Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Happiness is a Broadway Musical

I am so enjoying my trial satellite radio in my new car. My favorite station, hands down, is the Broadway station. Every song evokes a memory - from acting out the entire album of A Chorus Line for my parents and baby sister when I was a kid, to sitting in an off-Broadway theater watching The Fantasticks for the first time.

Musicals aren't for everyone, I understand, but to me they are poetry - often tackling the bigger themes of life - love, betrayal, power, and on and on, and telling stories not only through dialogue and character but through song. I think Stephen Sondheim is my favorite Broadway storyteller. His lyrics are always brilliant, twisty, snappy, clever, funny, emotive. He is as big a fan of the written word as any novelist.

Look at these lyrics from Sondheim's Into the Woods, where Little Red Riding Hood sings about her experience with The Wolf:

When he said, "Come in!"
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,
At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn't known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with starngers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

And yesterday in the car, the sweet lyrics to this simple song from "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" gave me goosebumps and almost made me cry:

Happiness is two kinds of ice cream
Knowing a secret
Climbing a tree
Happiness is five different crayons
Catching a firefly
Setting him free
Happiness is being alone every now and then
And happiness is coming home again...

I love the earnestness of musicals - how emotions are belted out and everything is done on a grand scale.

My ideas come from a much smaller place - an imagined situation, a character that pecks around in my head until it demands to be set free.

I think it would be a fun exercise to start writing from an emotion. Why not start with the emotion you're feeling right now? Right this very second. What is it? Why are you experiencing it? How does it feel? And then what? And then what? And then what?

Melissa Clark is a writer. Her favorite musicals, in no particular order, are A Little Night Music, Company, Aint Misbehavin', West Side Story, The Music Man, and Godspell. What are yours?


  1. Well, Melissa, this is a very indulgent post--FOR ME!! You hit on two personal favs, I've seen Into the Woods twice and, well, if you twist my arm, I will admit that my son was Charlie Brown in his middle school production of YAGMCB this year... Mere steps from Broadway himself, I'm sure (;!!

    But yes, yes, yes, I think show tunes harbor lots of literary inspiration!! Your post got me moving this morning!!

  2. What a great post to start off the day with . . . I love it! And yes, while my inspiration seems often like a whisper, I always have to drill down to find the emotion of it.

    And now I'm going to be humming show tunes all day. How fun!

  3. I love the question, "And then what? And then what?" :)

  4. I LOVE Broadway musicals! I love how characters are so upfront about what they truly want-- they always just sing about it. I always recommend studying musicals to figure out story structure. They do that so well, don't they?

  5. I was raised on show tunes and have wonderful memories of acting in high school musicals, small parts in The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, and Hello Dolly. Thanks for reminding me!