Writers’ Corner – Timothy Huang: Letters to a Young Musical Theatre Writer

We’re happy to be launching a new Writers’ Corner blog series, giving our fantastic writers a chance to talk about their work and issues they face in the industry. Our inaugural blog is by Timothy Huang, whose bio is below. Enjoy!


The other day a former student of mine sent me an email announcing that they were officially retiring from auditioning and focusing their energies on writing. Thrilling! The exchange quickly moved from how they got to where they were to the nuts and bolts of how these things get written.

“I know thematically what I want to write,” said they, “I just don’t know how to encapsulate that into a narrative. I know what kind of composer I would like to work with, but I don’t know how to find one that isn’t already hip deep in other projects.”   On and on this exchange went. I was both excited and admittedly shocked at how much I presumed they would already know.  How much I thought was common sense.  Just shows to go you. I thought long and hard about how best to advise them, and in the final analysis, it all came back to one idea: Being a successful artist is intrinsically linked to being a productive member of your artistic community. 

So I’ll beg your indulgence a moment while I share with you a few good habits I prescribed to them, which I have formed for myself. If nothing else, I hope it serves as a nice reminder that we can all be better at these things.  Anyway.  Here goes.

Go See Everything.

This might seem like a no-brainer.  But it bears repeating.  Go. See. Everything.  Go see concerts, go see cabarets, go see readings. Go see PLAYS. Not just because it’s really important to support your friends work, (it is) not just because it’s equally important for you to build your community and strengthen your support group (it is).  But also because you get to see/hear a lot of performers you might not otherwise.  The ones that are tending to smaller fires who prefer to blow people’s minds one song at a time. The ones that are far more likely to inspire you and be inspired by you.  You’ll also meet the next generation of producing directors while they’re cutting their teeth, and you get to find out who else is out there trying to change the world. And you’ll need them all.

So go. Make your list. Ask the friend who invited you to introduce you to that one person that made you go “hmmm.” Tell them you’re a writer. Buy them a drink. Find them on Facebook, get invited to their next thing, RINSE. REPEAT.

Say yes.

If you ever hear me do otherwise (and you will) smack me in the face or ask me to buy you a drink, because this is an idea that I am constantly struggling with.  But say yes as much as you can. Someone needs a lampoon lyric of “Seasons of Love”?  Say yes.  Someone else needs five minutes of underscore for their webisode? Say yes.  Someone needs you to fold programs for their theater company’s benefit? Say yes.  Because if you say yes enough times two things will start happen: the first is that those random things you didn’t think were going to go anywhere will go somewhere.  Definitely. And you’ll have been and continue to be a part of it. The second is, even if they don’t, the people who ask you start becoming more and more fancy, and their projects become more and more fancy. And suddenly you’re at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center or [insert brass ring here] giving a concert of your own work and people are asking to take their picture with you.  It is no lie.

Ask for things.

We’ve all read The Secret. Or at the very least, we’ve read that amazing review of it on Amazon that completely lampoons its less plausible tenets – either way, I think, communicates well the idea behind the book: ask the Universe for stuff, because you’d be surprised at how much it’ll give you. This is definitely true. First and foremost, the benefit of asking for things is that someone else knows you want something. And, you know, that aint bad. But manifesting your dreams notwithstanding, the more important lesson you learn from asking for things, (IMHO) [Editorial Note: In My Humble Opinion]  is you see firsthand how people who are invested in you will commit to you. Which is awesome because when they’ll need you to commit to them, you’ll know how to. It’s a skill, learning how to not make everything about yourself.  Which leads me to…


Hear of a great grant? Know of a workshop opportunity or a university looking for a new musical? Do you know of an AMAZING singer that JUST moved to the city and knows NO ONE else? Do not hide those lights under a bushel, share the ever living crepes out of em.  Email them to everyone you know who might have need or interst.  Send them to list serves, post them on Facebook groups. Hire a sky writer. Plug plug plug.

There are three reasons for this. Two are mathematical. The first is, you aren’t competing with your community, you’re only strengthening it and raising the bar. For them, for yourself, for everyone. Everyone benefits from knowing a great performer, everyone benefits from having the same access to applications. Nothing bad ever came from a high standard. And the only work you should be competing with is your own, anyway. The second reason is in this age of information proliferation, everyone’s going to find out about everything with or without your help, so you might as well get a little goodwill for being the one to share.

The third reason is rejection builds character. Which, in turn, leads me to:

Apply for all the things, all the time.

At least the ones without a hefty application fee. Those ones you can decide for yourself. But writer’s groups like New Dramatists, Ars Nova’s Uncharted, the Dramatists Guild Fellowship and the like are all free to apply to. Apply to them. And when you don’t get them, apply next year. And when you don’t get it next year, apply the year after. And when you don’t get I the year after, apply three more times.  The same goes for the Jonathan Larson Grant, the Kleban Award, the Fred Ebb Award, workshops like ASCAP and BMI, residencies at The Macdowell Colony, The Rhinebeck Retreat, Yaddo, and even groups that are decidedly “downtown” like Civillians R&D Group, Naked Angels (I’m listing them all so you can copy paste and Google) to name but ten. Go see shows at Prospect Theater and Musical Theater Factory and the New York Theatre Barn, and ask them about what they do, so you can tell them about what you do, so when it comes time to do what you do, you’ll have a place to do it.

Aside from getting better at applying for things (e.g., knowing your artistic statement, knowing what your show is about in two sentences) you’ll also get better at GETTING BACK UP.

Unless you have an uncommon gift (and you may) you’ll probably not know the elation of getting something the first time you try out for it. I certainly have never. But there’s a quote attributed to Mary Pickford that goes “this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”  And that’s really a thing.

Feel badly for yourself for fifteen minutes (Which is the exact amount of time it takes me to order and devour a banana split with whipped cream, three types of ice cream, chocoalte syrup and walnuts, after my hopes and dreams have been unceremoniously dashed against the rocks of despair by The Man). Then brush your teeth and GET BACK UP. Also, don’t mistake being prideful for recovery. If you stop applying for things because you think “they just don’t get your genius” (and come on, who hasn’t thought that?) you’re no better than you were before you ate that enormous mountain of calories.

So. Let’s recap, with the TLDR [Editorial Note: for those of you who, like us, are not as hip as Timothy, that means “too long, didn’t read”] version below:

Go see stuff, so that when you do, the cool people who meet you will ask you to do stuff to which you can then say yes always, so that when you need them you can ask for things, and when you get them you can share them with all the cool people you met by going to see stuff. Then when you apply for everthing (and you will,) the ones you get will mark the beginning of new opportunities, new horizons, and new communities. And then you can do it all again!

Also, in between all this, write stuff.


Timothy Huang’s recent works include: Costs of Living (American Harmony prize finalist, ASCAP 2012) Timothy Huang: Chinese or Crazy? (NYTB), 2 to Wakefield (York Theater) Missing Karma (“Snapshots” at Prospect),Crossing Over (NAAP Discover: New Musicals) Other works: Lines (NYMF ‘08), The View from Here (Top 10 Cast Albums of 2006, talkinbroadway.com) Short Story Long (NEO Spotlight, York Theatre) And the Earth Moved(CAP21), Death and Lucky (MacDowell Fellowship). MFA from NYU/Tisch, and proud fellow of the MacDowell artist colony.


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2 thoughts on “Writers’ Corner – Timothy Huang: Letters to a Young Musical Theatre Writer

  1. So great. Thanks for this, Timothy (and David). I have just resolved to start saying Yes more often. And Apply for things. And bookmark this blog. Have an awesome day. 🙂

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