Just heard an interview with a first-time musical writer: “All of my songs, they were all written before the story. Everyone always said all along how theatrical my pop songs were. So I decided to thread them into a story…so it sort of seemed the obvious thing to do in the end: to sew them all together into a plot.”
Ah, yes: the ol’ Recipe For Disaster. This is how bad musicals get written. (There are other ways, too.) Key to this songwriter’s self-delusion is a misunderstanding of the term “theatrical.” When someone (or “everyone”) compliments a pop song by saying it was theatrical (if it was a compliment) they probably mean that it shares some superficial qualities with musical theatre songs. Maybe a character in a situation is depicted; maybe there’s an emotional change. But, to work in the theatre, songs have to do much more – OK, let’s be less judgmental and just say that, in a show, songs have to do different things than pop songs do. Things that this songwriter never considered.
The [title of show] boys have it right: “You’ve got a story to tell…” because, ideally, it all starts with the plot. Virtually all the great musical were written when collaborators got together to tell a story, and figured out how to tell that story using a combination of dialogue, song, and probably dance. If you take songs that weren’t written to tell a story, and force them into service of a stage narrative, you’re mucking up a process that’s already difficult to get right. Mamma Mia is the most famous example. ABBA had a string of hits back in the disco age. The story of a young woman interacting with three men who were her mother’s lovers nine months before her birth, and therefore may be her father, comes from an old movie, Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell, which was made into a musical before, Carmelina. It’s an icky plot, to my taste, but the creators of Mamma Mia have so inelegantly shoe-horned ABBA hits in, well, the extreme clunkiness is part of the joke. People are amused by how bad it is, it seems.
Good news! You get to decide what sort of musical writer you want to be. You can be like 99% of the Tony winners, and go forward. When it’s time to write that song, you’re going to know who the character is, what needs to be accomplished in the song, what emotional change the character is going through, what effect it will have on the listener, what the moment before is, and where the show is going after. Or, you can go about it bass-ackward. You can take a song that’s already written, and start contriving the character that might sing it, and their arc, and what’s got to happen before, and after, and fashion some plot that, hopefully, progresses during this song. And if that’s the path you choose to take, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?