On David Spencer's Book on Writing Musicals

After writing, composing and producing the radio-play version  of my Dragon's Blood (DB) musical, I came upon David Spencer's book: The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide (2005). I recommend it to anyone trying to write a musical.  In addition to advice about working with directors, producers, agents, performers, and how to format a script, he lists (in Chapter 4) 10 features that, he claims, all successful musicals must have.  I went through these 10 to see if my musical conforms to them and, happily, I think it does.  These are:


1. Hero/heroine with a very ambitious goal -- In DB, the vampire Vandar wants to become human, which is quite ambitious. 


2. Supporting characters with unique desires/characteristics --  Angela, for example, has a strange, genetic disorder, for which she wants to find a cure. 


3. Story that is character-driven (vs. plot-driven) --  Each character in DB does what they do because of their goals.  For example, Dr. Datura wants to be reconciled with his estranged daughter.


4. A conflict appears early and doesn't resolve until the end -- In DB the major conflict is between Vandar and his father, Vladimir, over becoming human and is only resolved near the end. 


5. Ground rules for the musical's universe --  I establish what vampires and mad scientists can and cannot do.


6. An underlying dramatic theme --  I think that the theme of DB is that the hero and heroine each want to improve their own condition (and find love).


7. Avoidance of false expectations and of waste -- I may be wrong but I don't think that there are any unnecessary scenes in my musical.


8. Avoidance of a mundane, contemporary setting -- Spencer argues that musicals set in locations with contemporary rooms and furniture become quickly outdated and that it is better to transport the audience to some more unusual world.  I believe that the vampire's cave and laboratory of DB are non-mundane.


9. A world that is internally self-consistent (allowing the audience to suspense disbelief) -- For example, Spencer argues that the magic that can or cannot be used in Finian's Rainbow is arbitrary and makes it difficult to put on successful productions of this musical.  He state that, if anything can happen, then one's musical can fall into the pit of becoming campy.  I think that DB sets up consistent rules for how humans become vampires and vampires can become human. 


10. An ending that restores balance -- Spencer states that whether or not the musical ends as a tragedy or comedy, the audience should be rewarded (for their effort in following it) with a proper ending, with nothing left unresolved. In DB all main conflicts are resolved.


Interestingly, Spencer complains about what he calls "Euromusicals" (Phantom of the Opera, Le Miserables, Cats, Miss Saigon).  He admits that they are big money-makers but dislikes the fact that they concentrate mainly on spectacle.  He also states that it's very difficult to create a small musical (less than 9 characters) that will have a lasting impact.  Since my musical contains only 7 characters, I am afraid that Dragon's Blood may fail to have any lasting impact.   


I think that one way a musical can have a lasting impact is by having many appealing songs.  Hopefully people will enjoy listening to the DB songs whether or not they care for the musical itself.  (I think many more people have heard and enjoyed Gershwin's "Summertime" than have actually seen his musical Porgy and Bess, in which that song appears.)

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