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The Book. What is “The Book”?. The Book – also called the libretto – is the least appreciated and yet most dramatically important element of a musical. It is the narrative structure that keeps the score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs.

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what is the book
What is “The Book”?
  • The Book – also called the libretto – is the least appreciated and yet most dramatically important element of a musical. It is the narrative structure that keeps the score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs.
  • For many years, the main point of most shows was to showcase a score and/or a major star. As a result, the books of most Broadway musicals were a series of scenes, jokes and sight gags designed to get from song to song. As long as the script provided excuses for Al Jolson to sing a few hits or Marilyn Miller to do a dance routine, theatergoers were satisfied. By the 1940s, audiences were ready for something more, and shows like Pal Joey, Lady In the Dark and Oklahoma! made it imperative that the book and score interweave to tell a cohesive story. Now for a performer to stop the show, the action had to build up to a key moment of song and/or dance. This made for a much more satisfying kind of theatrical entertainment.
  • More than one expert has observed that musicals with great scores and weak books tend to fail, while those with mediocre scores and solid books have a better chance of succeeding. After all, the first job of every play or film – musical or not – is to tell a good story.
key book elements
Key Book Elements
  • A musical book must do the following:
    • Keep the story line clear and easy to follow.
    • Create characters that are easy to relate to, without resorting

to stereotypes.

    • Create situations that call characters into song.
    • Move in and out of songs as smoothly as possible.
    • Hand over much (and sometimes all) of the plot and character development to the songs and choreography.
    • Make the audience care at all times. (If the action gets dull, nothing guarantees an audience will stay to learn the ending!)
    • Provide basic blocking and lighting cues.
    • And all this must be done within a script that seems skeletal compared to a full length drama. At least fifty percent of a musical's running time belongs to the songs and dances. Small wonder that so few playwrights are willing to attempt musical librettos – they are a separate art form. 
  • Only a few successful musicals use 100% original story lines.
  • Most are adapted from novels (Les Miserables, The King & I), plays (Oklahoma, Hello Dolly) or films (A Little Night Music, Nine, The Producers). Others are inspired by historical figures (Rex, George M) or events in the headlines (Call Me Madam, Capeman).
  • When selecting a story for adaptation, the creative team must first determine that music will add to the effectiveness of the story. Not all stories sing, and relentlessly tragic tales are better suited to grand opera.
  • The main requirement is to have a situation that allows characters to experience a wide range of emotions. It is in the transitions from hope to joy to despair to final triumph that characters can find something to sing about.
scene structure
Scene Structure
  • As in non-musical plays, the ending of each scene in a book musical must project the action forward, pointing the audience's interest into the scenes to come.
  • Since good show tunes often capture a moment of transition, realization or decision, a song (or a brief reprise) is often used to bring scenes to a neat close.
  • This is why librettists must work in close collaboration with composers and lyricists to determine where songs fit and how to get into song as seamlessly as possible.
  • Audiences now cringe at obvious song cues ("Tell us about it, Jane.")
  • Ideally, the book and score should be written simultaneously, rather than have either one built around the other.
  • Ending Act One
    • The modern musical libretto is almost always written in a two-act format. Audiences are accustomed to it, and intermission sales (refreshments, souvenirs) provide theatre owners with crucial income. If nothing else, an audience forced to sit for hours is tougher to entertain. To put it bluntly, if you don't give audiences a pee break, they will take one in the middle of crucial scenes!
    • Those who write a one or three act show can rest assured that others will eventually re-format it to two acts. (This fact of life has plagued the authors of Man of La Mancha, a one-act that is frequently performed with an unauthorized intermission).
    • If nothing else, intermissions force book writers to make sure the story gets somewhere by a reasonable point – at least enough to make an audience want to come back for Act Two.
    • The first act does not have to end with a cliff-hanger, but we should be curious to see what happens next.
examples of memorable act one endings
Examples of memorable Act One endings:
  • Fiddler On the Roof– A horrific pogrom (a violent religious riot) ruins Tzeitel's wedding. How will Tevye's family carry on?
  • My Fair Lady – As Liza dances off with the scheming linguist Zoltan Karparthy, will her secret be exposed and Professor Higgins' work ruined?
  • Annie – Will an orphan find her long lost parents?
  • Les Miserables – How will the many characters we've met in Act One get through the imminent revolution?
  • If you have not hooked an audience before intermission time, odds are you have a flop on your hands 
  • This problem holds especially true with stage adaptations of screen musicals. The Broadway version of Meet Me In St. Louis turned "The Trolley Song" into a dream sequence, robbing it of any significance and doing nothing to point to the next act.
  • The stage version of State Fair ended with "It's a Grand Night for Singing" – a great song, but one that did nothing to set up what lay ahead.
  • Both shows failed despite classic scores, primarily because their cinematic story lines did not adapt well to the two-act stage format.
ending act two
Ending Act Two
  • The end of Act Two is even more important. It is what audiences walk out with, and a powerful final scene can make up for a lot of shortcomings earlier in the show. Having a great song helps – many shows reprise their strongest ballad – but the book writer must structure the play so that the last scene packs a genuine wallop.
  • The Sound of Music has the Von Trapps escape to freedom over the Alps as a chorus of nuns sing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."
  • A Chorus Line brings all the dancers back for the socko dance number, "One." Although this illogically contradicts everything that occurs beforehand  (when most of these dancers were eliminated), no audience really cares. Its a sensational coup de theatre.
  • Annie has the orphan girl's long-lost pooch Sandy pop out of a gift box on Christmas morning, winning a guaranteed cheer from the audience.
  • Secret Garden has Uncle Archie embrace his niece Mary as the ghosts of the past depart to the strains of "Come To The Garden."
  • The Producers has Bialystok & Bloom surrounded by the marquees for their future tasteless (and hilarious) hits – like "Death of a Salesman - On Ice."
what makes a good plot
What Makes a Good Plot
  • The Elements of Plot Development
  • If an author writes, "The king died and then the queen died," there is no plot for a story. But by writing, "The king died and then the queen died of grief," the writer has provided a plot line for a story.
  • A plot is a causal sequence of events, the "why" for the things that happen in the story. The plot draws the reader into the character's lives and helps the reader understand the choices that the characters make.
  • A plot's structure is the way in which the story elements are arranged. Writers vary structure depending on the needs of the story. For example, in a mystery, the author will withhold plot exposition until later in the story. In William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" it is only at the end of the story that we learn what Miss Emily has been up to all those years while locked away in her Southern mansion.
plot elements
Plot Elements
  • Narrative tradition calls for developing stories with particular pieces--plot elements--in place.
    • Exposition is the information needed to understand a story.
    • Complication is the catalyst that begins the major conflict.
    • Climax is the turning point in the story that occurs when characters try to resolve the complication.
    • Resolution is the set of events that bring the story to a close.
point of view
Point of View
  • Objective Point of ViewWith the objective point of view, the writer tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story's action and dialogue. The narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer.
  • Third Person Point of ViewHere the narrator does not participate in the action of the story as one of the characters, but lets us know exactly how the characters feel. We learn about the characters through this outside voice.
  • First Person Point of ViewIn the first person point of view, the narrator does participate in the action of the story. When reading stories in the first person, we need to realize that what the narrator is recounting might not be the objective truth. We should question the trustworthiness of the accounting.
  • Omniscient and Limited Omniscient Points of ViewA narrator who knows everything about all the characters is all knowing, or omniscient.
  • A narrator whose knowledge is limited to one character, either major or minor, has a limited omniscient point of view.
  • How does the point of view affect your responses to the characters? How is your response influenced by how much the narrator knows and how objective he or she is? First person narrators are not always trustworthy. It is up to you to determine what is the truth and what is not.
  • Think of 3 plot ideas for an original musical
    • Try to stay away from book, movies, or other musical plots. Small pieces of other works may be used for ideas.
  • Write a brief (4-5 sentences) for each plot
    • Who are your main characters? What conflicts do they meet?
  • Try to make each plot different (eg. One romance, one comedy, one tragedy)
  • Due Friday, August 28th