I recently had reason to recollect a small triumph from my youth. It was the first time I got paid for writing anything, and it was a substantial amount of money for me at the time. I sold a story to a television producer. Subsequently, he failed in his attempts to sell it to the networks, and that was that.
Some of the best musicals of the 1960s were written by folks who used to pen scripts for the small screen: Peter Stone (1776), Neil Simon (Little Me, Sweet Charity, Promises Promises) and Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello Dolly) brought skill sets borne of their Golden Age of Television experience. And it’s not just librettists: Stephen Sondheim wrote for a sitcom before getting produced on Broadway. So, it’s a fair supposition that there’s at least a little to be learned from stuff on the tube.
I see that two women I’d created revues with in two different and unconnected decades are now working together on a new sitcom. Skills honed in musical comedy land, now applied to the small screen. To do the reverse, make sure you’re examining good television. Now I’m not going to spend time here placing different series into “good” and “bad” categories. What matters are the elements that make up a good episode. Be analytical about it as any academic: why do you enjoy the television shows you find particularly well-written?
One of the things you’ll notice about filmed television (as opposed to multiple-camera sitcoms, a dying breed), is that scenes are over quickly. So, each hour contains a multitude of ends-of-scenes. The conclusion of a scene is called a button, also used as a verb. The writer must ask herself: How am I going to button each scene? One common way is with a joke. Go out on a big laugh, and the viewer won’t mind being taken away from the action that’s just been presented. If it’s funny enough. Another out is the shocking revelation. If this gives the viewer fodder for contemplation, you can go to a commercial break and viewers will still be thinking about it by the time they’re finished pressing Fast Forward. Of course, commercials, or, on long-form series, ends of episodes can use a good cliff-hanger. I’ve been saying for years that musicals need to get the audience wondering what will happen next. A good long-form serial will keep you wondering all week, and that next episode becomes appointment television. You can end scenes with dramatic moments which don’t require further exploration. One very long-running television show gave a character a cancer scare, and, in the final scene, she got the good news she didn’t have cancer. A cause for celebration, but the writer knew we didn’t really need to see that celebration.
In musicals, we’ve a distinct advantage: We can always end our scenes with applause-earning numbers. But a scene that ends without a button looks damn awkward, in either medium. And consider this: energy-wise, it’s rather difficult to end a big song and then resume the same scene with dialogue. The audience feels the huge drop in intensity when you go from sung (and, perhaps, danced) material to spoken words. Don’t ignore the drop. I once had a bunch of workers happily goofing off in an impromptu production number, which of course was greeted with an ovation, and then the boss walks in, asks “What’s going on?” and the awkwardness of the comparative silence became a joke in and of itself.
One network television series that, it’s generally acknowledged, was particularly well-written was The West Wing. Quite literally, when my wife is home sick, she takes out season-set DVDs and revisits episodes she’s seen many times. They’re worth looking at just to see how scenes end. When you’ve viewed a lot of effective endings, you’re more likely to come up with effective ways of ending scenes in your musical. And, if you’re smart, you won’t have as many scenes in your show as you’d find in a typical West Wing episode. Too many buttons makes for an unwieldy suit.
Years ago, I attended a new musical comedy with a television comedy writer. Critical of the effectiveness of some of the jokes, he speculated they wouldn’t have made it out of rewrite night on his show. This was a big Aha! moment for me. Every sitcom, before it goes before the cameras goes in front of a large table of funny sorts: punch-up specialists, jokifiers, the layers-on of levity. Why shouldn’t musicals, my brain stormed, go through the same process? As it turns out, musicals do go through the same process, and I vowed that one day I’d have a script of mine improved by beneficent clowns around a table. Many years later, around a fancy dinner table at my director’s apartment, the dream came true. Some of the funniest people I know read the script out loud, and, wherever appropriate, batted better and better gags back and forth. My script grew far funnier that night.
And now I suppose I have to quote one of the rewrite gang’s added jokes. This exchange didn’t survive into subsequent drafts, only because the character they’re talking about changed so that she wasn’t a klutzy dancer.