Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing musicals

Ingrid asked this question via the Facebook Fan Page:

I'm writing a musical puppetry feature film. Once the script is complete, one big challenge awaits me: figuring out what to do with the music.

I've written most of the songs and will write the rest, but the problem is I'm not WRITING them as in transposing them onto paper. I can't. I can create songs, singing them, tell people notes to play, but I'm not a composer.
When it comes to having my script submitted, what should I do?

A) Submit without written music, just the lyrics, and if it gets picked up try to work with pro composer through the studio?

B) Or should I save up my coins and pay a composer from my city to put the music together?

I fear the latter will delay the submission of my idea by a lonnnnng time, and my idea is novel and original and I want to get it out before someone else has the same idea.

Here's where I'm going to sound like a dick, but there's really only one answer I can give:

As an outsider with (presumably) no representation, your chances of selling a musical puppetry feature are pretty much zero. It's really not even worth worrying about A or B because you're chasing a concept that is all but impossible to sell as your first feature.

Can you name any musical puppetry films from the last 10 years? Studios just aren't making those movies - except for possibly the next Muppet Movie, and that's a completely different kind of animal, a franchise.

If anyone here is able to offer contrary evidence they're welcome to comment, but that's the way I see it.

But let's say that's not a factor. I'd go with B. Having read one or two musical specs (again, by very misguided people because at least one of those was based on a pre-existing character they did not own... how it actually ended up in the agency slush pile I'll never understand) there is nothing worse that page after page of lyrics with no melody. A demo track of the songs would at least give a sense of the mood and the feel of the music - which are extremely critical when it comes to this genre.

So I'm sorry to deliver such a crushing answer. I feel like I gave you a choice between "Bad news" and "Worse news."


  1. John August on the issue:

    And I think a script this original could be a great work sample if it's done right, but yeah, not likely to get made.

  2. Uhmmm... not to throw even more dirt in your drinking water or anything, Ingrid, but if you don't know the mechanical rudiments of composition, that's going to be a huge obstacle to you making this project work, and worse than that, there is a better-than-average chance your music is weak, derivative, or otherwise deficient. A musical must be carried by its music, so... that could be a pretty big dealbreaker.

    I'm going to give you credit, note-unheard, for doing more than just slopping out folk melodies on a Takamine, a la Jack Johnson (though it sounds from your description like you might be doing exactly that) but seriously, to compose the kind of music that is going to carry a musical, you need to have core proficiencies with multiple instruments and the ability to sight-write and sight-read, or you're in for a long, miserable, frustrating experience that will not ultimately generate a watchable product. Imagine trying to write a standard screenplay but you're illiterate and someone else has to type for you while you dictate. Yeah.

    Musical theory isn't just for the tux-wearing conductors. There's a reason the Beatles took such basic musical ideas and made them into era-spanning classics: their composing was grounded deep in music theory, and they were experts at the craft. You don't have to be the next Boublil and Schonberg writing Les Miserables II: Valjean's Revenge, but you need to know how keys and moods and progressions evoke emotions and drive the melody, and you need to know enough about the vocal craft to write lyrical passages that can be properly sung. (Musical vocal enunciation is different from theatrical vocal enunciation in key respects.) This is the sort of thing most self-taught musicians cannot do.

    Now I don't know you, Ingrid. I don't know all the facts. It's possible I am giving you far too little credit and you know all this stuff already and your songs are all catchy, textured earworms that we'll be whistling for weeks after watching your musical. I hope that is exactly the case. But based solely on what you wrote to TBSW, what I have written here are the concerns that immediately came to mind, and hopefully my feedback and TBSW's feedback will help you direct your efforts where they will bear the most fruit.

    As recommended listening, since I'm going to assume you are already familiar with Les Mis (and if you're not, you have no business working on a musical, period) I would suggest that you check out the soundtrack to the musical The Wedding Singer, composed by Stephen Lynch, and the concept album Snow by Spock's Beard, composed by Neal Morse. Lynch and Morse are two very different composers who are alike in that they have a brilliant understanding of musical theory and ability to evoke emotions from a listener, even someone who is not necessarily a fan of their genre. Snow is prog-rock, one of the least accessible genres there is, yet you'll find yourself humming "Youuuuu are the wiiiind at my back...." before you're even finished with the first listen, and especially during the emotional reprise. If your songs can grab a listener as well as that, then they have potential.

    Good luck.

  3. It's the type of script that never gets read by readers but does get talked about by actual agents and producers. It's a great idea for a calling card script especially if you live outside of Los Angeles. Keep writing.

    Don't worry about the music. Write your lyrics, finish the script and start making calls. If anyone asks about the score tell them exactly what you said above -- you're a singer but not a composer. If it moves forward very producer you encounter will have at least one musician friend who needs a composing job.

    Will the script sell? Probably not. But if it's clever and something people can talk about then it could get you assignments.

  4. Ah, thanks. I realise I have to write something simpler and cheaper first + have it produced before I can say to a producer "By the way, I have this other script..."

    I'm gonna stick at it. Just 'cos studios aren't making this stuff now doesn't mean they won't again in future (you can't really write for current trend--they'll be uncurrent by time film's produced). I think musicals have partly been shelved because most are really lame. I get bored watching most. That's why I'm writing something different than the norm that's still mainstream.

    I understand doubts. Everyone says their script is amazing.
    I've had fantastic feedback. Everyone who's read any of it has gone bananas about it--even people who don't like me (which to me is a sign you're doing something right). That's why it'd be a great pity to just shelve it and go onto writing something more like everything else that's out.

    Should I ever have any success, I'll be sure to let you know!


    P.S. Thanks everyone for your comments. They may have been a kick in the nuts, but a kick with kindest intentions.

  5. And by the way, I'm not disregarding the overall message. If my puppetry musical screenplay only ever serves as a great writing sample, I will be secretly crushed--I won't lie about that here--but I'll be pleased it can be used to jump start my career (and the bonus is it's the one screenplay I've written that really sounds like me).

    ...And if I can't get the film made, one day I'll make the damn thing myself!

  6. A lot has already been said and you seem well on your way, but there are other options (somewhat).

    Why not look at something like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"? There's a film written by Jason Segel (granted a "notable" actor) that complimented his comedy with some music and had that propel his opportunity to write for the next Muppets movie.

    Again, there were many things that ended up working out for Segel that landed him this role, but the example is there.

    You can always continue to develop this script, hire the right composer (or find someone with great musical talent to help you) while you write other pieces that will hopefully get you noticed. Those pieces likely should include some music if that's what you want to do.

  7. also, are you saying your idea is novel and original because you use puppets or because the premise is fresh and just happens to use puppets?... make sure you're focusing on the story and not just on how cool it would be to see avenue q in theaters...