“I truly truly believe that everything I know about life I learned doing musical theatre,” says author Tim Federle. “I learned so much about rejection, and jealousy, and teamwork, brushing off disappointment at a really young age.” Having started out in the theatre as an actor, making his Broadway debut in the Bernadette Peters-led Gypsy, Federle transitioned to writing—children’s books like his Better Nate Than Never, cocktail concoction books like Tequila Mockingbird, and then the script for the musical adaptation of Tuck Everlasting. (“I feel like all I have left to write is a medical textbook,” Federle jokes.)
Federle decided to put his theatre background to practical use in Life Is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star, a self-described Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for theatre people. “I think it’s a self-help book with a wink,” he says. “I have absolutely no qualifications for giving advice except I think theatre people are survivors.”
He put his lessons from theatre, like “Forgive Yourself for a Bad Performance” and “The Real Work Happens After Opening Night” in the context of life advice. From lessons he learned while working on Billy Elliott The Musical to wisdom from Tony-winning Peters, Federle’s guidance lands with comfort and humor.
Here, Federle gives us an exclusive read at the “Introduction—I mean, wait—Overture” of his book and one of the earliest chapters, “Find Your ‘I Want’ Song,” ahead of the book’s October 3 release.
To purchase your copy of Life Is Like a Musical, click here.
CHAPTER 1: Introduction—I mean, wait—Overture
Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
At this evening’s performance, the starring role will be played by . . . well, you, it turns out. So are you ready?
No worries, I’m here to help. This book contains everything I know about life, learned during my time as a theater kid–turned–chorus boy–turned Broadway playwright. Along my way to the Great White Way, I picked up tips and tricks backstage, onstage, and in between gigs—and realized just how many ways life is like a musical.
Basically, think of this book as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with jazz hands.
These aren’t instructions for dancing in the middle of the streets (though, by all means, go for it). It’s more about “borrowing” (okay, stealing) the pizzazz and determination that define theater people, and harnessing that energy for your own forces of good.
Right around my third career transition, I recognized how many hard-won showbiz lessons applied to all walks of my life—not just how to be a successful performer, but how to be a successful person and partner, too. And I want you to know these insights, too.
Come on in, the spotlight’s warm.
From “Cast Yourself in the Role You Want” (chapter 1), in which I advise you how to stop waiting for someone to “discover” you, to “Find Your Tribe” (chapter 49), in which I recommend cultivating a network of like-minded souls, I hope the advice I borrowed from Broadway can help you get inspired—not to mention get hired, whether it’s in a boardroom or on the boards.
Now, you don’t have to know every lyric to Les Miz to find these secrets and shortcuts useful—at least I hope you don’t. Many of the references contained within Life Is Like a Musical will resonate with theater people, sure—but also with anyone who didn’t think they liked musicals, until they accidentally overheard some kid blasting the Hamilton album. Truth is, even if you’re not a diehard drama geek, there are fundamental insights about getting ahead in life, love, and leadership that only a true Broadway baby can share. Trust me.
Oh, why me? Great question, appreciate you asking.
Because nobody has a thicker skin or a more deeply ingrained work ethic than a lifelong theater person. We eat rejection for breakfast and still manage to smile (see chapter 40, “Put on a Happy Face”). I’ve worn just about every hat in the theater, at times literally—yes, that was me sporting a bejeweled catfish on my head for The Little Mermaid. Hey, it paid the bills.
Beneath the grit and before the glitter, I grew up swallowing how-to books whole, dying to discover answers to my own deepest questions: Will I ever be truly happy? Will I ever be cast in Rent? But while I hope this book both guides and counsels you, I’m no doctor (though I have, on occasion, been a sort of show doctor). Life Is Like a Musical is more a collection of wry observations than a prescription for living—but everything here was indeed jotted down from the frontlines, the sidelines, and occasionally the footlights.
Lastly, Life Is Like a Musical is for people who find themselves desiring something—a stronger relationship or a better job or a more refined way of framing the story of their life. (We theater people call this your “I want” song; more on that in chapter 13.) I don’t care what this something is for you. But I know it’s something. Or you wouldn’t still be reading. And that’s where I come in.
So good luck. Or, rather, break a leg. Now please silence your cell phones. The performance of your life is about to begin.
CHAPTER 13: Find Your “I Want” Song
Nearly every musical has an “I want” song—that iconic moment when the audience falls in love with the protagonist, and understands what she needs in order to feel complete and accomplished and whole. It happens about fifteen minutes into the show, generally after we’ve met all the merry singing villagers and perhaps a comic sidekick or two. The lights dim, the stage empties, and our leading lady is left alone to sit down on a stump outside her cottage and sing about what’s missing in her life.
In The Little Mermaid, it’s “Part of That World,” when Ariel longs to be somewhere that’s better than under the sea. In My Fair Lady it’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” in which Eliza Doolittle dreams of a place, a room, and anywhere that’s more desirable than her current lot in life. In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot,” wherein a young Alexander Hamilton is not going to give up his chance to make a mark—and make it he does. So what’s your “I want” song?
Because, I hate to break it to y’all, but a whole lot of you are singing somebody else’s song.
You’re singing your parents’ “I want” song—either the unfulfilled dream of their own youth or a vision for you that, oops, you’ve never had much say in. Or you’re singing your partner’s (or, hopefully, your ex’s) “I want” song for you—the one that casts you squarely as their backup act. Maybe the saddest “I want” song of all is the one being endlessly reprised by you—the outdated clunker of a tune from a time in your life when you thought you wanted one thing, and forgot, along the way, that you’re allowed to revise the melody.
Your “I want” song—put another way, your personal mission statement—is a chance to name and establish all the ways you’d like to change your life in order to live a more targeted, goal-oriented, fulfilling version of your own destiny.
(Hold for applause.)
Sound heavy? Remember, a lot of “I want” songs are pretty damn upbeat, like “Purpose,” from Avenue Q, in which a puppet finds a lucky penny that launches him on a jaunty journey. Your song doesn’t have to be stuffy or self-serious. It doesn’t even have to be a song. All your “want” needs to be is focused enough to help you steer your life. The catch is that your song is bound to change and mature. In fact, it almost certainly should.
When I was nine years old, my parents took me to see a performance of the national tour of Cats. As ridiculous as the show is—Adults! Dressed as cats! Without irony!—when I learned that there was a job that paid you to wear makeup and fur, and sing at the top of your lungs, I had found my “I want” song—just like that. I hadn’t even hit double digits yet, but I recognized that my earlier years, spent twirling around in my backyard and earning side-eyed stares from the neighborhood kids, weren’t frivolous at all. They were practice.
My “I want” song became: “I want to get to Broadway someday.” And get there I did—though not in Cats, which, as proof of God’s sense of humor, closed the week I moved to New York City. Meow.
And yet! Despite pointing my whiskers hard toward the direction of Broadway, and in spite of my “I want” becoming an “OK, I’ve got it now,” it took me far too long to recognize that on the other side of a Broadway dream stood the reality of actually getting there . . . and then what?
The big secret is: You’re supposed to write yourself a new want, every now and then.
Right before I turned thirty, about twenty years after I’d first seen those damn dancing kitties, I realized I’d rather write the next Cats than actually be one. So I changed my tune. This time, I’d be a writer—one way or another. One page at a time.
Please, never forget you’re the leading character in your own life. Read that sentence again: You aren’t the supporting cast. You’re it, baby. Too many of us relegate ourselves quite willingly to the sidelines of somebody else’s story, for any number of reasons. Starting today, own the fact that on the grand musical that is your own journey, you’re the only person who’s taking the final bow. You’re the whole show: the dialogue, the inner monologues, the crew, and the cast. So start composing a life that’s a joy to actually sing about.
What’s your signature tune going to be? How hard will you belt it out till you get the thing you want? Not what your folks or your teachers or your former you wants. You’ve outgrown her. And thank goodness for that.
What’s the big “I want” of the person reading this book, right now? Go get it. Sing that song. Sing it till you know it by heart.