Who Does What? - Composer, Lyricist, Librettist

A handy guide to who's who on a Broadway show

Composer/lyricists Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
 Jennifer S. Altman / Contributor

The artistic success of any Broadway show, a Broadway musical, in particular, is usually dependent upon the inherent quality of the words and the music. Sure, there are some shows that have raked in the big bucks based on spectacle, or big-name stars, or songs that the audience is already familiar with. But the truly great shows start with the work of the composer, the lyricist, and the librettist. Here's a quick guide to what these jobs entail.  

The Composer

The composer is the person who creates the music for the show. This usually refers to the music in the songs, but it can also include the underscoring for the scenes and even the dance music. The composer's job has changed dramatically over time. During the early days of American musical theater, the mid to late 19th century, many shows didn't even have a composer of record. Whoever was producing the show would assemble the score from preexisting popular songs, and perhaps hire someone to write a few new songs for the show. Sometimes numerous composers would contribute to a show's score, which often meant a lack of overall cohesion to the music. Early in the 20th century, shows with just one composer became the standard, although the task of creating the dance music and underscoring (the music that plays under a scene of dialogue) might have fallen to someone else. As musicals became more integrated and cohesive, composers began to create all of the music in the production to keep it stylistically in sync with the rest of the score.

Respected musical theater composers over the years have included Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, John Kander, Stephen Sondheim, and Jason Robert Brown.

The Lyricist

The lyricist creates the words for the songs in the show, also known as the lyrics. The job of the lyricist is a lot more challenging than simply finding words that fit the music. Good lyrics can reveal character, progress the plot, establish the time and place of the show, or some combination thereof. One of the most common questions in musical theater is, "Which comes first, the words or the music?" The answer is, it really depends. There have been many terrific musical-theater writing teams who have worked either way. Some lyricists like to have the melody first, and then fit the words to the existing music. The famed Lorenz Hart was one such lyricist. Others prefer to write the lyrics first, then hand them off to the composer. The great Oscar Hammerstein II preferred to work this way. As with composers, the lyricists’ job has changed over time. Before Oklahoma! (1943), a show that is universally considered a watershed in musical theater, lyrics weren't always all that specific to the show at hand.

Prior to Oklahoma!, musical-theater writers were more interested in writing popular hits than in creating cohesive scores. As shows became more organically developed, it made more sense that the lyrics would come first, emerging from dramatic necessity. In addition to Hart and Hammerstein, the great musical-theater lyricists have also included Alan Jay Lerner, Fred Ebb, Ira Gershwin, and the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The Librettist

The librettist is known as the book writer, and he or she is the person who writes the dialogue for a musical. This description is somewhat deceptive, though, especially given that there are many shows that have little or no dialogue at all. (For example, Les Miserables, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera) It's true that sometimes the librettist is also the lyricist, but there's more to crafting a show, even a sung-through show, than just creating the lyrics. The librettist also helps establish the arc of the story, the progression of the dramatic tale that the songs reveal. Very frequently, the lyricist and the librettist will work together, trading ideas back and forth, turning scenes into songs, and songs into scenes. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has often spoken written and spoken about "stealing" from his librettists in this way. Although a huge part of the success of any musical lies in the hands of the librettist, the job is often a thankless one. The librettist is often the first person blamed when a show doesn't work, and the last person recognized when a show is a success.

Successful librettists over the years have included Peter Stone, Michael Stewart, Terrence McNally, and Arthur Laurents.