Lessons from Lehman Engel

Aaron Netsky

For reasons I understand much better now than when it was happening years ago, I was rejected repeatedly by the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. I didn't really know how these things worked, I sent them my best stuff, they turned me down. Nowadays I see their point and I am working harder. Fortunately for me, the program's namesake wrote a book. He wrote a few, but the one pertinent to me and my situation is The Making of a Musical: Creating Songs for the Stage, which came to me with an influx of theatre books from a friend when I first got into musicals. Now, obviously if I applied repeatedly to the program, I already think I know how to write a musical, and I do subscribe to the "see as much as you can, imitate, and emulate" theory of learning to be a creative person. However, when the opportunity to infuse some structure into your learning comes along, you lose nothing by it. So I set out to see what I could learn from this book, applying its lessons as I did its assignments. Practice, after all, makes perfect.

The first three sections of the book are long explications on the three major elements of a musical: music, lyrics, and libretto (the book). Decorated with examples from the musical theatre repertoire (most of which I was familiar with, which helped), each section went into dos and don'ts for its respective creators. Composers, for instance, should do their working out with the basic American popular song structure, AABA, before trying to pull a Sondheim. Lyricists should try to avoid being too on the nose and for the love of Pete don't try to rhyme "love," in fact try to avoid using the word all together, even in a love song. Very few words rhyme perfectly with love, and imperfect rhymes are to be avoided (even if that's what the kids are doing with their rock and roll...this book was published in 1977). For librettists, the advice was a little weird. To paraphrase, he advocated adaptations over original ideas, since pre-existing material comes with pre-established characters and themes. True, many of the most famous and popular musicals are adaptations, often improvements on their source material, but I think if Engel could see where we are now in musical theatre, he might have a different attitude. He also advocated plotting out the book with a clear synopsis of scenes, and comparing it to a synopsis of the source material, to see how things fit differently across forms.

Those are just the most memorable and repeated bits of advice, there's a lot more (126 pages worth). Then came the assignments and some notes about the assignments, and then some essays with advice about what to do with your musical once you have it, and I just want to highlight a bit of that before getting creative. Going along with his "adaptation" advice, he further says mess with the original material. A novel is not a movie is not a symphony is not a play is not a musical. Stories work in different ways in different forms, and a musical may need more characters or more scenes than the play or book it is based on, so don't be afraid of not being faithful. Also, put your best foot forward when wooing producers, but if it's not working out, move on. This is what Engel ends the book with: don't dwell on your one project that you've finished. If it gets somewhere, great, but always be working on the next thing. If the next thing also doesn't work out, be working on yet another thing. Hopefully, eventually, something clicks for the creative people, and then suddenly those past things will look a lot more appetizing to the money people, so to always have something in your back pocket, always be working on something new. Wasting time is a cardinal sin, according to Engel, and I agree.

Now, as for the assignments, I took a few liberties...adapted them, so to speak. Each one (which he says he gave to his students when they first joined his program) requires a song based on a scene or character from a play that is unlikely to make for a good musical. I like that, but while I'm familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, I didn't want to have to read two unfamiliar plays (A Member of the Wedding and Come Back, Little Sheba) just to do the assignments (I will read or, preferably, see them eventually). If this book were written today, surely there would be different examples, if for no other reason than to diversify the writers represented (all white, only one woman). So instead of writing a comedy song for Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba, I wrote one for Boo from Bunheads. And instead of a charm song for Frankie in A Member of the Wedding, I wrote one for Adonis "Donnie" Creed from Creed. The other two I kept the same, because, again, they were familiar to me. Also, not that it matters for a blog post, but I'm no composer, so I only wrote lyrics (with perfect rhymes). Here are excerpts of what I came up with:

Excerpt from a ballad for Blanche for the end of Scene 3 of A Streetcar Named Desire:


But who am I to tell her in whose arms to fall?

I know too well there ain't no sense to it at all.

If he's a brute, if he's an ape it's all the same.

It's up to her to lay with him or lay the blame.

Our affections search imperfections trait to trait.

Crazy is the one I always hate.

Excerpt from a charm song for Adonis as he tries to get Rocky to train him in Creed:


Just train me, strain me, I don't care,

I can take the punishment.

You just have to get me there,

I'll be the main event.

All my life has led to you,

Man, we're like family.

Help me now, in tribute to

The father he couldn't be.

Excerpt from a comedy song for Boo in Bunheads:


A person makes mistakes

And I'll do whatever it takes

To make up for bringing children to the class,

And that viral video

I mean, I really couldn't know,

But I'm sorry that you looked like such an ass...

Oh, sorry.

Excerpt from a musical scene at the end of Death of a Salesman:


There's a father and a mother and a son and a son,

And the father has to do what must be done.

To take care of the mother and the son and the son.

A father has to do what must be done.

Just imagine my boy's future once my own race is run,

He will climb the business ladder, make a ton.

An infusion of seed money and he's already won,

And a father has to do what must be done.


Willy please come up, for your wife, for your son,

We need you here, there's no more to be done.

Remove us from this awful web of schemes that you've spun...


A father has to do what must be done.

Hilarious as Boo and Bunheads are, comedy songs are hard. That's one of my main takeaways. Without her performing it, the faces she makes, the way she mouths "sorry," it probably loses a lot, and that is probably true of most comedy songs on paper or on the screen. Not an excuse, just an observation. Don't be discouraged if your material lacks life it has not been given.

As a final exercise, Engel suggests new lyricists take certain nouns that appear frequently in songs and try to create new phrases around them. Here are a few of those:

cloud curtained sky

blooming star

a rose in the library garden

falling in a stream of feelings

shadow of the bottle

Not sure these are exactly the sorts of things he meant. It's best to have direct contact with someone who is mentoring you, but I'm still grateful for this book. It reinforced some things and changed the way I think about others. I would recommend it as part of the education of any aspiring writer of musicals, plays, or songs, even if the songs are not show tunes. After all, in this field a real mentor can be hard to come by, so learn what you can from where you can. Good luck.

Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, singer, and songwriter who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.