Musicals tells story through song. In good musicals, just by listening to each song, you can understand what the hero wants, what the villain wants, and what’s happening in the story.
Listen to the soundtrack for Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” and you’ll be able to follow the story with each song like this:
- Prologue — Explains how an enchantress cursed a selfish prince and turned him into a beast who can only become a human again by getting someone to love him. This essentially defines the whole story.
- Belle — Introduces Belle, the hero, and explains her emotional dream, which is to live more than a provincial life.
- Gaston — Introduces Gaston, the villain, and explains his goal of marrying Belle and then later taking advantage of Belle’s father to get Belle to marry him.
- Be Our Guest — Introduces Belle’s allies, the animated furniture objects of the house that represent the beast’s servants who are also cursed.
- Something There — The midpoint of the story where Belle and the Beast start falling for each other.
- The Mob Song — Gaston, the villain, leads a mob to storm the beast’s castle and rescue Belle.
- Beauty and the Beast — Belle and the Beast fall in love but the Beast realizes Belle will never be happy without her father.
- To the Fair — An instrumental.
- West Wing — Belle discovers the secret of the magical rose.
- The Beast Lets Belle Go — The Beast allows Belle to leave the castle because he truly wants what’s best for her to be happy.
- Battle on the Tower — The Beast saves Belle but is nearly killed by Gaston.
- Transformation — The Beast has broken the curse and turned back into a human along with all of his servants, so now Belle can fall in love with a human prince.
Notice that in “Beauty and the Beast,” each song encapsulates the emotions in a scene that moves the story forward. Study bad musicals and you’ll see that they often create songs for the sake of singing but those songs represent scenes that have no purpose in the story itself.
In “Mary Poppins Returns,” there’s a song called “Turning Turtle” where Mary Poppins takes the children to visit her cousin, who turns upside down during the day. Whether you like the song or not, it serves absolutely no purpose in the story.
Notice the song “Beauty and the Beast” represents the emotional high point when the hero and the Beast fall in love and dance. Take this song and scene out and the story suffers immensely. That’s the difference between a great story (“Beauty and the Beast”) and a mediocre one (“Mary Poppins Returns”).
Study musicals and notice how the great ones use songs to represent key moments in the story whether it’s Belle falling in love with the Beast (“Beauty and the Beast”) or Sandy pining for Danny in the song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” in “Grease”.
The notice how bad musicals fail to use songs to capture key moments in the story to the point where they can be easily eliminated and the story won’t miss them.
Musicals tell stories in song. Study the structure of musicals and you’ll see that the great musicals still tell a compelling story because a story is really what everyone wants.