What does a Musical Theater Adapter do?

Musical theater adapters take existing materials—like a beloved album, a popular TV show, a graphic novel, or even a famous piece of poetry—and create from them wholly new works of musical theater. These multitalented creators are capable of performing the role of composer, arranger, or librettist depending on the needs of the adaptation: writing an original stage script around an existing album, for example, or creating entirely new songs and lyrics to match the story and characters of a book or other nonmusical source. They also work with the original material, rearranging, rewriting, and recontextualizing it to improve the flow and cohesiveness of the musical.
This is a booming field; new musical adaptations actually outnumber new original musicals and many are highly successful.
As arrangers, musical theater adapters are musical tailors, capable of refashioning a three-minute piano tune into an eight-minute production number, retrofitting a collection of Jazz Age standards to suit a show’s story points, or expanding a song by four bars in the third verse because the character singing it needs more time to cross the stage.
In addition to composing original songs and arranging existing ones, their work frequently involves interpolation—that is, adding new music based on existing phrases and themes in order to create an affecting fusion of sound and story. Musical theater adapters work closely with composers, directors, music directors, choreographers, orchestrators, and librettists, and frequently partner or work in teams with other adapters.

At a Glance

Career Path
There’s no single degree that can qualify one to work as a musical theater adapter; what’s needed are proven songwriting and storywriting abilities. Musical theater adapters might work as accompanists, pit orchestra musicians, composers, librettists, arrangers, music directors, or even recording artists for many years before performing their first adaptation.
This is a booming field; new musical adaptations actually outnumber new original musicals and many are highly successful. Experienced musical theater adapters might become industry mainstays, writing multiple smash hits for Broadway or London’s West End, or use their reputation to transition into the film industry.
Finding Work
In this people-oriented field, where jobs are rarely posted publicly, networking and building a reputation are essential to finding work. Musical theater adapters might be commissioned by theater companies or hired by theater producers to adapt a particular work. They might also create an adaptation independently while soliciting funding from producers and investors. However, aspiring adapters should keep in mind that musical theater isn’t just Broadway: experimental plays, hybrid performance art, and immersive theatrical experiences can all be sources of work, as can Hollywood.
Professional Skills
  • Music composition
  • Arranging
  • Songwriting
  • Script writing
  • Vocal harmony
  • Music notation
  • Critical analysis
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Time management
Interpersonal Skills

Unsurprisingly, adaptability is an essential skill for adapters, who must alter every aspect of their own writing to seamlessly camouflage with the source material. Critical analysis, research, and empathy are equally fundamental to this work, the core of which lies in accurately identifying and developing the underlying themes and ideas in the source material—the very things that have made it resonate with audiences in the past.

Work Life
Musical theater adapters might complete their work from a desk in a home office, a home music studio, a private studio, a cafe, or anywhere else they can use a laptop. Most of the work is done independently or in collaboration with an adaptation partner or team, and is usually completed long before the musical will be staged.
Still, musical theater adapters might be involved in the rehearsal and staging process, making changes and modifications to improve the show’s flow and address problems with the score, script, or lyrics. In between projects, which can be intense and fast-paced, musical theater adapters have the opportunity to relax, regroup, develop new skills, network, and prepare for the next project.