I see a rainbow

The subject of storyboarding came up in three different contexts, which, I suppose, is a sign I should say something about it. First, I mentioned it here – I write these things in advance, so it might not seem like this was first to you. When Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were hired by Disney to write The Little Mermaid, the studio either introduced them to or imposed upon them the old animators’ trick of pinning cards with story beats on a cork board. Stephen Schwartz was favorably impressed by this method when he did time at Disney, and has been spreading the gospel (oops, almost wrote Godspell) at the ASCAP workshop he moderates. Finally, a scene depicting this turned up on Smash, a rare moment of the TV soap showing anything that actually ever happens in the development of a musical.

I couldn’t find the time to attend the ASCAP workshop this year, but it’s usually a highlight of my spring. I was a participant in its inaugural year, back when it was run by Charles Strouse. I take copious notes, guess what the panelists will say, and learn a little something. There’s no substitute for being there, but, this year, a friend forwarded his copious notes. As has happened in many previous years, Stephen Schwartz went into some detail about the storyboarding process.

New to me was the information that Disney developed this in his studio’s early days so that various departments on a feature-length cartoon could make sure they were on the same page. On a show I wrote book, music and lyrics for, there was no one to keep on the same page, but I still found it valuable. I lacked a bulletin board and tacks, so I used post-it notes on a dry erase board.

Here’s what you do. Every individual event that happens in your show gets expressed on an index card in one or two sentences. A different colored card is used for songs. Attach these, in order, on a board, in lines.

Now you’ve got something to stare at, fodder for thought and discussion about structure. And you might ask yourself certain questions:

Does each beat follow naturally from the beat before, and/or lead, organically, to the next one?
Are there cards you can remove and tell the story more efficiently?
Have you built tension into your act break? During intermission, some of your audience may have fifteen minutes to mull over your characters’ situation. Plus, people have to return for Act Two remembering where we are in the story.
Does it seem like you’re going too long between songs?
Do you have too many songs in a row? The part of the brain that takes in music may need a break.
Are there too many ballads, or ballads in a row? This is so often an important question, you might want to use white cards for songless beats, blue cards for ballads, pink for up-tempo, etc.

There are times when back-to-back songs have worked. In The Christmas Bride, my song Fluttering is followed by Turn Around (a scene change) and it’s a quick way of checking in with the emotional lives of the two leads. In She Loves Me, the title song follows Vanilla Ice Cream, similarly. (I’m not usually moved by dialogue-free musicals, because the switch to and from spoken words is an exciting sound, to my ears.)

Cards tacked to a board are easy to adjust, and don’t forget your creative team isn’t solely writers. The director and set designer will make decisions based in the storyboard. A costume designer will see when an actor needs a quick change. You, the writer, can be good to your actors, making sure no one’s stuck on stage for ungodly gobs of time.

Speaking of that, don’t go wasting ungodly gobs of time staring at this thing: It’s just a tool, you know.


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