If you are like many young playwrights, the idea of writing musical theatre lyrics strikes you with something akin to existential dread. Some writers are intimidated by the thought of working with music. Others may be intimidated by rhyme schemes or the fear that lyrics have to sound "poetic." But don't worry! As a playwright, you're already well on your way to becoming a skilled lyricist—probably more than you realize.
So, if you've mastered the monologue, solved the soliloquy and want to branch out into writing lyrics for your next musical, look no further. Whether you're a musician yourself, part of a songwriting team or just curious about the craft, here are some tips I hope will get you inspired to put pen to paper and give voice to a verse.
The #1 Rule
The cardinal rule of musical theatre lyric writing is to remember you are writing for a character. Just because reality is heightened in a musical (are the characters actually singing?) doesn't mean you have permission to write just anything. As a playwright, you know that all characters have their unique set of quirks, vocabularies and linguistic habits. The same applies to musical theatre lyrics: just because you the writer would use a certain word, rhyme or phrase doesn't necessarily mean your character would. This is the crucial component that distinguishes dramatic lyric writing from other forms where the lyricist may have more freedom to write from their own perspective. The challenge then becomes finding expressive, moving, funny and genuine ways of saying what you want to say while preserving the natural voice of your character.
This rule is why Sondheim has grown to regret his lyrics in "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story: he believes those clever multi-syllabic rhymes make Maria sound more educated and adept with English than her character is supposed to be. If only Sondheim had known better back in 1957. Then his career might have actually taken off. (Pause for laughs.) You know, like a "Jet"? (Pause futilely for more laughs.)
Speaking of Sondheim...
In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim lists his four truisms for good lyric writing:
1. Content Dictates Form. This means that the subject, or "content," of your lyrics will directly determine what kind of structure, or "form," they take. (For example, a happy song about getting a new puppy may take the form of an up-tempo pop number, and a meaningful love song may take the form of a slow waltz.)
2. Less is More. The more you can economize your language, the stronger your lyrics will be. Lyrics cannot afford to waste words the way monologues and dialogue can often get away with.
3. God is in the Details. Lyrics are much more stripped down than dialogue, and even the tiniest word can have an immense impact. Every choice you make as a lyricist matters.
4. All in the Service of Clarity. If you lose your audience—if at any time they're unsure of what you're trying to say—you've sinned against Sondheim. (This rule applies to all forms of audience engagement—you can be intricate, you can be indirect, but whatever you do, don't bore your audience!)
I'd add to Sondheim's list that, much more so than dialogue, lyrics convey emotion. Everything is heightened in song: without a strong emotion motivating every lyric, there's little reason for them to be sung.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where we'll get more into the nitty-gritty of lyric writing—including lessons on scansion and rhyming and tips for getting started.