Musicals tell a story through song, but the songs they sing are no different than ordinary dialogue in a scene. Songs, like dialogue in a scene, must focus on revealing a main character’s emotions.
Watch this song from the animated film “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and you’ll see a strong emotion of a little girl who wants to stay in a lawless video game but is torn between her friendship with her friend, Ralph, who likes the familiarity of the old arcade video games.
Another example of a song that clearly shows emotions of the main characters is this song from “Anna and the Apocalypse,” which shows the hero and her boyfriend cheerfully singing about their feeling of a new life while a zombie apocalypse occurs around them.
The purpose of a song in a musical or a scene in a regular screenplay is to show the emotional dilemma and change the main characters face. What happens if you simply replace a lot of action without emotional change? Then you wind up with a lot of visually interesting action but no emotional content, which makes the scene essentially boring and pointless. You can see an example of an emotionally empty song in “Mary Poppins Returns.”
In this “Tripping a Little Light Fantastic,” everyone sings and dances, but nothing happens emotionally to any of the main characters. They’re essentially the same at the beginning as they are at the end, which makes the song and scene pointless.
Replace meaningless singing and dancing with meaningless special effects and car crashes and you have the same empty stories of mediocre movies like “Mortal Engines” or “The Spy Who Dumped Me.”
Without emotion, your scenes are lifeless and pointless. Inject emotion into every scene by showing a main character’s emotional state changing somehow. Do that and you’ll create a far more interesting story than just loading it up with lots of special effects.
Watch this far superior song from the original “Mary Poppins” and compare it to “Tripping a Little Light Fantastic” to notice the lack of emotion in the “Mary Poppins Returns” song compared to this song from “Mary Poppins” where the banker mulls over his actions in relation to his children.
Emotion is the key to making a scene interesting whether it’s spoken dialogue or a song in a musical. Without emotion, you simply don’t have a story. Emotion is what makes every story interesting because audiences want to feel something larger than life and that’s what makes a great movie worth watching over and over again.