• Lyricist

The work of the lyricist is the art of substitution; at least that’s how Sheldon Harnick, the Tony and Grammy award-winning wordsmith of musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello describes it. Songwriting, in the form that a lyricist sets words to a composer’s melodies, is a craft of poetry and wit. The art depends on the writer’s ability to tell the dramatist’s story set to the composer’s music; it is an amazing effort of collaboration. 


The lyricist is one-third of the creative team who is responsible for developing a musical, including the musical book writer (dramatist) and the composer. Many times you will see that two or more of these artists partner repeatedly in the production of new material, such as the famous duo of Rogers and Hammerstein. There is no standard procedure for collaborating on a new show. In some instances, the book (script) is written first, and then delivered to the composer and lyricist separately. Under such circumstances, the lyricist will write the words with plot, character, and theme in mind, while the composer is occupied with developing notes that evoke the necessary emotional responses called for from that scene. Later, the two combine their independently developed material to mesh and mold into a cohesive score. Each artist has the other in mind while working. The lyricist is concerned with the rhythm formed by the syllables of his or her words. The composer must be similarly cognizant of what the words will be, and thus aligns the notes to provide for the rhythm of the lyrics. Experience trains the artists in how to anticipate these variables, as musical theater and opera have a certain style and formula.

Naturally, there are musicals that are written in tandem, whereby the composer and lyricist actively engage in simultaneous development. Neither practice is widely considered superior to the other. Rather, it is a matter of preference and convenience. What happens to the material upon completion is likewise a varied outcome. The book and music may be published without a production scheduled and is therefore shopped around for a theater willing to stage the show. It is also possible that before the material is finished, a producer has been lined up (or originally commissioned the show), and therefore, the musical will immediately go into pre-production. During that time, it is ideal that all three writers be available to make changes at the request of the producer and director. It is quite common for a production to go through several revisions in pre-production, then again during previews. Upon the opening night, the material is locked, and no further official edits are made. On that night, a new musical is born to the canon of theatrical history.

Skills & Education

At one time, there was no formal curriculum to train to become a lyricist. However, today there exist numerous university and college programs dedicated to this subject. A master’s of fine arts with an intense concentration on musical theater is recommended, and should be coupled with practicum workshops in the development of new material, supported by undergraduate study of poetry, creative writing, and playwriting. Additional education in performance, music, and musicianship is also recommended. Not all lyricists play an instrument, though the skill is a benefit. The ability to sight-read music and understand meter is especially useful. While the foundations of songwriting and formula of musical theater can be taught, and there is a great deal to gain from educators in this field, talent cannot be learned by earning a diploma. The knack for poignant, creative expression that excites and moves an audience is rare and required.

What to Expect

Every lyricist needs two tools at his or her disposal: a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus. This is not cheating or a cheap method of creative inspiration. They are the standard go-to resources of the best wordsmiths, even Oscar Hammerstein II (The Sound of Music, The King and I) has admitted to turning to these assets in times of writer’s block. The path toward a professional career today usually begins in musical theater workshops for new talent at community theatrical organizations or universities. There, lyricists are given the opportunity to perfect their craft and receive support when developing their first original works, which are then staged. Emerging lyricists should pursue representation from a theatrical talent agent and seek out the resources available from the Dramatist Guild and Songwriters Guild.


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