An insider’s view of writing a musical

Musicals are popular and big business, as shown by Hamilton. But how do you write one? Lorna Wells decided to take the plunge and craft It Tastes Like Home, a Chinese-Jamaican romantic musical comedy set in modern day London, which explores a love story between first generation Jamaican Camilla and Yi of Chinese descent. Wells provides an insider view on creating a script and lyrics that tell a story.

Writing a musical is very challenging in many ways. To begin with, I have the personal challenge of my health, battling three invisible health challenges before I begin.

Then there is its structure,  which is very precise.  Firstly, there’s the story, referred to as ‘the book’ and the lyrics. In some cases, different people write the book and lyrics. In my case, I wrote them both.

There are many elements to consider. The time in which it is set. What is the duration of the piece? How are you going to demonstrate the passing of time? My musical, It Tastes Like Home, a Chinese-Jamaican romantic comedy, takes place in the present day, so it is very modern and takes place over a year.

Each character’s function has to be carefully considered, such as what function they occupy in relation to the main character or characters. It’s like a mini-jigsaw, having to move characters around until they fit, and their role and purpose is clear.

The songs are, of course, essential. During a recent interview I was asked what the difference was between a standard pop song and a song for musical. A song for a musical is specifically written to forward the plot, develop a character and comment on the action.

It could be a ‘I wish’ song. This song is written to capture everything a particular character wants without being sad or stating why they cannot have it. Or there is ‘the persuasion’ song, where one character tries to convince another character of the need to do something or change their mind.

The lyrics must be written to reflect the characters, including the way they speak or think. For It Tastes Like Home, I created most of the melodies for the musical numbers. They were then passed on to our composer Eudora Qiao, who then composes the songs and the incidental music.

Song placement is the next phase. Where is the best place in the narrative for the song to live? When would it have the most impact for the story and for the character? I also had the challenge of writing comedy for the scripts and the songs so they had lyrical punchlines.

Thematically, I wanted to explore the concept of home and what it looks like when you come from another country to England. It Tastes Like Home is semi-autobiographical, and is a story I always wanted to write.

In the light of Brexit and the Windrush scandal, this idea of home has become more pertinent. Where do we consider home to be – is it in our heads or our hearts, and it the same place for everyone?

I wanted to explore the intergenerational struggle of first and second generations Caribbeans. The idea of living within two separate cultures – Jamaican and British – simultaneously has always fascinated me; to shed light on the similarities between immigrant cultures when they are seen as minorities in their own home.

The musical examines what unites and divides people, and what they have in common. It has universal themes of food, family and belonging, something we can all relate to. However, I feel that food takes on a much greater significance when you are not living in your home country. It is solace. It is comfort. It is celebration. It is sharing. It is heritage. It is love. It Tastes Like Home.

Photo caption: The Morgan family

It Tastes Like Home is a Chinese-Jamaican romantic musical comedy set in modern day London. It explores a love story between first generation Jamaican Camilla and Yi of Chinese descent. As their tentative relationship evolves, can they balance their two worlds of family, culture and values? The musical was developed as part of the MA Musical Theatre course at Goldsmiths. Its original 45 minute version enjoyed a sell-out run when it premiered at the Tristan Bates Theatre, in September 2016. It then had a sell-out run as part of the Clapham Fringe 2017. It’s most recent run with Divergent Theatre Collective was at Bread and Roses Theatre in October 2018.