I was driving yesterday and put Les Misérables in the CD player for the first time in ages. Wow, that’s a good show. And as I was listening, it struck me that there’s a few tips you can pick up from musicals on good writing.
- Dialogue – Expositional dialogue drives me crazy. “Hello Annie who is my sister and has dark hair, did you hear Ruth who is our half sister and ran away with the milkman is back in town?”. Ugh. And yet in musicals there’s no prose, no way of easily relating backstory. So it all has to come through the dialogue/lyrics WITHOUT being exposition. And good musicals do it. Ok, so at the start of Les Mis you get a teensy bit between Jean Valjean and Javert, but it’s not forced, it doesn’t intrude and it ain’t bad going in a 3 hour show. You also have to relate the character’s feelings through their dialogue, as someone listening to the soundtrack without being able to see the acting needs to be able to get a rough idea of the story, and you can’t use prose here.
- Characters – Musicals use lyrics to lay their characters bare. They need to. They could show Valjean going through angst as he decides whether to turn himself in or not, but without the words you’d just wonder if he was constipated. So you get Valjean’s Soliloquy, and Javert’s suicide; deep emotion made believable through 2 minutes of lyrics. At least I think so.
- Voices – Secondary characters in good musicals also get a voice and are made believable. Eponine is a very minor character in Les Mis, but she gets some cracking songs, including one of the most popular woman’s solos EVER, and we really care about her when she dies. You can see how distinctive each of the characters is in One Day More, where everyone’s voice comes through clearly despite being so deeply layered.
- Setting – Again, there’s no prose or description to give a sense of atmosphere or setting. The most you might get is some explanatory notes in the programme, but you can’t rely on those. Some comes through the set, but mostly you know what’s going on because the characters are acting and speaking in a way that’s believable for their setting. Javert IS a nineteenth-century, upright policeman. Chris (in Miss Saigon) IS a 1970’s GI. Bernardo IS a Puerto Rican immigrant in 1950’s New York.
- Growth – The characters we care about most in musicals are the ones we see make a journey. One of my favourite characters is The Man in Whistle Down the Wind – you can see him change and grow and move on just from his dialogue with Swallow and the kids. On the flip side, Judas is a truly tragic figure because you watch his faith in Jesus crumble and his dilemma, as he sees it, crush him.
These are a few of the things we could learn from musicals, in my humble opinion. I’m off to put them into practice!
Anyone got anything to add? I’d love to hear what you think.