Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Few Thoughts On The Secret Life of the American Musical

Confession time: I love musicals. Always have. I think they are a vastly underrated part of the literary canon. As both a pseudo-alpha male and English teacher, musicals shouldn't matter nearly as much as they do to me, but I am unashamed of my love for them and a staunch defender of their importance. With the advent of HAMILTON into our collective consciousness, musicals are significant in many ways again. And I started thinking about how and why they work. I also wondered what could I learn about writing, especially my own, from musicals.

I've made no secret of my obsession with discovering, unpacking and analyzing the process, techniques, routines and rituals of writers. During my present reading tear, I devoured Stephen Sondheim's lyric books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT. I became obsessed with Sondheim a few years back when HBO played a documentary called SIX BY SONDHEIM and I was entranced not only by the man and his music, but the painstaking process of writing the songs that he was writing, the context of both the time and setting and his meticulous attention to detail. I also read the "Hamiltome" last year, fascinated by the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and the work that he created. HAMILTON is my closing argument to the question of writing an epic fantasy musical. It can be done. (And I believe that eventually I am the guy to write it...but not now!) So, poking around for more books about musicals I found THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel and checked it out of the library. It was enlightening to say the least.

The book is split into parts, discussing and dissecting the component parts of the American musical. Structure is a big deal in writing. I've always thought of myself as a structure guy but I've spent a lot of time in the last few months studying writing and noticing that maybe I'm not as structured as I think I am. I just finished research projects with my seniors and tried to instill this new found belief in structure to them since they often ramble and wander in their essays, and while it is true not all that wander are lost, my students are in their research papers. But I'm not here to talk about that, I'm here to talk about the structure of the American musical and what it has to do with my writing.

Viertel stipulates that American musicals follow a formula and his analysis, with great examples, proves this to be true. The parts are:

  1. The Overture
  2. Opening Number
  3. The I Want Song
  4. Conditional Love Song
  5. The Noise
  6. Bushwhacking 1: Second Couples
  7. Bushwhacking 2: Villians
  8. Bushwhacking 3: The Multiplot and How It Thickens
  9. Stars
  10. Tent Poles
  11. Curtain Act 1
  12. Curtain Up on Act 2
  13. The Candy Dish
  14. Beginning To Pack
  15. The Main Event
  16. The Next-to-Last Scene
  17. The End
Viertel's explanations of each and how they fit into the story reminded me a bit of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT. They work when you apply them but you can't help but wonder if it's intentional or something deeper. There's a very Joseph Campbellian slant to many of these studies of narrative structure that I understand because of my personal acclimation to Campbell's ideas. When applied to the American musical, they work. So, how can the apply to fiction. I don't know, but I'm going to see if it does as I write this.

The Overture: Doesn't apply to story structure, more about tone.

Opening Number: If I get nothing else out of this book, the opening lines of the chapter on Opening Numbers will stick with me forever as a writer: THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. Nothing else could possible encapsulate what a writer needs to understand in the opening pages of your book or story. The audience is lost and clueless. They need to be saved and it's up to us, as writers, to save them. 

The I Want Song: Reminds me instantly of Snyder's Theme Stated. It's the part of the musical that rather heavy handedly tells us what the protagonist(s) are thriving for.

Conditional Love Song: There's a lot in here about the idea of the love story, but it's not just a love story in the sense of romantic love as we've come to understand it. It's talking about any relationship that seems necessary in stories, whether that's a romance between two characters or the relationship between companions and friends (a familiar concept within my work). Again, there is a parallel between this and Snyder's "Love Story."

The Noise: An inverted version of Snyder's Fun and Games. A burst of energy in the middle of the first act to give the audience a break from the work they've had to do so far and something they don't have to think to hard about, just listen to the noise and enjoy. Big chunks of narrative in a novel are the "noise."

Bushwhacking 1-3: This is subplots that are woven together...we know how important subplots are to a good story. Meeting are villain is important as are secondary characters, especially giving them something to do and adding some depth to the story. Again, I go back to Snyder and his "B Story," which by his reckoning is often the "love story." A lot of these concepts are slower to develop in a narrative work where in a musical there is the finite space of one song per concept.

Stars: This is about the star of the musical, where they are given a song to shine based on their particular talent. There's a place for this in narrative, how do we make our MC sparkle and shine. This is where you would do that.

Tent Poles: A high energy number that helps the audience reach the big finale of Act One. Really it's sort of the opening number of what would be Act Two of a Three Act structure.This sort of blends into Fun & Games/ The Noise for most narrative, though an event happening in the narrative might be just what a reader needs to.

Curtain Act 1: The big closing number of the first act. Defying Gravity. Non-Stop. La Vie Boheme. A mini-peak in the narrative, I find it's more of a musical thing as it's often the most memorable number of the musical and one of the most important. I'm not sure how I could get this to work in a novel, it'd be sort of the Mid-Point in Snyder's Save the Cat structure.

Curtain Up Act 2: Action plunging us back into the story. Often time has passed. Intermission doesn't exist in novels, though I could see a tipping point happening in a novel that sets the entire second half of the story in motion.

The Candy Dish: A problematic part of musicals...and novels. How do we get from the midpoint to the beginning of the end. How do we get there? What can we do that is going to keep the reader interested in what happens next? Are there too many threads to tie up? We've addressed so much, what else can we address without adding too much new to confuse the reader? This is character development and plot thickening time. In a narrative, I think this is longer than one number in a musical.

Beginning to Pack: This start happening. Someone's pulled the drain. Snyder's Black Moment. Pretty obvious this is a necessity in novels.

The Main Event: The big moment. Everything had led to this. The battle. The showdown. The big game.

The Next-To-Last Scene:The resolution. The hobbits seeing the decrepit Bilbo again. Sam returning to the Shire.

The End: Duh.

So, can we structure an entire novel this way? Not entirely, but there are things to use. As I said, the book was worth the read if for no other reason that reading the line THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. That is a quote I will think about every time I write a novel from now on.

I'm going to do a follow up post on this looking at one of my novels that I've written to see what applies and how. I have a feeling it's going to be a stretch, but we'll see.

For now, keep your eyes out for the epic fantasy grunge rock opera THE GRUNGE LORDS coming to Broadway in the next ten years!

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