The Start of Something New – GreasePaint Script House (2022)

January 2020. The beginning of a new month, a new year, a new decade.

A beginning. A “very good place to start!” Every endeavor has a beginning, whether singing with “Do-re-mi,” reading with “A-B-C,” counting with “1-2-3,” or journeying on a new adventure.

It’s the same with writing a musical. There needs to be some place to start. Writing a musical, as with any story, starts with an idea. For some it may be an idea for a plot or theme, for others it could be an idea for a song or a character. There is really no one way to start a musical or a song in that musical. Creation is a personal process that differs from person to person, from lyricist to librettist to composer.

According to John Kenrick of Musicals101.com, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas began with William S. Gilbert penning the complete book and lyrics (subject to revisions) before Arthur Sullivan composed the music. Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers (along with sometimes co-librettist Herbert Fields), talked through the structure of the musical, deciding where songs would go, who would sing them, and how they advanced the show. Rodgers then composed melodies to which Hart later added lyrics.

And while Rodgers composed before Hart wrote the lyrics, the opposite was true for Rodgers’ collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein usually wrote the book and lyrics first, often writing shows based on pre-existing works. Hammerstein’s lyrics were inspired by the characters, the plot, settings, and more as he mapped out the scenes for the shows. Rodgers then took the lyrics and wrote musical passages that evoked the lyrics, such as the rhythms of the horses or scurrying fowl in “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” from Oklahoma, as discussed by Mark Horowitz in his analysis of the creative processes of different songwriters.

Steven Sondheim, in an interview with Mark Horowitz, explained that he created melodies based on the “rhythm and inflection” of the title of a song. Like others, Sondheim created lyric sketches with numerous ideas for rhymes, synonyms, and alternate ideas. His goal was to find the psychology of the character to create songs particularly suited for that character. His songs had to have a reason to be in a show with one or more unifying concepts. According to Sondheim,

[…] given a situation, I will have four or five central ideas, and if I can combine them and make them one piece without packing the trunk too tightly, I will use them and find a refrain line that is the central idea.

Horowitz gives examples of Sondheim’s unifying musical concepts: the “musical equivalent of pointillism” of Sunday in the Park with George and the “I wish” song that runs throughout Into the Woods, to name just a couple.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to write Hamilton after reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda’s process for writing songs for Hamilton depended on the songs – some came from the idea for a lyric (“My Shot”) while others came from finding a beat that informed the rhythm and lyrics.

Perhaps one of the clearest explanations of one’s creative process came from Jerome Kern in a 1938 letter to radio personality Vaughn DeLeath, as chronicled by Horowitz:

Naturally, lyrics when supplied in advance, inspire appropriate melodies. Failing them, the inspiration must come from the story of the play, locale in which songs are introduced, motivation of characters in the play and/or characterizations and personalities of interpretive artists…(Kern 1938)

Horowitz includes the example of Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat in which Kern credits the first time he heard the “organ-like tones” of Paul Robeson’s speaking voice as the inspiration for the melody.

“It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”

– Paul Simon

For the most part, I start my musicals with the songs, or more accurately, the lyrics. An idea for a song or maybe just a line pops into my head and I go from there, usually adding somewhat of a tune as I go. That first tune generally serves as a preliminary vehicle to help create the initial flow of the lyrics. Of course, the melody gets revised and developed (along with chord structures and harmonies), the lyrics get refined, and a full song comes together. At that point, the song often suggests the story.

For instance, I started writing “My Mama Said” (my first song for The Story of Red Riding Hood – The Girl Who Saved the Neighborhood) while waiting to pick my children up from preschool. Though my children were already involved in children’s theatre with a company that produced shows often based on fairy tales, I hadn’t necessarily set out to write a show based on a particular tale.

I can’t quite remember if my first inspiration was to write an actual musical based on Red Riding Hood or whether I just was having fun coming up with a song about the “stranger rules.” Before I knew it, though, “Don’t talk to strangers, it wouldn’t be wise. There could be danger so heed my advice…” was born. One song led to the next, and a full score that told my vision of the Red Riding Hood tale came into being. With songs in place, the script was then created around and actually dictated by them.

Sometimes, the songs and my concept are a little like the proverbial chicken and egg; I can’t necessarily say which came first but know definitively that I wrote the songs before the scripts. “Ya Gotta Have Soles” led to A Tale of Two Shoemakers while “I’m Happy Being Me” was the first thing I wrote for The Different Duckling. (By the time I wrote that show, I had a pretty good idea that I did want to write something based on the theme of accepting one’s self and others.)

The one exception to the song-first writing process (at least so far) was Alphabet Zoo Inside a Shoe. For that show, I took a poem I had written when my daughter was young, updated the text and then added songs to create the musical. The poem itself was inspired by the old jump rope rhyme “A my name is Alice” and a little “game” we had of listing all the family members whose names started with each letter of the alphabet (a fairly effective bedtime ritual).

Yet, no matter how I approach writing the musicals, the process is rewarding, exciting, and gratifying to the utmost. Working with the talented music and theatre professionals (as well as supportive and inspirational family and friends) who have helped me fine-tune the scripts, orchestrate and record the music, and brainstorm ideas has let me create theatre works of which I am incredibly proud. Works that are the core of GreasePaint Script House.

At this beginning of the new month, the new year, and the new decade, with thanks to Jerry Herman, Jack Feldman and Alan Menken, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, “open a new window” and “seize the day” because

You’ve got possibilities,
Maybe even a lot.
Red hot possibilities…
You don’t even know you’ve got!

For more on the writing processes of some of our favorite composers/lyricists/librettists, take a look at:

Song lyrics above come from the following musicals:

  • “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by David Newman and Robert Benton
  • “Open a New Window” from Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
  • “Seize the Day” from Disney’s Newsies, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein.
  • “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Photo credit: Arek Socha from Pixabay

Happy 2020!!!!!!

The Start of Something New – GreasePaint Script House (1)

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