Putting it Together: Words & Music

Write Your Own Musical

Legends of musical theater talk about how a musical gets written


Age range: 15 to 18

Estimated Time: You can view all the videos in this series in about 30 minutes, but you may want to allow some time in between to reflect on what you hear.

Key Technology: This multimedia resource is bandwidth-intensive, requiring a high-speed Internet connection. Users should be equipped with speakers (or headphones in a lab or classroom setting) and will need iTunes or Quicktime installed on their computers

Subscribe to this audio series:

This is part of a 6-part series that introduces middle and high school audiences to the many aspects of musical theater. Heather Nathans, Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland makes it easy to listen to and learn about musical theater in America. Using examples from Broadway, she talks about the history, structure and elements of musical theater, musical theater's role in making social commentary, its legacy and how you too can create a musical.

Think About...

Ready, Set, Learn!
Before you get started, think of what you already know about musical theater. Keep this in mind as you listen to the lectures. Pause the audio track now and then to sum up what you have learned or playback a segment to stop and think about what it means to you. Think about how your experience and what you know about musical theater matches what Heather Nathans is saying. Are you surprised by anything she says, does something feel familiar to you or validate your own observations?

Food For Thought
Take a look at the summaries of each of the lectures below. You may want to listen to each lecture one at a time and consider the questions that follow the summaries. See where these ideas may lead you and have fun!

How to Write a Musical

In this piece, Heather Nathans is joined by Joe Stein and Sheldon Harnick (writers of Fiddler on the Roof) and Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked) to talk about how a musical gets written.

Baby Steps!
If you wanted to perform heart surgery, fly an airplane or build a bridge there are things you know you would need to do first in order to be able to accomplish those goals. To achieve excellence in the arts requires the same kind of commitment and effort. What steps do you need to take to write a musical?

Not Exactly the Same Old Story
Stories come from many places, personal experiences, folk tales, history, the hero’s quest and so on. Think of the common elements of these kinds of stories and how they have been told through musical theater in the past. What are some subjects that you think you could turn into a story for musical theater? What twists of plot and character development would you use to tell this story?

What Grabs You?
Just about everything is interesting if you get interested in it. Thinking about the history of musical theater in America there have been famous personalities, prolific writers and composers, songs that have become part of our national identity, fortunes made and lost, the exportation of our culture around the world to name a few topics.

If you were to tell the story of the history of American musical theater as a musical play, how would you go about it?

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

The episodes in this series have dealt with the opening songs and the songs that tell the story. What about the big finish? Take a look at some of the finales in the shows mentioned or others you may know and see what patterns or themes you can find. Here is a brief list of shows with their finale number

  • The King and I ("Something Wonderful")
  • Beauty and the Beast ("Transformation")
  • Snow White ("Some Day My Prince Will Come")
  • Fiddler on the Roof ("Any Day Now")
  • High School Musical ("Get ‘Cha Head in the Game")
  • West Side Story ("Finale: Tony and Maria")
  • South Pacific ("Finale (Dites-Moi)")
  • Avenue Q ("For Now")

American culture has been exported all over the world through cinema. In particular, Mumbai, India has taken cues from the Hollywood musical to create their own brand of singing and dancing in the “Bollywood” musical. Take a look at how the Bollywood musical reflects and influences an international audience. For more information see this PBS link.

For the Educator

Take some time to preview the video interviews before presenting this lesson to the class/student. Think about questions/comments your students may have when they view it to be ready for a group discussion of the content.

Collect a variety of recent magazines, newspapers, and internet headlines.

Let’s Get Started

This in-depth series on American musical theater examines:

  • the history and metamorphosis of musical theater
  • analysis of a musical
  • the musical as social commentary
  • musical theater as a reflection of culture
  • storytelling through song
  • Disney’s contributions to musical theater

How to Teach It

There are so many ways you can use this series. Think about these options:

  • an introduction to a musical theater field trip
  • an introduction to staging a musical
  • for a unit on creative writing and storytelling
  • for a unit on music composition
  • a music appreciation lesson
  • to find out what’s on your student’s minds
  • to enhance an American history lesson

Listen First

You may want to listen to the lectures as a large group. When you hear a point relevant to your group pause the audio so you can discuss it. Stop in between lectures for guided group discussion. Use the questions in the tab above to get the conversation going if you need to.

Instructional Strategies

Decide if you would like your class to work individually, in small groups or as a large group.

  • Individual or small group – each student/group would create a mini musical theater piece including:
    • A story concept
    • A plot with a beginning, middle and end
    • Cast of characters including main characters and supporting characters
    • Three songs including: an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes or existing popular songs which are appropriate to tell the story.
  • Large group - as a group the class would create one musical. Assign the following jobs to individuals or partners:
    • Producer – organizes the deadlines of the various jobs and over sees that everyone is progressing towards meeting their deadlines
    • Writer/s – develops the story concept, development of characters, dialogue, develops the plot which includes a conflict, climax and resolution
    • Composer/s – develop songs including an “I want” song a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes
    • Technician/s – designs any needed technical support i.e.: sound, lights, special effects,

Supply your students with a selection current magazines, newspaper or Internet headlines.

Direct your class to choose a story from headlines and turn it into a musical by writing an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along and a finale. Come up with an idea of your own or choose one of the following ideas:

  • a crime
  • human interest story
  • sports story
  • weather story
  • odd ball story
  • political news



Ann Reilly


Editors & Producers

Richard Paul
Audio Producer


© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.