The book of a musical is the foundation of the show and as such is one of the most difficult to define in the collaborative art form. Playbill gathered the experts—the 2019 Tony Award nominees for Best Book of a Musical—to weigh in.
Ain’t Too Proud’s Dominique Morisseau, Beetlejuice’s Scott Brown, Hadestown’s Anaïs Mitchell, The Prom’s Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, and Tootsie’s Robert Horn gathered at the Dramatist Guild Foundation’s Music Hall to discuss all things writing.
This year’s crop of nominees runs the gamut from seasoned book writers to first-timers, writing teams, and solo artists. Not to mention the diversity among the musicals themselves.
Morisseau, making her Broadway debut with her first-ever musical, encapsulates the story of Motown supergroup The Temptations in this new bio-musical. Mitchell’s folk-opera meets blues musical weaves the Greek mythologies of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. Scott Brown (along with Anthony King, who could not attend due to scheduling) created a fresh adaptation of the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice, about the demon trapped between the real world and the Netherworld and the young girl who can help him bridge the gap. Tootsie’s Robert Horn also began with a movie, the 1982 hit about a difficult actor so desperate to overcome his reputation he disguises himself as a woman to get cast. And Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin created an entirely original musical about narcissistic Broadway actors who decide to rehab their images by becoming celebrity activists and protesting the exclusion of a gay teenager from her prom.
In a not-to-be-missed discussion, the nominees discuss their processes, the moments they had to cut, the last-minute changes, their collaborations with their composer-lyricists (or what it’s like to do it all), and more. Watch the full conversation in the video roundtable above, with highlights below.
How do you define the book of a musical?
Bob Martin: When I started doing this, I was approaching it from my television background, where I was a showrunner, creating a treatment, the outline, the structure of the piece, and then diving in from there. So being kind of the architect, I felt like that’s what our job has become. We create the bones of the show and work with the composer, lyricist, to song-spot and build the show from there. Even if you have little dialogue in your musical, the book writers are still the ones who build the thing. Would you all agree?
Chad Beguelin: You’re crazy! [Laughs]
Anaïs Mitchell: I come from the songwriting world, and sort of how to write a three-and-a-half-minute song is what I knew how to do. And then I'd say working on the book of this thing has just been figuring out how to make those songs tell the story in a moment-to-moment way.
Robert Horn: To pick up on what you're saying, you as the book writer create the blueprint for what the story is going to be, but sometimes... When you do television or film, your training and your instinct is to make sure it's all on the page, but when you write the book for a musical, you cannot be redundant with what the music is going to do. The music has to drive either the narrative or the internal monologue or whatever is happening at the moment. So, it's our job in the most entertaining and informative way to move the story but not get ahead of what the music has to do. And that's always such a delicate balancing act to try to manipulate.
Dominique Morisseau: I agree. I come from playwriting and you’re putting everything on the page—and I’m a dense writer—so I want to say a lot of things and have it come out of the mouth in a particularly rhythmic way. There’s something else about doing a bio-musical where the catalog of music already exists, so the challenge is a little different. You're trying to find a way to co-write with written work, you know? And you're also trying to find a way to find new meaning in that written work. I have to fall back on what I want to do as a playwright and tell a story from a new point of view. So, I'm sort of similar to Anaïs because we both, Anaïs, we both have this coming from another thing and letting whatever the demands of this form are lead us.
Scott Brown: This process. I mean, it's funny how many times you end up telling the story and how incrementally it changes, but then over time you'll see how much the glacier has moved.
What is step one?
RH: From my experience on Tootsie, the first year was spent just talking. We didn't write for a year because we knew you had the source material that had to be updated, and that we were not going to stay faithful to the movie, but just take the DNA. You have to decide on tone, you have to decide on what the structure is going to be, you have to know what your narrative is.
DM: This is my first time at the rodeo. Again, playwright. I knew the characters because it’s The Temptations, but who else was going to be in their world to fill the world in? Des McAnuff, our director, he and I sat and talked and went through all of their music because we had approved songs. But the world, for me, there’s always going to be the women. Even though this is a male-centered story, I’m like “What were the women doing? And who were the women in their lives? And what costs did they pay for these men’s success?” That can often be omitted from stories around men. If you’re going to look at an artist, you got to look at them whole.
SB: For us, the big question was what happens when Beetlejuice opens his mouth and sings? Warner Bros. they were pretty cool about saying, “Don’t stick to the movie and do what you need to do.”
AM: Having a plan going into it sounds like a great idea. That’s not the way it went down with us or with me. Anything creative I’m working on usually comes from a kind of mysterious spark. In this case it was 13 years ago and I was in my 20s and I was starting a songwriter career and some lyrics just came into my head when I was driving that seemed to be about this story. Obviously, our story is this ancient Greek myth, so there was a lot contained in that already and then the question was, what’s going to be different about this telling? It started out as a DIY community theatre project and then I made an album of some of that music—so it was very music-first early on.
BM: When the page is blank, it’s all about constraints. We decided that the problem would be told in two halves. We knew what we were working towards and we kind of work back from that, and began with a treatment that broke the story down—like a beat sheet—leading towards our ending, creating the characters. Very broad strokes.
You talk about writing towards something. What is the message of your show that you ultimately wanted to communicate?
BM: Oh, for us it’s acceptance.
AM: For me, it’s trying.
SB: Connection. Cheesy, but connection.
DM: I think it’s the cost of what it takes and the whole being the greater thing than the individual.
RH: For us, it was humility and understanding.
When you’re working with something that has source material—a song catalog or a movie—what are the “have-to-haves” and the “can-let-gos”?
SB: There was an understanding from the very beginning that the “Banana Boat Song” was going into the show. On top of that, though, we didn’t really get a whole lot. We re-centered it so much on Beetlejuice and Lydia and their relationship and aligning them. They only have two scenes together in the movie; they’re only on screen for 12 minutes apiece. [The movie] is mostly about Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, about the Maitlands. But [Lydia and Beetlejuice] are both so iconic.
DM: You’ve got to put their hits in there. Over that, The Temptations also have this big VH1 movie that was one of their biggest bio movies ever. So it was like, “Let’s not do the movie again.” Detroit, we have so much ownership over The Temptations, not just as a brand but the individuals that they went to school with and “they lived on my block.” The big thing for us was Detroit has to be a character. All these questions about what should you do with your art right now when the world is sort of coming undone and your nation doesn’t really see you as a full human being, but you’re the face of success to the nation at the same time. They’re listening to your music, and yet, you can’t go sit and eat in that restaurant. All that stuff is feeling really palpable again. And then do you, as an artist, do you keep smiling? Do you get political? Do you address the injustice that’s happening to you and to your hometown and the to the people that you know? Or will that cost you your entire gains? For me, it was about selecting the things that felt like my own present questions.
RH: We knew going in we were not going to let the tail wag the dog. Other than the actual DNA of the story—a desperate actor who’d told he can no longer do the thing he loves more than anything in the world and what choices do you make to help rectify that? The role of feminism and misogyny, how it’s changed within our culture, has become a very important part of it. We wanted to address that. A man putting on a dress in 2019–2020 has a very different resonance. It means something very different. Out culture has changed a lot. You look at it all and you say, “How do you make it your own?”
When you’re starting from scratch, what are your priorities in the writing?
AM: It’s poetry for me. It’s the rhymes and the lines and them sounding right coming out of someone’s mouth. And, in my case, because Hadestown is mostly sung through, and all of the dialogue rhymes and it’s metered and it’s underscored. The process of trying to figure out how to make that happen and also do what has to happen for the story and the characters. It’s been really hard sometimes to sacrifice what feels like good poetry on the altar of this character.
BM: The very premise of the piece is the marriage of very broad comedy with very difficult politics. So it’s what dictated the piece.
CB: When we did our out-of-town in Atlanta, Casey said, “I feel like it’s musical theatre characters invading a musical theatre town and if that town doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t really work.” So I started talking about my hometown, which is very similar to [our Indiana setting]. The coal mine is gone, the factories are shut down. People are really nervous.
BM: The whole act of writing is extremely personal. Not only putting your own politics, or fears, or doubts, or anything within the characters voices. I’m an actor as well and one of the reasons I enjoy writing so much is that I can overcome my limitations as a performer vicariously through other actors. It’s really fun to work with somebody like Brooks, who’s an incredibly skilled comedian, but has all this depth, as well. To really push him to the dialog to get to uncomfortable places. It’s a very intimate journey with actors when you’re developing an original piece.
AM: I do agree that the workshops are everything and that the actors are muses. That once they get in there, in their body and in their voice, it guides the way. … Patrick Page, who plays Hades King of the Underworld, he would build into his mind five different beats [in a song] that I hadn’t written in there and I’d be like, “Maybe I should write that in there.”
RH: For Tootsie, we almost cast the entire show in readings. We never had auditions. Then you are writing for those characters.
SB: Right. Alex Brightman comes in and just has a voice for Beetlejuice that is a comic voice. Then we can write towards it. Kerry Butler comes in and shows us how Barbara is funny. Rob McClure, same thing. Sophia Ann Caruso as Lydia…
DM: You have these incredible artists. You have Ephraim Sykes who’s like David Ruffin when he comes onstage, you don’t want him to ever leave. It’s already supported by Jarvis B Manning, who plays the lead, Al, before Ephraim comes on. You have these high energy lead men and they just keep one-upping each other.
What is the moment that brings you the most joy when watching your show?
SB: Alex Brightman does something in the middle of “That Beautiful Sound,” which is the number that opens the second act. He finds a pie that a nosy neighbor has brought over. He throws the lady out the door with his possession force and then he’s got the pie and he goes, “Hey lady, you forgot your pie.” There’s something about it. He does it so joyfully.
AM: The reprise of “Wait for Me.” It’s the last moment where you think maybe Orpheus and Eurydice and maybe everyone else in the underworld is going to make it out. [Eva] is in this sublime belt part of her voice. It’s full-on stadium pop moment.
CB: For me, it’s after Allyssa comes out to her mom and she says, “I didn’t think I’d feel so relieved.”
BM: It might be Caitlin’s last note on “Dance With You.” It’s partly my relationship with the actress. I just watched her mature through this whole process and every time she sings that note, which is just this other-worldly ability she has—I just feel such pride and love for her.
RH: One is what Santino Fontana could do with his voice. Absolutely spectacular. But it’s hearing 1,600 people erupt with laughter throughout the entire night and have it build, build, build. The satisfaction of that, you have done something that lets people forget about their problems, leave everything outside, and become this community under one roof, it is so gratifying.
DM: I have two. When Ephraim Sykes, who plays David Ruffin, and Saint Aubyn, who plays Dennis Edwards, they have this sing-off. The audience is cracking up. When I first wrote it, I didn’t know if I could [alternate] who sings the lyrics. Every night when I watch that I go, “I wrote that. I constructed that.” The second one is when Derrick Baskin sings at the end of “What Becomes a Broken Heart” and he hits his final note. I think, “OK. That’s Otis Williams. That’s his story. We made it work.”
This just scratches the surface with these six writers. Watch the full roundtable discussion in the video above. Videography and video editing by Roberto Araujo. Filmed at DGF Music Hall, visit DGF.org.