Most songs that engage and stick with us are mini-stories or moments of someone’s (a character’s) life. So it’s a natural extension that our films, theater and sometimes books, weave music and song through the narrative spine.

Did you know the script for SINGING IN THE RAIN has no lyrics in it? So what is the best way to synergize your characters with the soundtrack of their story?

In the past year, four of the bigger projects I have been on are as follows:

  • A screenplay and subsequent transmedia-based novel about a neuroscientist studying the effect of music therapy for the disabled
  • Producing on a movie centered on the big band era
  • A screenplay based on a young musical prodigy from the Tennessee Mountains, who is not allowed to play
  • And an animated musical screenplay in the vein of some Disney’s classics of the 90s

All but one of these projects found me – commonalities like this pop up in my work all the time. The complexity and volume of these is one of the main reason posts around here have been few and far between – but as they progress to reality, I will keep you all posted.

Each one utilizes and relies on music to tell the story in very different ways, so I’m going to look at those treatments and purposes in depth.

First, there are two things I can’t emphasize enough.

1) Lyricists are special breeds who frankly don’t get enough credit. More chart-topping songs than you know, are written by someone other than the performer who made them famous.

2) Do not put popular songs in your story unless they are public domain (or you happen to have the rights) – the legalities of music rights are enough to send any producer or publisher running.

Now lets look at some of the more common ways music finds its way into the story spine.

The straight up musical — think INTO THE WOODS, CHICAGO… some animated features are lumped into this category (Beauty and the Beast, Frozen) and by design, they are the ones that you see on Broadway shortly after their theatrical success. In the case of INTO THE WOODS, CHICAGO, LE MIS and the sort – they started as Broadway shows and the theatrical release is just an extension of the story with more elaborate and dimensional set design.

In these stories, the songs move the story forward – they reveal just as much of the plot – if not more, they also usually give us insight to the inner goals of the main characters.

The INTO THE WOODS screenplay is available for download and the link is included at the end of the post. All but one of the scripts included are finals, cleaned up for award’s season. When and if there are lyrics those are in the dialogue in ALL CAPS.

Now, in the case of the animated musicals such as FROZEN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN etc.; these are approached one of two ways:

1) A rough screenplay is sent out to lyricists/composers who then come back with renditions that will help develop and support the themes and arcs.  This is more the case nowadays – in the instance of FROZEN. It had been in development for decades and had quite a few writers and directors over the years. Jennifer Lee has said that she never truly attached to what the film’s theme until the song Let It Go (whose music and lyrics were composed by husband-and-wife songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) came back from them. In fact, when you read the final screenplay you see the phrase ‘let it go’ is even used in the opening song that is sung by the icemen.

Once that song fell into place as Elsa’s anthem – the entire thematic thread of the script was tightened and became the blockbuster that we know.

The FROZEN screenplay is available for download and the link is included at the end of the post.

2) The songs can come first.

I was fortunate to be at Disney during the animation renaissance that relied on the music. In fact most of the studio’s leadership was brought in by and from those with a theatrical background. To the point that those of us who didn’t come from the thirty-second touring company of Up With People, were shaking our heads every time someone was hired.

Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman really knew how to encapsulate character, plot and entertainment into a song. It started with THE LITTLE MERMAID, and while BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was in production. They sat down at the piano and played the opening song for ALADDIN it got greenlit from that session.

Then Terry Rosio and Ted Elliot were hired to write the script along with the film’s directors, Ron and Jon. It went back and forth until what was deemed the final draft came to be. The Arabian Nights song is the opening number – the next song that became almost as important is the one where Aladdin is introduced. If you look at that scene as written, you can see that it is not a song until very late and then the song is meh. But the theatrical powers that be knew that it was not a very compelling way to introduce the main character and thus Aladdin’s One Jump Ahead was crafted. It was never incorporated into the script because back then, scripts weren’t made public (such as FROZEN), and the story department in the animation process had just as much (and in some cases more) input as the screenwriter. In the case of Aladdin, there is a very touching story in the documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY about Howard Ashman and it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre. His writing partner, Alan Menken carried on after he passed and brought in the talented Tim Rice to complete the soundtrack largely driven by story changes.

There is roughly one key number per sequence:

  1. “Arabian Nights” (*) Howard Ashman           
  2. “Legend of the Lamp”                            
  3. “One Jump Ahead”   Rice             Brad Kane            
  4. “Street Urchins”                            
  5. “One Jump Ahead (Reprise)”   Rice             Brad Kane            
  6. “Friend Like Me”   Ashman             Robin Williams            
  7. “To Be Free”                            
  8. “Prince Ali”   Ashman             Robin Williams            
  9. “A Whole New World”   Rice             Brad Kane & Lea Salonga            
  10. “Jafar’s Hour”                            
  11. “Prince Ali (Reprise)” (some dialogue performed by Gilbert Gottfried) Rice             Jonathan Freeman            
  12. “The Ends of the Earth”                            
  13. “The Kiss”                            
  14. “On a Dark Night”                            
  15. “Jasmine Runs Away”                            
  16. “Marketplace”                            
  17. “The Cave of Wonders”                            
  18. “Aladdin’s Word” (includes cue from When You Wish upon a Star)             
  19. “The Battle”                            
  20. “Happy End in Agrabah” (**)                          
  21. “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)”   Rice, Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle

The original lyric in the opening number, “Where they cut off your ear/if they don’t like your face” received complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and other groups upon the film and soundtrack’s initial release. A new lyric (written by Tim Rice “Where it’s flat and immense/and the heat is intense”, was recorded for subsequent soundtrack pressings and home video releases. The subsequent line, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” was left intact.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken composed several songs for an initial story treatment of Aladdin prior to beginning work on Beauty and the Beast. This story treatment incorporated several plot elements from the original folk tale and additional characters that were eliminated during later story development. Three songs from this score – “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” – survive in the final film.

Menken composed several additional songs for the subsequent story revisions following Ashman’s 1991 death, prior to Tim Rice’s involvement with the project.

Alan Menken’s score for Aladdin follows the compositional method also used in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, with specific cues and motifs derived from the songs’ melodies.

Character notes:

  •    Aladdin’s theme echoes the melody of “One Jump Ahead.” It prominently appears in the score cues “Street Urchins,” “To Be Free” and “Aladdin’s Word.”
  •    Jasmine’s theme is introduced in her first scene at the palace. Alan Menken later expanded this motif into the song “To Be Free” which is sung by Jasmine in the stage version Aladdin: A  Musical Spectacular as well as the musical.
  •    The Sultan is usually accompanied by royal fanfare.
  •    Jafar’s theme is darker, and resembles an instrumental version of “Arabian Nights.”
  •    Genie shares the same musical motif as Jasmine, symbolizing his desire to also be free. This cue was expanded into the song “To Be Free” for Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular.

All of this serves the story, plot and characters but none of it was written by screenwriters extraordinaire, Rossio and Elliot. That said, there are 18 writers credited for Aladdin, the other 16 are the Directors, and story team – that’s how much input goes into writing one of these. (Only the Directors share screenplay credit, the rest are story credits that fall under the umbrella of writing.)

A ton information I know – but I get tons of questions about how to write and/or sell animation screenplays – so it’s a must to understand the enormous reality.

What is considered the final ALADDIN screenplay is included at the end.

The opposite spectrum of this is STRANGE MAGIC. The recently released flop of none other than George Lucas. The biggest reason this movie failed is because of the music. Not that the popular songs weren’t good – but they did none of the things original songs can do for character, plot and theme. It was like the characters wanted to evolve but could only do so if they found the song on the jukebox that best defined them – and when they couldn’t find a perfect match they had to settle for the next best thing. The songs added zero depth and lost the audience as a result. This is perhaps the second best reason to never specify a popular song in your writing – you may think it fits but let the music supervisors do what they do best. PLEASE.

Conversely, a great example of this working is GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. The walkman provided soundtrack of Starlord – was his lifeblood and it was entertaining – but he never broke out in song with it – if he had it would have been STRANGE MAGIC.

So, how do you write something using music for a drama, or action adventure that can be as effective as GOTG without using specific song title and lyrics?

It’s quite simple really – you specify the mood, reaction and driving force of the song and let the rights clearances, composers and lyricists do their jobs.

All of the projects I’ve listed above that I am working on are written this way. The same way SINGING IN THE RAIN was written.

During the outline phase I included music beats and in the scripts the writing and emotion paint the mood.

Lastly, WHIPLASH is also included below, this really fits the mold of the script work I am doing about the music therapy.

The scripts finish fairly short (90 or so pages) because they don’t include lyrics. Two of them are now ready for those team members to do their stuff and when the songs come in, I will incorporate them into the scripts and tighten the character arcs and themes if need be — but I stress, they are already solidly constructed and a lot of research is required to understand the lingo and tools of musicians so that the dialogue can ring true without being boring and on the nose.






2 thoughts

  1. To answer a submitted question: Absolutely write your scenes to convey the fact that a character is singing or watching a band perform or playing an instrument. All kinds of musical hell can break loose and that mood should be conveyed however it best fits into the action. Just don’t try to insert a specific song and/or lyric.

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