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Finding the Drama: How I used Musical Theatre to inspire my first novel, Sing Like No One’s Listening, a guest post by Vanessa Jones

“Hi, Vanessa? It’s Eleanor here. From the novel-writing program. I was just checking you’re still joining us for our first session tomorrow.”

“Oh! Um. . .”

I’d forgotten I’d signed up to the writing course. The new term had started at my eldest’s school, I’d just finished putting on a fundraising show with my theatre students, my youngest had gone from placid baby to incredibly-active-toddler overnight, and things were…hectic. Was this the time to be starting something new? More to the point, was I brave enough? I’d always loved writing as a child. But more recently, I’d tried writing a musical, several times, and failed miserably. Would it be the same with a novel?

Not wanting to let anyone down, I went along to the first session, terrified—my fears promptly made worse by the fact that I was in a class with a BBC comedy commissioner, a TV producer, a Hollywood movie editor, a journalist, and the head of news for a big radio station. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt my knees shaking. “Hello, my name’s Vanessa and I used to be a West End performer, but now I’m a singing teacher,” I mumbled, embarrassed by my lack of credentials.

We started small. Set a scene. Describe a place. Write a short piece of dialogue. It wasn’t until we had to build a character that I had anything I felt comfortable reading out. But for some reason, this particular character just walked into my head, pretty much fully formed. I’d known her before, you see, several times during my career in the West End. And if I didn’t know her, I’d heard the stories she’d experienced. The fearsome ballet teacher. The formidable director. The cut-throat choreographer. I read her out, and as I did, I realised that I’d actually written two characters: the powerful, intimidating matriarch and the terrified young girl describing her. The rest of the class loved the idea, and my tutor suggested I expanded the two characters into a scene. Which I did, drawing from my own experiences of stage fright years before. The scene became two chapters, then five characters, then half an idea of a plot for a teen love story set in a performing arts college. But sculpting it into a whole novel? How would I do that?

It was Eleanor who gave me the idea.

“You’re writing about the theatre world, right?” she said.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Well, use that. Use musical theatre.”

I thought about what she’d said. What was I writing? A teen romance. And where do you find more teen romances than anywhere else? In musicals. Teen meets teen, teen sings teen a song declaring love, teen fights with teen, teens kiss. . . Wasn’t my book just that—a musical? It had all the ingredients, after all: the thrill of first love; the mistaken identity; the setting—I’d even created a world where people do just break out into song for no particular reason (well, usually for class, but you get what I mean). Suddenly, I knew what to do.

I started studying musical comedies. Not in the way I had as a performer, when I was focused on script and subtext and harmonies. Now I was looking at structure, musical themes, character arcs. I watched a hundred meet-cutes. I listened to a thousand eleven o’clock numbers. I worked out how and when I wanted that moment of change to happen for my main character. I planned the climax of the story to happen onstage with all the cast present, just as the final scene often does in a musical. I looked at my two romantic leads, as I was now calling them, and made sure their chemistry was there all the way through. And I upped the comedy. Very soon, I had a first draft. Not one that I’d be happy letting anyone read, but a first draft, nevertheless.

I cut and polished, rewrote, cut some more, and then gave the book to my group for feedback. Like any good performer, I “took the note”, as we say in theatre, and used the group’s constructive criticism to shape the plot, hone the characters.

And then? I got lucky. Twice. I guess you might call it the magic of musical theatre. The agent I was desperate to be represented by just happened to come from a theatre-loving family and had two daughters who’d gone through ballet school. I signed with her almost straight away. And then the editor who took my book on? Musical obsessed. Probably even more so than me. At my first meeting with the publishing house, he’d pretty much wallpapered the room with sheet music. When I looked closer, I realised that it was the chorus from every song mentioned in my book. Talk about a meet-cute.

Since then, a lot has happened. I’m just finishing edits for the follow-up, Dance Like No One’s Watching, and I’ve also written two other novels. I’m an author now, first and foremost. But I’ll always be grateful to musical theatre, both for my career as a performer, and for giving me a helpful nudge in the right direction when I was writing my first novel. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get to see Sing performed onstage, and then I’ll have finally written that musical.

Meet Vanessa Jones

Vanessa Jones was born and raised in England. As a kid, she was obsessed with two things: musicals and books. These obsessions continued way into adulthood, first during her career as a Musical Theatre actor in West End shows like Sister Act, Grease, and Mary Poppins, and then as an author. She now writes books and lives in Kent with her husband (a fellow Mary Poppins chimney sweep she met when they were both performing), and their two children. Sing Like No One’s Listening is her first YA novel.

Follow VanessaWebsite | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Find Vanessa’s book at Bookshop.org!

About Sing Like No One’s Listening

Sing Like No One's Listening

Nettie Delaney has just been accepted into a prestigious performing arts school—the very same school her superstar mother attended. With her mother’s shadow hanging over her, Nettie has her work cut out for her—and everyone is watching. To make matters worse, Nettie hasn’t been able to sing a single note since her mother died. Whenever she tries, she just clams up. But if Nettie’s going to survive a demanding first year and keep her place in a highly coveted program, she’ll have to work through her grief and deliver a showstopper or face expulsion.

All may not be lost, however, when Nettie stumbles upon a mysterious piano player in an empty studio after class. Masked behind a curtain, can Nettie summon the courage to find her voice? Or will the pressure and anxiety of performing come crashing down?

All about finding and raising your voice and not throwing away your shot, Vanessa Jones’s well-crafted journey of grief and healing will pull readers along with its strong narrative voice and satisfying sense of mystery.

ISBN-13: 9781682631942
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 12 – 16 Years

The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Part Two by Riley Jensen

At the beginning of this year The Teen, Riley Jensen, shared a musical theater playlist for teen librarians wanting to learn more about the musicals that teens are listening to. In the midst of this pandemic she’s had a lot of time to listen and talk musicals with her friends so today she is sharing another playlist.

Someone Gets Hurt from Mean Girls

I honestly like the musical better than the movie. It really adds so much depth to each character and this song is sung with such power and emotion.

I’m Breaking Down from Falsettos

This song is so dynamic and it never fails to make me laugh.

Not Your Seed from The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals

A nice little angsty teen song.

A Summer in Ohio from The Last 5 Years

This song is so cute and it sounds so nice.

Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now from Hairspray

This song is just always so fun to sing and it’s my favorite song from Hairspray.

Hopelessly Devoted to You from Grease

It just sounds so pretty and you just want to get up and sway along with the music.

I’d Give My Life for You from Miss Saigon

The relationship between the mother and son is so strong. This song is haunting. Overall this musical is just remarkable.

Cousin’s Cousin from Ever After

Another song that makes me laugh every time. This song is so chaotic that it’s hilarious.

Agony from Into the Woods

I mean, who doesn’t want some princes being absolute fools because they’re trying to one up each other? It’s just a chaotic mess.

Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) from Mamma Mia

This is my favorite Mamma Mia song. I just want to get up and dance whenever I hear it.

Head Over Feet from Jagged Little Pill

A jukebox musical of Alanis Morissette songs. It just sounds so beautiful. All of their voices mix so well.

God, I Hate Shakespeare from Something Rotten

This song is just so humorous. I love making fun of Shakespeare.

Only for You from Love Never Dies

It’s just so whimsical and playful.

The Witch from Big Fish

This song is so foreboding. It sounds dangerous but in a fun way.

We Got Work to Do from Fire Bringer

I relate to this song basically everyday.

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me from Ain’t Too proud- The Life and Times of the Temptations

I just want to melt into their voices. It’s just so perfect and the harmonies are so good.

I’m Here from The Color Purple

This song makes me cry. It’s so beautiful and powerful.

Maria from West Side Story

This song may be the most repetitive song in the word but it’s still good.

Waiting for Life from Once on This Island

This musical just makes me feel good. Her voice is just so uplifting and I could listen to her all day.

So Much Better from Legally Blonde

I love a good “I don’t need you anymore” song. This is another musical that I like better than the movie.

The Soundtrack of Our Lives: The Teen and I Discuss what Musical Theater Means to Theater Teens and Why Librarians Should, and Can, Care

There are a lot of different ways to tell a story and books are just one of them. No one was more surprised then me when The Teen signed up for musical theater in the 7th grade. I have no talent to pass on and this child of mine is introverted and shy so it never occurred to me that in theater, she would find herself and her people. She is now a junior and I have seen her perform in 6 musicals, 6 plays, and win 2 awards. More than that, it has been my greatest parental joy to see her happy, fulfilled, working hard, succeeding and just finding herself.

The Teen in Sweeney Todd

She is one of many teens who find themselves in theater. Theater kids are her friends and her family. And like many teens around our world, they speak a lot in musicals. Today she has put together this list of her and her friends favorite songs from the musicals that speak to them and shares what they mean to her. Want to know about teens and what they’re thinking about? Don’t forget about the theater kids.

The Teen’s Musical Playlist

A list of songs from various musicals and why they matter.

Dead Mom from Beetlejuice

This musical is very easy to relate to. A lot of people have lost someone who they loved and relied on. It can be hard for people to talk about that but this song really captures how it feels to experience a lose.

She Used to Be Mine from Waitress

This musical is truly beautiful. It talks about wishing you could go back and change the things that you did in the past because you aren’t living a happy life. As the musical progresses the main character begins to accept that she made mistakes and realize that who she has become is enough.

In My Dreams from Anastasia

This song is just so extraordinary. It sounds so amazing and the singer has a stunning voice.

Lifeboat from Heather

This song gives us insight into the life of one of the Heathers. Se talks about how she wishes she didn’t have to be the way she was but she feels like she has no choice.

I Don’t Need Your Love from Six

This musical is so fun and it actually talks about something important. This musical is about the six wives of Henry the VIII. This song is about his last wife and she sings about how she shouldn’t be known for who her husband was because she was so much more than that.

In the Air Tonight from American Psycho

This musical sounds super cool and the Eleventh Doctor is in it. It is a very violent show but if you look past that it has some really awesome music.

I Like It from A Bronx Tale

This musical is very underrated. It has some amazing music and it talks about how greed can lead to so many problems.

Mama Who Bore Me from Spring Awakening

This song has so much depth. It sounds so meaningful and it has so much heart.

Wait for Me from Hadestown

Amazing voices, amazing choreography, and amazing set. Just an all around amazing performance and show.

Rockin’ Jerusalem from Choir Boy

This may not technically be a musical but the songs are beautiful. Every voice is meant to be heard.

Turn it Off from The Book of Mormon

This song is hilarious. It is absolutely ridiculous and so fun. You can’t help but sing along.

High Adventure from Aladdin

This musical is fun and this song is even more fun. It makes you want to go on a high adventure.

Requiem from Dear Evan Hansen

This is my favorite song from the whole musical. It talks about how the sister of the boy who committed suicide can’t feel sad about losing him because he really wasn’t that good to them. It sounds so enchanting and it makes me cry every time.

One Normal Night from The Addams Family

If you love the movie then there is a good chance that you will love this musical. It really adds a fun little extra bit to the family.

City on Fire from Sweeney Todd

The Teen and cast sing City on Fire from Sweeney Todd

After doing this show I always find myself thinking about this song. It was awful to learn how to sing because it’s all over the place but it was so fun.

Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof

This musical made me mad when it ended but the opening really sets up for a spectacular show.

Think of Me from The Phantom of the Opera

All of the songs in the show are amazing and this musical will always be a classic.

Tango: Maureen from Rent

Everyone knows the opening song for this musical but this song is also amazing.

No Me Diga from In the Heights

This is one of the most funny songs from the show. It is just so fun to sing along to.

Cell Block Tango from Chicago

This song is known by everyone in theatre. It makes you want to be in jail just so you could do something like this.

A Few More Thoughts from a Teen Librarian on Public Libraries and Musical Theater

You’ll notice that she left Hamilton off of this list. Make no mistake, we went through our Hamilton phase and wore that soundtrack out. Hamilton singalongs were and are a ton of fun. I’ve even done a few High School Musical singalongs when the movie was popular. These are just a few ways you can incorporate musical theater into your teen services.

Want to know how you can incorporate musical theater into your programming and support local teens and your local schools? Start networking with your local drama teacher and ask them to do a special sneak peek of upcoming musicals at your library. They can sing a couple of songs in costume, do a meet and greet, and generate PR while you get some fun, arts based, and community networked programming. You don’t need scenes or props, just local teens in costume singing a couple of songs to generate interest and community support. On the occasions when I have worked in libraries that did this, they were tremendously successful. You have a somewhat built in audience because every kid that comes and performs will bring some parents and friends with them.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier is a fun book about teens and theater

You can also find out far enough in advance what those upcoming high school musicals are to make read-alike book lists, put up displays, and help promote community events. YA Librarian Cindy Shutts and coworkers have started a great series of Broadway Booklists to help get your started: Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Hadestown, and Prom: The Musical. You can bundle the books on the lists with the soundtracks and the movie if they’re available and make binge kits and circulating bundles.

There are also a lot of book lists out there for tweens and teens who love musical theater. You’ll definitely want to check out the classic No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman about a young boy who turns a book report into a musical theater rock opera . . . on roller skates. Goodreads has a book list of 63 YA titles that deal with theater, not just musical theater.

You can do workshops, viewings, singalongs and more. Teach teens how to use technology to create their own playlists. Set up a music writing station as suggested by Mary Amato in this post. Circulate ukuleles. Make-up, costuming, graphic design and more are all ways that you can incorporate musical theater and theater in general into your library programming. Network with your local schools, community theaters, and your very own teens.

And Scene . . .

The Teen writing her musical playlist list for you

Before writing this post, The Teen, Thing 2 and I just finished watching High School Musical, The Musical, The Show on Disney+. The Teen cried through the last two episodes because it captured perfectly everything that musical theater means to her. It’s about the grit that is required when life throws you every curve ball, because as you know, the show must go on. It’s also about finding your family, which I am so glad happens for these kids.

Teens crave ways to express themselves creatively, they crave finding a place that they can belong and feel comfortably accepted as self, and they thrive when they are supported by the adults in their lives and their communities. Supporting the arts and bringing them into our libraries in creative ways can make all of this happen.

Take 5: All the World’s a Stage and Music is Its Language, books that feature teens involved in musical theater

No one was more surprised than me when The Teen announced in the 7th grade that she was going to take musical theater. From that moment on, our life has been very different and I am amazed every day at what this girl has the courage to try and how very talented she is. So this week, in coordination with some other musical theater loving librarians, we’re going to be talking about musical theater. Today, I am here to share with you a Take 5 list of my favorite books that feature tweens and teens involved in theater or musical theater.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Publisher’s Book Description: PLACES, EVERYONE!

Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Publisher’s Book Description: Will Grayson meets Will Grayson. One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers are about to cross paths. From that moment on, their world will collide and lives intertwine.

It’s not that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old – including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteur extraordinaire – Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most awesome high school musical.

The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar

Publisher’s Book Description: Here’s what Margo McKenna knows about genies:

She’s seen Aladdin more times than she can count; she’s made three wishes on a magic ring ; she’s even fallen head over heels in love with Oliver, the cute genie whose life she saved by fighting off his archenemy. But none of this prepared her for the shock of becoming a genie herself.

At a time when she’s trying to figure out who she wants to be, Margo is forced to become whomever her master wants. Everything she’s taken for granted—graduating from high school, going to college, performing in the school musical, even being a girl—is called into question. But she’s also coming into a power she never imagined she’d have.

How will Margo reconcile who she is with what she’s becoming? And where will she and Oliver stand when she’s done?

Barnes and Noble Books Tagged Musical Theater

You in Five Acts by Una LaMarche

Publisher’s Book Description: It’s always been you—you know that, right?

Five friends at a prestigious New York City performing arts school connect over one dream: stardom. For Joy, Diego, Liv, Ethan and Dave, that dream falters under the pressure of second semester, senior year. Ambitions shift and change, new emotions rush to the surface, and a sense of urgency pulses among them: Their time together is running out.

Diego hopes to get out of the friend zone. Liv wants to escape, losing herself in fantasies of the new guy. Ethan conspires to turn his muse into his girlfriend. Dave pines for the drama queen. And if Joy doesn’t open her eyes, she could lose the love that’s been in front of her all along.

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman

For our last book on this list, I’m going to go way back to one of the most absurd musicals I’ve ever seen on the page. It includes a teenage rebellion against books in which the dogs always die, roller skates, disco, and a musical.

Publisher’s Book Description: Nobody understands Wallace Wallace. This reluctant school football hero has been suspended from the team for writing an unfavorable book report of Old Shep, My Pal. But Wallace won’t tell a lie — he hated every minute of the book! Why does the dog in every classic novel have to croak at the end?After refusing to do a rewrite, his English teacher, who happens to be directing the school play Old Shep, My Pal, forces him go to the rehearsals as punishment. Although Wallace doesn’t change his mind, he does end up changing the play into a rock-and-roll rendition, complete with Rollerblades and a moped!