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What Are The Key Elements of a Successful Musical Theatre Piece?

Posted in The Weekly on May 15, 2018

Each month, different members of BMI’s Creative team give their feedback on burning questions asked by our songwriters and composers. This time, we asked

Patrick Cook, BMI’s Director of Musical Theatre and Jazz:

The most important element in a musical is that everyone is writing the same show. Musical theatre is one of the most collaborative art forms there is; composers, lyricists, directors, actors, choreographers, orchestrators, and producers all have their fingers in the pie. And everyone wants their own way!  So, the most important thing is that everyone agrees on what the show is about.

William Goldman once asked the creators and crew of a Broadway musical, “What’s this show about?”  He got five different answers! The show, unsurprisingly, was a flop. They were all writing something different.

One of the most famous stories in the Broadway lexicon is the one Sheldon Harnick tells about director Jerome Robbins and the creation of Fiddler On The Roof. I quote Mr. Harnick:

“Jerome Robbins was like a District Attorney. He kept asking ‘What is the show about?’  We kept saying, ‘Well, it’s about this dairyman and his five daughters.’ He’d say, ‘No, no, that isn’t good enough, that isn’t strong enough.’ Finally, at one of the meetings, somebody said, ‘Oh my God, you know what this is about? It’s about the breakdown of tradition.’ And at that point Robbins got so excited. He said, ‘That’s what it is, tradition! And we need an opening number which will set up that tradition so that people can see it break down during the show.’ He was just very excited.”

James Goldman had a note that he had taped to his mirror so he could see it every day when he shaved, and the note said, “What is this show about?”

If you’re writing a musical, I recommend you tape the same note to your mirror.

Look for more insight from BMI’s Creative team right here in The Weekly, and remember to stay on the same page with your collaborators, whatever your genre!