July 2, 2013

B​eating Broadway

Writing a musical is a task that takes both talent and training. No one textbook can give you all you need even if you have all the talent in the world. However, while there are many textbooks in print on how to write specific kinds of products – novels, movies, television series, poetry, songs, plays – there aren’t many books specifically devoted to how to write a musical.

Steve Cuden, who has some experience in the field, has taken a crack at providing a textbook for would-be Oscar Hammersteins, Stephen Sondheims or Harvey Fiersteins. It may, however, be more interesting to those who don’t necessarily want to actually write a musical, but rather, want to know a bit more about how it is done in order to better understand and appreciate the musicals they love.

He calls the book Beating Broadway which struck me as a strange title as I only latched on to one of the three meanings he says he had in mind for his “triple entendre.” To quote him: “First, I believe musical theater is the beating heart of Broadway; second, in the last section of the book you will find the stories of numerous famous Broadway musicals broken down into their narrative beats; and third, I’m hopeful that the information found herein will help you to succeed on Broadway, to beat the street at its own game.”

It's that second “beating” that sets the book apart from some other textbooks. Indeed, 247 pages of this 433 page book are composed of the “narrative beats” of 40 musicals: 35 from Broadway and 5 from Hollywood, each with their seven basic story milestones, or plot points, identified. They range from Avenue Q to Wicked from Broadway and Beauty and the Beast to The Wizard of Oz on the big screen. This gives the reader the chance to understand Cuden’s points by seeing exactly how they apply to musicals that may be among those the reader knows well.

Strangely, given that he mentions in his text two musicals that diverge from some of his basic rules, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, neither are included in this section. Company, with its non-linear nearly non-plot, and Merrily, with its tale-told-backwards plotting, would be interesting studies in the application of his definition of the seven universal “plot points.”

The first section of his book starts with Cuden establishing his “Rule #1″ for writing a musical: “There ain’t any rules.” Then he goes on to say “However, if you break those nonexistent rules, you will most likely fail.” His point is that you have to understand the basic rules but you may find exceptions work in specific instances better than a slavish devotion to established procedures.

Therefore, he steps back in time about 2,300 years to Aristotle and his treatise “The Poetics” from which the truism comes that “A whole is that which has beginning, middle and end.” Cuden then tries to apply that lesson to the structuring of a single-evening book musical (as opposed to a revue). He returns again and again to the beginning/middle/end formulation while trying to show how difficult it may be to craft each of those three parts into a one or two act musical play.

This is where his “seven basic plot points” comes in. First, he says, you must establish the world of the story – “The Normal World” as plot point number one. Plot point two is the “inciting incident” which establishes the hero’s goal the pursuit of which is what the story is all about. He walks you through number three (the point of no return), four (the beginning of “the middle”), something he calls “the big gloom” is point five, the climax is point six and, finally, the world the story has created – what Cuden calls “The New Normal” to distinguish it from plot point number one.

Through it all, he harps on the “beginning/middle/end” rubric which must, he says, apply to each of the plot points, to each scene and each song. He also urges the formula of simple plots with complex characters which can be illuminated in song.

Cuden’s name (and credentials) will be most familiar to Broadway musical fans as the co-creator of Jekyll & Hyde, the musical with a score by Frank Wildhorn that played the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway for nearly four years and which had a much shorter revival this last season. How much that musical reflected the structure he devised, however, is difficult to say as a different book writer (Leslie Bricusse) was brought in to revise the work before it reached the Great White Way.

Similarly, Cuden is credited with the original concept, along with Wildhorn, for the musical Rudolf: Affaire Mayerling that has been successful in Europe (I had the pleasure of catching it in Budapest). By the time it was on stage, however, it had a book by frequent Wildhorn collaborator, Jack Murphy.

Cuden’s text here is easy to read, almost chatty. As is often the case with textbooks, major (and even minor) points are made multiple times. The repetition gets a bit annoying if you are reading cover to cover but would allow an instructor to walk a class through major sections with ease. Each short chapter has an outline of its major points at the end before the book proceeds to the next item.

Beating Broadway
How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations

by Steve Cuden
Published by Cudwerks Productions
ISBN-13: 978-1481223027
List Price $17.95