Bursting with Song logo

"Right, I Know, Yes, Me and Balzac": Musicals About Writers and Writing

Writers and writing aren't the sexiest topics for musicals. The art and craft of writing is typically a lonely one, and musicals about people hunched over their typewriters aren't going to be compelling. Nevertheless, writers and writing have made it into a handful of musicals, including some extremely famous ones as well as the usual crop of obscurities. For the most part, a musical with a writer in it will focus more on the writer's nonwriting adventures (for obvious reasons) than his or her writing life. Since writers tend not to lead exciting lives, you rarely find bio-musicals about writers, though there are a few. As you will see, the profession of writers usually has some kind of effect on a plot, even if just a tiny one; it's rare when a character is called a writer but doesn't behave like one. Interestingly, most of the writers listed here are male.

This list contains all the musicals I could find where one of the characters was a writer or engaged in significant writing, fiction or nonfiction. Journalists, playwrights, scriptwriters, and lyricists are included, but not advertisers, publishers, or nonwriting editors (e.g., Liza Elliott from Lady in the Dark).

All American (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by Mel Brooks)

One of Strouse's many flops, this one concerns a Slavic professor imported to this country to teach engineering at "Southern Baptist Institute of Technology." He's been an author of textbooks but not a teacher. There isn't much more about writing in the show, as far as I can tell.

Bells Are Ringing (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Ella Peterson is an answering service girl who gets involved in the lives of her customers, particularly that of Jeff Moss, a playwright with a major case of writer's block. She inspires him to start working on a new play, and of course they fall in love.

Big River (Music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman)

Mark Twain is a character in this adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, but not a very important one.

Birds of Paradise (Music by David Evans, lyrics by Winnie Holzman, book by Winnie Holzman and David Evans)

Impressively cast off-Broadway show about an amateur theatre group with a writer/composer, Homer, in their midst. Lawrence Wood, a professional actor unable to find work in New York, joins the company because it's in his hometown. They're all excited to have a real professional in their midst, and Homer is eager to show him the musical version of The Seagull that he's written. Wood agrees to direct and star in Seagull, but he changes it so much that Homer is heartbroken. Wood also steals Homer's girlfriend Julia. After much activity, and during the dress rehearsal, Wood suddenly leaves because he's been offered a part on Broadway. Homer steps in with a rewritten final scene that the actors love.

Cabaret (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff)

Cliff Bradshaw, around whom all the action swirls, is a writer trying to find some inspiration by traveling to Berlin. Notoriously, the character is the least interesting person on stage (bisexuality made boring). On the other hand, he's also the only survivor at the end, able to communicate to the world what he saw; the final scene has him writing down the first words of what will be his next book.

Chicago (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse)

Who can forget Mary Sunshine, girl reporter? Billy Flynn knows that if he can convince her of Roxie Hart's innocence, the verdict is all but set. Of course, Mary has a surprise of her own....

City of Angels (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel, book by Larry Gelbart)

Possibly the most substantial musical about a writer. Mystery writer Stine has written many novels about his noir detective Stone, and now he's adapting one for the screen. The musical intertwines the Stone story with Stine's unpleasant experiences in Hollywood, and soon the lines between them blur as Stine and Stone each claim credit for the other's success, and they yell at one another (in song). Ultimately, when Stine gets into serious trouble in the real world, Stone somehow shows up and writes him out of trouble, and the two recognize that they're a partnership.

A Class Act (Music and lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price)

This recent well-received production was a biography of Kleban, known for his lyrics for A Chorus Line but unable ever afterwards to get a musical off the ground--a circumstance that affected his mental health, already shaky to begin with. Like Sondheim, he wanted to write both music and lyrics; unlike Sondheim, he never got the chance. He agreed to write just the lyrics for Michael Bennett with the promise that Bennett's next musical would be Kleban's pet project Gallery. As history shows, Bennett's follow-up to A Chorus Line was Ballroom, which had nothing to do with Kleban. The libretto of A Class Act suggests Kleban didn't feel as betrayed as one might expect, probably because he got a lot of offers immediately after his big hit. However, none panned out. He died in 1987 of cancer with a ton of unproduced material that Kline and Price shaped into a musical about his death and life.

Colette Collage (Music by Harvey Schmidt, lyrics by Tom Jones)

Bio-musical about Colette, famous French writer. Actually two musicals, one about her youth, and one about her dotage and dalliance with a much younger man.

Damn Yankees (Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop)

One of the secondary characters is "pushy" female reporter Gloria Thorpe, who is initially charmed by the mysterious Joe Hardy and gives him the nickname "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo." However, she travels to Hannibal and doesn't find a single person there who knows him, so she develops a theory that he's really Shifty McCoy, a bribe-taking player who had moved to the Mexican League to escape scrutiny. Despite the best efforts of Joe's coach, the theory makes it to the newspapers, causing no end of complications for poor Joe.

Gay Divorce (Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Dwight Taylor)

Retitled Gay Divorcee for the movies. A British novelist, Guy, woos the "would-be divorcee" Mimi at a seaside resort and is mistaken for the man intended to ease the divorce. Since this is a novelist who professes his love through song and dance, one wonders how much the character's profession mattered to the plot.

High Spirits (Music, lyrics, and book by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray)

Not booze but ghosts inhabit this show, where a spiritualist, Mme. Arcati, tries to call up the shade of writer Charles's first wife, Elvira. Unfortunately, in her attempt to bring Charles to the spirit world, she causes the death of Charles's second wife, who's out for revenge. Can't tell how Charles's profession affected the show, if at all.

If Love Were All (Music and lyrics by Noel Coward, book by ?)

Bio-musical about playwright-composer Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, with Coward narrating.

Jennie (Music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz, book by Arnold Schulman)

That rarest of birds, a Mary Martin flop. Jennie is a turn-of-the-century actress with an actor-impresario husband, James. Their troupe is failing because James is a loser, so he asks Jennie to leave him. She moves in with her mother and subsequently meets Christopher, the playwright of a play in which she has a bit part. Throughout the show, Christopher tries to romance her and get her to be his star, while James (who returns and reconciles with her) gets jealous. Eventually she leaves James for good--again at his request because he's such a loser--to embark on a glittering career in the theatre.

Mame (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)

At one point, the energetic Mame decides to write her memoirs. She enlists the aid of Agnes Gooch, former nanny to Patrick and now devoted employee of Mame, to take shorthand (she sends Gooch to Speedo to raise her shorthand to 200 WPM) as Mame dictates to her. Mame and Vera Charles, her boozy actress friend, reminisce and sing "Bosom Buddies."

Man of La Mancha (Music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, book by Dale Wasserman)

The stirring story of Don Quixote is actually a tale within a tale, told by the imprisoned writer Miguel de Cervantes to a ragtag group of fellow prisoners. They're threatening to confiscate his unfinished novel Don Quixote, so to convince them to let him hang onto it, he stages it as an entertainment, with the other prisoners taking on various roles in the "show." At the end, the prisoners are so moved that they give him back the manuscript, and he goes off to face his trial.

Mark Twain: The Musical (Music and lyrics by William Perry, book by Jane Iredale)

This odd show is sort of the Passion Play for Elmira, New York--it apparently gets performed there every year during July and August, as Twain wrote many of his books there. Twain narrates the story of his life, which comes alive at key moments with both real people and characters from his books, though the characters don't appear in chronological order.

Merrily We Roll Along (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth)

This musical supplied the "Balzac" quote above. Of the three principals, Mary Flynn is an alcoholic novelist and critic, while Charlie Kringas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and lyricist. In her early years, Mary bounced from magazine to magazine and frustrated her friends by not producing any creative writing (except a story she threw out, along with a musician she'd been living with). Charlie is much more dedicated to his craft, but is frustrated himself because often he ends up cutting deals in Hollywood rather than writing--a big factor in his break with his former friend and collaborator, the songwriter-turned-producer Franklin Shepard.

Miss Liberty (Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Robert E. Sherwood)

The basic story is about two rival newspapers trying to find the French woman who posed for the Statue of Liberty. One of the papers is represented by a male photographer; the other by a female reporter, Maisie Dell. This being a musical from 1949 and old-fashioned even for that era, it's made pretty clear that Maisie would give up her career in a second if she found a man.

The Nervous Set (Music by Tommy Wolf, lyrics by Fran Landesman, book by Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker)

Now-forgotten but once fairly popular Beat musical. The three main characters are an author, a magazine editor, and a poet from Greenwich Village who offer their views on life, suburbia, and so forth. Jan, an uptown girl, ends up marrying the editor. Each side is baffled and upset by the other's world, but ultimately the marriage works.

No Strings (Music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers, book by Samuel Taylor)

Rodgers's first musical without Hammerstein, it concerns a white male novelist and his affair with a black female model--the first serious interracial romance on Broadway. I can't tell how much the man's profession matters to the plot.

On the Twentieth Century (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

In a minor bit of business, the head conductor on the train has written a play and tries to interest the very indifferent Oscar Jaffee in it.

Parade (Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry)

As the rumors fly about Leo Frank and his supposed murder of Mary Phagan, reporter Britt Craig rejoices, for his career has been revived by the sensational trial. He also acts as a bit of a narrator at times.

Plain and Fancy (Music by Albert Hague, lyrics by Arnold B. Horwitt, book by Joseph Stein)

One of Barbara Cook's few successful musicals. Sophisticated unmarried New York couple Ruth and Dan (a writer) travel to Amish country, where Dan hopes to sell his grandfather's farm and find material for a new story. His presence turns the head of young Hilda, who falls hopelessly in love with him. There's much shedding of inhibitions and rebellion against the strict Amish ways, but eventually the right people get together (including Ruth and Dan). It's not clear from the summary whether Dan got material for a story, and I can't help but wonder whether his being a writer was necessary to the plot.

1776 (Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone)

One of the key events in the musical is determining who will write the Declaration of Independence. Although in retrospect the choice of Thomas Jefferson would seem to have been obvious, it wasn't. John Adams would have done the writing, but that he was "obnoxious and disliked" and the Congress would surely "run their quill pens through" his effort. Ben Franklin refused because he made it a policy not to write about politics. Roger Sherman refused because, though uncontroversial, he wasn't a good writer. Robert Livingston, a good diplomat ("Oh, that word"), couldn't write it because he was leaving to see his newborn baby. The task fell to Jefferson, who wanted to get back to Virginia and his new wife Martha but got browbeaten into the job by Adams because he was the best writer in Congress. In a bit of a historical fudge in the musical, Jefferson had major writer's block that was cured when Adams imported Martha to bunk with him. In reality, this didn't happen.

Snoopy!!! (Music by Larry Grossman, lyrics by Hal Hackaday, book by Warren Lockheart, Arhtur Whitelaw, and Michael L. Grace)

"It was a dark and stormy night...." Need I say more? (The song that encompasses that classic bit of business is called "The Great Writer.") There's also a very funny and highly inaccurate book report song on Edgar Allen Poe.

Subways Are for Sleeping (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Angie McKay is a staff writer for Madame magazine, and she's assigned to write a feature story about "a special breed of New York's bums, the well-dressed drifter." Pretending to be stranded and in need of a place to spend the night, she contacts Tom, a homeless man who himself acts as a sort of broker between the homeless and temporary jobs. Of course, he ultimately unmasks Angie and gets pissed at her; of course, she's falling in love with him; of course, they reunite, and they decide to write a book about their experiences. It's not clear from the synopsis whether Angie gives up her cushy magazine job in favor of the "uncomplicated" life that Tom leads, but she certainly becomes enamored of that life.

Sunset Boulevard (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics and book by Christopher Hampton and Don Black)

Failing screenwriter Joe Gillis finds a willing hostess in fading star Norma Desmond, who has written a script with which she wants to return to Hollywood. She hires him to bring the script up to par. Joe sponges off her as he works on the all-but-incomprehensible script; she falls in love with him and becomes so jealous that she won't let him see his girlfriend any more. When he exerts his independence, she shoots him.

Superman (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by David Newman and Robert Benton)

Of course, Superman's alter ego is Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter; however, it's hard to tell from the plot synopsis whether he spends much time doing journalism. One of the two villains of the piece is also a reporter: Max Mencken, a theatre columnist who loathes Superman and who uses his poison pen to write nasty things about the hero in hopes of turning public opinion against him. (If you're wondering why a theatre columnist would be allowed to waste his column inches on nontheatre topics, be aware that this musical has one of the stupider plots in the genre.) And don't forget good old Lois Lane, who probably doesn't write a word in this show, but spends her time mooning over Superman and pissing off Max. She and Maisie Dell oughta get together for cocktails so they can bitch and moan about the crappy love lives of female reporters on the musical stage.

Taking a Chance on Love (Music by various, lyrics by John Latouche, book by Erik Haagensen)

Very recent (2001) revue-style bio-musical about lyricist John Latouche.

Tenderloin (Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by George Abbott and Jerome Weidman)

This lovely flop by a not otherwise flop-prone team concerns the efforts of a crusading minister, Rev. Brock, to clean up the sleazy Tenderloin of New York City in the 1890s. Tommy Howatt is a reporter for a scandal sheet, the Tattler. He wants to interview the minister and get friendlier with Laura, one of his flock. When Tommy meets Rev. Brock, he reveals his profession and claims he wants to help the man and his crusade. They join forces despite not trusting one another. Tommy justifies this distrust, as he's also working for the corrupt police, who aren't interested in having their sweet setup of payoffs disrupted by the reverend. Tommy even takes a picture of the reverend in a bathing suit and gives it to one of the cops, who superimposes the picture of a nude girl on it. The reverend's crusade is almost destroyed, but Tommy has an attack of the guilts and confesses that it's a hoax.

They're Playing Our Song (Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, book by Neil Simon)

A two-character show about a male composer and female lyricist--obviously based on the relationship between Hamlisch and Sager--and their rocky professional and personal relationship.

Top Banana (Music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, book by Hy Kraft)

Star vehicle for Phil Silvers, who plays Jerry Biffle, a former burlesque star-turned-TV-personality in the early years of television. He's written a book, Bifflesticks--A Collection of Boffs and Bombs, and another character is a gag writer. Biffle's authorship is important because the boy singer on his show, Cliff, is on his way to the autograph session when he meets and falls in love with Biffle's girlfriend.

Up in Central Park (Music by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields)

A reporter investigates Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, whose members have been stealing money from the construction of Central Park. Naturally, the reporter falls in love with the daughter of Tweed's crony.

What Makes Sammy Run? (Music and lyrics by Ervin Drake, book by Budd and Stuart Schulberg)

Sammy is an ambitious newspaper copy boy who becomes a scriptwriter along the route to his ultimate job: movie studio chief. You can just imagine how much backstabbing, cheating, and lying takes place along the journey, and how many friends and loved ones Sammy has at the end of the show. (You can only imagine it, since there's never been a revival and the score isn't available on CD yet.)

Wonderful Town (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov)

Two ambitious Ohio girls, Ruth (a budding writer) and Eileen (a budding singer), travel to New York City to hit the big time. Ruth attempts to sell her stories, but the editor of the magazine she approaches tells her they're bad and that he himself, a very talented writer, hasn't written a word since he came to the city. Chick, a newspaper man who wants to make time alone with the beauteous Eileen, sends Ruth off on a fake assignment: interview the Brazilian cadets at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She rushes over but finds the cadets much more interested in learning the conga than being interviewed. They conga after her when she leaves, arriving at her apartment and causing a riot when Eileen shows up. Ultimately, Ruth sells her story about the cadets.


Honorable Mention:

No Way to Treat a Lady (Music, lyrics, and book by Douglas J. Cohen): None of the characters are writers, but the plot revolves around an actor/serial killer's efforts to make the front page of the New York Times.

Woman of the Year (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Peter Stone): The main character in the 1942 movie was a female political columnist. For the musical, they turned her into a Barbara Walters-style TV personality who I assume did no writing in the show. I can't find a good plot synopsis--can anyone enlighten me?

All non-lyric material copyright 2002, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved

I invite additions and corrections to this list, or comments about the examples above. If I like your whole letter I'll ask if I can publish it on my letters page.

Return to Bursting with Song

Return to Rational Magic current issue

Go back to the Rational Magic home page

Rational Magic logo