Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

How to Write a Musical

Write a Musical

Everybody loves a good musical! Whether it’s the latest show on Broadway, a Hollywood live-action, or an animated musical for the family, musicals have been and remain a popular genre. Have you ever wondered how screenwriters go about writing a musical? Is writing a musical different from writing a standard script? Do you need to know a lot about music to write a musical? Keep reading because today I’m talking about how to write a musical!

Warning! Writing a musical isn’t for the faint of heart.

I’m not trying to discourage you from crafting the musical of your dreams, but it is important to note that musicals are notoriously difficult to get made in Hollywood. The musicals that do get made tend to be animated features, based on preexisting source material, or are just incredibly lucky! I suggest taking time to consider if your script needs to be a musical. But if you’re passionate and determined to write a musical, well then, more power to you! Let’s proceed!

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How to Come Up With an Idea for a Musical

How do I come up with a good idea for a musical? Before writing musicals, you need a story idea, so it’s time to do some brainstorming!

Delve into the genre and do some research. Watch as many movies as you can and narrow down your favorite musicals. What did you like or dislike about them? What are standard practices that you noticed within the genre? Are you more drawn to modern, classic, or animated musicals? Were there visual elements that stood out? What was appealing about the musical composition? These kinds of questions help to give you a better sense of the genre and what you respond to the most.

How to Write an Original Musical

Once you better understand the genre and where your style might fit in best, it’s time to do the real brainstorming. Look into your personal life. Have you experienced a situation that you know would make for the perfect musical? Ask yourself a bunch of hypothetical “what if” questions about a variety of different scenarios. Who are the major characters? Take some ideas and craft them into a logline or a short summary.

For more help with a story idea, check out these resources:

Adapting a Story for a Musical

When brainstorming your idea, you might find yourself wondering if you can write a musical using songs that are already out there. Or, could you write a musical based on a book, movie, or true story that already exists? These sorts of rights-based questions are essential. If you want to base a script on preexisting source material, you must acquire the rights. This goes for songs, books, or movies. Before writing a musical based on anything, it’s a good idea to check on the rights!

Can your idea be expressed in one sentence? Does it sound exciting or like something you can write a whole movie about? If the answer is yes, then let’s move right along! If not, hang in there and keep brainstorming!

Learn About Music and Songwriting, or Find Someone Who Already Knows

Let’s say you have your great musical idea, and you feel like you could sit down and write it, but you realize that you don’t know much about music. What do you do? If hearing phrases like “song structure,” “chord structures,” and “chord progression” leave you scratching your head, then what you might need is a writing partner, specifically, a musically inclined writing partner. A writing duo, where one partner focuses on crafting a compelling story while the other tends to the songwriting process and song lyrics, can be a winning formula. On Broadway, the credits for writing a musical are usually broken down to “book by,” “lyrics by,” and “music by.” Book describes the written, non-musical portion of the script. Sometimes those credits can get condensed or be done by one person, but it’s not uncommon for the writer to not tackle the lyrics or know much about music. So don’t stress if you don’t think you know enough about music, find someone who does, and collaborate on your musical!

Now you’re ready to write a musical!

Writing a musical is just like writing any other screenplay. Whatever sort of pre-writing you usually do, you should also do when writing a musical. The big difference with a musical is that you now must account for a whole additional element beyond just the writing, and that’s the music, to help move your story along. Depending on if your musical is “all-sung,” meaning all dialogue is said via song, or “integrated,” being a mixture of talking and song, you may have more or less music to account for than anticipated.

Focus on Story

The addition of music can feel overwhelming so remind yourself that it’s essential to focus on the fundamentals of screenwriting and story. Successful musicals don’t reach acclaim only because of their music; they also have strong stories. Be sure to hone your plot down to something concise and exciting. Explore the themes of what you’re writing and make sure those story themes will touch audiences and resonate with the right people.

Formatting a Musical Screenplay and Songs

When it comes to the actual writing, formatting a musical is the same as any other screenplay. There are many different ways to format a song into a script, but it’s always best to make choices that are clear to understand and easy to read. Check out the following musical scripts to see how those writers approach song formatting. 

  • "La La Land"

    Screenplay by Damien Chazelle, Score by Justin Hurwitz

  • "Beauty and The Beast"

    Screenplay by  Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Music by Alan Menken

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In summary, decide what type of musical you want to write based on a strong story idea with a solid plot and resonant theme. There is no need to try to go it alone – you can benefit from a musically savvy writing partner to make the writing process a less daunting task. I hope this blog helped all you aspiring musical writers out there! Or at least gave you more of an idea of what goes into creating a musical. Happy writing!

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