There are certain things that you’re either obsessed with or you just plain don’t understand. Competitive cup stacking. CBS’s Big Brother. Professional wrestling. Pineapple on pizza. Musicals.
But regardless of whether or not you actually enjoy musicals you can learn SO much from them. In a good musical, the songs actually help to advance the story. They don’t just reiterate information we already know. Now to be fair, I am talking about those musicals that are at least attempting some conventional story structure (Sorry, Rocky Horror) and musicals where the songs were actually written with the intent of telling that story. I’ll been excluding “jukebox musicals” like Mamma Mia or Rock of Ages that just built a story around already-written songs. I’ll also be excluding stuff like High School Musical where most of the songs weren’t really intended to convey any plot information, even if they were written originally for that musical.
When you look at songs in musicals as building blocks of a story, you learn there are certain building blocks that appear over and over again. You realize there’s moments almost every good story has. And regardless of whether or not you have any ambition to write a musical, knowing what those building blocks are can still come in handy. And come on, listening to music is way easier than actual studying, so why not listen to music that will educate you on the story beats and emotional tension that make for great storytelling? Let’s look at some of those songs that show up over and over again and what we can learn from them.
The Status Quo Song:
One of the first things screenwriters have to do is establish the day-to-day life of their characters. The audience needs to understand the current status quo in order to properly understand how we’re going to stray from it. It’s quite common for the first song of a musical (or a song very close to the beginning) to serve this purpose. It establishes the time and place of our story and the typical life challenges of our main character(s). When you’re writing a non-musical, DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Take us into your world before you try to shake that world up too much.
The “I Want” Song:
This song is such a staple of musical theater it’s not uncommon for a single musical to have more than one. Life is a constant tension between what reality is and what we want reality to be. That’s why every story is also about tension between what reality is and what characters want reality to be. In addition to a status quo song, musicals need a song where a character sings about why they’re dissatisfied with it. This song also describes a semi-specific vision of what characters would prefer, rather than a simple “the status quo sucks” (that part is clear in the status quo song if it sucks that much). Usually the two are also not that far apart, since we need to establish conflict as soon as possible.
The Villain Song:
I firmly believe that developing your villain is just as important as developing your protagonist, hence the prevalence of the Villain Song. In a lot of ways, the villain song is just an “I Want” song but from a more evil perspective. The good ones explain why the villain doesn’t like the protagonist and how they plan to wreck havoc on said protagonist. I recently dedicated an entire post to writing a good villain, so I don’t want to dwell too heavily on this, but if you’re curious to know more about what makes for a good villain, go listen to some villain songs.
The Hitting-Rock-Bottom Song:
Any story, musical or not, is going to have a low moment. In musicals, those moments can often take the form of a hitting-rock-bottom song. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re sad and reflective, sometimes they’re slightly more optimistic. Maybe it’s a sad reprise of a previously-happy song. Maybe a character dies in this number. Maybe it’s a duet, where one character tries to reassure another that they aren’t really at rock bottom. There’s a lot of different forms of it, and again, it’s possible for a single musical to have more than one as “rock bottom” might be defined differently for different characters. The important thing to remember is that your non-musical script probably needs this story beat. It needs a moment where it feels like all hope is lost and your protagonist is tempted to give up. It needs pain. It needs failure. That’s going to make their triumph that much more triumphant.
The Ultimate Triumph Song:
Okay, so not every musical has a happy ending and therefore not EVERY musical really has an ultimate triumph song. However, they’re still common enough to be worth mentioning. Usually it’s one of, if not THE last song (though perhaps it could just be an ACT 1 finale). The ultimate triumph song is euphoric. It describes what the future WILL look like. Not in a maybe-someday sorta way like the dreaming-of-something-better song, but as though this new better future is a cold hard fact. The good ones often articulate some of the challenges that have been overcome, and there’s something inevitable about them, like the characters just can’t help but celebrate their victory.