Musical theatre is by nature one of the most collaborative art forms, and usually that extends to a show’s writing team.
But there are writers like Great Comet and Octet’s Dave Malloy or A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson who buck that trend—writing book, music, and lyrics to musicals solo. With both Malloy and Jackson triple nominated at the 2020 Drama Desk Awards as book writers, composers, and lyricists, we're taking a look at other multi-hyphenate musical theatre writers who have taken on writing musicals by themselves.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, In the Heights
Though this Tony winner is no stranger to collaborating with other writers—he wrote Bring It On with Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, and Jeff Whitty—he is most famous for the musicals for which he wrote book, music, and lyrics. (Miranda took things a step further by starring in both as well!) In the Heights has a major film adaptation set to hit movie theatres summer 2021, and you’ll be able to catch a filmed performance of Hamilton featuring Miranda in the title role (along with the rest of the Broadway cast) on Disney+ beginning July 3.
Kirsten Childs: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin; Miracle Brothers; Bella: An American Tall Tale
Childs started her career as a performer, appearing on Broadway in Chicago, Dancin’, Jerry’s Girls, and Sweet Charity. In 2000, Childs pivoted and was the sole writer of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which won Childs an Obie Award and returned to New York via Encores! Off-Center in 2017. Childs has continued to write musicals sans writing partners, and is an assistant professor for NYU’s graduate musical theatre writing program.
Jason Robert Brown: The Last Five Years
After bursting onto the scene with the 1995 Off-Broadway song cycle Songs for a New World, Brown wrote music and lyrics for Parade with playwright Alfred Uhry, but he went fully solo writing his next musical, a fully sung-through show that tells a semi-autobiographical story about a five-year relationship. The Last Five Years premiered Off-Broadway in 2002, was revived in 2013, and was adapted into a film starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in 2015. Ever since, Brown has left the book writing to collaborators for his other musicals such as 13, Honeymoon in Vegas, and The Bridges of Madison County.
Elizabeth Swados: Runaways, Alice in Concert, Lullabye and Goodnight, Groundhog
This downtown theatre artist did it all, working as a performer, writer, director, choreographer, and orchestrator. Though she wrote book, music, and lyrics of many musicals over her long career, she’s arguably best remembered for her 1978 breakout Broadway musical Runaways. Swados received four Tony nominations for the production, for her book, choreography, direction, and score. An album of new renditions of Swados’ work was released May 22, with performances from fellow writer-performers Michael R. Jackson and Michael Friedman.
Meredith Willson: The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here’s Love
This multi-hyphenate became famous as a conductor and radio personality in the 1940s, receiving Academy Award nominations for film scores to The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes. In 1948, he published a memoir titled And There I Stood with My Piccolo, which became the credited source material (though better thought of as an inspiration) for his 1957 Broadway smash: The Music Man. Willson wrote book, music, and lyrics for the beloved musical, which included a style of talk-singing patter that would became his trademark. Willson followed up The Music Man with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love, now titled Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.
Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown
Though Mitchell adapted her 2010 album Hadestown into a stage musical in collaboration with director Rachel Chavkin, it’s Mitchell who officially wrote the book, music, and lyrics of this 2019 Best Musical Tony Award winner. The work made its stage debut in 2016 at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, playing additional runs in London and Edmonton before opening on Broadway in 2019. Mitchell herself won a 2019 Tony Award for her original score.
Jonathan Larson: Rent; tick, tick… Boom!
Larson was just making a name for himself as a theatre writer when he tragically died in 1996, as Rent prepared to make its Off-Broadway premiere. The work became a mega-hit on Broadway, posthumously winning Larson two Tony Awards (for the book and score) and a Pulitzer Prize. His other musical, tick, tick… Boom!, started life as a “rock monologue” that Larson performed as a solo show. Five years after his death, the work was adapted into a three-character musical, with David Auburn filling in as a script consultant. The piece is currently being adapted into a film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield.
Jill Santoriello: A Tale of Two Cities
Santoriello’s A Tale of Two Cities, adapted from the Dickens novel, played a brief Broadway run in 2008 following a pre-Broadway production at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre. Partially thanks to a filmed concert adaptation that was broadcast on TV and released on DVD in 2009, the musical has since become somewhat of a cult favorite. Santoriello’s It Happened in Key West played London’s Charing Cross Theatre in 2018, and she is currently working on a musical adaptation of Pollyanna.
Lionel Bart: Oliver!
This West End musical theatre pioneer is best known on this side of the Atlantic for his Dickens musical adaptation, Oliver!. Bart is the sole writer of this musical, which spawned Broadway and West End revivals and an Oscar–winning Best Picture. He wrote other musicals as well, largely unknown to Americans, including Lock Up Your Daughters and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be—both of which were written in collaboration with separate book writers.
George M. Cohan: Little Johnny Jones, Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, George M. Cohan was famous for writing his musicals and starring in them. Unfortunately, most of Cohan’s musicals are so dated that they are seldom performed today, but his roster of classic American songs—including “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”—cements Cohan as Broadway royalty. You can find a statue of him in Times Square!
Rupert Holmes: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Perhaps best known for writing and performing the hit singles “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and “Him,” Rupert Holmes entered the world of musical theatre at the suggestion of The Public Theater’s Joseph Papp, who was impressed by one of Holmes’ cabaret performances. Holmes wrote book, music, and lyrics for 1985’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Dickens’ unfinished 1870 novel. In absence of an ending from Dickens, Holmes opted to leave it up to audiences, with several options written to perform based on how they vote. Holmes later wrote the book and additional lyrics for the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Curtains in 2007.
Frank Loesser: The Most Happy Fella
Frank Loesser spent most of his professional life writing popular music, first making a name for himself in Hollywood, and later writing music and lyrics for one of the most beloved Broadway musicals ever written, Guys and Dolls. For his next musical, Loesser decided to turn more operatic, writing book, music, and lyrics for 1956’s The Most Happy Fella, adapted from the Sidney Howard play They Knew What They Wanted. The show was a modest hit and has become a classic of the genre, but Loesser mostly returned to writing musicals with collaborators following Fella, including Greenwillow and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. When Loesser died in 1969, he was writing book, music, and lyrics to a new musical: Señor Discretion Himself, which was ultimately completed by the performance troupe Culture Clash and performed in 2004 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.
Michael John LaChiusa: Hello Again, The Wild Party, See What I Wanna See, Giant
This musical and opera writer has provided book, music, and lyrics to a number of musicals, including Off-Broadway’s First Lady Suite, Hello Again, Little Fish, See What I Wanna See, Bernarda Alba, Queen of the Mist, Giant, and First Daughter Suite, and Broadway’s Marie Christine. His adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s poem The Wild Party, which featured a book by both LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, arrived on Broadway the same season as Marie Christine, and LaChiusa received four 2000 Tony Award nominations, for both books and both scores.
Noël Coward: Sail Away, This Year of Grace, Bitter Sweet
London writer and personality Noël Coward is best known these days for his plays—such as Private Lives, Present Laughter, Hay Fever, and Blithe Spirit. But Coward wrote a number of musical works during his career, and several without writing collaborators. The best remembered of these is 1961’s Sail Away, which originally starred Elaine Stritch and introduced the song “Why Do the Wrong People Travel.”
Sandy Wilson: The Boy Friend; Divorce Me, Darling!
The Boy Friend and its sequel Divorce Me, Darling! both feature book, music, and lyrics by Sandy Wilson, a British composer and lyricist who mostly wrote standalone songs for revues. A parody of 1920s musicals, The Boy Friend was a hit when it transferred from London’s West End to Broadway in 1954, but it might be best known today for giving a certain leading lady her American stage debut: Julie Andrews.