Musicals are a dying art form, but still popular on the stage and occasionally popular on the big screen. Here’s what makes a good musical.
A musical is basically a story told with song. Although seeing characters break out into singing and dancing may seem ridiculous, it’s just part of the fun of watching a musical. When you see a musical, you’re expecting song and dance. When you see a horror or action film, you wouldn’t want to see characters breaking out into song and dance.
The key to musicals are catchy songs, but if you watch good and bad musicals, you can see how each song represents an emotion. I first noticed this after watching “Grease” with Olivia-Newton John and John Travolta. Each song expresses an emotion, usually involving love.
Compare this with the horrible “Grease 2” sequel. The opening musical number of “Grease 2” is one long, drawn out, and well choreographed number that evokes zero emotions. All you see are bunches of people singing and dancing their way to the first day of school. So what?
In “Grease,” the opening song appeared during a cartoon introduction and set the tone for the rest of the movie. In “Grease 2,” the opening song simply lets us know it’s the first day of school but doesn’t play on our emotional knowledge of our own first day of school such as nervousness, fear, uncertainty, and excitement at seeing old friends again.
The rest of “Grease 2” contains forgettable songs, but more importantly, they rarely evoke emotions at all. There’s a song where kids are singing about reproduction during a biology class. It’s meant to be humorous, but that’s it’s only goal. It doesn’t evoke any emotions to let us peek into a character’s feelings. It doesn’t advance the story one bit. It’s there stricly to amuse, and it even fails to do that.
While few screenwriters will likely rush out and write a musical, given their uncertain nature and heavy reliance on song-writing ability, watch musicals anyway to see how each song gives us a peek into a particular character’s emotional state. Then watch a lousy musical like “Grease 2” and you’ll notice the vast difference between its use of songs to simply amuse and the better musicals that use song to advance the story, evoke an emotion, or even illustrate a plain truth such as when Mary Poppins tells the children that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in her explanation that putting your stuff away simply requires making it fun to do something usually unpleasant.
Strip away a musical’s songs and you still have moments of illumination, and that’s what you want to achieve in your own screenplay. Make your movie touch the audience’s emotions and possibly even teach them a truth about life, such as in the “King and I”‘s song “Getting to Know You” where the school teacher tells the king’s children that her favorite thing to do in life is to get to know different people.
You may not write a musical, but you can still learn from them. Watch the classics like “Mary Poppins,” “The King and I,” “West Side Story,” and “Oklahoma.” Then watch “Grease 2” and you can see where “Grease 2” fell flat on its face.