still adhere to musical theater structures and verse forms. One of the most challenging things for me right now (especially since I often am writing lyrics without music- something you luckily don’t have to worry about!) is figuring out how to create and stick to a structure for a lyric without giving the song a constrained or forced quality at points. Do you ever have to compromise the structure for the meaning or the content for the poetic? Are there any exercises or tactics you would suggest to work on balancing such things?

I think for me as a lyricist, the structure of a song emerges as I go. I start out with a metric form that might be a bit stilted, just my first draft idea, and as I go along, I realize that maybe in the second A section I need a few more syllables in the third line. So then I go back and alter the third line of the first A section to make it match. And then that sparks a new idea which might change things again. I figure it’s not done until it’s done. And no, you can’t sacrifice meaning or your song won’t work. But you can continue to tweak and alter things until you get it right. If you’re stuck with a word you can’t rhyme well, then think of another way to say the same thing, and give yourself a new rhyming word to play with. I do the same thing with the melody — which is easier for me when I’m both composer and lyricist, of course. But I can keep changing the melody to make it fit the words I need until I get it right, and usually that means getting it right several times, in all the different sections of the song where it matters.

One idea might be to write lyrics to pre-existing melodies. Like take a classic Rodgers and Hart song (or whatever inspires you) and write a whole new lyric to that melody. Your composer never needs to know what your inspiration was, and if you do it right, it won’t be ABOUT the same thing so he/she will never know. But it might break you out of your obvious first-instinct rhythms and compel you to try something different. Like instead of “My Romance,” your song might be called “On The Bus.” For example.

Another thing I’ve noticed and admired about your work is the humor in many of your songs. While I can sometimes be funny in real life, I’m having a lot of trouble writing funny songs. Of course I know one can’t sit down and just write something funny because it’d end up forced but is there be some technique or approach that is slightly different when writing comedy?

Humor in a song is something I’m still trying to figure out. A lot of it has to do with timing, and that will probably just require some experimentation. Right now I am just trying to observe what makes me laugh in real life — and they’re usually more about funny situations than funny lines. So humor really has to be character based. An anonymous funny song is nearly impossible to write, but a funny song sung by a character with a unique (or even a more universal) point of view is much more compelling.

At NYU grad school, one of the first exercises they assigned us came from a stack of black and white photos they had on file. They spread out these photos on the table and we each had to choose one and write a song about what was happening in the photo. Might be a fun exercise for you. Look for a photo that makes you think one of the characters might be amused by something or might have an amusing comment or perspective about the situation, and see if you can sustain the idea for a whole 3 1/2 minute song.

As a young writer, I should be editing as I work. I know the process is different for each person and I know songwriters often talk about writing several drafts of a song. What is the editing process like for you? Is that something I should be thinking about at this point, writing several different versions of a song, slowly and carefully going through every possibility, or should I let the words flow (when they will) and let them carry me away, so to speak. I want to trust my creativity but I also want to be objective about what I’m writing.

I wouldn’t worry too much about it yet. Just write. Get lots of songs out. Get them on paper. Find composers to collaborate with. If you have a lyric that keeps bugging you (inside your head), then go back and tweak it. If you think you can make it better, then make it better. But don’t edit for the sake of editing. Look at what bugs you about the song you just finished, and try to get it right the next time around. At this point, the more you write, the more you’ll learn. If you sit there and try to make every song perfect, you’ll graduate with only a few finished songs and lots and lots of questions.

I have wanted to write for the theater since I was in high school, and this summer I am hoping to finish a musical that I’ve been working on for a while. I would love to go to NYU for the Graduate Musical Theater Writing program after [college]. What would you recommend that I do to prepare a competitive musical portfolio for admission to the GMTW program?

I’m not sure how much it has changed since I went there, but the application to get into NYU GMTWP is really extensive. Back in my day (ages ago, whew) you had to set one of their lyrics, write several essays, submit a sample of your hand notation, outline a made-up musical, etc. You might want to write the program and request an application just so you can get a sense of what will be required of you.

Honestly, at this point I think the best thing you can do is get a solid and well-rounded foundation in your music theory and history. I didn’t write any musical theater until my senior year at Vanderbilt, but one of the most exciting things I did along the way was spend a semester writing almost entirely vocal music. I set poetry as art songs, I wrote choral music, and I really got to learn a lot about vocal ranges and phrasing, breathing and blending, etc. Write in a million different styles, and see if you can discover all the amazing things the human voice can do.

When I was at Blair, the Vanderbilt Opera Theater (do they still exist?) performed my musical as part of my senior project. Looking back on it now, it was filled with all kinds of problems — compositionally, dramaturgically, lyrically, oy veh — but having a chance to rehearse it and hear it out loud was invaluable. How about putting together some kind of student workshop of your musical? Do you know any aspiring directors? At this age and this point in your process, it seems to me that school-based developmental opportunities are the best. If this show turns out to be your GODSPELL or your AVENUE Q (both of which were started as college-projects), then it’ll still be there when you graduate — and it’ll be even better for having been workshopped.

I love composing and musical theater so much, and I am very excited about the future. I am taking composition lessons next semester, and I know we will work on my musical together. What do you think the next step is? I know that the process for making a musical successful is a long one, but I am truly committed to and deeply passionate about what I do. I would love to start the process as early as I can, but I have no idea how I should go about it. How do I get involved in the readings and the workshops that are necessary to taking a musical to the next level?

If you love musical theater that much, make sure you’re getting a chance to work in it — however you can. I spent my college summers as a piano accompanist and then music director at a summer stock theater (the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth, MA). I’m not sure if you sing or play piano or conduct or any of those things, but even if you’re not writing the show, you can learn a lot by DOING musical theater. I think I learned more about how musicals work by conducting them for ten years than I ever learned at Blair. (I mean absolutely no offense to any of my marvelous teachers, of course.) The more well-rounded a musician you are, the better your music will be. So — study everything: music history, counterpoint, analysis, orchestration, poetry, literature, dance, philosophy, psychology, art. (I use all of those things on a daily basis.) Finally, expose yourself to lots of life, so you always have something to write about.

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