How Musicals Work

Julian Woolford
Nick Hern Books

How Musicals Work

My standard reference work for the writing of musicals has been the twenty-year-old The Musical from the Inside Out by Stephen Citron, now long out of print and difficult to get hold of, but I haven't found anything since with the same breadth and depth of coverage for this complex subject. Julian Woolford seeks to plug that gap with this new book.

While there are many books on playwriting, songwriting and composition, a musical requires its writer or, more usually, team of writers to have a very wide range of skills, which are difficult to cover in any depth in a single volume.

Woolford attempts to take the reader through the whole process, from how to get the initial idea, structure, characters, placement of songs, workshops, rewrites and the final production. Along the way there are exercises for the reader to either analyse current works or apply specific techniques to their own work.

A glance at the bibliography will reveal Woolford's major influences as, amongst the playwriting and songwriting books, there are most of the "in vogue" reference works for any Hollywood screenwriter: Robert McKee's Story, Aristotle's Poetics, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey and—Vogler's biggest influence—Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Woolford devotes his longest chapter, nearly 60 pages, to structure and for this he sticks very closely to to Campbell's idea of the monomyth as interpreted through Vogler with a bit of McKee thrown in, but he tries to cover the whole of Vogler's 300 pages. This means that many of Vogler's terms and concepts are given vague or even misleading definitions; for instance, Vogler's casual comment that "Often the hero's love interest or romantic partner will manifest the qualities of a Shapeshifter" has become to Woolford an actual definition: "The Shapeshifter is usually the 'romantic interest'". Not the same thing at all.

Also like screenwriting, Woolford promotes the idea of extensive planning before a word of dialogue or a note of music is written. He describes a method of using transitive verbs to plot out the action in detail before writing that is based closely on Stanislavski's Method of Physical Actions and is almost identical to that described by theatre director Max Stafford-Clark in his book Letters to George.

Some chapters try to cover so much that it is difficult to see at whom it is aimed. For instance, the chapter on music covers something as basic as time signatures, but it talks about intervals without mentioning note names and within a few pages we are on vocal ranges, orchestration, dance breaks and pastiche.

There is some interesting information on all of these subjects for a general reader but, for a budding writer, anyone who requires the most basic information isn't given enough to move on to the more difficult concepts, and anyone who can make use of the later information wouldn't need the first part at all. In trying to cover everything, it doesn't cover anything in any depth.

But that's not to say there is no value in this book—far from it. Woolford has written musicals and teaches on the only university course in the UK specialising in writing musical theatre, so he does know his subject from a practical point of view. He uses examples from his own work, particularly his adaptation of The Railway Children with Richard John, and anecdotes about his own writing process to put across the practical realities of creating work in this unique form and getting it produced.

But while this book falls somewhere between literary criticism and a "how to" manual without really fulfilling either role completely, there is plenty here of interest to anyone wishing to analyse or create musicals or even with a general interest in the subject—but expect to have to examine some of the works in the bibliography to fill a few gaps.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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