Writing the Musical Theatre Novel

Aaron Netsky

Back in late December, I got a message through my tumblr (366Days366Musicals.tumblr.com) from someone who, according to her account, was a thirteen-year-old Irish girl who loved Taylor Swift and needed a two-minute audition song for an alto. I opted to believe she was who she said she was and took the challenge, sending her a solid list of potential songs meeting those criteria. She expressed her gratitude, and I haven’t heard from her since. When I shared the experience with facebook, a friend commented that until she got to the end of my story and realized it had actually happened to me, she thought I’d been pitching my new young adult novel. The thought had crossed my mind; popular legend has it that the opening of The Woman in White was inspired by author Wilkie Collins’s actual alarming encounter with a mysterious woman dressed in white. My story is slightly different, but in the tradition of my favorite Victorian, it has lead to a novel, albeit less sinister than The Woman in White.

The Irish girl said she was auditioning for a performing arts school in London. My story takes place at a summer musical theatre camp at a liberal arts college, not unlike the one I attended from 2001 to 2003. In it, a girl new to musical theatre is desperate to find an audition song that no one else will have, because that is what she has read online that people want to hear at auditions. She contacts a blogger who specializes in obscure musicals (like me) to ask for a song, and is given one he promises no one else will have. She gets into the program, becomes immersed in musical theatre, and meets all kinds of musical theatre geeks and nerds. There’s a love interest, a sagely mentor, a central mystery, all the stuff you need in YA, but the meat and potatoes are musicals, references to musicals, and musical theatre history and theory. It’s a joy to write, because if I need to look something up, it’s usually a clip from a musical.

It’s also had some unexpected benefits. In order to make the story plausible the decorations have to be hung on a sturdy tree, and in this case that tree is the program. I assigned each kid a song and picked five ensemble numbers for the whole group to perform at a final showcase, one of which was one of the first songs I learned in my first year of the program it’s based on, the reprise of “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. Assigning the individual songs helped me establish for myself the personalities of the fourteen students, their quirks and interests, which came in handy figuring out how to have them interact with my protagonist. Adults are never as important in YA, but in one case this project gave me an opportunity to pay tribute to a former mentor of mine who died a few years ago, but was a real distinct character who I had wanted to write into something. That was part of how this project turned from a random thing that happened to me on the internet into what it is now: I found a way to use it to pay tribute to him.

This project also gives me the opportunity to have some fun writing lyrics. I can’t assign a song that no one else will have if the song actually exists. I made up a musical, based on a popular movie, and while I skipped over writing the lyrics while in the process of writing the story, I plan to write at least three sets of original lyrics, stretch those writing muscles as well. I checked with someone in publishing, and I can make up my own lyrics to situations from a movie as long as I don’t directly quote the movie with no copyright issues. If I were to write the whole musical and put it on, then I’d have to get permission, but not for this. I was in part inspired to do that by Better Nate Than Ever, a middle grade novel by Tim Federle about a boy auditioning for a musical based on E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a musical unlikely to ever exist in real life. It’s more fun the more ridiculous the idea.

Better Nate Than Ever is just one of a number of novels featuring musical theatre popping up these days, a list that also includes Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway Nights and Ruby Preston’s Starstruck. Theatre even has its own new little publishing house, Dress Circle Publishing. Writing a character designed to absorb all things musical theatre the same way I did when I was fourteen has taken me back to that time, but also allowed me to look at current hits and trends through those adoring eyes. Nowadays, I’m often analytical more than anything else, but back then I just fell in love watching every Broadway.com opening night video. Many of the stories I’ve recounted on my tumblr about the musicals I was into back then probably prepared my brain to take this plunge, and it is the most rewarding writing experience I have had. To paraphrase my favorite line from Curtains, writing about putting on a musical has got to be one of the most fulfilling things a person could ever hope to do. More people should.

Photo: Liz Lauren

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr, which still has a few months to go, and writes about books and politics at Cantonaut.blogspot.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.