​​5 Things to Know when Writing Your First Musical

Jul 11, 2023

Thinking about writing your first musical?  Whether you’re an old hand at playwriting, an experienced songwriter, or a complete beginner, writing your first musical can be a daunting process.  There is so much to consider: The story, the characters, the musical style, the dialogue, the lyrics… not to mention figuring out where songs go, who sings them, and what they’re singing about!


Here are five guidelines that will be helpful as you dive in. All of these are regarding your “typical” musical, whatever that means. As with all art, none of these are hard-and-fast rules, and sometimes unconventional musicals will go their own route and break some of the “rules.” Only you can write your own musical… but if it’s worked for many musicals in the past, it might work for you, too!

  • Musicals have an active protagonist.
    • An active protagonist is a central character who makes the plot happen.  They aren’t just sitting around waiting for things to happen to them – they make decisions and take actions that shape the course of the story.
  • That active protagonist has a strong want.
    • They may want to be on land, where the people are, or just be looking for a place to hold a crap game, but they have something they want, and they want it very much.  Seeing them pursue this desire is in large part what drives the plot forward.
    • In the end, they may get what they want, or they may not get what they want.  It may turn out that what they thought they wanted wasn’t really what they needed at all.  (Haven’t we all seen at least six movies where the slick businessman thought what he wanted was money, fame, and power, and in the end what he wanted was to spend more time with his family?)
  • You only have about 10 minutes to set up the world of your show and establish any conventions.  (Less if you’re writing a short musical!)
    • Where are we?  When are we?  What is the tone of this show going to be?  What is the musical style?
    • Other forms of literature and even straight plays can be a little more leisurely with this information, but in musicals we have to deliver information very quickly.  In musicals the audience likes to know what to expect, so they can settle in and enjoy… plus, we’ve got to move fast because songs take up a lot of time! 
    • This is also the place to establish any unusual conventions you need the audience to buy into.  Is there a narrator?  Are all the characters ghosts?  Does time move in reverse?  Letting us know right away helps us to suspend disbelief and fully buy into the story.
  • You may want to write your opening scene and song last
    • Often you don’t really know what you need to set up until you write it and find out.
    • Some famous examples of opening songs written after the shows were already in pre-Broadway tryouts were “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof and “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  “Comedy Tonight” was essential to prepare audiences for the farcical tone of what they were about to see.  “Tradition” additionally clarified the theme, which helped audiences to understand and contextualize the rest of the show.
    • It can be helpful to write a draft of an opening scene/song at the beginning of your process, so you have something to work from, but expect to do rewrites later on!
  • “Musicals Aren’t Written… They’re Rewritten.”
    • This old adage is often said of plays, but it’s doubly true for musicals.  Musicals have so many moving parts, they rarely come together perfectly on the first draft.  So go ahead and make mistakes!  Try things out, and have fun!

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Good luck!

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