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All in the Rhythm: A Musical Odyssey

By Kevin Nelson · January 17, 2022

Everything in life has a rhythm. A frequency. A vibration. Even films.

The physical senses directly influenced by film are vision and hearing. Music and sound are just as integral to the movie-watching experience as the moving image. Sound helps set the tone, heighten emotion, and can be used as a narrative device. 

When the silent film era transitioned to sound, musicals naturally evolved from the stage to the screen. The spectacle of song and dance enthralled audiences and revolutionized the movie business. Stars were born and studios cashed in. Soon, studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were churning out elaborate productions of epic scale. 

The genre survived throughout the decades. Perhaps that’s because the old adage, “music is the universal language,” holds true. Music breaks barriers and crosses boundaries. 

It’s the truest form of escapism. 

In this collection, I’ll be exploring musicals where the characters collectively contribute to the soundtrack and move to the beat, as well as subgenres centered around music such as musical dramas and romantic comedies. We’ll look at the fantastical as well as the realistic.

Here are some incredible screenplays that sing to our souls, lift our spirits, and transport us to a different realm of possibility.

Scripts from this Article

tick, tick…BOOM!

There’s never enough time in the day when juggling work and relationships and one’s artistic passion. The rhythm of our mortal hearts count down our fleeting time as we race against the clock to write another page, another sentence — even a word will do. 

Perhaps there’s no better person to bring Jonathan Larson’s story to the screen than Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made his directorial debut. 

The film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!, written by Steven Levenson, is based on Larson’s stage musical of the same name. The screenplay is framed around the actual performance of Larson’s rock monologue. Set in a black box theater, Larson acts as the protagonist of his own story as he performs for an audience. Much of the film’s action occurs in his head. Miranda and Levenson did extensive research, including combing through the Jonathan Larson Papers at the Library of Congress which included manuscripts and demos of his earlier work, some of which they included in the script.

tick, tick…BOOM! is Larson’s semi-autobiographical account of failing to get his last play off the ground. It’s the universal story of an artist who believes wholeheartedly in his dreams but doesn’t quite get the reception he was hoping for. All the sacrifice and beauty and pain that it takes to be successful at one’s craft is at the heart of this stage play resurrected by Levenson — much like Larson’s legend.

In one sequence that was felt by struggling artists everywhere, Larson is disappointed in the reception of his play and asks his agent, “So what am I supposed to do now?”

“You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start the next. And on and on. That’s what it is to be a writer, honey.”

Whether successful or not, there is one truth all writers face — you have to write the next one. It shouldn’t be seen as a burden but an opportunity. After all, you’re doing what you love. Whether you’re getting paid for it or not, you’re going to do it anyway. Embrace every ticking second.

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The ending of tick, tick…BOOM! explores the mortality of artists who die before they get to see the true fruits of their labor. Graduating from a rock monologue to a rock opera, Rent was meant to be Jonathan Larson’s breakout musical. And it was. The Broadway musical would go on to win multiple awards, including a Pulitzer and a Tony. It became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history.

Unfortunately, Larson wouldn’t be around to receive the acclaim. As depicted in tick, tick…BOOM!, Larson died tragically on the day of Rent’s off-broadway preview from an aortic dissection. The 2005 film, written by Stephen Chbosky and directed by Chris Columbus, is a faithful adaptation that features most of the main cast members returning to their roles. 

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In The Heights

tick, tick…BOOM! showed all the sacrifice and hard work it takes to get a play to Broadway, and that despite all that effort — it’s not guaranteed. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s path to Broadway undoubtedly started with his first steps, but it was in 1999 while he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut that he wrote the first draft of In the Heights

The show was accepted by the student theater group and showcased, after which he was encouraged to expand the play geared toward Broadway. He wrote five more drafts and welcomed Quiara Alegría Hudes who not only wrote the book for the musical but also the screenplay for the film.

The new version was first showcased at the National Music Theater Conference and then opened off-Broadway in 2007. It won numerous awards and a year later premiered on Broadway. The film was in development hell for over a decade, until Lin-Manuel Miranda followed it up with the genius of Hamilton. 

The screenplay for In the Heights, written by Hudes, is written with beautiful prose. The dialogue meant to be sung or rapped is capitalized while spoken dialogue is normal. Adapting her own writing from stage allows Hudes to imagine new ways of presenting old work, which must have been fun as heck.

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Written and directed by John Carney, Once is a yearning ballad about two aspiring musicians who fall in love but cannot act on it. Music brings them together, but their journeys are heading in different directions. The two main characters were played by real musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Originally, Cillian Murphy was supposed to play the lead but he ultimately dropped out, as well as the film’s financial backing. 

Carney convinced the lead singer of his band to play the lead, who reluctantly agreed on the condition that the film be independent and low budget. That wouldn’t be a problem because the film was shot with first-time actors on a shoestring budget without permits for the public shots in Dublin. With a skeleton crew, the film was shot in seventeen days. Most of the locations in the film were shot in the homes of friends and family and Carney worked on IOUs in case the film was a hit.

A Broadway show later, and Carney had a hit on his hand. Goes to show what can happen when you band together with some friends and make a film purely on faith. There are communities of filmmakers everywhere. Find your tribe and make something from the heart. After all, we only have ONCE. Sorry, I had to.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been adapted many times. The story first appeared in the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls in 1846 and quickly became an urban legend. The original story’s author is unknown, though it is often credited to either James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Peckett Prest. 

Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim adapted a musical version of Christopher Bond’s stage play of the same name, giving the macabre material an even more sinister appeal with the addition of songs. John Logan was tapped to write the film adaptation, where you can see the lyrics remain the same but much of the dialogue is trimmed of excess words. 

It’s interesting to see what Logan adds to the script by way of action lines that transform the stagnant backdrops of theater into the three-dimensional world of a moving picture. 

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La La Land

Sometimes good things take time. Being an avid drummer, Damien Chazelle always loved music. He originally wrote the screenplay for La La Land in 2010 as an ode to filmmakers who move to Los Angeles in pursuit of their dreams. He sought to pay homage to classic musicals while grounding them in reality — where things don’t always have a happy ending. 

At the time, Chazelle was an aspiring writer and director who moved to LA after graduating from Harvard with classmate and friend Justin Hurwitz, who would go on to compose and perform the score. The lyrics were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, also known as Pasek and Paul. The trio would win an Academy Award for Best Original Song with City of Stars.

Chazelle doesn’t write the lyrics into the script, instead indicating the start of a song by bolding and capitalizing the song title in brackets like this: [CITY OF STARS]

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The Greatest Showman

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon wrote the screenplay for this project about the life of P.T. Barnum when Condon and producer Laurence Mark saw Hugh Jackman rehearse for the 81st Academy Awards. Bicks worked as a writer for the ceremony and was hired by Mark and Condon to write the script. Originally titled The Greatest Showman on Earth, Pasek and Paul were then hired to write the songs.

Although the screenplay ignores the ringmaster’s more problematic tendencies, the music bops. Some of the songs are omitted in this draft while others appear in dialogue with all caps. On page 8, you can see how the writers approach the song A Million Dreams. Their imaginations are captured through their words with vivid clarity. It’s a beautifully written sequence.

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The story behind Yesterday is pretty well known at this point but also serves as a lesson that all screenwriters should heed. When a production company exercises the option to your screenplay, they now own the rights. This means that they can bring on other writers to change things up, for better or worse. 

For Yesterday, on the surface, it would seem that the changes made were for the best. The film was successful despite being released during a pandemic, but it was still well-received. The original screenplay, written by Jack Barth and titled Cover Version, featured a less happy ending. In Barth’s version, the protagonist doesn’t find success with The Beatles’ songs. It was more of a reflection of Barth’s own career. This was his first script sale, at the age of 62. Hey, it’s never too late!

After filmmaker Richard Curtis got wind of the idea, he bought the rights from Working Title and rewrote the script with a more positive spin with the protagonist finding success. He insisted on receiving the sole writing credit, claiming that he never read Barth’s script and only worked off the concept. Barth was bumped down to a story credit despite several elements of his original script remaining. Sometimes dreams come true, before turning into a nightmare. 

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born, written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, is another romantic musical drama that’s been remade countless times. In this iteration, Cooper hired Willie Nelson’s son, country musician Lukas Nelson, to act as an authenticity consultant. Nelson went on to work with Lady Gaga, and the two wrote many of the songs for the soundtrack.

The lyrics are included in the dialogue in italics, including the French song La Vie en Rose. For their duet, Shallow, each character has their own verse and both characters’ names appear over verses sung together.

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Les Misérables

To continue on with the tradition of multiple adaptations, there’s Les Misérables. This time, every writer for every adaptation received credit. Let’s break it down and see if your head is spinning by the end of it. 

The original 1980 French musical was based on Victor Hugo’s novel, with lyrics written by Alain Boublil and music written by Claude-Michel Schönberg. The play was then translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer for the 1985 West End production in the UK. The 2012 film version was written by William Nicholson in six weeks. Every name appears on the title page with equal prestige. 

It’s an adaptation that stays close to the source material with the exclusion of a couple of songs from the original. Some songs were rearranged and also shortened for runtime and dialogue is condensed to move the action along. 

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Grease (Not on TSL)

Adapted from the original Broadway musical written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the film adaptation of Grease was written by Bronte Woodard who shares a story credit with Allan Carr. The writers took some liberties with the source material, changing details like the name of the greaser gang from Burger Palace Boys to the Thunderbirds. Good call.

Most of the songs from the original broadway play make their way into the screen version, with a few new songs added. When formatting the song Summer Nights, Woodard uses dual dialogue to mirror the split-screen effect noted in the script before the song. 

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ruben Santiago-Hudson elevated this adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play into a musical drama that keeps a rhythm. With the direction of George C. Wolfe, this film moves with synchronicity from the sounds in the streets to the beats in the dialogue. 

Although not a straightforward musical in the traditional sense, the story has a history in stage production. Santiago-Hudson does a remarkable job of paring down the dialogue of the stage play in a way that remains true to the source material while increasing momentum. You can tell that Santiago-Hudson handled the language with reverence. Santiago-Hudson delivers a concise and rhythmic sequence of events that play out like a trumpet solo. 

Oh, and the monologues delivered by Chadwick Boseman are hauntingly beautiful.

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Moulin Rouge!

Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, the script for Moulin Rouge! illustrates Luhrmann’s over-the-top stylization. His directing is big on blocking actors and camera movement as if choreographing a dance on a soundstage. He is meticulous with technical details, and the script for Moulin Rouge directs every frame. Since he’s also directing, his writing acts as his guide. 

A convergence of influences inspired Luhrmann to create Moulin Rouge!, including Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème and his exposure to Bollywood while visiting India. He recalls going to an ice cream picture palace and being blown away by the combination of low comedy, high tragedy, and wild musical numbers. 

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Singin’ in the Rain

Written by Adolph Green & Betty Comden in 1951, it’s interesting to see how formatting has changed over the years. The script is written with the scene headings and action lines indented, while the character name is centered and the dialogue is aligned to the left like a stage play. 

The film is about a bunch of silent movie stars trying to save their career by switching to sound. Fitting that we end where we began.

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Musicals are a refreshing escape from a world that could use a whole lot more flash mob dance numbers. With all the stress from the news, sometimes it’s good to imagine a world where we argue out our differences through song and express our love through prose.

You don’t need to live in a musical to sing your heart out or dance like a fool. 

Vibrate until your frequency is heard.

Let the rhythm move your every word. 

Scripts from this Article