Considering the Craft of Contemporary Musicals

alexandradavid-126I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of theatre in the last couple months, thanks mostly to the summer intensives where I’ve been teaching. Between my own investment and theirs, I’ve seen almost every musical currently running on Broadway – probably the only time I’ve been able to say that in my entire career.

In most every season, there are great shows and there are others that… are less successful. In some ways this is subjective. Tell Carrie fans the show is a mess and you’re bound to be get more than a few impassioned arguments. 

The way I see it, one can argue about whether or not a show “works,” but saying a show has craft when it doesn’t is a much harder theory to prove. 

What do I mean when I say “craft”? I’m speaking of the quality of the dramaturgy in the book. Is the story believable? Do the actions of the show’s characters make sense? Does the order and pace of the action drive the story forward? The story doesn’t need to be linear, of course, but writers have a responsibility to set up a clearly defined world with its own specific rules. Even more avant-garde musicals must abide by their own logic, skewed though it may be. 

“Craft” also refers to the quality of the lyrics and music, or the score. Do the lyrics accurately represent how the show’s characters think and speak? Does the music illuminate something about the characters’ inner lives?

While I wouldn’t suggest this across the board, I am seeing a lack of quality in these areas. Let me attempt to be more specific without referencing particular shows.


Whose story is it, anyway?

Some musicals ask audiences to follow multiple character plots rather than making the musical about one person or one thing. The result: a hastily painted canvas without detail. When leaving one Broadway show this Spring, my astute theatre date said, “I don’t know why they called the show ‘X’. The writers spent much more time on ‘Y’s story!” Dead-on assessment.  

There are plenty of shows that are successful at having audiences follow many characters. Consider Come from Away. During the 90-minute show, we follow several characters’ storylines with complete ease, even when actors are playing more than one character. This is a testament to the clarity and economy of the writing and direction.

If you want the audience to invest in the show’s characters, they must worth investing in. 

There are many contemporary musicals that wish to have their cake and eat it too, meaning: they want the laughs, but they also want to tug at your heart strings. That is completely possible to do, but it can’t be done if the characters are caricatures. By creating stock characters, writers telegraph to the audience that either the characters are not important or they aren’t to be trusted. 

Tootsie took home the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, and for good reason. It was the funniest book of a musical I’ve seen in at least a decade. But that humor came from the specificity of the characters and their (unfortunate) choices. Quieter moments were later earned because the characters were grounded in a universal struggle (in this case, related to identity).

Entertainment vs. storytelling.

I recently went to a musical where it felt as the actors were given large doses of speed prior to the performance. How they mustered the strength to do the show 8 times a week is beyond my comprehension. Was it entertaining? In the moment, yes. Was it memorable storytelling? Not at all. Everything was on the same high octane level so there was no need for audience investment in the show’s characters. As far as rock concerts go, it was fine, but I wouldn’t call it good theatre.

Dear Evan Hansen has show-stopping numbers like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found,” the latter being one of the most visually stimulating Act I endings I’ve ever seen. Still, the writers trusted their characters’ journeys and drew the audience in, understanding the importance of expansion and contraction in a musical. You may want to blare the cast album in your car, but the entire show is definitely not a rock concert. 


A lack of subtext.

There is a new level of earnestness in contemporary musical theatre that, for me, kills dramatic tension. Good lyrics are more about what is left unsaid than what is actually stated. What a boring, undramatic world we would live in if everyone said exactly what they thought! If anything, our society has learned to thrive on the revelation of a person’s or community’s seedy underbelly. Yet, more and more, I find contemporary shows’ characters are saying exactly what they feel, which immediately takes the air out of a story’s necessary tension. 

The Band’s Visit was a masterclass in what can not be said. Sometimes we heard a character’s inner thoughts, but many times the stark quietness of the show left ample room for silent a dialogue that moved characters together or apart. 

A lack of a specific vernacular.

“Being close and being clever ain’t like being true.”

If you’re in musical theatre in any way, you’ll know this is a lyric from “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. It’s recognizable – I think, in part – because it’s specific to how Tobias would speak. And “Not While I’m Around” is lyrically very different from “By the Sea,” which is very different from “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Each character has their own way of speaking, which is reflected in the lyric. This is a detail that I feel waning in contemporary musical theatre in general. 

When Ogie sings “Never Getting Rid of Me” in Waitress, it’s pretty clear this is a character unlike any other in the show (or any other we’ve seen on Broadway) by virtue of his lyrics. And that specificity pays off in the applause at the end of the song, especially as it is currently played by Noah Galvin, who mines every bit of comedy from the lyric.

A lack of musical specificity

For a character to be believable, their music just also feel as if it comes from them. Many times, contemporary shows may tell the global story of a character through music, but there’s a lack of a specific point of view: one character’s musical world is the same as another’s. One doesn’t need to establish leitmotifs like Puccini did in order to delineate character, but we must be considering both the global and local musical worlds of each character if we want audiences to invest in them. 

This year, Hadestown swept the Tony’s, taking home Best Musical. For me, there’s a good reason why: Anaïs Mitchell’s score is wonderously specific. We are immediately plunged into a musical world we usually do not hear on Broadway. The global story of the music is wildly exciting, as are the orchestrations. But beyond this, each character has a defined musical voice  that resonates with this global story. 


So, who died and made me the voice of what works and doesn’t? Not a single person. But I’ll tell you my qualifications for sharing such opinions: I’m a musical theatre writer, who has been studying craft for years. I’m also a vocal coach, audition coach, and music director who watches talented performers attempt to activate musical theatre songs that suffer from many of these same issues. 

There will always be subjective arguments about whether a show was good or not. If I ever have the pleasure to have one of my musicals on Broadway, I hope it will stand up to the elements of craft outlined above. These guidelines aren’t arbitrary dictums – they’re a roadmap to better storytelling. As this art form continues to evolve, the ways we tell a story may change (which I welcome), but I doubt the above commandments will. 

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