The Architecture of Musicals

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The Architecture of Musicals

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It is often stated, (and part of musical theatre writer lore), that when the emotion of a particular moment for the character becomes so great that words alone cannot express what they are experiencing, their only choice is to sing, and when that’s not enough, to dance. Obviously, there is so much more to it than that, but for the creator of musicals, it’s a great place to start, “why sing, why dance, and why now?” What makes a musical a musical?

In 1942 there was a seismic shift in the American theatre. The musical Oklahoma opened on Broadway and a radical new form emerged, the completely integrated musical, where every element: music, dance, dialogue, were all working together toward telling a dramatic story in a seamless way. We will begin there, in the tradition of the “Golden Age” musicals, where an actual structure and formula took shape for how a musical should look, feel, and be constructed in order to achieve a successful and satisfying result.  Though the formula would morph, often being completely blown apart and reimagined, as it should be, there are still ingredients in that formula that should be respected as tools for the emerging writer of musical theatre, and they surprisingly continue to pop up today. In this course, we will develop our own toolbox for creating musicals – a toolbox that we will expand and shape over 10 weeks and through the examination of 12 musicals. From Gypsy to Jelly’s Last Jam from Assassins to Dear Evan Hansen, what do these musicals have in common, and yet, how do they successfully offer new and thrilling methods for moving the art form forward through compelling means of storytelling?  

This course will require analyzing book and lyric, as well as understanding the importance of stage direction as a tool for conveying the other integrated elements of a musical such as dance and movement. We will gain an understanding of song form, rhyme scheme, and scansion in lyric writing, as it all relates to the tone of the book and the forward movement of the story. We will develop a vocabulary for understanding musical structure, be able to recognize form, genre and style, allowing us to draw from these tools and discover new ways of approaching our own musical storytelling, because in the end, what makes for a great musical? Abundant creatively, a great story, good craft, and a lot of heart.

InstructorsJohn Dietrich

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