10 Minute Masterclass | Use your favourite show songs to improve your writing skills

Since closing our doors, the Bush team has continued working hard to bring exciting new voices to the UK stage. As part of this work, we are producing a series of 10 Minute Masterclasses to support anyone who is interested in writing and plays.

In our first 10 Minute Masterclass Bush Literary Manager, Deirdre O’Halloran, uses your favourite musical showstoppers to explore key writing skills such as:

  • World building
  • Character motivations
  • Dialogue
  • Playing with form

During this difficult time any donation, big or small, will play a part in ensuring we can continue to support writers. Please click here to donate if you can.

Watch our 10 Minute Masterclass on how to create a complex character that will drive your story.

Film Transcript:
Hello! I’m Deirdre, I’m the Literary Manager of the Bush Theatre.  I’m also a massive fan of musicals, so I thought that it might be fun to talk to you about some set pieces from musicals and how those could inspire the play you’re writing.
So! Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors is my favourite musical theatre opening number of all time. I think it’s really brilliant at world-building. World-building is something that I don’t think we talk about enough in playwriting.  World-building is about giving us enough information to properly understand the context that your characters are in so that we can really understand the journey that they go on. And Skid Row does this really beautifully.  Seymour tells us that in this neighbourhood, depression is just status quo. Everyone is working really hard and they’re not seeing very much for it and Seymour feels completely trapped there.  And we really understand why he feels like he desperately needs to get out. And so it doesn’t give the whole plot of the musical away, but it does give us enough information that when a flesh-eating alien plant shows up, we can completely understand why Seymour would be susceptible to its charms.
Now what does that tell you for the play that you’re writing?
I think it would be a really great idea to just jot down all the information you think the audience needs to know to properly understand the situation that your characters are in. So maybe you want to tell us about the physical landscape they’re living in. Or how they grew up.  Or what their socio-economic background is. Like what are the things that we really need to know so we can properly relate to the decisions that they’re making and understand why they’re making them.
Once you’ve done that, you can have a think about where in your story those things should go. Should they be in stage directions? Can you sprinkle them in to dialogue? Where should they go, and when do we need to hear them so we can properly go on a journey with your characters and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing?
There are loads of examples of “I want” songs that we all know. So it’s that bit in the Disney movie where Simba just can’t wait to be king, or Ariel is ready to ask What a fire is” and why does it, what’s the word… burn?”.  So it’s absolute distilled desire where they tell us exactly what they want and we really want them to get it because they’re singing about it so beautifully.
So thinking about your character – what is it that they really desperately want? Do they know it from the very beginning? Or is it something that they kind of learn after an event, or as the story goes on?
If you’re going to write them their “I want” song – where exactly would you put it in the structure of your play?
And once they know what they want – do they ever articulate it? Or is it something that’s unspoken and it just drives them quietly throughout the whole play?
And do they get what they want? And if they do, is it in the way that they expect?
So there’s lots of musicals that use different musical styles for different characters in the piece. When we think about Hamilton, we usually think about rap, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on there. The rebels – they’re very fast-talking and very passionate and they rap, and that makes loads of sense.  But when King George comes in, he’s much more like jaunty and comic because he doesn’t fit in this world at all and we need to know that he’s super out of touch. Or Eliza uses a much more kind of traditional, lyrical, musical theatre style because she also isn’t really in that political landscape and she’s driven by different things. So it’s a really great way for us to just learn about the energy and the tone of those characters.
So when you think about your play, if you’re writing for multiple characters, if you were going to give them a musical style, what would those musical styles be?
Are there people who have kind of the same musical style but as the show goes on maybe they branch out into their own kind of music? Or like do they stay the same the whole way through?
And then when we take that further – if you look at the patterns of speech of your characters, how does the dialogue show you what the energy and the tone of those characters are?
Are they speaking in big block chunks of text when you look at the page? Or do they maybe speak a little bit more sparsely and how can you maybe show differences between characters through their patterns of speech as well?
Because I started with Opening Numbers, it might make sense to finish with Finales, but that’s not what I’m going to do! What I want to talk about instead are 11 o’clock numbers.  So 11 o’clock numbers come quite late in the second half of the show and they are a turning point, so they’re a point of revelation for the character that’s singing the song.  And once that song is sung, nothing is gonna be the same.  Everything will change and we’re on our way to the conclusion of the show.
So my favourite 11 o’clock number at the moment is She Used to Be Mine from Waitress. Because at this moment at the start of the song, Jenna is at her lowest ebb and as it goes on, she finds the strength that she needs to change her life and to bring us to the end of the show. So it has a story structure, um, function but also it’s this beautiful, soaring passionate song that brings the house down, so it also is getting us emotionally ready for the play to end. It’s getting us all geared up and ready for things to turn out well.
Now this might seem like the least transferrable to playwriting but it is definitely possible. So Temi Wilkey in The High Table recently, has this moment towards the end of the second half which breaks the form of the play so far. It’s told through poetry and it’s this huge revelation after which nothing is gonna be the same. Everything is gonna have changed. And we’re gonna be so ready to see what the fallout is and to get to the end of the play. It feels like it makes sense in the story but it also feels different and it’s like fireworks.
So thinking about your play – what’s your 11 o’clock moment? How can you make fireworks?
Thank you for watching!