The Composer & Librettist Unwrapped

For those who are not familiar with musical terminology, a composer is one who composes music, and a librettist is a person who writes a libretto – which are the words of an opera or a musical play.

In creating my musical The Cross & The Switchblade I chose to take on both roles – with a little help to this point, with some parts of the libretto being written by some very talented individuals.

So how does one become a composer? Lots of lots of practice. But in my case, between the age of 6 and 14, I studied the theory of music, and sat for exams, and it wasn’t until I was 14 that the spark to write melodies was lit. It was when I was handed some lyrics by an adult friend that I composed my first song.

People often ask, is it the words or the melody that comes first? In all honesty, there is no set formula. It can happen either way. I have a filing cabinet full of melodies I have written, that as yet have not been connected with any lyrics. One of the key things that has helped my fingers to remain nimble, and to have the ability to strike out on their own at times to find a tune is my faithful Czerny finger exercise book. It is so tattered and torn from over use, but after doing a bunch of these exercises my fingers are soon flying across the keys as they discover new melodies for me.

And then, what about being the librettist for a musical? Well the first thing I had to do, before I could write the lyrics,  was to create a ‘musical book’ from the original book that was entitled ‘The Cross & The Switchblade’ by David Wilkerson. First I had to decide how much of that story I was going to tell – which equates to less than half of the original book. Then I had to create a synopsis of that section of the book – or rather a one page brief – and then from that I created the scenario – which breaks up the story into two acts and a number of scenes.

Once those two things were done I started to write the libretto. Sometimes it was a word, or a phrase, or a thought that inspired me from the original work – and before I knew it I had another song.

My skill in writing lyrics has been fashioned over many decades of writing poems, lyrics, articles, books and the regular habit of keeping a journal. Songwriting demands that I learn to say a lot in a concise format, and that the words are complimented by the style of music. And in a musical there is also an additional requirement to continue to carry the story forward to an ultimate climax.

In a musical, in order to keep the attention of the audience, there is  need to mix up the styles – the serious, with the romantic, with the humorous and that being supported by a whole range of different styles created by the composer.

Being a composer and librettist, wrapped up in the same person, is quite an emotional experience – particularly as I have had to live the story and deeply feel for each of the characters.  Throughout the creation of the musical I have laughed with them, cried with them, hurt with them , and rejoiced with them – and will continue to do so I guess all the way to Broadway and beyond.

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