IF YOU LOVE musical theatre — and there’s every reason why you should — chances are that certain musicals have become your favorites. Have you ever stopped to think about why? Why does it have such an effect on you? What exactly makes that show so good?

Ultimately, it’s a subjective call. However, over the history of musical theatre, certain standards have arisen regarding what great musicals have in common. I teach courses in the history of musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and in those courses, we focus on what those standards are, who developed them, and how they have changed over time.

One of the most important concepts is integration: the extent to which songs and dances in musicals serve a dramatic purpose in the show. This might seem obvious at first. Of course songs and dances in a musical should help tell the story, develop the characters, and establish a sense of time and place. What else would they do?

It might surprise you to learn that for a long time — during most of the 19th century — songs and dances in musical productions were primarily decorative. The songs in the show may have been interpolated standards or other popular songs of the day, regardless of whether or not they made any sense in the story. The dances may have been there to take up stage time, provide a mindless diversion, or give patrons their money’s worth in both eye candy and production value.

It wasn’t until the first two decades of the 20th century that musical theatre creators began to think about crafting cohesive shows, ones in which the songs and dances emerged from the needs of the drama. Pioneers in this era included George M. Cohan, and the writers of the now-forgotten but historically significant Princess musicals: Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, and Guy Bolton. Later came major contributions from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, particularly with Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945).

What are these standards? What do great musicals tend to have in common? The easiest way to understand the progression is to look at the various important elements of a musical and how the work of these pioneers changed the way we use these elements to craft an effective musical.


Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara in the 2005 Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza.

 Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara in the 2005 Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The book of a musical refers to the progression of the story. Sometimes this refers to the dialogue surrounding all the songs, but even shows that are all or mostly sung-through (like Rent or Les Misérables) have books, in the sense that their stories progress logically from one song to the next. In a good musical, the songs will support the story and emerge organically from the scene. If you can listen to a show’s cast recording and follow the story, then it is probably an integrated musical.

Music should come in when words alone no longer suffice, when we’ve reached an emotional peak in the story. A great example is from the 2005 musical The Light in the Piazza, by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel. The main character, Margaret, is discussing a pivotal moment in her life: when her daughter was injured by a pony on her 12th birthday. It is, in fact, the defining moment in both her and her daughter’s life. Margaret says, “I was there and the phone rang, I ran to get it … and … the pony kicked her … here.” The melody begins on the word “here.” The emotion has become too great for words, and the music helps to give the moment the weight it needs.

Since songs should serve an important dramatic function, it is much harder to create “jukebox musicals” in which the songs make dramatic sense, because the music was written long before the show was. Still, Jersey Boys and Beautiful, which use the songbooks of The Four Seasons and Carole King, respectively, are actually relatively successful in this regard.


You might think that music would be purely a matter of taste. People can certainly differ significantly as to what they consider “beautiful” music, based on their familiarity with musical styles and their personal predilections, but there are standards when it comes to effective theatre music. Beyond notions of whether the music is pleasant or memorable, music in great musicals should be, above all, meaningful. Great theatre composers use music to make us feel empathy for a character, to give us a sense of what kind of show we’re about to see, and even to give us hints about what will happen in the story.

One useful device in this respect is leitmotif: a piece of music associated with a particular character, emotion, or idea. Repeating a leitmotif allows composers to create connections. One terrific example is from the 2002 Off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown. In this two-character show, the man’s story goes forward and the woman’s story goes backward. We start with “Still Hurting,” a mournful number from Cathy in which she bemoans her breakup with Jamie. Shortly thereafter, we hear Jamie sing about his burgeoning career as a writer.

Brown quotes the melody from Cathy’s song in the bridge of Jamie’s song “Moving Too Fast.” His lyric includes the lines “Some people freeze out of fear that they’ll fail” and “Some people can’t get success with their art.” It becomes clear that these lines both refer to Cathy, who is fearful and frustrated. These notions become part of the reason that the couple drifts apart.


As with music, our preference for particular lyrics is subjective, but certain practices are common to most great lyricists. One practice is that the lyrics should rhyme rather than rely on assonance or what is known as slant rhyme or imperfect rhyme. The lyrics should also follow the scansion, or rhythmic emphasis, of the musical line.

A good way to understand these items is to look at the blockbuster hit Hamilton. In a few songs, Lin-Manuel Miranda plays fast and loose with rhyme and meter. In “My Shot,” Hamilton sings, “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.” The words “country” and “hungry” are slant rhymes, as the words don’t technically rhyme in the strictest sense. Also, the song’s rhythm places the emphasis on the second syllable of “scrappy,” which is not the way we normally say that word.

Good lyrics should also fit the education level and socioeconomic status of the characters who sing them. Stephen Sondheim has often remarked how embarrassing he finds his lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” in West Side Story. Maria, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican immigrant, sings, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” This sort of polysyllabic, internal rhyme is normally what Sondheim would write for an upper-class character with an advanced education. In retrospect, he feels he should have written a much simpler lyric for Maria.


The craft of a cohesive book, meaningful music, and well-crafted lyrics should ultimately be at the service of believable characters. It used to be that audiences expected musicals to be about morally upright or likable characters. The idea of antiheroes developed around 1940 with Pal Joey, which centers on a lying, two-faced, two-bit gigolo named Joey Evans. In response to that show, one critic famously asked whether you could “draw sweet water from such a foul well.” Eventually critics and audiences alike warmed up to such musical antiheroes as Harold Hill in The Music Man, Rose in Gypsy, and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd.

Musicals don’t need to be about nice or good people, but lead characters do need to be believable and complex, descriptions that certainly apply to Mr. Hill, Mr. Todd, and Mama Rose. Well-drawn characters also change and grow in response to the demands placed upon them in the narrative. There are exceptions, of course, including Joey Evans in Pal Joey and Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, who don’t really change, but that’s actually the point in these shows.

If a character does change, though, the creators need to sow the seeds so the character’s arc is convincing. For example, in Wicked, Glinda enters the show proclaiming — boasting, really — that she is blithe and superficial, that she doesn’t particularly care about her education, but we know from the way Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz establish her character that she has the potential to change.

Glinda’s vocabulary in “Popular” certainly belies her supposed status as an airhead: “And though you protest your disinterest / I know clandestinely / You’re gonna grin and bear it / Your newfound popularity.” Sure, she misuses the word “disinterest,” which technically means “impartiality.” Think of that as one of the things that makes her human. But the triple internal rhyme of “est” and the correct use of the relatively advanced word “clandestinely,” let us know that she’s not nearly as dumb as she claims. The internal trick rhyme of “bear it” and “popularity” also reveals an active and playful mind indeed.


Finally, there is choreography. Again, dances used to be merely decorative, filling stage time or waking up the tired businessman. But shows like Oklahoma! and West Side Story demonstrated that dance could be meaningful and essential. Every piece of Agnes de Mille’s iconic dances in Oklahoma! serves a dramatic function, including the show’s famous dream ballet, which allows us to get inside the mind of the female lead, Laurey.

In West Side Story, Jerome Robbins’ choreography becomes the main mode of expression for the inarticulate teenagers. The dances also establish the time and place of the show in the prologue, propel the plot when Tony and Maria meet at the dance at the gym, and reveal the incendiary potential of the characters in the explosive number “Cool.”


Of course, even a show that follows all the rules isn’t guaranteed to be successful. These standards are certainly  necessary, but they’re not always sufficient. What’s more, some musicals become hugely successful while flagrantly violating some or even all of these standards. That’s because musical theatre isn’t just about rules. It’s also about alchemy, the illusive spark of inspiration and luck that blesses certain collaborations and leaves others, as they say, “whistling in the wind.”

This story appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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