But there’s a fundamental problem with most of the shows we receive – in almost every case, there’s very little action and the only character development comes from the characters flat out telling us what they’re feeling, which is the least effective and least emotionally engaging way to tell a story. An audience wants to discover characters and relationships. If the show's creators do all that work for the audience, that will make them passive rather than actively engaged. We won't produce any of these shows because even though the songwriting is often very good, the stagecraft sucks.
In other words, good songs are necessary, but not sufficient.
I think part of the problem is that musical theatre writers don't always study the basics of dramatic writing, because very few books discuss those basics in terms of musicals. But the truth is that when it comes to structure, character development, subtext, etc., writing a musical is not all that different from writing a play. There are differences, to be sure, but not in the fundamentals.
There are a lot of new musicals now (Ordinary Days, Edges, Glory Days, etc.) that take Songs for a New World as a model – four actors, lots of interior monologues – but as brilliant as it is, New World isn't a regular kind of musical. It’s more of a song cycle, or arguably, an abstract concept musical, since it does have one strong overriding metaphor (which most of its imitators lack). But it’s important to note that in New World, almost every song takes us on a journey – within each song, the characters make decisions, come to crossroads, have personal revelations, face fears, etc. These are active songs, almost one-act playlets. In the case of too many new shows, though, at the end of a song we're exactly where we were at the beginning of that song. And because music takes more stage time than spoken words, that means the show is getting very little storytelling done…
Some of these songs might bring down the house in a concert or cabaret, but they don’t do the heavy lifting that theatre songs have to do to engage and hold an audience for an evening. These songs makes a single point and make it several times. I listen to a lot of these songs and I feel like I'm getting nice pencil sketches, but what I want from a piece of theatre is storytelling. A snapshot is not dramatic. Take me somewhere.
Think about “Being Alive” in Company – during this climactic song, we actually see Robert synthesize all the things that have been rushing through his mind all night, all the lessons about commitment and sacrifice and love, all the fears that are getting in his way, and he makes a decision about committing to someone. But significantly, this isn't just a passive revelation, it’s a decision and a first step. He's in a new place at the end of the song. This new mindset may lead to a relationship or it may end up in disaster because Robert is still essentially an emotional cripple, but he is taking action. Look at most of Shakespeare’s soliloquies – characters work out problems, consider options ("To be or not to be..."), make decisions, concoct plans, etc. They don’t just tell us what they're feeling.
Generally speaking, there are three ways an audience discovers and cares about a character. The most effective, most powerful way is by what the character does, how he acts and interacts with others -- and the reason why is that people are great readers of people. Show us a character in action and we will discern a lot of details about them just by observing. A slightly less effective but still good way is by what others say about him. The least effective way is by what the character tells us directly in soliloquy/solo. That’s because it does the audience’s job for them, and when they're passive they're not engaged. But even beyond that, most real people don’t have profound self-understanding and self-awareness, so the more a character analyzes and describes their own feelings and motives for us, the less real the character seems to us…
Rent shows us a group of friends navigating the complicated terrain of modern life in the AIDS era. What Rent is really about is that we must celebrate life and community anywhere we find it, even in the face of death. Cabaret tells the story of an American writer discovering that “being a camera,” watching life from the outside, is safer but you can’t live a full life on the outside. What Cabaret is really about is that refusing to act in the face of evil is a choice, and it has consequences. No, No, Nanette presents an extended family of people who don’t trust each other so they all end up in a mess of lies and deceit. What No, No, Nanette is really about is that the more you care about money, the more screwed up your life is going to be -- or if you wanna get Biblical about it, that the love of money is the root of all evil. One last example: Company tells the story of single Robert as he observes the ups and downs of married life among his married friends. What Company is really about is that being with someone is difficult and messy and impossible, and being alone is worse – and we get this at the climax of the show, as Robert finally synthesizes all this info he’s collected and makes a decision that “Alone is alone, not alive.” He's moving forward. He's no longer stagnant. But there's no Happily Ever After here because there are no Happily Ever Afters in real life. There's always The Next Day (something Into the Woods explores).
Part of what's wrong with the artistically nihilistic, one-joke, self-reference musicals that have invaded off Broadway lately is that they throw narrative and structure (and character development and everything else) out the window. Because amateurism is funny...? But we go to the theatre to go on an adventure, to find human connection, to be reminded that we all experience the same obstacles and problems, to sit in that darkened room and know that we are not alone. We don't go to the theatre to be assaulted by self-congratulatory trivia spouting (as in [title of show]) or to be assaulted by four-letter words for no particular reason except that the writers think Dirty is Funny (as in Silence! The Musical). That's not theatre; that's just adolescent rebellion, as if they're out to prove to us a musical doesn't need good songs or a good script or ideas or a point of view or talent or craft...
I can get a laugh on YouTube at 4:00 a.m. I need more from my theatre. Tell me a story.
Long Live the Musical!