Over the years I've been asked a heck of a lot of questions about "how to write" a musical. I started writing a book about it once and maybe someday I'll get around to finishing it but in the meantime here's some free "pearls of wisdom" to mull over.
A musical is still a play, even if it's entirely sung. You should certainly choose to write about something you know about, or something that you feel confident of being able to dramatise in a believable fashion. Even if the story is a fantasy, the world you create and the people who inhabit it should have some element of truth for people to relate to. From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, there are great advantages to doing an adaptation of something else. Unless you can secure the rights to a more contemporary work, like a movie or recent novel, you'll have to stick to Public Domain works, which are out of copyright and generally up for grabs. Of course that means that someone else may be working on the same project, hence the three versions of "Phantom of the Opera" all making the rounds at the same time!
You also have to consider the technical restraints and limitations of a stage. A story that has too many characters or too many scene changes will be very difficult, and costly to produce. A musical that has only 5 characters and a simple set will look very appealing to many smaller theatres that might be willing to give an unknown author a try. This is really important to consider up front. Small theatres tend to have small budgets and small space to work with. Your adaptation of "War and Peace" might be brilliant but someone who actually has to stage it might balk at all the cannons and horses!
As far as subject matter, I don't think there is such a thing as a "bad idea" for a musical, if you have a clever way of presenting it. But bear in mind that you will probably have to "pitch" the finished product to potential investors, so unless you have the reputation of someone like Stephen Sondheim, you may find shows like "Sweeney Todd" or "Assasins" a hard sell. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber had to put his own money into "Cats" because most people thought it was just too weird to work.
The bottom line is that a good musical needs good music. If you've got the right songs almost anything can work.
It's the old "suspension of disbelief" question. People who hate musicals, and unfortunately there are many of them out there, always like to point to the "unrealistic" nature of the medium. Since these people hate musicals they don't usually buy too many tickets so I wouldn't worry very much about their opinion! On the other hand, they're absolutely right in one respect, any dramatic work, or comedy for that matter, requires some element of believability in order for the audience to identify with it. Even broadly drawn characters, a staple of many musical comedies, have to have some human elements in order to avoid being "cartoons".Characters are usually more effective than charicatures. although naturally there are cases where "cartoonish" characters might be exactly what's called for.
People who enjoy musicals are willing to "cut you some slack" in the area of reality. They expect people to sing and they look forward to it. However, a story filled with "plot holes" or musical numbers that exist only because someone thought it was "a good time for a song" will have a negative subconscious effect on much of the audience. Again, if your score is strong enough you will probably get away with it, but the "modern" musical has been evolving towards a higher standard of dramatic content and structure. Why be a musical "bottom feeder" when you can strive to raise the bar another notch?
The great challenge in writing a good book musical, that is, a play with dialogue and songs, as opposed to a work that is completely sung, is how to smoothly integrate the music into the story without seeming more unnatural than absolutely necessary. I have a theory that one of the main reasons that "pop operas" have become so popular is that they have eliminated this sticky problem. People sing from beginning to end and you either like it or you don't. There's no awkward moment where someone launches into a song for no apparent reason.
On the other hand, the "opera" has its own dilemma; how to keep the story moving during the plot development moments. Some shows that are completely sung are fantastic during the traditional musical "numbers" but feel very forced and contrived when attempting to "bridge" the songs with sung dialogue. The same rhymes that work well in a ballad may seem "out of place" when used in a situation where you would normally expect people to be speaking and not singing. I've started shows, thinking that they would be operatic, and given up along the line because dialogue was so much more effective at advancing the plot. I suppose that's why I started developing a "hybrid" approach that was neither opera nor traditional book musical.
Ultimately it probably depends on the lyricist. While the composer has to produce a larger than normal amount of music for a "through composed" piece, much of that music will be the same themes restated in different ways. The lyricist will have to cope with the burden of telling the entire story in song. If you feel comfortable with this and up to the challenge, go for it. A simple plot, or a very familiar story will make this task much easier. If you've got a really complex tale that's hard to follow, you're probably better off including some dialogue to help the audience understand what's happening. Feel free to experiment and mix music and dialogue in interesting and unique ways. Whatever works, works. I think every composer should probably try writing an opera at least once just to experience the challenge but ultimately do what feels right for the piece and not what seems "hip" or "more commercial" at the moment.
No set rule applies. If you're writing both the music and the lyrics, they may happen simultaneously. I usually write both, but I have set other people's words to music, and written lyrics to other people's tunes. If I'm not doing the whole thing I find it easier to be the last person in the chain. At least you know what you have to work with and the lack of freedom forces you to focus on your job. A blank page can be very intimidating. It's the difference between starting an oil painting on canvas or filling in a coloring book. Every collaboration has its own special working arrangement. Every author and composer has their own style and method. Mine change from day-to-day and show-to-show. Usually there's some combination of lyrics first, music first and simultaneous composition on everything that I write. If you only do one thing and you haven't found the right collaborator yet, don't wait, start writing. A great score or great lyrics will make your task of finding a collaborator all the easier.
Again it totally depends on the author(s). I have written complete musicals in as little as 10 days and have spent years working on some that still aren't finished. I often refer to the "creative lighting bolt" that sometimes strikes. When it does, you have to write. You don't sleep, you don't eat, you don't do anything else. When something "hits" you go with it. I have pulled over on the side of the road and jotted songs down on a scrap of paper. I have pretended to being doing reports or some other type of office work on the job while secretly writing dialogue. I have planted myself down in front of a typewriter or computer and not taken my hands off of the keyboard for 72 hours or more! It doesn't really matter how fast or how long it takes. A good musical is worth waiting years for. But if you've got a spark of inspiration you should always put it down. You may change it later, but something good is bound to come from it.
What I find to often be the case is that a musical "evolves" over time, either from audience feedback at staged readings or full productions, or from constructive criticism from people you trust, or more likely you're own re-evluation of the work down the line. Sometimes things that seem great at the moment don't hold up all that well later. If it's ne of your early efforts you'll probably gain a lot of skill from experience and realize that you can do better now than you did the first time out. Like all things related to writing it's usually best to write your socks off. Hang it out there, get it down, strike while the iron's hot. You're probably going to be living with this thing for years so you'll likely make a few changes eventually anyway.
The magic question. Inspiration (and sleep depravation) can cloud your judgment. You can be so caught up in the emotion of what you're writing that you fail to see it with any objectivity. It's usually hard work writing anything, and most people tend to get a bit defensive about what they've created. It's understandable. Writing can be a very personal and passionate experience. DON'T LET IT GO TO YOUR HEAD!
If you have collaborators, at least you can bounce things off of one another. If you know other writers whose work you respect, you can seek their advice. Friends who seem to have "good taste" can be very helpful as long as you insist that you're asking for their honest opinion. And whatever you do, don't turn around and take offense if you don't hear what you want to hear. That's a really quick way to burn a valuable source of helpful criticism. On the other hand some people may be so impressed by the fact that you've written anything that they may not be able to give you a sound, professional opinion. It's like a beginning guitar player who only knows a couple of chords but impresses someone who has no musical experience at all. Professional evaluation is usually the best bet but it's not always that easy to come by. (Unlike Stephen Sondheim, we don't all have Oscar Hammerstein as a surogate father and mentor.) One way of testing your work is to put it aside for awhile and do something else. If it still seems good to you after weeks, months or even years, you at least know that you like it! Sometimes that's the main thing. Your passion for your work can be its best selling point.
Becoming a good "editor" of your work is very important. If you're overly critical you'll never get anything done. The "perfectionist syndrome" can cause an artist to become so "picky" that he, or she never finishes anything. The opposite side, which is more common, is for an artist to be so in love with their work that they can't see any fault at all. I've written terrible songs. Lots of them, in fact. But the good ones I've written hopefully make up for that. What I've also discovered over the years is that the more experienced I become the less "terrible" songs I write. I can usually tell now that they're not going in the right direction.
A long time ago I would have had a hard time accepting the fact that everything I wrote wasn't good. I started writing so young that I really didn't have much competition my own age. But the competition in the real world is very great, indeed. It's a common mistake to look at the worst show on Broadway and say "I can do better than that." Yes, you probably can, but nobody's looking for the next worst show. You really need to look at the best shows and ask yourself whether you seriously do have the material that can compete at the highest level. Anyone interested in staging or investing in your work is probably looking for a hit, not just a slight improvement over the latest crop of failures. I once had one of the top opera directors in Europe comparing my work favorably with Leonard Bernstein. When something like that happens feel free to bask your ego in the glory of the moment but roll up your sleeves and get back to work. I've also been accused of having written the "worst musical of all time" so think of it more like the Olympics where they throw out the top and bottom scores!
Think about musicals that you like. Why do you like them? What makes them "good" in your eyes? Really take a hard look at everything you see. Could you have made those shows better? It can take some of the fun away from watching a good musical if you spend hours dissecting it and tearing it apart, but it should make you a better writer. Don't be afraid to find fault with things you love. There are very few perfect musicals. You need to "get under the hood" and figure out how the engine works. Unless your score is loaded with solid gold hits from curtain to curtain, you really need to work on making sure that all of the combined elements work together and are of the highest quality possible. I know people who love musicals who absolutely hate some shows, even though they were big hits. And I've seen shows that I thought were well-written and well-staged but didn't really enjoy all that much because the subject matter didn't appeal to me. Individual taste is always going to play a role.
I never present a musical to potential backers before it's complete but a number of shows have been sold on the basis of one completed act or even one song! (There is nothing like a hit song to get attention)
However, because of the time and expense involved in promoting a show I think it is much better to have a strong, complete work, to give yourself a fighting chance. Even artistic people sometimes have a hard time seeing what you see in your head. Naturally the show will undergo some changes over time, especially if you get a chance to present it in a workshop or other "test" environment. You never really know how something is going to play until you get it on its feet in front of an audience of strangers. That doesn't mean that you keep it a secret from your friends or other professionals whose opinion you value, it just makes sense to know that you have at least completed a first draft before "shopping" it around. It's that old "you never get a second chance to make a good first impression" thing.
On the other hand, you don't always show everything in your demo package. Some people prefer you to send a sample, and then request more information if they like what they see. If you don't have anything else to send you may be missing a window of opportunity that may not be there when you finally get around to finishing the work. I've started lots of musicals that I probably never will finish. It's much easier to start one than it is to finish one, so make sure that you at least have a good idea of how you're going to resolve everything if you do start shopping your work in an unfinished state.
Screen writers often do something called "shot-gunning" where they send out a handful of different script ideas hoping that one of them will attract some interest, and then quickly write a script that matches the description. This practice is usually frowned upon in the film business, and even more so in the field of musical theatre. As I've mentioned before, the quality of the music is far more important than the plot of a musical, so if someone thinks you have a good idea, you will need some music to back it up. Do the work. It's really the only way to get better as a writer. You may not sell everything you create, but the experience gained from seeing the work through to a completed condition will help you grow professionally and increase the chance that what you write in the future will get some exposure.
That really depends on how good you really think it is in its current condition and what sort of market you think it would be best suited for. If it's a large-scale musical with tons of sets and costumes and characters you will have a very difficult time attracting smaller theatres. A show with a large cast and complicating scenery is too much for many regional theatres to handle. (Although "Annie" managed to squeeze into the tiny Goodspeed Opera House.) A staged reading might be more appropriate as a jumping off point since costumes and sets aren't required. You could try taking the work to a local college drama department and ask them to read the show as a class project. If you are connected with the acting community you could also try to organize a reading on your own and invite guests to attend. New York is still the center of the theatrical universe, but shows are starting to get discovered in a variety of places.
You can also adopt the theory that it's best to shoot for the top and work your way down the ladder. Many of the top Broadway producers won't even look at anything that doesn't come to them through an agent, but there are some who will. You should always make sure in advance that the person you send your materials to is willing to accept them. Some people only read new works at certain times of the year. A letter (or more likely an email today) of introduction or possibly a phone call is a definite prerequisite for shopping new material to an established production entity.
In 1978 my co-producer, Randy Thomas, and I spent about $2,000 to rent a 600 seat school auditorium for four nights and produce a medium-sized musical. A couple of years later I spent about $2,500 to produce a stripped-down version of the same show at a 99 seat theatre in Hollywood. The last time I tried to produce my own show out of pocket the costs were insane. Everyone wanted a million dollar security bond and insurance coverage for everything under the sun and the prices of everything had skyrocketed. I honestly have no idea what it would cost to self-produce a musical in the 21st century but I'm guessing it's way beyond my means at this point. (Although crowd finding is an interesting idea if I can ever figure out how to make ot work.)
If your show is more manageable from a production standpoint you may have better luck contacting a regional theatre. These are professional organizations, often of the not-for-profit variety, that have a subscription base and take more chances than their commercial counterparts. Many, many successful musicals have come from the ranks of regional theatres. Try to find a theatre that presents works that are compatible with your project. The more information you can gather about a prospective business partner the better.
Once you've gotten permission to send your material make sure that it looks as professional as possible. Take pride in your work and reflect it in the quality of your presentation. Send the best looking (and sounding!) package that you can possibly afford to send. (Here I must digress for a moment and state that the last time I sent a promotional package for a musical was back in the day when that meant making copies of a tape or a CD and printing and binding everything before putting it in the mail. Today I'm sure I would email MP3's of the music and a PDF file of any printed material, or use a service like DropBox to make the materials available for download if they were too large for email. Honestly, somewhere around the late 1990's I started getting people coming to me through my web page so often that I didn't bother to send things out any more. Perhaps I will try sending something out again in the near future. If I do I will update this page.)
Another option is to enter you musical in a competition or apply for a grant. (The late Jonathan Larsen, author of "Rent" , was a frequent festival contestant and prize winner.) Some of these festivals offer performances or staged readings to the winning entries. The bottom line is that you have to do whatever it takes to get the show on its feet. Even a staged reading in your living room is better than nothing. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber tries out all of his material in his backyard theatre (which is a really nice backyard) before staging it in London or New York! A local community theatre or college drama department is a very good place to start if your work is completely unknown in professional circles. And while I have yet to break through to the level that I desire, my previous efforts have at least opened some doors to me as I now have an invitation from a number of institutions to send them any new work that I may come up with. Be patient and diligent, and try not to take rejection too personally. There are many reasons why someone doesn't choose to invest their money in your musical at this time, and they aren't all based on the assumption that you've written a poor show.
Usually a synopsis of the story, even if you send the entire book, a brief biography of the creative team, a very good quality recording of 4 or 5 songs, and some "hype" material just in case you get any interest. It all depends on who you're sending it to and what they want to see.
I always agonize over the song selection question. Sometimes I send the complete score, and sometimes I send a few songs. It depends on the show. An operatic score is very difficult to present in a short demo fashion. You'll have to decide which is best, unless you know in advance what materials are requested. If you send a 4 or 5 song demo make sure that you put your best songs at the beginning if it's one long file. Forget the chronological order. Very few people have the time to listen to the whole thing, so if you try to save the best for last your strongest songs may not even be heard.
If you have enlisted the help of actors or singers for your demo project you should always give them credit in your package. Pictures and short bios are quite appropriate as well, at least for the leading players. You may not sell the show but at least you can reward the people who are helping you by promoting their careers. Being an actor, myself, has made it much easier for me to develop a strong pool of talent to draw from when I record one of my shows, but even your friends need to be treated professionally.
When I started writing musicals in the 1970's there was no such thing as computer music or digital recording. I had to get musicians together and record them playing their instruments. In the 1980's I embraced personal computing with a passion and used my then state-of-the-art Amiga computer to "sequence" music that could be played back by a very large and expensive rack of "midi" synthesizers. Needless to say over the years the technology has improved considerably and even major motion pictures are often scored entirely with computer generated music. Having enough "tracks" used to be a problem but with digital recording that's a thing of the past. Assume that people will expect a pretty polished demo and act accordingly. It won't cost an arm and leg anymore, one of the few things that's actually cheaper now than it was before.
As far as the hype goes, let your conscience be your guide. It could be interesting background information about the subject of your musical or it could be a list of reasons why you think the show will be successful. Think of it as an employment application. It's an opportunity for you to state your case. It probably will end up in the (now digital) waste basket, but I've actually gotten hype material back with notes written in the margins, so I know that somebody at least looked at it.(Again, referring to ancient times when people mailed things back and forth through the Post Office.
One other tool that you may wish to consider adding to your package is some kind of video demo. Being a video producer I naturally have resources available to me that the average person doesn't have, but if you can come up with a vodep that at least shows something of what your finished product might look like you'll be a big step ahead. Once again modern technology is your friend. Even modest video production used to cost a fortune and now everyone has a high definition camera in their phone! If you get a small theatre to produce your work you should definitely videotape it. (Can you still say video"tape" even though it's all digital?)
Social media is obviously "where it's at" today so a web presence is a must. Beat the virtual drum wherever and whenever you can. Attract followers. Spread the word.
Whatever you do should look and sound as professional as possible. You want your project to stand out from the hundreds of other packages piled up on someone's desk. (Or desktop.) A cool-looking logo is always good. We live in a world that is very visually oriented these days so good graphics are definitely a plus. I doubt if an attractive package ever actually sold a show if the musical itself was crummy but a crummy package will kill even a terrific show full of potential. Never say "oh, it's just a demo it doesn't have to be that good." Put your best foot forward at all times. Better to give more than is required than to come up short.
There's a question for the ages. Somewhere in the back of my mind I've heard that the "average" Broadway musical takes seven years to get there but don't ask me where I got that from. The longest I've ever been involved with one project was "Welcome Home Mr. Carlton" which took about four years to get its first amateur staging and continued to be produced off-and-on for another eight years before I finally threw in the towel and moved on. In that case, I realized that I had grown and matured as a writer and was capable of producing better work. If you've written something that you have a great deal of confidence in, then keep on plugging until you drop. That certainly doesn't mean you should stop writing new material or sending it out, as well, but it's important to remember that the road is long and hard even for some established authors with Broadway credits. Don't give up too easily. If you've gotten some good feedback then perhaps you just need to rethink your demo package. Perhaps you're not showcasing the work as efficiently as possible. Perhaps you need a stronger recording (or more colorful hype.)
The bottom line is always a gut-wrenching personal choice. When is enough enough? Sometimes something as simple as changing the title can make a huge difference. Sometimes world events can suddenly make your musical more topical, or obsolete. ("Chess" was really relevant until the Berlin Wall came down...now it's staged as a period piece.) And sometimes you've written a musical that just plain isn't going to sell in a million years. (A little dose of harsh reality.) If you can't stand rejection don't get involved with show business. You've got to have thick armor to do battle with this beast. Getting a good agent to represent you can certainly ease your way, but top agents are reluctant to take on unknown clients with no reputable production credits. You just have to pound the pavement, knock on doors, kiss babies and shake lots of hands. Sometimes it helps to put a show away for a time and work on something new just to keep your spirits up, but don't set arbitrary limits such as "I'll try this for two years" or "if by such-and-such a date I haven't made it to Broadway I'll quit". There's no magic number and no statute of limitations on art.
I'm really prolific so I'm always working on two or three (or more) things at once but there are people who devote the better part of their lives to the one great thing that they're always dreaming of seeing successful. I admire that kind of single-minded determination but I just get so many new ideas popping into my head that I can't wait to try them out. Consequently I'm sure I've let things slide that might have been successful with a little more pushing. Fortunately you can always come back later and give it another go, especially if you've got new material or a new angle to promote the piece or you've just recharged your batteries. Luck and timing are crucial so sometimes you need to try at different times just to see if that helps.
Good luck to all! If you remain undiscovered you always have a home here on this Web page.
You've probably noticed that a lot of my answers are of the "it depends on the show" variety. I apologize if that sounds vague but the truth is that there are no absolute rules when it comes to art. Many of the greatest "breakthroughs" have come from people who completely threw the rulebook out and blazed a new trail. Of course there is also some truth in the saying that you should know the rules before you break them. I created this FAQ back in the 1990's (and updated it a little for the new century) but it was always mreant to be a pretty general guidline. Perhaps if I ever do get around to finishing my book on the subject I'll have more useful and detailed information!