Before they wrote the books/lyrics/etc to shows like Ragtime, Jersey Boys, Memphis, Once On This Island and more . . . they all worked in advertising.
That’s what I call a trend, my friends.
And where there’s a trend, there’s me, trying to figure out why it is the way it is.
I dug into this idea with each of the above writers on my podcast (click the links above to listen), and a few other writers who also worked on Madison Avenue (including School of Rock and Little Mermaid lyricist Glenn Slater).
My research led me to three reasons why working in advertising is a great foundation for writing musical theater.
Here we go.
1.They learn to write fast. If you have a job, and your boss says an assignment is due tomorrow, you do it, right? It’s not so easy when you’re your own boss (even though the rewards can be so much bigger than a weekly paycheck). When you’re an advertising writer, you have a certain period of time to write copy, a jingle, etc. and then you have to present it to the client. It’s an assignment. You have a deadline. All of the musical theatre writers I spoke to said that learning to write quickly (instead of writing to be perfect) helped them not only get their personal projects done faster, but it also . . . and here’s the big one . . . prepared them for the “preview process.” One of my more widely read blogs talked about how I believe the true judge of a creative team is how they handle the preview period. Because writers who write fast have a much higher chance of turning out great material under pressure.And writing for advertising teaches you just that.
2. They learn to write without ego. I work with advertising agencies all the time on my shows and some of my small businesses. When designing a campaign, the first drafts usually look or sound nothing like the final. Commercial edits, radio copy, website layouts, etc. all can change 180 degrees after a client gets a hold of it. I’m constantly sending stuff back and saying, “No. Not right. Try again. Use this. Bigger. Softer. Do it over!” In fact, just this morning I was working on a Broadway TV commercial and we asked for a change . . . when it has to be delivered to stations later today! (Remember that write fast thing?) When you’re forced to change your work so often, you get numb to people telling you they don’t like it. (Notice how I said “they don’t like it,” which is much more different from “it’s not good.” HUGE difference.)Learning to write without ego, and just write, write and write without self-judgment or worrying about other people’s judgment helps Authors be more productive, which gives them greater opportunity to better their material.
3.They learn to write for others. Ok, this is my favorite. What’s your goal when you write to advertise a product? You write to sell that product. You write to communicate a message to other people. You write to get emotion out of your customer, not to get emotion out of yourself. And if you’re successful, those people who hear your message will act on that emotion and make a purchase. That’s the goal. Don’t accomplish that, and you won’t work in advertising very long. Too many musical theatre writers I know write only for themselves. They sit in a room, write tome after tome and say, “Oh! This is brilliant! I love it! Look at what I’ve done!”And maybe it is brilliant. But it actually doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what an audience thinks. Yes, love what you do, be proud of what you do, but your sole goal as a writer is to communicate a message to your audience, and get them so riled up that they act . . . and after seeing your show, they tell other people to do the same.Training in advertising reminds you that all writing, from musical theatre to novels to poetry, is about the customer. Because yes, theatre is art, but it still has to be sold (at a very high price).
If you want to pursue a career as a musical theatre writer . . . study the greats, take writing classes, join a writer’s group . . . but also consider a marketing class.
Because there’s no doubt that the success of the above Tony Winners has something to do with the fact that all of them know how to sell.