What do Librettists Do? An interesting article from Playbill.com

What do Librettists Do? An interesting article from Playbill.com

An Open Book: Explaining What Musical Librettists Do

By Marc Acito
Playbill.com February 19, 2012

Veteran musical book writers Marsha Norman, Harvey Fierstein and Douglas Carter Beane spill the beans on the profession that gets "all of the blame and none of the praise."


Quick: Who wrote Godspell? Porgy and Bess? Mamma Mia!?

If your answers are “Stephen Schwartz,” “the Gershwins” and “those guys from ABBA with the extra let­ters in their names,” you’re two-thirds cor­rect. Because in addi­tion to the com­pos­er and the lyri­cist, there’s the mis­un­der­stood mid­dle child of musi­cal the­atre, the clunki­ly-monikered “book writer” or “libret­tist.”

The job descrip­tion itself is bound to con­fuse, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the case of Pulitzer Prize – win­ning play­wright Marsha Norman, who adapt­ed the nov­els The Secret Garden and The Color Purple into musi­cals. “Whenever I say I wrote the book,” Norman says, “they think that I’m claim­ing I’m Frances Hodgson Burnett or Alice Walker. So I say I wrote the musi­cal book.”

Tony Award – win­ning play­wright and actor Harvey Fierstein tried (and dis­card­ed) the titles “libret­tist” and “author” when he wrote the musi­cals La Cage aux Folles, A Catered Affair and Disney’s upcom­ing Newsies. “Nobody real­ly knows what the book is,” he says. “If the show’s a hit, the com­pos­er gets the cred­it; if the show’s a flop, it’s the book’s fault.”

You’re going to get all of the blame and none of the praise,” echoes Norman. “But you’ll still get a third of the money.”

So what do book writ­ers do, exactly?

While the­atre­go­ers under­stand that a play­wright cre­ates the entire sto­ry of a play, many think that book writ­ers just write the dia­logue between the songs. But more often, the book writer first decides where the songs go and what they will be about, act­ing as the struc­tur­al engi­neer of the whole piece.

Think of a musi­cal as a string of pearls,” says Norman. “If you don’t have a string, you can’t put the pearls around your neck.”

Fierstein puts it anoth­er way: “A musi­cal has all these mov­ing parts, but the book is the chas­sis,” pro­vid­ing both the frame­work and the run­ning gear for the show to operate.

So with Newsies, it was Fierstein who took the char­ac­ter of Denton, a male reporter in the film, and gave him a sex change to become Catherine, the love interest.

However, once a com­pos­er and lyri­cist cre­ate the songs, the book writer’s role changes. “At first, the book writer dic­tates what hap­pens,” Fierstein says, “but then you become sub­servient. The music is the hard­est to change, so you have to adapt the scenes to the songs.”

Even a the­atre leg­end like Stephen Sondheim finds the task of book writ­ing daunt­ing. “I’ve often been asked why don’t I write my own libret­tos, because often the songs seem to be libret­to-like songs,” he said in the Roundabout Theatre Company docu-revue Sondheim on Sondheim. “I think play­writ­ing is too dif­fi­cult and I don’t ever think I could write a play.”

Unlike a play, though, “the book should­n’t stand out and wave at you,” says Fierstein.

Veteran book writer Peter Stone, writer of 12 Broadway musi­cals includ­ing 1776 and Titanic, once advised play­wright Douglas Carter Beane, “The book is like light­ing — if you notice it, it’s bad.”

The excep­tion to that rule seems to be musi­cals that deliv­er big laughs, like Beane’s books for Xanadu, Sister Act and this sea­son’s Lysistrata Jones. Beane is influ­enced by the frothy books of vin­tage com­e­dy writ­ers like George S. Kaufman and Comden & Green, say­ing, “I go back to them the way evan­gel­i­cals go back to Leviticus.”

Yet he, too, feels the need to serve the songs: “Writing the book is so tight, it’s like writ­ing haiku.” When Beane rewrote Sister Act, direc­tor Jerry Zaks was so deter­mined to get to the music faster he asked Beane to change the words “do not” in the dia­logue to “don’t.”

And no mat­ter how fun­ny the jokes are, no one walks out of a the­atre hum­ming the dia­logue. Likewise, you won’t find any­one at the inter­mis­sion of Wicked, hav­ing just heard Elphaba wail “Defying Gravity,” say, “That Winnie Holzman did a great job decid­ing to end the act there!”

That’s because book writ­ers craft the sto­ry around key emotional/​musical moments. “When you can no longer talk about it, you have to sing,” says Marsha Norman. “It’s the moment in con­ver­sa­tion when you say ‘but….’ The songs rep­re­sent the inside of your brain: the things you think are the songs, the things you say are the book.”

Musicals ampli­fy emo­tions,” says Fierstein. When Fierstein wrote La Cage aux Folles, leg­endary book writer Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Gypsy) taught him his num­ber one rule of musi­cal­iz­ing a sto­ry: “Does it sing?”

Similarly, Norman teach­es her play­writ­ing stu­dents at Juilliard that audi­ences respond to musi­cals emo­tion­al­ly rather than intel­lec­tu­al­ly. “People lis­ten to music with cave­men ears: Is it a bird song or the call of a lion?” Norman says. “The audi­ence at a musi­cal is danc­ing in their hearts.”

So when your heart dances to the music of Godspell, Porgy and Bess and Mamma Mia!, try to remem­ber that it was the book writ­ers John-Michael Tebelak, DuBose Heyward (and Suzan-Lori Parks for the recent Broadway revival) and Catherine Johnson who pulled you onto the dance floor.