Preparing Music for Broadway and Musical Theater – Advice for Composers and Songwriters

A Musical vision is a powerful thing, especially when combined with passion and determination. If you’re hearing the songs and seeing the production in your mind, you’re well on your way to creating a Musical Theater Play. The process of getting your ideas into communicable form will need to involve notation at some point of the creative process. Theaters still use live musicians – there’s no other way to accommodate variables like audience response, let alone whatever Union regulations there might be in your local theater requiring the hiring of musicians. You’re going to need a score and parts, and the sooner the better. The earlier in the process your work is presentable in printable notation form, the better it is for your workflow, and your budget.

As Steven Covey said in “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” “Begin with the end in mind!”

Q. What is the end for a Broadway Musical Play?

A. People on stage singing, and musicians reading written parts in the orchestra pit.

The Musical Development Process

Start with recordings and/or lead sheets of your songs. Your song will have melody, lyric, and (hopefully) a bass line or chords. Get it into Finale or Sibelius. If you’re not familiar or comfortable with music notation software, then you need to hire an arranger to do it for you at this stage.

Ask if the arranger has done large scores, and whether they can produce tracks from scores. Both of these skill sets will be necessary at some point in your development process. If your arranger has prior experience as a music copyist and/or performer in Broadway pits, so much the better!

Musical Scores are Flexible and Expandable

Once in Finale, the score can be expanded and orchestrated. Parts can be printed from Finale as soon as the initial arrangement is complete. Begin with a piano score, with a bass line in the left hand, and a vocal line with lyric – those elements will enable you to rehearse and workshop the material. To make a demo of (some of) the songs, other instruments can be added to the score to represent the sound to potential investors. Fuller orchestrations can always be added later to these same scores as needed to meet house minimums (which are encountered in Union theaters such as those on Broadway.)

Record Without a Score? Don’t Do It!

We recently encountered an emergency call – a completed “show” (rather, a set of demos of songs from a possible show) was done almost entirely without notation, and the self-described “orchestrator” was refusing to output a score and parts. He played the parts by hand into sessions in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) (such as Logic, ProTools, or a multitude of other possible options). A person delivering work in this fashion, particularly for a musical, is not an “orchestrator” – he’s a track producer, who’s effectively driven the project a hundred miles down the wrong road. Although the work may sound beautiful, the result is not deliverable for the end product – which is a live musical performance – without substantial additional investment in transcriptions. If the project had begun in Finale (or Sibelius), all the work of musical preparation and transcription would have already been done.

Midi Can Be a Mess

Midi from a DAW doesn't always import wellIf you’ve already have your tracks produced in a DAW without notation, please be aware – it’s often easier to transcribe a piece completely by ear rather than editing imported midi. The importation quality depends on whether the entry was quantized (although re-quantization is possible in Finale after import). Even under ideal circumstances – perfect midi import  – extensive editing is still required to get the score into professionally acceptable format with legible parts and proper markings for all musicians. Producers creating parts in a DAW often fail to consider human playability. We’ve seen multiple DAW recorded midi passes merged into a single track resulting in parts that would require a six-handed pianist, which need to be unscrambled on transcription (image above).

Notate First!

When the project is done in notation first, and throughout, midi from notation can be exported into a DAW for production. Current versions of Finale (and Sibelius) generate acceptable audio for demo underscore over which vocals can be recorded. Finale can even be “rewired” into a DAW, playing back in the recording session, so vocals can be recorded over the score. This process gives you your demo AND your score.

Make Your Demo from your Score!

Use your score to make your demo, rather than the inverse! You’ll have both for the same money, rather than paying twice for the same work!

About Jon Burr

Jon Burr is a composer, arranger, producer, recording engineer, bandleader, bassist, and educator from Yonkers, NY.. and a Finale user since 1996. As owner/operator of Arranger for Hire, he serves music arranging and production customers from around the world. A veteran touring bassist, his performance credits include Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, The Hot Swing Trio, Stephane Grappelli and many others. Arranging customers have included the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Chilean Astronomy Society, The Milpitas Community Concert Band, The Honey Taps, The Montclair Kimberly Academy’s annual musical, and many others. He writes for and leads his own ensembles, including the Jon Burr Quintet. His arrangements for Swedish YouTube artist Kim Andersson have received over 5 million views on Facebook and YouTube.