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If the song is already written, sure, easy question. But say you're sitting down to write The Lion King before any composers have even been brought aboard, before pre-production has even been dreamt of. What do you write? <Insert song here about a life philosophy precluding worry or anxiety and focusing on happy times, preferably revolving around a made-up word like 'haboona-tratata'...characters will romp around the jungle while main lion grows older in montage sequence>

How is this situation handled?

  • Is that how movie musicals get written--by non-musical screenwriters? (Stage musicals are written by composers, not playwrights.) Try looking at the credits and "Making of" for movie musicals of the type you're interested in, and see if that sheds any light. – MissMonicaE Jul 29 '15 at 4:10
  • @Neil Fein, thanks, that's fine! I don't really have any more help to offer so I'll leave it as a comment. (Is this the "here" you meant by "commenting here"?) – MissMonicaE Jul 29 '15 at 21:05
  • @MissMonicaE I meant commenting in the deleted answer I turned into a comment, but this is okay too. – Neil Fein Sep 28 '15 at 4:50
  • Just FYI, hakuna matata is actually a real phrase in common daily use in East Africa. It means "no worries... for the rest of your days..." – Chris Sunami Sep 28 '15 at 13:19
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A musical has 3 kinds of writing in it:

  • the “book” (aka the “play”) written by the writer
  • the lyrics, written by the lyricist
  • the music, written by the composer

… if you don’t write all 3 yourself then you need collaborators.

Generally speaking, the lyrics are written either first or concurrently with the book because they are the most important parts of the story, and the book weaves the various lyrics into one big quilt of a musical. The music can be written at various times.

Of course, you can do it any way that you want. But to me, writing the book first sounds like the hard way. You risk a lot of wasted effort because you may put the lyrics in and notice that the book has to change a lot. A lyric might obsolete whole sections of the book, or require whole new sections to be written.

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Assuming it's something you're writing on spec, I think you need to write your best attempt at the song lyrics. (Why write a musical if you don't write songs?) If you're offering a musical and you write "Insert song here" it seems jarring for the reader. It's a like reading "Insert great plot twist".

If a writer has been hired to write a musical, it could work in various ways. The writer will be told how to proceed. They may work with the musician, or they may be told to incorporate certain songs that have already been written.

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What I've done for myself is to insert "dummy songs" in my screenplay, that is, existing songs similar to the one that I might want.

Once the screenplay is finished, you have two options (with each song). One is to write a new song to replace the dummy song that you put somewhere. Two is to allow the "dummy" song to continue to fill the space (and get permission to do so).

The whole idea of these"dummy" songs is to maintain the flow of thought. Once they've served the original purpose, they can be removed as "placebos," unless they are so central that it's worth retaining them.

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There's not a single answer. Mostly you would do whatever the studio, the lyricist and the other people working on the musical need.

You'll want to establish the points in your script where songs are needed; emotional moments, or revelatory ones, or even just where it needs to be broken up. Then indicate in the script that a song is happening, explain briefly what the song is telling, and describe what will be seen onscreen during as it happens.

We see Sarah spin around and start to SING. Tiny ANIMATED BIRDS fly in and help her as she prepares a pie and sings brightly about making do with what you have. The pie crust is nearly done, we build to a crescendo, and she GRABS THE BIRDS, throws them in the pie one two three, pops it in the oven and finishes her song with a cheery flourish.

After the lyricist completes the song, add the lyrics in and change the action to suit the words. But as long as everyone who will be reading the script can tell what's happening, there's not a hard and fast rule.

  • Thank you for this answer. Is this based on your experience, something you've been taught, or something else? If you could edit in how you know this, it would improve your answer. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Dec 31 '15 at 2:03
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The alternative way is to have a bunch of songs, and then write the book and all the business to glue the musical numbers together.

For one example of many, the musical feature film "Sunshine on Leith", created from the music of the Proclaimers.

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