Everything I know About Writing I Learned from a Musical

From Gypsy, the musical based on the life of infamous Burlesque stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, (Styne, Sondheim & Laurent 1962) I learned “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” Translation: What’s your hook? If you can’t tell me in one sentence what your story is about, then you aren’t sure….and make it sticky (ala The Tipping Point)! From My Fair Lady, based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, (Lerner and Lowe 1956) I learned “Now once again, Eliza, where does it rain?/ On the plain! On the plain!/And where’s that soggy plain?/In Spain! In Spain” and “Ay not I, O not Ow, Don't say "Rine," say "Rain.” Translation: Practice makes perfect and grammar counts.

From Mary Poppins (Richard and Robert Sherman 1964) I learned how to deal with critique and rejection letters: “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down…”

But the most important lesson of all, the life lesson that has helped me focus, direct my energies, and define what I want to achieve through my writing and for my life came from The Music Man (Meridith Willson, 1957). Professor Harold Hill, a smooth-talking, womanizing, flim-flam man cons the “good people” of River City, Iowa,  into buying band instruments and uniforms for their boys under the guise of forming a “town band.” Professor Hill (Robert Preston in the movie)—who can’t read music or play an instrument—instructs the boys using “The Think System,” asserting that music can be learned just by thinking it.

At the climax of the show, a moment that still stops and then warms my heart, the boys, in their ill-fitting uniforms and wielding their shiny new instruments, are assembled in the gym. The tar is hot, a bag of feathers handy....Love interest, Marion the Librarian (Shirley Jones in the movie version) snaps a pointer in half and hands it to the handcuffed Professor. It’s do or be done to time for good old Harold.

Professor Hill raises the pointer, cocks his head, squeezes his eyes closed and implores: “Think, boys, think!”

And they do. Every boy in that room blows, bangs, or beats his instrument with every drop of musicality he  has. And I’ll be danged if they don't make music!  It’s not perfect; the band is far from on key or in time, but those boys play music! Before our eyes the motley crew become a shining, high-stepping brass band—76 Trombones strong. “That’s my Barney!” one dad calls out (our family’s ataboy!)

The current name for it is the  “Art of Abundance” defined as:  “ The secret to getting the goals you set begins with setting an intention -- a powerful tool that generates results because it reprograms your brain to see the truth: That you are easily and effortlessly accomplishing what you desire.”Oprah touts it, preaches it, devotes programs to it. Books like The Secret and The Passion Test teach it. Before all of them, Meridith Willson had it (it may have taken 8 years and 30 revisions, but he proved it with The Music Man.): The Think System.

You can do it! As sure as those boys played those instruments, you can do it--whatever your IT is. You can write that poem, that play, that book! You can achieve everything you want…but first…first….first: You have to Think It.

To paraphrase Professor Harold Hill “Think, Writers. Think!”