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Theatre Writer Book

Julian Woolford , Nick Hern Books , November-11-12
Theatre Writer Book by Julian Woolford No-one is better suited than Julian Woolford to write this book. His experience marries the role of practitioner and explicator. His adaptation as a musical of “the Railway Children” has played in forty countries. He teaches at Goldsmiths College on Britain’s only degree course in the writing of musicals. “How Musicals Work” combines musical and lyrical analysis, dramatic theory, some exercises, a guide to legal and copyright matters and a rich selection of tales, both admiring and cautionary, from the industry.

The musicals are above all the art of collaboration. Musical brilliance is not necessarily a prerequisite. Irving Berlin wrote almost everything in F sharp and had use of a specially adapted piano for transposition to other keys. Lionel Bart could neither read nor write music. He sang to his own guitar. As to whether the music should precede the lyric or vice versa Richard Rodgers in collaboration with Lorenz Hart wrote the music first., With Oscar Hammerstein the lyrics came first. Kander and Ebb wrote music and lyrics together in the same place.

There are principles in musicals but few rules. Most are adaptations but some- “A Chorus Line”, “Company”- are not. “Follies” had its inspiration in a single photograph, that of Gloria Swanson amidst the ruins of a Broadway theatre. Previews on a tight budget are usually a few nights, but can last a month. “Spiderman” entered theatre history with its six months between first preview and press night. After “Mama Mia” the jukebox musical- a compilation of hits- looks an easy sell to producers. Woolford reveals “a heap of musical crashes…shoehorning the songs of the Beach Boys, Rod Stewart, Blondie and Elvis into generally witless books.”

Woolford is strong on craft. Fifty-eight pages on the topic of structure begins with the sentence “At the heart of every musical is a great book.” “Mack and Mabel”, “the Beautiful Game” and “Anyone Can Whistle” have wonderful songs but lack the book that binds it all together. That is true. “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from the last is sublime.

Woolford goes back to the beginning, Aristotle’s six elements. He has a good sentence on lyric-writing “rhyme with reason”. Rhyme for the sake of rhyme and the composer loses sense and character. Sondheim in “Finishing the Hat” is fierce on “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Why the age of seven or eight, instead of nine or ten? Because “eight” rhymes with “hate” is not good enough. The message is take care with a rhyme plucked from the air

He has the advice of experience. If you have a draft it is an uncommon actor who will give you an unvarnished opinion. Harrison Ford is not the norm with his comment to George Lucas’ work on “Star Wars” “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”

“How Musicals Work”contains forty pages plus of tables in which the building blocks of the art are laid out with real examples. The mentor figure is a common character. He lists, among others, Colonel Pickering, the Engineer (“Miss Saigon”) and the Mother Abbess (“the Sound of Music”). Thirteen lyrics from “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” to “Over the Rainbow” are analysed by interval, semitone number and whether a particular phrase rises or falls. He makes mention of a mis-scanned lyric where the stress in singing falls on “York” in “New York”. (Welsh spoofers replaced it with “Newport”. The parody did not survive the music company’s annoyance and Youtube removed it.)

But then, like Robert McKee on film structure, these are tools that he offers, not a substitute for flair and originality. “Company” has the loosest of structures and “Cats” virtually does without.

Lastly, Woolford delivers plenty of practical advice. The Performance Rights Society has no jurisdiction over music that is used dramatically. Perfect Pitch is a not-for-profit group whose mission is the furthering of musicals. Unsolicited scripts are welcome. Mercury Musical Developments is a writers’ organisation. He advises just when it may be a good time to offer a royalty waiver. The amateur market is large and lucrative but the companies seek evidence of a hit.

The language is non-technical. “Diegetic” is as complicated as it gets. But he explains how “Somewhere”, as in “…over the Rainbow” is set on an octave leap, endowing it with a feeling of yearning.

“How Musicals Work” does not have the astringent depth of critique that Sondheim puts into the two volumes of his work. The aspirant musical writer should have sight of the insert boxes in “Finishing the Hat” and it successor. Otherwise, Julian Woolford will tell the new composer-lyricist-book-writer all they need to know. After that it is determination. As an old hand tells him “ You never finish a musical. You just stop working on it.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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