An Open Book: Explaining What Musical Librettists Do

By Marc Acito
19 Feb 2012

Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman

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."

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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.



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