The Librettist’s Turn
Today’s blog is being written by Laura Stratford – librettist from NUMBERS NERDS!
Hi there! This is Laura Stratford, librettist (also known as “book-writer” or “the person who writes the words that aren’t sung unless they’re spoken in rhythm or rapped during a song”) for “Numbers Nerds.” We’ve had a wonderful opening at NYMF, and while we’re here in NYC I’d like to take a little time to give you my hot take on what it’s like to write the book for a new musical.
I’m not looking for sympathy (well, maybe I am) when I say that the librettist is the person who most frequently receives blame when a show doesn’t work and who becomes invisible when a show does. Most of us, myself included, grew up listening to cast albums, venerating composers and lyricists and learning the songs from our favorite musicals by heart, but how many of us even know the name of Sondheim’s librettist for “Sweeney Todd”? It’s Hugh Wheeler. There. You learned something today.
The truth is, a book writer is responsible for not only the dialogue, which can be good or bad, funny or cringe-inducing, but also for the structure of the entire show. What is the story and how does it progress? How do we build to the climax? Do the songs feel like they emerge organically from the action on stage, or do we hit the “pause” button and stop the whole world to get a ballad in? It takes a lot of work to get the machinery of a musical running smoothly, and the job of an artist is to disguise that work so that you, the audience, don’t need to think about how you got from Point A to Point B.
Good news, though: typically, it’s work we love to do. In my case, I enjoy the challenge of not only crafting a joke but also of rounding out character arcs and ensuring that the final victory (or loss, no spoilers) feels earned. I make more frequent edits than my lyricist or composer, but I am also more flexible, better able to try something out, see if it works, and cut or replace if need be.
I hope you’ll come see NUMBERS NERDS and let me know how I’m doing!