Stage plays and musicals are an interesting art form and I encourage anyone who can, to see them as often as possible. As a student, there is little time to go see the latest and greatest, but I’ve found musical scores to be a great way to hear the story without paying the big bucks. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. While listening, something struck me, without seeing these amazing performances, I knew everything; the woven themes, characters, and story, without even seeing it.
With this information, I decided to take a plunge into this musical to discover how musicals do this. This isn’t the only musical that does this, either. Everyone knows the multiple award-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton. This two-hour-plus musical can be heard from track one: “Alexander Hamilton” to track forty-six: ”Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” and never let up on conflict and story. While I’m sure it’s stunning in person and on stage, these stories live in their music.
How can this help us with our scripts?
One thing you’ll notice is that most characters have their own musical theme. This usually begins when they sing a solo song that encompasses their character – think “Wait for It” in Hamilton. This song, sung by Aaron Burr, shows the motivation behind his actions or lack thereof. The theme of this song then gets placed in other songs like “The Room Where it Happens” in which Hamilton adopts Burr’s passive ideology of ‘talk less, smile more’ to get a financial plan passed. When Hamilton gets what he wants, Burr is upset. How could Hamilton accomplish results with Burr’s methods when Burr himself couldn’t? Now this isn’t explicitly said in the song, but when Hamilton turns to Burr and says “…you get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it, wait…”, it clearly frustrates Burr because somehow Hamilton got what Burr wanted (“…to be in the room where it happens…”) by using Burr’s methods, but Burr can’t. The song ends with a “click, boom!” then a gunshot, foreshadowing Burr’s challenge to Hamilton. This is the character’s turning point from being a supporting character of Hamilton to becoming his adversary and it was crafted beautifully with character themes in the music.
How does this translate into prose writing? Give your characters themes. Not musical themes, but a clear motivation and make sure it’s clearly stated by them. I don’t encourage hitting your audience over the head with exposition and having your character spell everything out, but make sure they know who your character is and their morals and ideals, especially the ones that will lead to conflict later. What is at the core of your character? What guides their actions and choices? We know that character choice is everything, so make sure we know your characters well enough that they have a clear theme that rings throughout your story, even in dialogue. Dialogue is a choice so what your characters say should reflect who they are and what they stand for.
When you listen to the album, how do you keep track of each character? How do you know who is singing? It could get confusing, but if it was written right, then each character should have their own tone of voice. A musical could be sung by the same person and it should still be clear who is singing what. Similarly, for your script, you should be able to read any dialogue and know which character said it by having your character’s motivations be clear.
Themes Hidden in Dialogue
In Hadestown, one interesting theme is duplicity. Persephone spends half her time on the surface and half in Hadestown, balancing between these two worlds, Orpheus promises Eurydice a perfect life, but does not have the means to fulfill those promises, and Hades sells grueling work to the inhabitants of Hadestown in the guise of freedom. In “Chant I” while Eurydice asks Orpheus to help prepare for winter, he can be heard ironically singing a “…song of a love gone wrong…” and practically ignoring her pleas for him to keep his promise to support her. It is foreshadowed this would happen when, in “Livin’ It Up On Top”, Orpheus mentions selling his songs for free because that’s how he ideally wants the world to work. In “Road to Hell II”, the penultimate song, Hermes states that “[Orpheus] could make you see how the world could be in spite of the way that it is…” which shows that Orpheus himself has a duplicitous point of view of the world. He shares this viewpoint throughout the story in his songs and the way he acts. It is marvelously crafted that the characters support this theme throughout with their own duplicity and Orpheus highlights it.
Since these are songs, it’s interesting to see how these story themes can permeate throughout the story through dialogue. There is action, but when you’re listening to the album, like me, and haven’t seen the live show, you can follow the theme which crafts the entire story simply from character interactions. It’s a great exercise in dialogue forwarding conflict without being unnecessarily expositional. The way characters interact in ensemble moments like “Chant II”, reveals more to the audience about who they are than the face value of the words they say. While having characters sing out their dialogue isn’t going to work for most scripts, musicals need to make sure their stories can be told through the music by itself. This makes them perfect for inspecting their dialogue for the perfect balance of exposition in scripts. In fact, the use of action in dialogue could help your script. There’s a lot of action alluded to in Persephone’s “Our Lady of the Underground” song. She mentions all these things she could offer the workers starved of sunshine and outside experiences. This gives the audience a visual and her dialogue becomes more visual and narrative.
Sometimes, the biggest problem with writing a story is when to write what. You have the whole story, but how should these scenes be placed for the best effect? The pacing in good musicals is juggled in such a way that conflict always continues to rise. Songs lead into the next seamlessly and the segues may not be perfect, but as long as the story continues with the audience’s interest with the plot moving forward is great. This is tricky. It’s very easy to try to keep the attention of the audience, but forget that you have a story to move forward.
Let’s think Les Misérables. The tension the musical begins with is between Javert and Valjean and it becomes clear when Valjean tears up his ticket-of-leave that there will be repercussions involving Javert. However, after “The Confrontation”, there is little seen of Javert until mid-way Act I, nine years later (“The Robbery”). While Javert’s attention turns to the Paris Uprising, Valjean remains in fear of capture which keeps that main plot line continuing until Javert’s death. Throughout this fear of capture is the uprising, a love story, and other misfortunes. However, the way it is paced, layering plots in a way that has them overlap creatively, helps keep the audience interested as well as sated. If Valjean had evaded Javert in “The Confrontation” and then was not seen until his investigation into the Paris Uprising, the audience would have lost the urgency regarding his quest to return Valjean to ‘justice’ which is a crucial part of his character.
Other Sources of Musical Inspiration
Musicals aren’t the only medium where this type of mesh between music and story have key elements that can help improve storytelling. Disney is well known for their musical storytelling (which you can learn more about here), but there are other movies with original music like Anastasia, The Prince of Egypt, The Wizard of Oz, The Greatest Showman and more. Not all are perfect, but listen to the music and see how well they pace their story through the music or include character themes. Can you still understand the story without watching it?
While I am currently interested in musicals, I haven’t been able to expand my knowledge that far yet. If you have other musical examples or think I’ve missed something, comment below!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.