The Collaborative Art of Musicals: How to get on the same page

View at sunrise at Running Deer Musical Theater Lab

Spending secluded weeks in the woods up at Running Deer Musical Theater Lab with musical writing teams, gives me a unique perspective on the inner workings of show creation. Believe me, I hear it all – the moments of brilliance and the inevitable conflicts.

A Collaborative Experience

We all know, innately, that musicals are a collaborative experience. But when I talk about collaboration, you may just be envisioning actors and directors interpreting a work and how those interpretations are different at each new venue.

Elton John and Tim Rice's collaboration on Aida

The fact is though, as I sit here, up at the lab right now writing this, I am witness to the sounds of a composer and book writer working out their own lexicon in an effort to collaborate, despite drastically different technical backgrounds.


What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the following words:

  • “Legs”
  • “Beat”
  • “Vamp”
  • “From the Top”

Legs are what all dancers have two of right? Or perhaps the black curtains that hang on the side of the stage? Or maybe what a producer says about a show that could go somewhere? Or what a set designer calls the support structures for a table or chair? OR perhaps something you tell an actor to break before a performance? You get my point, right?

Overcoming the Challenges of Jargon

A successful musical requires people to come together from vastly different areas of expertise (and that’s the good news.) The bad news is that this inevitably can and will, expose some unexpected barriers in the language between artists.

From the very inception of a show, all those involved are expressing it through their own unique medium and jargon. The composer is expressing a show through music. The lyricist and bookwriter, through words. Then, of course, they have to mesh together, seamlessly, for the audience. The lyricist likely speaks the language of words, poetry and sentence structure whereas the composer speaks the language of measures, style and key signatures. If you know one or the other, you know how drastically different these languages can be.

Add to that, a director who speaks in stage directions, motivation and timing. Then layer on a choreographer who thinks in 8 counts  and dance breaks and a producer, conductor, actors, set designers, costumers, stage manager, tech crew and all of their respective jargon, whipped up with a big dollop of time pressure and you began to hear a dissonant symphony of potential barriers and misunderstandings.

You might be reading this and thinking, duh, this is obvious. But that’s exactly the kind of thinking that can get you into trouble. When you assume everyone is speaking your language.

Some people are better than others at translating or speaking more than one of these languages and you may have even been through the process before and believe you have a clear understanding of how to avoid the pitfalls of miscommunication but those who collaborate with success, repeatedly, are those who never take anything for granted.

Musicals are made up of different groups of people on each and every project and new people bring new understandings and lexicons to the mix. You can never just assume you’re being understood.

Because we all remember what happens when we assume . . .

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