Book Reviews

Writing Musical Theater
by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Writing Musical TheaterAnna Russell (that dry, yet fruity musical parodist famed for her hysterical deconstruction of Wagner's Ring Cycle) used to perform a guide to creating a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Said she, "I have evolved a formula for writing your own Gilbert and Sullivan, and it's a sort of vitamin pill that contains all the necessary ingredients ... so long as you use this formula, you can put your opera [she'd pause for effect here] where you like!"

Now, composer and conductor Allen Cohen, a former member of both the BMI and ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshops, and Steven L. Rosenhaus, a composer, arranger, and lyricist, propose to do the same for all would-be authors of musical theater. However, as compared to Miss Russell, their collaboration, Writing Musical Theater, is no laughing matter. But before we debate whether a sense of humor is all that essential in instructional writing, let me add that it also seems as though the text is often aimed not at adults, but at bright children. For example, in explaining the use of metaphor, the authors tell us:

"When we say of a slovenly man that he is 'a pig,' we don't mean that he is literally a swine, of course, but that his behavior seems piglike."

Have you got that? No? Okay, going on:

"When Reno Sweeney sings 'You're the Colosseum (sic)' in Anything Goes, she isn't talking to an ancient edifice in Rome, and when Sally Bowles sings that 'life is a cabaret,' she doesn't literally believe that life consists of a large piano bar full of people singing show tunes."

(Allen and Steve, I've got a Miss Minnelli on Line 3, and she's not happy.)

Passages like the one above made me want to check the cover again to make sure the book is not subtitled A Young Person's Guide to the Fabulous World of Singin' and Dancin' a Story. But lest I seem more of a curmudgeon than I'm comfortable with, let me hasten to tell you that the book is a terrific primer for anyone who wants or needs to be walked through the concept of a musical, from history (one of the two appendices provides a brief overview) to song category to why anyone would want to dramatize a story with songs in the first place.

When I say "primer," as in "schoolbook," I'm not exaggerating. The first part of the book opens with a chapter entitled "Theater Basics," which discusses and compares different types of stages. Following are sections on "The Idea," "The Libretto, "The Characters," The Lyrics," and "The Music." The second part of the book, dealing with the actual writing of a show, comprises "Getting Started," Writing the Score," and that necessary bane/means of salvation, "Rewriting." The appendices include the aforementioned historical overview, "Tools," "Logistics and Legalities," and "Required Reading (and Listening.)" In other words, everything is covered or at least touched upon, which is to the writers' credit.

Along the way, to illustrate the ins and outs of adaptation, the writers compare the plots of Bergman's film Smile of a Summer Night and the Sondheim/Wheeler musical A Little Night Music, and then James Michener's stories as collected in Tales of the South Pacific and Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical of nearly the same name. It is extremely instructive to be reminded of how well both of these sources were reshaped by their respective authors to become the classics we know (and whose brilliance we may even take for granted due to over-familiarity with them today).

The writers offer up two projects of their own as object lessons. They detail the process of adapting Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper and the creation of an original contemporary musical with the working title Life on Another Planet (which has to do with the troubled teen-aged child of a divorce and her fascination with UFOs). Both of these, as presented by the writers, seem to bear the scent of children's theater projects, but that doesn't invalidate them as solid examples. What becomes evident in reading how the writers tackled these two very different tales is not so much the ungodly amount of work that goes into writing a musical (even one which has been inspired by an existing piece), but how much making the right choices matters.

The bonus (and the onus, may I add, in the spirit of Frank Loesser) of writing for the theater, as opposed to film, is that the rewriting will go on as the show is put on its feet, and even up until the opening night and may continue even after that, as the show moves from one venue to another.

Writing Musical Theater reminds us that those who have successfully created musical theater can never really rest on their laurels but, like beginners, must be constantly aware of how well or poorly the creative decisions they make will serve the story they're currently trying to tell. The bottom line is that while having talent is a good beginning, knowledge of the craft is a necessity.

Writing Musical TheaterWriting Musical Theater
By Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus
Hardcover. 290 pages
Palgrave Macmillan
Publishing date: February 2006
List Price: $26.95
ISBN: # 1403963959