by David Spencer

Links to Material on This Page:
Introduction to the excerpts
Preface to the Secrets
Secret #1
Secret #2
Secret #3
Secret #4
Secret #5
Secret #6
Secret #7
Secret #8
Secret #9
Secret #10

Introduction to the GUIDE Excerpts

A famous showbiz axiom about what entertainments will or won't become popular, coined by the brilliant screenwriter-novelist William Goldman (in his excellent and famous book, Adventures in the Screen Trade), is: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. While one can apply the axiom almost infallibly to most media, THIS IS FAR, FAR LESS TRUE FOR MUSICALS!

The craft is so specific, and audiences are primed for such a particular kind of theatrical communication, that one can actually handicap, with astonishing accuracy, what will and won't take hold commercially -- and sufficiently talented writers who hew to certain time-tested principles have an astonishingly excellent chance at creating shows loaded with optimum potential for commercial success. And, I hasten to add, to create them thus with no sacrifice to artistry, standards, adventurousness, integrity -- and higher (or lower) goals. In fact, where musicals are concerned, one might argue that PERHAPS NOBODY KNOWS EVERYTHING ... BUT WE NONETHELESS KNOW A HELLUVA LOT. It's a question of understanding where to find the information -- and how to perceive it.

Thus I offer this series of weekly excerpts as a countdown toward the publication of my book, The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide: "The Ten (Open) Secrets of Successful Libretti" (i.e. musical theatre bookwriting) -- in hopes that it will help de-mystify the process, the craft and the arena.

As you read these "secrets" over the coming weeks, note how, taken collectively, and of course applied with sufficient skill, they define a virtual blueprint for critical approval and audience draw -- and even consistently good word of mouth. This doesn't merely define the difference between hits (The Producers, Avenue Q, Wicked, Hairspray) and misses (Dracula, Good Vibrations), but also the much more controversial and provocative difference between middling, but sturdily built shows that garner generally positive reviews ... and the deceptively mixed, inconsistent reactions to much more ambitious, innovative, worthy and potentially more consequential efforts ... ones that would survive handily but for want of fine-tuning, and not quite presenting the proper "lens" for the audience and critics to focus through. Indeed, many commercially unsuccessful shows are breathtakingly, heartbreakingly brilliant (and of those, only a very few are fundamentally constructed such that the "secrets" would not fortify the central matrix). Again, this essay isn't ONLY about quality: It's about survival ... about the long run ... about what a musical needs at its back to take root and hang in.

In art, any set of guiding principles has to face down confounding exceptions, and the ten (open) secrets are no exception: every several years or so a complete anomaly can ride the crest of social phenomena (Hair), right-place-right-time (Rent) or prior association (Spamalot). But take the craft and literature of successful musical theatre as a whole, and you'll find that the proffered principles in this series of excerpts account for conservatively 90% of the shows that have universally withstood the tests of audiences, critics, stock-amateur afterlife...and time.

Hope they may inspire you to buy the Survival Guide and go for the whole ride. (The best discount by far is at Click here to find out more.) Either way, though, these samples are cheerfully provided on the house. Enjoy...


Because the musical libretto is often misperceived as a work of "mere" prose, and therefore the product of a less precise discipline, it has taken on an aura of false mystery. It is said (correctly, for the most part), that no matter how good a score may be, if the book doesn't work, the show doesn't work. Yet book basics are the least well understood part of the craft, and the least well dealt with in print analyses of musical theatre as an art form, and that contributes to why so many shows fail, often needlessly.

            Paradoxically, the basics are there for all who know the classic literature; they're hiding in plain sight -- craft-principles just as immutable as those regarding the use of perfect rhyme and graspable melodic shape.

            You can reject these principles-selectively -- as and if you choose to experiment with form. But you should know them, think about them and understand the risks of putting them aside.

Ka-Ching-The Magic Ten

Let's talk about what I will cautiously call "the selling points" first.

            I say "cautiously" because you can't write for a "marketplace" in the musical theatre. You can only write the things you care about passionately in the most honest way you can. If you try to second guess, or bend to, some perceived marketplace, your show will betray your mercenary intentions and fail. Every time. The marketplace -- a term which does, sometimes regrettably, inform film, records and television -- moves too quickly for a developing musical to ever keep pace with it. A developing musical may coincidentally anticipate a marketplace trend (or, like Hair, exist as part of a cultural phenomenon), but that's a circumstance borne strictly of unpredictable timing. Save for Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's Titanic, which approximately coincided with the release of James Cameron's film, I can't think of a musical that managed the trick. You can't manufacture it, so don't even try.

            Indeed, that's why there are "eternal verities" (a.k.a. common selling points) in the construction of most successful musicals. Since the musical is a form that cannot be fitted to a prevailing, temporary wave, it must therefore bow to the features that have been time-tested for, at this writing, over 60 years.

            In the tradition of all the best lists, there are ten of them.

            Here's the big starter. Can't stress it enough.

            Selling point #1: A larger-than-life, or at the very least, hugely passionate, and active hero or heroine with a hugely ambitious objective that can be interpreted as his or her quest. That hero and the hero's quest are what drive the show.

            Does this sound like a by-the-numbers formula? It's not. It is, in fact, a template, upon which many a variation has succeeded. Check it out:

            Now -- why is this so important?

            Musicalizing a story intensifies it. A passionate character on a quest fits naturally into an intense universe. A larger-than-life one even more so. The character complements the intention (as well as the intensity) of the form.

            Now, larger-than-life is a fairly liberal term. Strictly speaking, How To's Finch and Hairspray's Tracy start off as unremarkable civilians -- but only insofar as they are perceived by most of the rest of their world. To us, however, they are wholly remarkable because their desire to achieve greatness means they are misfits in a normal world. What distinguishes Finch is his brazen self-centeredness; and what distinguishes Tracy is her apparent (but deceptive) unsuitability for the kind of popularity she desires: in 1962 it just didn't happen to fat girls.

            By the same token -- prosaic characters with everyday wants are horrid choices for musicalization...because, being prosaic, they work against the natural emphasis of the form. They simply aren't strong or memorable or resonant enough to drive a musical, in most cases.

            Also, avoid passive main characters who are observers or ciphers, because their natural stance is to avoid action as they absorb information. A different kind of passivity -- just as unfriendly to musicalization -- is exhibited by the character who is acted upon. (The recent Broadway musical of Jane Eyre was destined to fail no matter how well it might have been executed, because the title character does not drive the story, and thus the narrative lacks a central, forward moving energy. Her inner life may be one of turbulence, but as long as she avoids taking matters into her own hands, she exists in a state of suspended animation. Film can handle this kind of psychological profiling; it is anathema to musicals.) [See Footnote]   

            Finally -- the denouement must occur as a result of action taken by the main character. Just as s/he powers the story, s/he must also be responsible for its conclusion. That doesn't mean a supporting character can't react to a situation set up by the main character and push the goal over the top (sometimes the main character is on a quest that requires some ultimate approval by another); but you should never employ deus ex machina, an ending that is not a direct result of your lead's design and ambition.

Footnote: A famous anomaly is Bobby in Company. For the most part he observes the married couples who are his "good and crazy" friends. But in a structural sense, Company is a revue of sketches with songs, supporting a superimposed story (George Furth's libretto originally started out as five one act plays about marriage; Bobby was later created as a linking device). Although the show survives in the canon, it pays to note that actors find Bobby notoriously difficult to "make their own," because he's so ill-defined at the core, making major transitions without sufficiently defined motivation; and that, while the score by Stephen Sondheim remains fresh and dynamic, the book has not aged well at all. Its stylistic innovations are still felt today -- which is why its star of repute has never faded -- but those once-potent sketches are now sitcom standard and revivals of the show are less and less frequent.

            Selling Point #2: Interesting and functional supporting characters.

            Supporting characters should also be idiosyncratic. Each one of any, even small, consequence should have a trait, a quirk of personality, a desire, something that immediately sets him or her apart. And of course, the less archetypal the characters, the more profoundly you should highlight their distinctiveness. Even a character performing an archetypal function should have an unconventional spin. (If you can anchor this idiosyncrasy to the storytelling, theme and/or structure...better still. That kind of layering and interconnectedness is what helps give a musical depth, substance and weight, so that even the lightest of them speak resonantly to the human condition.)

            More than this, though, supporting characters need to have a primary connection to the main plot and the main character. There are indeed a number of classic musicals from the '40s through the mid-'60s in which secondary characters propel what TV writers call B-stories -- stories that run parallel to the A-story without significantly impacting it -- but, as screenwriter-novelist William Goldman has noted (see footnote): in the intervening decades storytelling has changed. It's a lot tighter and a lot less leisurely these days; also more sophisticated, packed and consolidated. Audiences grasp more things in less time and become increasingly intolerant of repetition or sidebars. The era of Ado Annie and Will Parker as "comic relief" for Curly and Laurie (Oklahoma!) is gone. These days, look toward Anthony and Johanna (Sweeney Todd) -- their story cannot exist without Sweeney's, nor can it end without returning to him; John Dickinson (1776) would not trouble himself to rally the conservatives in Congress unless John Adams were a threat to their status quo. Even when the lead is not onstage, the remaining characters must play out the applicable reverberations of his or her actions. (Can you sing "If Mama Was Married" ?)

            All this talk about the kinds of characters that best populate a musical leads us inevitably to the next principle.

Footnote to second secret: In the foreword to his screenplay for Maverick, in Five Screenplays with Essays (Applause Books)

            Selling point #3: A story that is character driven, not plot driven.

            This does not mean musicals aren't plotted. Some, like Sweeney Todd and 1776 are highly plotted. But the plot doesn't fuel the proceedings. Your main character must actively make the story happen through his/her desires and actions.

            And the completion (or frustration!) of the lead's quest usually represents some kind of transformation or rite of passage. Your main character will rarely end up the same person s/he began.

            This is why genre material tends to work against musicalization. Science fiction, mystery, action-adventure, etc. tend to be about the pursuit of knowledge, the correction of an injustice, the exploration of an idea, the battle between unchanging forces of good and evil, and the like (see footnote).

            In an average episode of Columbo, for example, the good lieutenant in the rumpled raincoat comes into the story late, after the murder has been committed. Now, a Columbo episode is certainly about character, as almost every installment is a "closed" rather than "open" mystery (we know who committed the crime from the start), and the thing we delight in is the game of cat-and-mouse he plays with the killer. But the situation is already in motion when Columbo arrives -- he hasn't created it, the killer has -- nor is he meaningfully transformed by the outcome of events. As a main character, he's attractive because he's a constant, and how he'll solve the puzzle is what drives the story; not who he is and what he has personally at stake. (More on this in the chapter on adaptation.)

Footnote to secret #3: If this sounds an ironic precept to come from a fellow who co-authored a serious minded science-fiction musical, bear in mind, the stories upon which the two one acts in Weird Romance are based only utilize science fiction milieux. The main characters go through profound personal growth, and indeed the stories were selected because in each, the main character embodies the idea being explored. This confluence of elements in a genre story -- much less one that lends itself to musicalization -- is very rare.

            Selling point #4: Conflict that kicks in early and doesn't resolve until the end.

            Your main character wants something, and that need puts him or her at odds with powerful forces opposed to the goal.

            Don't wait to introduce this. As soon as your main character sings his or her "I Want" or defining "I Am" song, start bringing on the odds s/he'll be working against -- if you haven't done so already.

            Keep the quest alive, and increase the jeopardy.

            There can be moments of celebration and achievement along the way, but the tension should not release until the denouement. Never give main characters the excuse to be complacent, save as a momentary device to ratchet up the tension later.

            Put more simplistically: Don't let them express happiness unless you can pull the rug out from under them right after -- until the end of the show. To wit: the act break of Fiddler on the Roof, when the Cossacks disrupt the wedding.

            How do you maintain this story tension in an organized fashion?

            There have been entire books and several lauded days-long symposia devoted to story structure, and it would be absurd of me to try and cover all the fine points here (my recommended reading list is in an appendix at the back of this book); but the traditional three-act structure that informs screenwriting and well-made playwriting tends to inform most enduring musicals as well. The word "acts" in this context, by the way, is defined by turning points in the story, not the placement of the intermission. In fact, let's call them "structure acts" to avoid confusion.

            Structure Act One is the exposition that sets up your characters, conflicts and story. (George M. Cohan: "In Act One, get your man up a tree.")

            Structure Act Two escalates the main character's quest and the challenges to it, until s/he reaches a point of no return, a place of jeopardy, risk, impending disaster and/or choice where his/her life can never be what it was before. In a traditional musical, the intermission tends to be placed at this Act's end. (Cohan: "In Act Two, throw stones at him.")

            Structure Act Three chronicles the character's efforts to meet the big challenge and how they lead to "endgame" and resolution. (Cohan: "In Act Three, get him out of the tree.")

            Since musicals, despite all these libretto principles, invite stylistic and presentational experimentation, the three-act structure is arguably the element to be applied least rigidly. But study as many classic musical libretti as you can. Note how the stories peak, build, pause for intermission (if they do) and resolve -- you'll note that in most instances, the exceptions are not really breaks with tradition, but subtle variations borne of specific context and content. In the craft of musical storytelling, ultimately, as with any good writing, form follows function and content dictates style.

            That said, here's a short list of things that are the enemy of narrative tension:

A great and frequent technique for avoiding the enemy is the creation of what's called "the ticking clock" -- a time limit on the hero's objective that gives it urgency. John Adams has to push the Declaration of Independence through by July 4. Sweeney Todd has to finally exact his revenge upon Judge Turpin before Anthony can spirit Johanna away. In Her Pilgrim Soul, act two of my own Weird Romance, Nola, a spectral visitor from the turn of the 20th century, seemingly reincarnated in a hi-tech lab's hologram chamber, is remembering-reliving her life at the rate of ten years per day. The scientist Kevin must discover why she's there before that life is over.

            The opening gambit as described (main character enters, sings "I Want," is confronted by obstacles) is the classic execution, but there are variant configurations that can also work, depending, per above, upon what content and function require. In 1776, for example, John Adams delivers the first spoken words of the show right after the overture, expressing his desire for American independence before he sings. Then the show curtain flies up so the Congress can try to shush him with "Sit Down, John" -- and after that, since we already know what he wants, he expands upon his frustration, in a complaint that is a cagily indirect "I Am" song ("Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve") that also fills us in on what he considers the maddening, cautious routines of the Continental Congress. And that rage segues into the more tender "Yours, Yours, Yours," which allows the authors to introduce the convention of the dramatized letters between Adams and his wife Abigail (who tries to both placate him and make sure he stays cognizant of problems outside of Philadelphia). The crucial thing to note here is that the span from Adams's first monologue through "Yours, Yours, Yours" describes the opening sequence of the show. The momentum is continuous throughout and the musical does not stop for applause until the ground rules for the evening are established!

            Which leads us to  

            Selling point #5: The set-up of what are called your "permissions" -- your dramatic theme, your stylistic conceits, your tone, your vocabulary, your ground rules -- right at the top. And then sticking to them.

            Little is  deadlier to a musical than a delay in the audience getting its bearings. I once heard John Guare offer a class this principle of playwriting: "The audience gives a playwright fifteen to twenty minutes to fuck around. After that, if he doesn't have them, he's lost them forever."

            I've been a drama critic for three decades, and that's a fairly accurate blanket assessment.

            Here's the bad news:

            You don't have anywhere near that much time with a musical.

            A play allows for a more leisurely introduction of elements because it tends to open with exposition and character introduction through dialogue. However theatricalized the style, this reflects a naturalistic rhythm, an emulation of real time.

            A musical, however, opens with a number. As close to the top as possible. A number with some mood-setting, energy-creating muscle behind it. This makes a big, bold, self-assured statement -- and its forthrightness, its compactness, its confidence implies a promise that the creators know exactly what they're about. The number can transmit a certain amount of exposition, and often does -- but the story is usually set in earnest motion in the moments after. The opening number makes a pact with the audience. A pact delivered in theatrical shorthand. It's a different language, and audience expectation adjusts accordingly. And with this expectation come the permissions -- the permissions your opening moment asks the audience to give you: permission to be funny, to be thrilling, to be moving, to be epic, to be highly choreographed, etc. It's a permission that works in reverse as well. Perhaps the most famous story illustrating this point is the one about how A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum nearly closed out of town because it had the wrong opening number, a charming tune called "Love is In the Air" that left the audience baffled. The subsequent "Comedy Tonight" gave the audience permission to laugh and to expect a farce.

            Furthermore, as an audience adjusts to the style, tone and expectation of implied or specified theatrical devices, they also adjust to dramatic theme. Which reminds me:

            Selling point #6: An underlying dramatic theme.

            One way or another, every good musical -- profoundly or lightheartedly -- is about something beyond its story: Fiddler on the Roof is about the breakdown and evolution of tradition in modern society; Into the Woods is about community and responsibility; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is about the madness of corporate America; The Fantasticks! is about how the joys of growing up are not achieved unless pain is involved too ("Without a hurt, the heart is hollow"); as the King would say, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." And everything in the show -- every event, every character -- needs to inform the theme...and vice versa. However: One of the most common, yet oh-so-subtle problems that can beset a gestating musical is the point at which it shifts from what you thought it was about to what it's really about. When he was alive and running the BMI Workshop, Lehman Engel used to insist that the opening number be among the very last things you write for your show, as only then can you know exactly what show you're trying to set up. The point where you feel painted into a corner, or as if nothing you write is quite good enough to put you over the top, is a terrific time to re-examine your musical and see if it hasn't grown into something else when you weren't looking.

         Selling point #7: The Planting of Seeds and the Avoidance of Waste

           Just as it's vital to set up permissions, it's equally vital not to set up false expectations. In other words, don't introduce a character, a very specific biographical/backstory detail, a significant character trait unless you intend to pay it off at some point in the evening, in some way that propels the story forward and/or impacts upon its resolution. Consciously and unconsciously, audiences keep track of these elements, and if any of them are unrelated or left dangling, you're not structuring (or even telling) your story properly.

          Perhaps the most iconic example of this is the introduction of the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, whose deceptive "recurring gag" cameo appearances carefully and cannily prepare for the eventual revelation of her true identity at the denouement (and no I won't spoil it here; if you don't know it, shame on you, and get either of the DVD versions as fast as you possibly can). Credit original playwright Christopher Bond and adapting librettist Hugh Wheeler for the construction -- and Sondheim for abetting it with an infamous musical clue.

           A more subtle -- and terribly interesting -- example is librettist Peter Stone's portrayal of Judge James Wilson in 1776. His appearances are sort of a running gag too. A member of the Pennsylvania delegation, he is presented as a man who wants to avoid controversy as much as possible; which, positioned as he is between American-independence proponent Benjamin Franklin and stick-by-England conservative John Dickinson, often puts him in awkward circumstances. Throughout most of the show, though, Wilson remains intimidated enough to defer to Dickinson.

          But this character trait suddenly pays off big time when the final vote for independence comes. After vigorous debate, leading to much amendment of the Declaration of Independence, so boldly drafted by Thomas Jefferson, all the colonies have voted YEA but two: New York (an abstention)—and Pennsylvania.           

           The head Pennsylvania delegate, John Dickinson, expresses mild regret for "all of the inconvenience that such distinguished men as Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were put to just now. They might have kept their document intact, for all the difference it will make. Mr. President, Pennsylvania says -- "           

           And Franklin cuts him off. Having just seen Delaware cast its YEA by a pointedly articulated two-to-one majority among its delegates (another seed, carefully planted), he's struck by a sudden inspiration -- and requests that the Pennsylvania delegation be polled, to likewise ascertain its majority sympathies.            

           Dickinson objects, but to no avail. It's a proper request.

           Franklin votes YEA.

           Dickinson votes NAY.

           And poor Judge Wilson is suddenly trapped in the spotlight.

           And all eyes turn to him.

           Franklin: "There it is, Mr. Wilson, it's up to you now -- the whole question of American independence rests squarely on your shoulders. An entirely new nation, Mr. Wilson, waiting to be born or to die in birth, all on your say-so. Which will it be, Mr. Wilson? Every map-maker in the world is waiting for your decision!"

           Dickinson tries to put the pressure on. But this time Wilson yields to an even bigger pressure. Referring to Adams and Franklin, he says: "If I go with them, I'll be only one among dozens; no one will ever remember the name of James Wilson. But if I vote with you, I'll be the man who prevented American independence. I'm sorry, John—I just didn’t bargain for that."

           Wilson casts his vote: YEA.

           And the Declaration of Independence is adopted.

           Why is this beat so interesting, aside from the fact that it just makes for terrific drama?

           Because librettist Peter Stone (with composer-lyricist-historian Sherman Edwards, who wrote the score and conceived the show) made it up.

           For all the overwhelming proportion of the show’s events and characters that are historically accurate and documented, the historical explanation for this crucial turnabout is chronicled nowhere. There is no record as to why Judge Wilson suddenly changed his allegiance. Only that he did. At its academic best, the beat in the play is a hypothetical extrapolation.

           But read the whole show or watch the lovely new DVD of the reconstructed film adaptation (avoid the shorter, two-hour VHS cassette-tape release which reflects the movie-theatre version bowdlerized by producer Jack Warner). Clock how Stone set it up. Look what Stone did with it. And take note of how he made every deceptively small step along the way count.

Footnote to secret #7: There is more to be found about how ingeniously Stone and Edwards adapted the facts of history while remaining assiduously true to the spirit, in an authors' afterword to the published libretto.

Selling point #8: Exoticism of the Universe

-- or locale or backdrop, however you like to think of it, however it most applies to your show.

           Most successful and/or interesting musicals are set in times and places far away from everyday contemporary life (look at the list in the section on main characters). The ability of the musical to take us to otherworlds -- of its music and poetic language to evoke those worlds -- is key to the magic that sets it apart from any other art form. Indeed, as an elevated form, the musical naturally gravitates to elevated environments, just as it encourages larger-than-life main characters.

           It's rarely a good idea to set a musical in a contemporary, present-day setting. Well, let me amend that: It's rarely a good idea if part of your artistic objective is longevity. Aside from the usual incongruity between the language of the prosaic and the poetic, you don't have the benefit of social and historical perspective that allows you to set your musical universe in thematic relief -- and to look at its era free of contemporary mores that almost never date well. (Locales like offices and house/apartment rooms compound the problem, because they imply spaces that are closed and constricted. A choreographer once told me, "With its TV, family couch, end-tables, all that crap, my worst nightmare is trying to create a peppy high-step around the den!")

           Urban settings are especially vulnerable: The libretti for both Company (a stylistic trail-blazer) and Promises, Promises (a foursquarely traditional tuner) are painfully dated; most of Company's once-hip perceptions about married life have been rendered either quaint, or in the wake of increasingly sophisticated sitcoms, familiar...and in the case of Promises, while Neil Simon's book retains most of its "funny," the attitude towards women is, by today's standards, appalling. Even the cheerfully giddy satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying can't quite conquer a milder and more knowing presentation of women as sex objects; and no less than the venerable Shakespeare-derived West Side Story -- a worthy classic in so many ways, and a model of compact construction -- can seem, because of its invented "youth slang" (ironically, devised to free it of ties to era locution), self-conscious and inauthentically "precious" in revival. (See footnote to secret #8, below.)

           I hasten to add: if you are driven to musicalize a certain contemporary story or theme, you must follow your muse (as dated as Company is, look at all the innovation that has occurred in its wake; no one says it was unnecessary). But if part of your plan is the long afterlife that comes with stock, amateur and revival productions, don't proceed without much soul-searching. And when you do proceed, go at it with gusto, and look for ways to transcend the setting.

Footnote to secret #8: The mostly-faithful film adaptations of dated shows often seem timeless because they bring with them the spirit, sensibility and playing style of their era -- to say nothing of the energies and personæ of the actors and creators for whom those attitudes figured into daily life. This ability to endow what would become dated material with time capsule legitimacy is part of film's magic, because film preserves a moment frozen in history. Performing live is a whole different game, because there's no way to keep current sensibilities totally away from the delivery...or excise them from the audience that brings them into the theatre.

Selling point #9: Believability of the Universe

           As a corollary, verisimilitude should never diminish, even if you leave the “real world” behind for a more fanciful one.

           Take a look at the late Douglas Adams's brilliant science fiction parody The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in its radio, novel, LP or television incarnations (let's just pretend the feature film doesn't exist). As outrageous as the characters, situations and premises are, once Adams sets up the ground rules governing his wacky universe, he adheres to them assiduously (or assiduously enough that you never catch him in a story-logic violation).

           Want a musical? Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods, set in a universe of interacting Grimm fairy tales is very nearly as impeccable. The use of magic has rules, limits, consequences, and the story honors them.

           Conversely, there's Finian's Rainbow. It's largely unproduceable now (concert stagings aside); the book by Fred Saidy and the show's lyricist E.Y. Harburg has thus far been resistant to contemporary attempts at revision -- but I don't think the structural clumsiness and dated thematic approach to the material is wholly the reason. Going hand-in-hand, and deeper, is this flaw: The authors never honor the conventions of fantasy, and dramatize magic arbitrarily. Why can the Leprechaun Og change the racist senator (who's been turned black) into a paragon of humanism without using one of his three wishes, but not turn him white again? The limits of Og's power are mutable, blurrily defined, and at the mercy of what the authors are trying to say at any given time. And the lack of consistency creates a lack of authenticity.

           A phenomenon of the era in which we live has brought about another consideration too. Because media and technology have made audiences so savvy about storytelling conventions, the further you get from verisimilitude, the closer you get to camp. And while camp can be fun -- even lucrative, if you have the rare mind-set that can tap into an audience-grabbing special-material gimmick like Forever Plaid and Nunsense -- it flies in the face of good musical structure because its very raison d'être is often stylistic anarchy.

           The one notable exception to this observation is Little Shop of Horrors, which retains its structural integrity throughout, while parodying the horror genre to outrageous extremes. Ironically, it accomplishes this balance by being very faithful to the original Roger Corman B-movie and its already satirical screenplay by Charles Griffith. The campiness of the musical is not interpolated or imposed with arch superiority -- it is, rather, organic to the very property itself and presented without editorial bias or self-consciousness. Librettist-lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken merely -- and deftly -- place Mushnick's flower shop within the musical ambience of Phil Spector 1960s pop rock that is itself an automatic reflection of the original film's era.

Selling point #10: The Ending Restores Balance

           In many cases, this has come to mean a happy ending -- but not always. A musical can be a tragedy, but its ending needs to point toward hope. This is not an arbitrary aesthetic imposition, nor a mindless holdover from pure "musical comedy" but, again, a by-product of the form being so elevated and felt (at its best) so viscerally. It's fine to take the audience on a darker journey, but you have to reward them for the effort of going on the ride. When Sweeney Todd is killed by Tobias, the force of anarchy in the universe is stilled. Even though Tony is killed by Chino's bullet in West Side Story, the tragedy brings the warring factions together. Don Quixote dies as he begins to rally from ignominious defeat; but his dream will clearly live on in Sancho -- and in the former whore Aldonza who proclaims, "My name is Dulcinea."

(To be continued...)

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