Favorite Quotes Volume XXXIV: The difference between movies and theatre.

Some people think Michael Riedel is only good for gossip.

Not so, not so!

Last week, Riedel’s column about the soon-to-be-made-for-walking Kinky Boots featured a gem of a quote from Harvey Fierstein that should be featured in every musical theater writing textbook there is (which is probably only about two (I love this one on the subject, btw)).

This is what the award-winning book writer of La Cage and the more recent Newsies had to say about the difference between movies and the theatre:

There’s a huge difference between movies and theater.  Movies are about story.  Theater is about ideas. You’ve got the story going, but you have to have something more to keep people in their seats for 2 1/2 hours.  You have to have something bigger to say than, ‘Oh, we have a shoe factory, let’s make it a hit shoe factory!’  That ain’t really a reason to go to a musical.

Musicals and plays require grander themes or big ideas.  Simple stories don’t usually work.  We need French Revolution type stuff, or squatters living in the East Village and living with AIDS.  We need Producers who try to produce the biggest flop on the planet about Adolph Hitler, or an entire village of people leaving their village and their ‘tradition’ behind.

I’ve often said that movies are about action, and the theater is about characters.

But as Harvey sums up above, you need big stakes if you want your show to succeed on a stage.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)



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  • RLewis says:

    Sorry, but I think that you missed Harvey’s point. “We need French Revolution type stuff, or squatters living in the East Village and living with AIDS. We need Producers who try to produce the biggest flop …” are all still just story elements.

    Big ideas are things like: destiny is inescapable; or, no matter what life throws at you Hope will prevail; or, tricking others can end up tricking you; or, do parables give insight into modern life? These are ideas that great musicals require.

    Once is a very simple musical, but its big idea (committing to love/taking risks) is what makes it theater.

    The post here is very right, but I’m not sure you get it.

  • Harvey for me is a story of keeping your dream alive. My high school friend, Chris Marcantel, originated the role of Alan in “Fugue in a Nursery,” the middle play in the three that eventually made up “Torch Song Trilogy.”

    I had seen that play, and the follow-up– both of which were wonderful. Several years later, Chris told me that Harvey was a dresser for a play at Lincoln Center, but he wanted to put all three plays together in one production.

    My response was that he should just write another play and move on.

    Obviously, I was wrong. He got his production, which became a huge hit (with a new director), introduced the world to Estelle Getty and helped establish Matthew Broderick as a star, and put Harvey on the map, allowing him to quit his job as a dresser forever.

    The dude taught me to keep dreaming big as long as you can.

  • Hap Erstein says:

    Surely The Producers is a bad example for your argument. The stage show is based on the Oscar-winning movie and both are about producers trying to produce the worst show possible about Adolf Hitler. And both are satisfying, successful works in their own media.

  • A Contrarian says:

    If Theatre is about Ideas, and you can write about anything you want, why are our plays so small?

  • Donald Sanborn III says:

    Another great textbook on writing musical theater is titled, shockingly, “Writing Musical Theater.” The authors are Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus. What sets this book apart from others like it is that the authors walk you through the process of creating a musical, even writing a few songs for hypothetical music, much as a TV chef shows you how to cook a gourmet dish. Rather than just say, “a song should do this, nor shouldn’t just be that,” Cohen and Rosenhaus show you HOW to conceive a song for your story and characters.

  • C.J. George Michael says:

    Dear Readers ,
    Your comments about musical theatre, I am really enjoying sitting in an other part of the globe .I thank you people for giving a chance , to give my comments also ,
    10)Kindly tell me your history of theatre is how many centuries , where as the history of Indian Theatre is more than 5000 years . The Great Nalanda university had a department of theatre .
    Well about movies , your Hollywood is more superior than any other “woods” ,because you invest more in people and equipments , for its production but how many movies you could bring it for domestic as well as for international audiences ?
    In India we produce around 2500 movies in 22 languages .Just imagine the comparison with respect to amount of people involvement. That is why this industry has gone to the mafia ,I am very ashamed to tell about this because of its multi- culture and multi linguistic and so on so forth .
    You are all to be worshipped by all other foreigners that you keep alive the so called mother of all arts , ” The Theatre “,but still admit that your thirst for musical theatres to get popularised . Yes! you should all be proud and rejoice of having a blessed / gifted son in the name of Mr.Ken Davenport .I think now he has started discussion about the musical theatre , let us all follow him , I think he is after some great thing ,let us see what is in his mind .

    Well , I am from India , aged 65 , first stage appearance is at the young age of 9 , still my mind tells me to go international . Myself being a Christian from India fully studying the the Great centuries old German Musical Passion play , now has written a full fledged musical passion play in English a four hour musical presentation ,titled “Thy Will Be Done On Earth ” , composing 11 songs , right from ,’Hosanna to Alleluia “,requesting you people to take some time to listen this , “Track Music ” , which I have uploaded in the ,”You Tube” , as ,”MrGeorgemichaelsongs “, also given the title as ,”The Musical Passion of Our Redeemer “.I welcome any advice or suggestion, since you all are born as great stalwarts in this art. God Bless ,
    Sincerely in Christ ,
    C.J. George Michael .
    >cjgeorgemichael@hotmail.com <

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