Song Writing for the Stage

Posted by Kristin Hall on 7/18/2017

Back in Massachusetts, but my mind is still whirling!  It will take me quite a few days to catch up with the Blogging, but I figure it is more fun to just do a bit each day rather than one huge, long entry.  Right?

Back to the very beginning of the workshop:  the first two days we were based at an arts complex called The Sheen Center, in a part of New York called The Bowery.  The Sheen Center has two performance spaces, a small/mid-sized theatre (proscenium arch, one mezzanine), and a black box theatre (flexible seating and stage shape).  There were about 350 theatre educators (and three more sessions, so 1400 of us over the summer).  People came from all over the U.S. and Canada, but also from as far away as Korea! Everyone was their to learn and to be inspired!

Our first session was "Meet the Artist(s): Bobby and Kristen Lopez."  They are the married couple who wrote the Oscar and Grammy-winning music and lyrics for Disney's Frozen.  Bobby also was co-creator of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. He has won "all" the awards, EGOT, (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), and is the youngest ever to do so.  Kristen, in addition to having a really great first name, has been one of the team that conceived and created an a cappella musical, In Transit, which ran on Broadway last year. I can think of quite a few students for whom combining a cappella and theatre would be pretty much their ideal experience!

Kristen sang, Bobby played the piano, and together they told us the stories of how they got into songwriting, how they met, and the process of working on creating a show.  Bobby got an early start, Kristen spent some time acting, and teaching!, before finding her true calling.  But what they both said very clearly was that they both created, and still create, songs all the time.  Not always full length songs, often just jingles or even one-line songs.  They sang and played a few about very mundane things, like people they observe while waiting at an airport. But I found it fascinating that they flex their song-creating muscles constantly in this way, in the same way that an artist might sketch in a sketch book. 

Both artists trained by attending a (or maybe I should say, "THE") musical theatre writing workshop, The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. It has been running for over 50 years, and many Broadway writers and composers have taken the two (or more) year course.  It is fully funded by BMI; yup, absolutely free ... if you apply and get accepted, that is.  BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc., is a non-profit organization, and is the largest music rigths organization in the U.S.

If you are curious, you can read more about it here: History of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop

While they certainly couldn't convey everything they learned in a two year course to us in just one hour, I did learn some interesting things.  They talked about a few different types of songs that appear in many/most musicals.  The first is the "I Want Song."  What does the character want?  And what would they sing about it?  Multiple characters can have "I Want Songs" and characters can have more than one in the course of a show.  Anna in Frozen has three, because her wants change over the course of the story.  They mentioned that the main character often gets what they want by the end of the show, though maybe not in the way they expected, or maybe their want has changed.

Another song type is "The Charm Song."  It doesn't have to do much, just be sweet and charming.  "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid are examples.

Want to know more?  Have a look at this:  Musical Theatre Song Types Quizlet

Perhaps most fascinating was hearing how the story and characters of Frozen evolved. They said in the earlier versions Elsa was not nice, she was the villain.  But they talked about her situation, and the kind of pressure she would be under, and what does that feel like, and what if she decided to ... "Let it Go" ... and the song was born.  When they took the song to the screenwriters, everyone imediately realized that they had to re-write the story, because their whole take on Elsa's character had been altered by the song!

It really made me think about how theatre is a creative process, and the best theatre artists are constantly reflecting, and not afraid to keep making changes.  They are always asking, "What do we want this to be?" and even more daringly "What does this want to be?"

The Lopez duo is currently working on Frozen 2 for the cinema, and Frozen, The Musical for the theatre.  It was really interesting to hear them discuss the types of artistic choices that are made when moving from screen to stage ... but they said they have to sign all kinds of non-disclosure agreements when working with Disney ... and they were not allowed to give anything away!  I'm sure I'll be seeing both the movie sequel and the Broadway show at some point, and I'm sure I'll be thinking about what changes they made, and why.  They did say that adapting a movie for Broadway is about finding a balance of change and unchanged.  For Frozen Disney gave them a directive: make it as emotional a journey as you can. They want it to appeal to adults too, so we can expect to see more from some of the other characters ... like the parents.  Why did the parents choose to do what they did?  Wow, that actuallly sounds like the kind of questions we explore in drama class!  If any of you ever want to write a song instead of creating a scene or monologue in class, just let me know!