Writing the Musical Theatre Libretto

Instruction By: 
Guest Artist, David Spencer

A class not only for the aspiring librettist, but for any person desiring insight into the craft. This first term provides an introduction to book basics (larger-than-life leads, functional supporting characters, forward story movement, conflict, setting up “permissions,” underlying themes, the importance of milieu, the ticking clock, the implied three-act structure, etc.) and collaborative basics (working with songwriters and directors, communication protocols).

We start by examining two classic libretti of large musicals (1776 and SWEENEY TODD), and a more obscure small one (PHILEMON) to illustrate the principles in action, as exemplified by three vastly different shows; then we move on to practical exercises and assignments designed to drive those principles home.

These exercises are based on three properties: The first two are films that should have been made into wonderful stage musicals, but instead emerged as flops. We ignore the failures and go back to the source material, to solve the problems that the flop creative teams didn’t.

The third is a musical that has become “classic” due to its popular score, but that has never been made to work; we try to finally fix it. Facing these authentic challenges, the students acquire not only a comprehensive understanding of the craft, but the seeds of a functional, professional mechanism for approaching their own self-generated or commissioned projects. Class sessions are conducted as collaborative meetings, so both content and context prepare for real-world application. Minor expenses for supplementary materials may be incurred in increments over the duration of the term.

Class Dates & Times: 

This class has concluded. Check back soon for the next session.

Normal scheduling is a 10 Week Course Tuesdays, 2pm - 4pm.

Course Fees: 


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What People Are Saying: 

A few years ago, I was looking for an expert to help me unravel the mysteries of writing a libretto for a project I was working on. A friend told me about David Spencer, so I immediately signed up for his libretto class at HB studios. From the start, I was impressed by David's encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater. He has developed several axioms for successful libretto writing (they can be found in his book "The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide") and he provides plenty of irrefutable examples of hit musicals to support his theses. But David is not just a well-versed theoretician, he's also a practicing, accomplished artist himself, a born teacher, and a genuinely engaging personality. -- Kenneth Heaton

David is: "extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject." and David is: "adept at working with theatre writers at any stage of the game." and David can: "diagnose the problem in any libretto and offer useful suggestions to keep you on track." and David's class is: "a terrific resource for any theatre professional who seeks a deeper understanding of the building blocks of theatre craft. Whether you're a writer, composer, director, actor - you will get something from this class." and...David's book is: "a must-have manual for theatre writers at any stage in their careers; of special value is his chapter on collaboration, among the few of its kind." -- Kristin Maloney

David Spencer's Libretto Writing class is a wealth of info and practical craftsmanship. Through solo work and collaborative discussions, David communicates all that you need to know to fashion a classically (and classily) structured libretto. On top of that, David is also a wealth of insider and backstage info of where things went wrong or how they found their way. I can not recommend him and his class enough. It was one of the most enjoyable and informative classes in theatre writing that I've ever taken. -- Robert Grogan

I took David Spencer's class at HB three times. I learned a great deal from his comments (and those of the other people in the class) and from his war stories about his time in the theatrical trenches. I recommend his class to other musical theatre writers and directors. -- Michael Mooney

I once read an interview with the late Peter Stone in which he said, "A musical book is, in one word, construction. It is the lumber and nails and blueprint of a musical, and that construction is something that has to be, and can be, learned." If you agree with this and have been looking for a person to study with, David Spencer is your guy. He can give you a totally new perspective on libretto writing, and better yet, he can explain in detail the mechanism behind individual scenes. You'll come out of his class with a sharpened dramatic instinct about the logical structure of a musical. -- Masatora Goya

I learned so much from David Spencer. He shares his wisdom and experience genuinely with the class. The writing exercises were intriguing and challenging. I had fun exploring how different sources might or might not become a musical. I also received helpful feedback when I presented my own projects. Great class! -- Regina Smoller

Even after years of writing plays, writing the libretto for a musical was a mystery I still couldn't crack. David Spencer's class taught me in a stepby-step way how to recognize the special challenges of writing a libretto and, more importantly, how to solve them. After the class, I was able to take a musical project I had been struggling with for years and immediately figure out why it wasn't working and how to make it the show that I always wanted it to be! -- David L. Williams

About the Instructor(s): 

David Spencer has worked as composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, and book author and is a renowned musical theatre teacher at two prestigious training grounds.

Past (and Newly Revised) Projects:

Spencer made his professional, mainstream debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation and New Lyrics for La Bohème at the Public Theatre, which was directed by Wilford Leach, starred Linda Ronstadt and introduced Patti Cohenour, Howard McGillin and David Carroll.

A winner of the 2000 Kleban Award for excellence in theatre lyrics, Spencer was lyricist to composer Alan Menken, and co-librettist with Alan Brennert, for the 1992 SF musical Weird Romance (Original Cast Album on Columbia Records, published version by Samuel French) which debuted at the WPA Theatre to become a cult classic, and was revived (and revised) in April 2004 for the Musicals in Mufti series of concert staged readings at the York Theatre. Spencer is also lyricist-librettist for the upcoming, completely revised musical version of Mordcai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (music also by Alan Menken).

Spencer also met the challenge of devising music, lyrics and orchestrations for the Theatreworks/ USA Young Audience, all-new versions of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables (book and direction for both by Rob Barron), which “pushed the sophistication envelope” for YA theatre and have toured the United States to audience acclaim and rave reviews. A Cast Album of Phantom—the only show in Theatreworks’ venerable 50-year history to be commercially recorded and their bestselling musical ever —was the inaugural release on the on Playbill label, and the composer-lyricist was, in 1996, awarded his first Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation Commendation Grant for his work on the score. (Though the CD is now out-of-print, it has been supplanted by a preferred recording of the original mini-tour cast. It, a cast album of the Les Misérables mini-tour cast, and most of the other scores mentioned here, are available at www.davidspencerworks.com.)

Recent and Current Projects:

Spencer’s recent project, The Fabulist, an epic fable of Aesop (book by Stephen Witkin, based on the novel by John Vornholt), was the recipient of a 2002 Richard Rodgers Development Award, which allocates $35,000 toward a series of staged readings in NYC as a first step in a show’s onstage life. Readings of three successive versions were hosted by the York Theatre (artistic director James Morgan) and directed by Sheryl Kaller, over the course of Fall 2002 through Fall 2003; in August, 2005, The Fabulist was presented as the highlight attraction of Washington state musicals specialist Village Theatre’s annual New Works Festival of staged readings; and it was recently showcased at the 2006 Global Search for New Musicals Festival in Cardiff. The composer-lyricist was also awarded a 2002 Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation Commendation Grant—his second—for his work on the score. The GGF Foundation also contributed significantly to the further development of the show, enhancing the third York reading and funding the current, revised demo.

More recent and in progress are a NYC caper musical about a safecracking thief forced to work “out of his element” and face new security technologies that challenge his M.O., called The Last Hard Score (book by Jerry James) and near-complete negotiations to musicalize Russell T Davies’ teleplay Casanova.

Other Credits:

Spencer has also drawn upon his theatrical background to write two books: Passing Fancy, an original novel based on the science fiction/police drama TV series Alien Nation, which was published by Pocket Books in November, 1994; and The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann Drama, 2005), which has been out not quite three years and is already considered an industry standard. (For more on the book, including endorsements by Larry Gelbart, Richard Maltby, Jr., Alan Menken and others, visit http://www.aislesay.com/NY-GUIDE.html. And for excerpts, visit http://www.aislesay.com/ NY-GUIDE-Glimpses.html.)

Spencer is on the teaching faculties of both the Lehman Engel-BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and HB Studio, and a member of the Dramatists Guild.