A successful Broadway librettist offers a detailed tour underneath the hood of classic musicals.
According to Cuden, co-creator of the stage version of Jekyll and Hyde, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” By following the basic tenets of storytelling—which, he says, viewers expect, even if they don’t comprehend—the book for a musical can be the first step in creating something salable to producers and enjoyable for audiences. Starting from Aristotle’s teaching that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, Cuden places writing for commercial theater structurally in the same place as screenwriting, and he recommends an approach similar to writing for the movies, such as transforming already existing material and keeping plots simple and characters complex. Within the three movements of a story, Cuden places seven plot points through which plots progress: life in the normal world; an inciting incident; the point of no return for the protagonist; a midpoint in which the protagonist gains a new understanding of what to do (through which a miniclimax and then the intermission can occur); escalating conflict leading into the “Big Gloom”; a climax in which the protagonist dramatically succeeds or fails; and then the close of the show featuring the new normal, a world that has been changed by the protagonist’s journey. Cuden’s depiction of story structure is a bit dry and repetitive, like a textbook, and readers might do well to return to earlier sources referenced in the book, such as Hal Ackerman. But the genius in this manual is the second half, in which Cuden creates an impressive breakdown of 35 stage musicals and movie musicals into scene-by-scene synopses, highlighting the places in each where they manifest the seven plot points. Not only useful to libretto writers, this detailed treatment will also appeal to general Broadway fans as a behind-the-scenes look at how the stories they love were built.
Broadway hopefuls and admirers will enjoy this reverse engineering of the genre’s great successes.