Writing About Writing: The Songs in Every Musical and What They Can Teach You About Story Structure

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.

“At The End Of The Day” from Les Miserables
“Carrying The Banner” from Newsies
“One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin

The Dreaming-Of-Something-Better 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.

“Maybe” from Annie
Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid
“The Wizard and I” from Wicked

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 a dreaming-of-something-better 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.

“This Jesus Must Die” from Jesus Christ Superstar
“Be Prepared” from The Lion King
“Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame 

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.

“Totally Fucked” from Spring Awakening 
“She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress: The Musical
“What You Own” from Rent 

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.

“You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray
“You’re The One That I Want” from Grease
“From Now On” from The Greatest Showman

30 Movies in 30 Days: Sing Street

Had I seen it before: Yes. It’s one of my favorites and I’ve already lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, even though I just discovered it within the last year or two.

What IMDb says: A boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes.

Continue reading “30 Movies in 30 Days: Sing Street”

30 Movies in 30 Days: Moulin Rouge

Had I seen it before: Yes, but it was long enough ago that I pretty much forgot the entire thing.

What IMDb says: A poet falls for a beautiful courtesan whom a jealous duke covets.

Requirements fulfilled: 

– At least one musical

Why I picked it: I still hadn’t fulfilled the musical requirement and I remember liking this one A LOT when I first saw it. That was back in high school I think, so it still felt like watching a new movie even though it wasn’t.

What I liked about it: What’s remarkable about Moulin Rouge is how the individual pieces of it are all things we’ve seen. The plot is familiar as hell, as depicted in such masterpieces as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or the Mr. Brightside music video. With the exception of “Come What May” the songs are all borrowed from pop culture both past and present. The aesthetic is pretty standard burlesque. Yet somehow, while watching the movie, it’s really hard to shake that feeling of “I’ve never seen any movie like this before.” Cases like this are why I’m so fascinated by the arts. On paper it sounds so stupid, and maybe it still is, but there’s something about the movie that just works.

I think a large part of why this works is that Moulin Rouge is a prime example of a movie that fucking COMMITS. It is not trying to be realistic. It is not trying to be subtle. It is not trying to be anything other than the over-the-top full-throttle explosion of gaudy musical numbers that is. And for that, I think it’s worthy of some respect even though the movie clearly isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you want to make this kind of movie, this is the way to do it: by owning it with every fiber of your being.

What I didn’t like about it: This is a tricky one to write about the negatives. In movies, there are flaws and there are “flaws.” Moulin Rouge has “flaws.”

In general, I like to see love stories that evolve a little bit slower, a little bit more believably. I don’t usually like love-at-first-sight in movies and consider it to be lazy storytelling. Moulin Rouge decides to bring our central couple together via a medley of songs with the word “love” immediately after they meet.

In general, I like characters that feel original multi-dimensional. I can’t say those descriptors apply to any character in Moulin Rouge. 

In general, I prefer for stories to be unpredictable. Moulin Rouge is not.

Yet as I mentioned above, part of why the movie works at all is because it wholeheartedly embraces its astronomical levels of cheesiness. If Moulin Rouge had attempted to fix any of these “flaws” it would cease to be the movie it is. I would probably be typing up some nonsense here about how it “couldn’t decide what it wanted to be” or how “it has a cool premise but shies away from it without reaching that premise’s full potential.”

So in this case I’ll give the movie a pass on its “flaws.” Instead I’d rather dwell on the biggest shame of all: that the Killers classic “Mr. Brightside” was released just a little too late to be included in the soundtrack. That is the only way in which the film could be improved.

Will I watch it again: Yes, but probably not for a while. Without the element of novelty, Moulin Rouge has little else to offer. I’d hate to watch it too many times and have it lose that novelty.