Musicals tell a story largely through songs. In bad musicals like “Grease 2,” the songs serve no purpose other than to show people singing and dancing. In good musicals, the songs actually express the emotional change of the story. Listen to the soundtrack for “Mary Poppins” and you can clearly hear the flow of the story.
Initially the banker is ignoring his children in pursuit of his goal, which is to rise up in the bank. Then later songs involve Mary Poppins teaching the children how to enjoy life by taking them on magical adventures. Near the end, the songs talk about conformity and rigidity again as the banker tries to mold his children into respectable characters like himself. Finally at the end, the banker learns to enjoy life with his children while also gaining his goal of becoming a banker.
By listening to the flow of a good musical’s soundtrack, you can experience the emotional roller coaster that all good stories need to take the audience on so they come out at the end having experienced an emotional rush while also seeing a visual spectacle. In the case of musicals, the visual spectacle are the choreographed dance numbers. In most movies, the visual spectacle are special effects, action, and conflict between characters.
Imagine your own story and check to see if your story has an emotional structure that begins with the hero pursuing a goal while being stuck in a dead end life, experiencing a new world, seeing the old world and the new world collide, and having the hero evolve into a new person to finally achieve his or her goal at the end.
- Hero in dead end life with a goal (Act I)
- Hero learning new skills in a different world (Act IIa)
- Hero faced with a conflict between the old and new world (Act IIb)
- Hero changing to achieve the original goal (Act III)
While “Grease 2” was a waste of time, the original “Grease” movie also shows the emotional flow of the story through its various songs. Notice that right before the climax, the songs suddenly get sadder and slower while the songs at the very end are upbeat and cheerful. Also note that the earlier songs express the problem while the songs in the middle reflect the emotional change and struggle as the hero learns and grows.
“My Fair Lady” is considered one of the best musicals ever made, so if you listen to the “My Fair Lady” soundtrack, you can detect the same story structure behind the emotion of each song. Early you can hear the problems and goals of the two main characters in trying to teach English and in wanting a better life. The middle songs show the hero learning in a new world. The later songs show problems that the hero encounters, and the final songs reveal the climax of the hero’s victory.