A book is a device to ignite the imagination.Alan Bennett
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.Walt Disney
Writing for the stage means understanding how songs can work to tell a larger story. Here are a collection of books about theatre writers and their work, and the art and craft of using songs on the stage.
David Spencer is a moderator at New York City’s BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. This important book comes from years of his experience as a composer, lyricist, educator and theatre critic, covering collaboration, adaptation, musical theatre librettos, playscript formatting plus a host of other useful tips. It’s a must-read for anyone trying to master the art of writing musical theatre.
In theatre songwriting there’s only one answer to the age-old question ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics?’: the book. Having a solid book, or libretto, is the dramatic foundation on which compelling theatre works are built. Lehman Engel — legendary Broadway conductor and founder of the theatre workshop which bears his name — puts down his thoughts on what tends to make a story sing successfully. Sensibly there’s no attempt to reduce anything to formulas or rules, and though sometimes there’s a disorganized stream-of-consciousness feel to his writing, his words are peppered with gems that will give any theatre writer a better understanding of their craft. This edition was revised and expanded by Howard Kissel, following on from where Engel left off in 1972.
This is an important collection of theatre lyrics from the so-called Golden Age, running from Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim via Frank Loesser, Oscar Hammerstein II and Sheldon Harnick. As a bonus, Engel has provided illuminating annotations which contextualise the songs and discuss how the songs work and why they are effective. Though now out of print, a handful of second-hand copies are available and this collection is highly recommended for anyone serious about writing theatre lyrics.
An unofficial companion to Engel’s Their Words are Music, Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre compiles the librettos of ten of the best. Each one unspeakably great in its own right — including Of Thee I Sing, Kiss me Kate, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Company — this book offers a unique opportunity to explore how Broadway shows were made before anyone had ever heard of a Jukebox Musical. Again, it’s an old volume and out of print, but well worth having if you can track down a copy.
While musical theatre might have evolved from operetta and vaudeville, the tone and structure of most contemporary theatre is similar to film. Sid Field has built a reputation as one of the foremost screenwriting gurus of our age, and in this book he outlines no-nonsense approaches to creating well-made and engaging stories. His focus is not prescribing a specific form or format to stories on the screen (or stage), but on sharing a handful of useful tools and processes that can help any writer tell their story in the clearest and most compelling way.
(Michael Weise, 2005)
Blake Snyder’s writing style is as irreverent, pithy and engaging as his book’s title. He cuts through a lot of the bullshit to get to the bare bones of what makes stories engaging, original and well-structured. His tools and suggestions range from the useful to the essential. Again, though his focus is on writing screenplays, his ideas apply just as much for the stage.
(Harper Collins, 1997)
Robert McKee is another of the most celebrated screenwriting teachers of our time, and in Story he gets down to the nuts and bolts of what makes a good story work, irrespective of the medium used to tell it. For years McKee has been running his celebrated Story Seminars — his website includes glowing course testimonials from the likes of figures as varied as John Cleese, Quincy Jones and Russell Brand — and if you’re unable to make it to one of them, this book is a very worthy substitute.
In this monumental book, Christopher Brooker goes for the jugular of storytelling structure and manages — with admirable success — to reduce the vast majority of stories down to seven fundamental types. Again, there are no formulas or blueprints that a writer can use to create a new story, but the principles behind his seven basic plots are sound and highly illuminating. As he delves into the structure of the stories that have endured the test of time, he goes on to reveal profound insights about how our psyches are wired to tell and share stories and how his structural archetypes come evolve from the way we think, feel and relate to each other.