THE SHOWIEST PART of a musical is always the songs. From the longing “I Want” song (expressing the central character’s objective) to the powerful 11 o’clock number (the climactic resolution of the central character’s objective typically occurring late in the second act), the music and lyrics are literally what make a musical a musical. Writing a story-driven lineup of original tunes for the stage is no small feat. But what happens when the score comprises existing songs, and a playwright must build a story around a pop music catalog?

Crafting a compelling, surprising, and theatrical story using popular songs is a unique challenge, whether for a bio-musical about an artist or musical group or for an original story using jukebox tunes such as Mamma Mia!, which ranked second on EdTA’s 2019 survey of most frequently produced high school musicals. The book writer is not just responsible for interstitial scenes and dialogue between big numbers. They must also create the structure of the show; choose which songs to include and where to place them; and tell a universal, personal, and relatable story.

The bio-musical

“The only reason to do this [story] as a musical is because there’s something we can do in this form that we can’t do in any other. It’s gotta work in a way that I can’t do this any other way than in this capacity,” said Dominique Morisseau, who wrote the book for Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations. 

The production, which opened on Broadway in March 2019 and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, marked Morisseau’s first musical venture. She grew up in Detroit with The Temptations’ music in her family’s blood, and while there was a documentary about the group and a biography of founder Otis Williams to use for research, she wanted to make sure she could tell a story that hadn’t been told before.

“In my city, everyone knew them personally. They grew up with them,” Morisseau said. “Surprising them was going to be hard.”

She spent a lot of time speaking with Williams, the only surviving member of the original group, and she found previously untold elements, including the death of his son and the group’s political activism, to highlight. 

Another writer, Rick Elice, who penned the books for Jersey Boys and The Cher Show, was initially approached to write about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in Mamma Mia! fashion, where the songs would provide the score for an original plotline unrelated to the artists’ lives. However, upon meeting Valli and Bob Gaudio, Elice was shocked to discover he didn’t know the story of their rise to fame.

“The Seasons’ story was not only true — it was really good. Even better, it had never been told,” said Elice, who wrote Jersey Boys with his “poker buddy” Marshall Brickman. “So, Marshall and I looked at each other and told the guys that their story should be the basis of the show. They said, ‘Go ahead, knock yourselves out.’ And the rest as they say …”

When writing The Cher Show, which chronicled the pop diva’s rise to fame from childhood, Elice similarly looked for specific aspects of the artist’s life that resonated with him as a storyteller. The show opened on Broadway in December 2018, winning two Tony Awards for lead actress and costume design. After his husband died, Elice received a call from Cher, who asked him to write a musical about her life. While hesitant at first, he ultimately went to Los Angeles to spend time with the star, and the two bonded through a shared grief over lost spouses. Elice believes in the old adage “Write what you know,” and he was able to find a personal common ground with a larger, universal theme.

Derrick Baskin, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim Sykes, and James Karness in Ain’t Too Proud. The musical features the songs of The Temptations and book by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“What we had in common was the idea set forth in the lyric of her biggest hit: ‘Do you believe in life after love?’ And if you do, how on earth do you find it?,” Elice said. “Cher had figured out how to survive loss long ago. And there I was, struggling with it in the moment.”

Playwright and screenwriter Douglas McGrath wasn’t entirely familiar with Carole King’s story before writing Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. The show opened on Broadway in 2014 and concluded its run in October 2019. He knew King’s trailblazing solo singer-songwriter album, Tapestry (think Taylor Swift-level fame), but he didn’t realize she started composing professionally in her teens and wrote songs for several famous groups including The Monkees, Aretha Franklin, and The Shirelles. 

“One of the great surprises of the show to people is that they kind of come in expecting to hear the Tapestry songs, and then in the first act they’re not hearing the Tapestry songs. They’re hearing all those early songs she wrote,” McGrath said, adding that the show brings the personal story of a very private woman to life. 

McGrath was initially tasked with writing a story about King and Gerry Goffin, her former husband and writing partner, as well as their friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Managing four separate story arcs pulled focus from the central drama, and while Weil and Mann are important supporting players in the story, McGrath felt that King needed to be the star.

“The script starts telling you, in a way, what it should be. You start to see that the events in her life and in her and Gerry’s life demand more time, because they were more dramatic than the events in Barry and Cynthia’s life,” said McGrath. “Carole is the audience’s interest.”

McGrath faced a unique challenge: King would not see the show at first. Although she spoke candidly with McGrath as he was researching and writing the musical, when King came to an early reading, she left before the second act because she didn’t want to watch her marriage fall apart onstage.

She ultimately saw the show on Broadway after opening night and loved it. “It meant a great deal because it’s a precious gift when someone gives you his or her life to tell in a musical or in a movie,” McGrath said. “You have a responsibility to that person, especially if you admired them as I do her and the other songwriters. You have an obligation and a responsibility to be honorable with what they’ve told you.”

The original story

Even when the plot does not draw from the musician’s life, Diablo Cody says it’s important to keep the artist involved. The Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter recently made her first foray into musical theatre with Jagged Little Pill, which takes Alanis Morissette’s seminal 1995 album and sets it to a fictional story about a suburban family struggling to stay together. The musical played in Boston at American Repertory Theater in 2018 and opened on Broadway in December 2019. 

“Alanis has been a full collaborator and working with her has been an absolute thrill. Not only is she a great writer, but she also has a passion for psychology and is incredibly well read on the subject, which really comes in handy in a story about addiction and family dynamics,” Cody said. “I’ve learned so many things from her about how people function (or don’t) in families, and a great deal of it has gone directly into the script.”

When developing the original story, Cody took clues from the songs and drew out the characters from them. The album came out when Cody was 16, and she called upon her own teenage angst and frustration to inspire where the musical would go. 

“I knew that I wanted the story to be about people who were tired of hiding,” Cody said. “The song ‘Wake Up’ was key for me — we can’t heal until we open our eyes and acknowledge the pain. For me, it made perfect sense to stage these songs in the world of a dysfunctional family. And the lead character of Mary Jane already existed as a character on the album, so that was a great jumping-off point.”

Jagged Little Pill, with book by Diablo Cody and songs by Alanis Morissette, opened in December at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

Chris D’Arienzo used a similar strategy when writing Rock of Ages, a Sunset Strip-set musical about big dreams in Hollywood that features ’80s power ballads to tell an original love story. The musical opened on Broadway in 2009, running through 2015, and enjoyed a revival Off-Broadway through January. D’Arienzo outlines his writing process, explaining that he listens to the songs over and over, establishing which songs will fit into the typical musical theatre structure — opening, I Want song, 11 o’clock number, etc. — and develops characters based on what he hears in the music.

“It was always going to be a collection of multiple artists, but for me the selection was (and is) always about story. With Rock of Ages I felt it wasn’t necessarily about picking the ‘best songs’ from the genre but picking the right songs for the story and overall theatrical experience,” D’Arienzo said.

With Jagged, Cody had the unique challenge of including an entire album, and then some, in the score, rather than plucking songs from one artist’s records or a collection of songs from an era.

“We decided we wanted every track from Jagged Little Pill to be in the show. It’s a really cohesive album. People remember more than just the hits, which is a testament to how solid it is. It was kind of amazing, almost eerie, how well all the songs off Jagged dovetailed with our story,” Cody said, adding that she looked at other songs in Morissette’s catalog and incorporated new songs. “I never felt like I had to shoehorn a song into the narrative just to have it in there. We also worked in some iconic tracks from later albums, such as ‘Uninvited’ and ‘Thank U.’ One of my favorite songs is actually a brand new one, ‘Smiling,’ that is really used to heartbreaking effect in the show.”

The presentation

Jukebox musicals allow audiences to experience some of their favorite artists’ music in a new light, different from how it would be performed at a concert. D’Arienzo credits his experience as a DJ for his ability to create mashups and compilations of songs in Rock of Ages. 

Elice looked for fresh theatrical devices to tell the story and shape the music. For The Cher Show, Elice wrote the titular diva as a “girl group” and had three performers play the role over the course of Cher’s life, giving dimension to her larger-than-life persona.

“We would keep all of them onstage all the time, allowing multiple aspects of that character to argue, support each other, and take sides two-against-one in an ever-evolving, very theatrical way — to let us really get under the skin of the woman without resorting to narrative tricks already used in biographical shows,” Elice said, adding that using multiple voices to sing Cher’s iconic music allowed the songs to be heard in a new way onstage. (Listen to “Song for the Lonely” on the original cast recording and Cher’s version to get an idea of how the tunes were reinvented.)

Cher (with Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, and Micaela Diamond) onstage for opening night of The Cher Show.
Cher (with Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, and Micaela Diamond) onstage for opening night of The Cher Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Both D’Arienzo and Morisseau have a narrator address the audience in Rock of Ages and Ain’t Too ProudThe Cher Show includes some direct address, particularly in the concert portions of the show, while in Jersey Boys, several group members speak to the audience to tell the story.

D’Arienzo compares the tactic to the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret and explains that, for Rock of Ages, the device came about accidentally. He used it in an early reading to fill out parts that hadn’t been written, and it evolved into an interesting, self-referential way to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the era.

When writing a bio-musical, it’s not always possible to stick to events exactly as they happened, but McGrath and Morisseau emphasize the importance of following the “essential truth,” rather than exact facts. Sometimes timelines or events need to be compressed or dramatic situations flipped for effect.

One major change McGrath made for Beautiful came when King finally leaves Goffin. In reality, she gave him an ultimatum, but based on early audience feedback, that didn’t give the heroine enough agency. So, McGrath had her actively choose to defend herself and leave on her own terms.

In Morisseau’s case, she had to balance more than 15 interchanging members of The Temptations and countless storylines, but ultimately, she followed the truth.

“Their story unfolds on its own; it’s not really my magic because real life is way more interesting than anything I can make up,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t some manipulation. I do say I’m a slave to the truth and not the facts, so there is some ordering of the story that goes on. If it’s a jukebox musical, especially if it’s a bio-musical, the most important thing is how that music connects to that artist’s life. That’s going to be literal, but it’s also going to be thematic and metaphysical.”

Morisseau’s experience as a playwright before dipping her toe into the musical world helped her in this quest for the truth, but she had to be more spare with language as she wrote.

“I’m a very verbose, very dense writer, and in a musical the music has to be your monologue,” she said. “I know how to tell stories, so it’s about figuring how to shift stories for this medium.”

Cody used her experience as a screenwriter when working on Jagged Little Pill. While she initially thought the theatrical form would be limiting compared to film and TV, she was surprised how much room there is for creative experimentation.

“[I thought] everything has to happen on a single stage? How?” Cody said. “But I was thrilled to discover that the opposite was true. You can do anything onstage. It’s completely freeing.”

Ultimately, jukebox musicals introduce new generations to artists’ work and new audiences to the theatre when artists’ fans come to experience songs in a new way. McGrath recalls many young women who didn’t grow up with Carole King’s music coming to the show and falling in love with the singer-songwriter who paved the way for artists including Adele and Sara Bareilles.

“I think it doesn’t take itself seriously, which is refreshing for audiences who sometimes feel intimidated by theatre,” D’Arienzo said about Rock of Ages. “I wrote it as a person who grew up loving musicals in a small Midwestern town. I wrote it for all my friends who didn’t understand my love for theatre. It was kind of my olive branch to those that think theatre is not for them. Hopefully it will open them up to experiencing other shows.”

Advice from the Writers

“Don’t try to copy something because it was successful, because you don’t know why. It’s hard to figure out why it was successful. There’s a kind of alchemy in things. There have been a lot of these shows that haven’t worked at all, even though they’ve followed many of the same beats. Find the thing that makes you, that is your passion, that’s your story, that’s your experience, that’s your love. Then try to bring that to the stage because people respond when they feel they’re hearing a true and original voice. If you described Hamilton to someone before they saw it they’d think, ‘Well, that sounds nuts.’ And then you see it.”
— Douglas McGrath, Beautiful

“I am happiest when I am writing things that speak to me personally, or make me laugh, or make me feel that tinge of fear that ‘no one will get this.’ I think the less you worry about what others want to see and concentrate on what you want to say, you will always come from a place of truth and develop your own voice as a writer. Writing from a personal place and making something that resonates with a large audience are not mutually exclusive. I find the stuff I write that I think only three people will get are the very things often quoted back to me by strangers.”
— Chris D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages

“Really attend the work and consume the work youre trying to do. If you want to be a book writer, go see a lot of musicals and maybe try to get in some early workshops of musicals. Volunteer to help writers; be their assistant so you can get into that room. You need to learn how to be in some of these processes. Consume the thing youre trying to do. Be clear about what you want to say in the world. Read. If you want to be a book writer, start reading the books of musicals and going and volunteering, so you can see the process.
— Dominique Morisseau, Aint Too Proud

“I would advise anyone beginning this process to throw out rules and expectations and dare to innovate. Don’t be afraid to play. Don’t write something because you think it will be successful; write something because you are compelled to do so and because it sparks something in you.”
— Diablo Cody, Jagged Little Pill

“My advice to anybody who wants to do anything in the theatre is do it. I’ve had almost every job in the theatre it’s possible to have — actor, singer, dancer, director, choreographer, stage manager, lighting crew, marketing, box office, mopping the floor, playwright. Believe me, if I could do those things, anybody can. We welcome everybody. Just make sure you have a good story to tell, and if you think you do, tell it. The rest will come.”
— Rick Elice, Jersey Boys and The Cher Show

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