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MUSICAL THEATRE THE WRITER’S ROLEIn June 2015, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron made Broadway history by becoming the first female writing team ever to win the Tony Award for best score and best book of a musical. Fun Home, a magnificent adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name, depicts her relationship with hergay father. Performed by just nine actors, thecast size is small, but in scope and ambition it is limitless and breathtaking. For a writer interested in musical theatre writing, it is an inspiration: Fun Home was Kron’s first musical. You can see Kron and Tesori’s wonderful acceptance speech here: theatre has its roots in European operetta and American vaudeville, with unforgettably vivid female characters such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Madame Rosein Gypsy to Elphaba in Wicked and the Schuyler sisters in Hamilton. Women are not so evident among the notable writers of musical theatre, however. The pantheon, which includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is overwhelmingly male and white.Look more closely, and the women are there. Agnes de Mille choreographed the dream ballet in Oklahoma!, widely credited as the moment when dance was first used to advance the plot, as opposed to offering some light relief. Lynn Ahrens wrotethe lyrics for shows as varied as Ragtime, A Man ofNo Importance and the upcoming Broadway-bound Anastasia. Alecky Blythe originated the book (script) and co-wrote the lyrics for Olivier Award-winning London Road. And we continue to make inroads.It might seem like a dauntingly glitzy world, but musical theatre productions vary hugelyin size and scope – from the one-person cast ofAndrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday to over 40 for Oklahoma! The one thing they all have in common, the rule that defines the genre, is: does the show use music to tell its story? Debates rage about what precisely constitutes a musical and what constitutes a play with songs. My own rule of thumb is that if the songs advance the plot, you are probably watching a musical (or an opera), but if the songs punctuate the drama without advancing it, you are probably watching a play with songs.Musicals are made up of three components in their initial creation: book, music and lyrics. Other components such as choreography, direction, costumes, set and lighting are added later, but in the initial writing stages these three are the crucial roles and fairly well defined.The composer writes the music (this may be the tunes and the harmony, or it may encompass the arrangements and the orchestrations as well, depending on the talents of the individual).The lyricist writes the words to the songs, which have to fit the music as effortlessly and organically as possible, by scanning and rhyming as far as the particular song form being employed demands.The bookwriter is responsible for the dialogueor spoken script (the bits between the songs) and– more often than not – for the architecture ofthe entire show. In a ‘sung-through’ show (a show in which all the words are sung and there is no dialogue at all), there might still be a bookwriter; but this person will have a harder time explaining to everybody what they actually do! Even though what they actually do probably ensures the success of the show by setting up the structure of the story. In this sense the role resembles that of a script editor in a film.Depending on the type of collaboration (and the numbers of people involved) these three key creative roles will remain either entirely separate or cross over and blur. If one part of the showfails, the whole show is most likely to fail, though sometimes shows will be revived ‘for the songs’ regardless of the state of their books, and (more often) shows with mediocre songs will do well due to the robustness of their books.Writers can work alone, of course (and take on all three parts of the writing process), but as musical theatre is by its nature collaborative, this is rare. More often than not the solo writers I encounter are in that position against their will – wanting to write but looking for that special someone to write with! If that’s you, then do investigate Mercury Musical Developments (see sidebar).Writers come to musical theatre from a variety of other occupations. I have met poets, agents, children’s picture-book writers, actors, playwrights, songwriters, and teachers. All are welcome, and the genre is the richer for it.Over the course of the next three articles, I’llbe going into more detail on how to go about writing a musical from the initial idea to seeingit in production, and everything in between; so if you have always wanted to write a musical, or are merely curious about the idea of trying, do look out for the rest of the series. ❐CAST LIST► Producer: Responsible for raising the money and putting the show on. Occasionally, successful writers will produce their own work so as to retain more control. The producer employs everybody else on the production.► Director: Responsible for everything that happens on stage. The director casts the show and runs rehearsals.► Musical Director: Oversees the music in all the rehearsals and helps with casting.► Choreographer: Responsible for dance and movement.the writers canbe poets, agents, children’s picture- book writers, actors, playwrights, songwriters, teachersORGANISATIONS► Mercury Musical Developments: dedicated to helping people improve their craft and network with other writers. They also run classes and development labs where people can have their work critiqued.► Book, Music, Lyrics: run classes and workshops to help people develop their craft in musical theatre writing. www.bookmusicandlyrics.comSUSANNAH PEARSE is a graduate of NYU’s Musical Theatre Writing Program and a member of Mercury Musical Developments. Work includes The Stationmaster with Tim Connor (Aria Entertainment) and Jabberwocky with Rebecca Applin (Youth Music Theatre) Susannah alsocomposes the music forthe songson John Finne-more’s Souvenir Progr-amme on BBC Radio 4.mslexia Mar/Apr/May 2017 39PHOTO: A SCENE FROM FUN HOME

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