Life Is Like a Musical

How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star


By Tim Federle

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$15.99 CAD

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A Self-Help Guide–with Jazz Hands! Life is Like a Musical features 50 wry, witty tips on getting ahead in life and love–all learned in the showbiz trenches.

“Hilarious, wise, and one-of-a-kind. This book is so damn brilliant I’m surprised it didn’t already exist.” — Sarah Knight, bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck

Before Tim Federle became a bestselling author and a Broadway playwright, he worked as a back-up dancer at the Super Bowl, a polar bear at Radio City, and a card-carrying chorus boy on Broadway. Life is Life a Musical features 50 tips learned backstage, onstage, and in between gigs, with chapters such as “Dance Like Everyone’s Watching” and “Save the Drama for the Stage.” This charming and clever guide will appeal to all ages and inspire readers to step into the lead role of their own life, even if they’re not a recovering theater major.



Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!

At this evening’s performance, the starring role will be played by… well, you, it turns out. So are you ready?

No worries, I’m here to help. This book contains everything I know about life, learned during my time as a theater kid–turned–chorus boy–turned Broadway playwright. Along my way to the Great White Way, I picked up tips and tricks backstage, onstage, and in between gigs—and realized just how many ways life is like a musical.

Basically, think of this book as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with jazz hands.

These aren’t instructions for dancing in the middle of the streets (though, by all means, go for it). It’s more about “borrowing” (okay, stealing) the pizzazz and determination that define theater people, and harnessing that energy for your own forces of good.

Right around my third career transition, I recognized how many hard-won showbiz lessons applied to all walks of my life—not just how to be a successful performer, but how to be a successful person and partner, too. And I want you to know these insights, too.

Come on in, the spotlight’s warm.

From “Cast Yourself in the Role You Must Play” (chapter 1), in which I advise you how to stop waiting for someone to “discover” you, to “Find Your Tribe” (chapter 49), in which I recommend cultivating a network of like-minded souls, I hope the advice I borrowed from Broadway can help you get inspired—not to mention get hired, whether it’s in a boardroom or on the boards.

Now, you don’t have to know every lyric to Les Miz to find these secrets and shortcuts useful—at least I hope you don’t. Many of the references contained within Life Is Like a Musical will resonate with theater people, sure—but also with anyone who didn’t think they liked musicals, until they accidentally overheard some kid blasting the Hamilton album. Truth is, even if you’re not a diehard drama geek, there are fundamental insights about getting ahead in life, love, and leadership that only a true Broadway baby can share. Trust me.

Oh, why me? Great question, appreciate you asking.

Because nobody has a thicker skin or a more deeply ingrained work ethic than a lifelong theater person. We eat rejection for breakfast and still manage to smile (see chapter 40, “Put on a Happy Face”). I’ve worn just about every hat in the theater, at times literally—yes, that was me sporting a bejeweled catfish on my head for The Little Mermaid. Hey, it paid the bills.

Beneath the grit and before the glitter, I grew up swallowing how-to books whole, dying to discover answers to my own deepest questions: Will I ever be truly happy? Will I ever be cast in Rent? But while I hope this book both guides and counsels you, I’m no doctor (though I have, on occasion, been a sort of show doctor). Life Is Like a Musical is more a collection of wry observations than a prescription for living—but everything here was indeed jotted down from the frontlines, the sidelines, and occasionally the footlights.

Lastly, Life Is Like a Musical is for people who find themselves desiring something—a stronger relationship or a better job or a more refined way of framing the story of their life. (We theater people call this your “I want” song; more on that in chapter 13.) I don’t care what this something is for you. But I know it’s something. Or you wouldn’t still be reading. And that’s where I come in.

So good luck. Or, rather, break a leg. Now please silence your cell phones. The performance of your life is about to begin.


The worst thing in the entire world happened to me when I turned thirteen years old. No, my dog didn’t die. My voice changed.

For most of my childhood, I was the picture of a freckled theater kid, straight out of central casting—the kind who would someday move to New York City, of course. The dream was that once I had settled into my gigantic loft (ha!), I would, naturally, get cast in the role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. But when my voice changed, and I realized I could no longer hit that iconic “Two-four-six-oh-one” high note that is one of Valjean’s signature moments, I panicked. What kind of life would I have if I couldn’t headline Les Miz?

A pretty good one, it turns out. Largely because I wasn’t meant to play Valjean, and instead had to discover something more original for myself.

Friends, you’ve got to cast yourself in the role you want to play—no, need to—even if others don’t see it for you. Few people are lucky enough to be born into the perfect body, voice, and era that lines up with their dream part—and I’m using the phrase “dream part” loosely here. All sorts of us have the kinds of ambitions and desires that the world is not ready or willing to grant us, for any number of reasons. If you’re not one of those lucky folks who gets to automatically step into the part they think they’re born to play, then you have to make the leap and figure out what “writing your own role”—and destiny—means to you.

You might not be a Valjean. Maybe you can think up something even better.

The comedian, writer, and star Amy Schumer has talked extensively about how people weren’t willing to cast her in funny roles, so she had to create the part of “Amy Schumer” for herself. Same with Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin, who both got their starts doing one-woman shows. I find this endlessly inspiring and a bit depressing. But that’s life.

How can you create your own “dream part”? Maybe it means literally joining an amateur improv troupe, and becoming so quirky and dynamic that you actually write your own material. But maybe we’re not talking about just the arts here. Perhaps casting yourself in the part you want means no longer dating people who treat you like you’re the hired help. Maybe casting yourself in your dream part means deciding, in your own way, to create something, every day you’ve got on earth. A poem. A sketch of someone on the subway. A sapling that you plant at the side of the road, just because.

When people ask me if I miss being a performer, I say not really. When I was a dancer, I was constantly on hold, waiting for casting directors to call. I was forever hoping for the breaking news that I was “right” for something—that I was deemed appropriate for a part and thus, by default, good enough. I became a writer because every time I looked at my coffee table, I saw an increasingly teetering stack of old Playbills—but all of them represented my past. My entire career felt like a series of endings; a show I had appeared in might have closed after seven fun, forgettable weeks, and now what? I had to cast myself in the role of “writer” when I recognized that I’d already been in enough musicals, and danced in enough choruses, and taken enough bows.

Stop asking for permission. If you can envision a destination for yourself, that’s more important than the path you take to get there. The path will be overgrown, contain detours, confuse you in its terrain and surprises. But the destination is key. Aim your heart toward it and begin marching like a dutiful artist, whether you’re ever paid to “make art” or not. Your dream role will likely change a few times, but the fun happens on the way to creating it.


Many people are under the mistaken impression that, on a short list of the most important things to bring into an audition, “confidence” ranks somewhere between “a big smile” and “appropriate footwear.” But I’m calling malarkey on that, because confidence is overrated—and courage is underrated.

Confidence is the by-product of doing something that you were afraid to do, but you did anyway. Courage is what you get after trying the thing you thought you’d royally suck at, and learning afterward that you only suck at it a little bit. And I’m only a little bit kidding, here.

My knees used to shake when I’d stand in front of a panel of audition judges. My voice would shake, too. The shakiest thing of all was my own belief in myself, my abilities, even my value—especially as a self-conscious gay kid.

When I was ten years old, I tried out for a local theater troupe, and halfway through my warbled rendition of Peter Pan’s “I’ve Gotta Crow,” I forgot the words. Instead of crowing I was crying, and I ran out into the hallway while doing so. Now, it would have been easy to not walk back in again. Preferable, even. But somehow, even then, I recognized that if I didn’t pull myself together and reach for the thing that I knew I wanted the most, I would forever live my life in a town and a place and a mind-set that was governed by fear and not fortune. Anger and not abundance. So I blew my nose in the bathroom and I went back in. Ten years old, more freaked out than ever. I still wanted to cry. But I crowed, anyway.

People, you’ve got to crow anyway.

When I worked on the choreographic staff of Billy Elliot, we saw hundreds of children at every audition. After a while, their names and faces became a blur—but I’ll never forget this one kid. Let’s call him Ethan, which seemed to be half the boys’ names in those days. Ethan came in and spent the entire singing audition holding a green rabbit’s foot behind his back, rubbing it like crazy for luck or maybe some divine help. I found him so oddly inspiring: the way he stood there, nervous and superstitious and probably even wanting to leave. He reminded me of a smaller version of myself, of the kid who went back in anyway—and, in many ways, this anonymous boy put me on the path to writing my first novel. I became a writer because I saw in this little guy a mini-me, terrified of screwing up but knowing that the only other choice was staying home. And once you’ve seen the world, you can’t stay home.

There’s probably an activity or pursuit that you would strive for if you had the time, the training, or the experience. But here’s the big secret about high-achieving people: Many of them start from a place of nothing. Or the odds are against them. Or on paper they don’t have the time, or the money, or “the talent” (a concept that’s highly subjective) to become this more fully realized version of themselves. Guess what, gang? You don’t star in a Broadway musical because somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey! You’re ideal for my show! You wanna move to New York City and have a gigantic dressing room with a window that overlooks Times Square?!” (Note: Very few dressing rooms even have windows, though nearly all of them have mice.)

No. You star in a Broadway show because you want it the most—and you get lucky, after hearing no a lot. You star in a Broadway show because, despite the crippling odds, the fear of critics, and the knowledge that a life in the arts is the opposite of secure, you know the alternative is to live a life of wishing. Not for what could have been, but for what should have been.

Confidence is the payout for attempting a thing that, for all practical reasons, you should never have tried in the first place. So start working on your courage. Start working on that tiny project—whether it’s auditioning for the local community theater production, or inventing an app, or teaching yourself how to design websites. Especially if you come from a family where nobody claims to be creative or artistic—or, worse, a family who thinks the arts aren’t worth pursuing.

Here’s the litmus test: If your knees are shaking, that probably means you really want it.


Oh, gosh. A book about the arts has to cover jealousy, right? Okay, then. It’s big kid talk time.

Look, gang. Jealousy is a bit like climate change, blowhard politicians, and traffic: a reality of life. So don’t try to fight it.

All of us, from time to time, find ourselves in a relationship with jealousy—but that doesn’t mean we have to marry it. In fact, push yourself to congratulate the person who gets “your” part—even if it feels as if you’re left playing the part of someone gracious. Play it long enough and you’ll be it, like the emotional version of making a face so hard, it freezes.

We all have a role we feel we deserve: from the promotion at work to the flash-mob marriage proposal that never seems to jump out of the bushes for us. Make a habit of giving a shout-out to the guy who gets the gig or the girl or the anything that you thought you deserved—publicly, privately, or in your own journal if you can’t reach him. It’s good karma. It’s good business. It’s cool.

Saying, “Good for you!” turns out to be, you know, good for you.

One of the rare, uplifting qualities of the Internet is getting to peer in on a Broadway star like Laura Benanti, a Tony winner for Gypsy, wishing a “Happy opening night!” on Twitter to a show she’s not appearing in—especially when the show is starring her “rival.” Likewise, I’m always moved when the “loser” of any category at the Tony Awards is the first to jump out of his seat, and applaud the winner, aka the competition. It can be challenging to be that civil. The alternative, however, is to grow embittered. To throw your phone against your kitchen wall every time you see somebody achieving or winning or gaining something that, dammit, you deserve! Unfortunately, once you toss enough phones, you develop Chronic Bitter Syndrome.

Bitter is so specific. You have to be a truly astonishing talent for people to put up with brittle and angry, too. Here’s a hack: Being gracious is an easier skill to master than being brilliant. You’re born with only a certain amount of raw talent—but recognizing another person’s unique flair is an ability you can actually conquer, and tame.

We might not all be able to hit high Cs, but we can all give high fives.

Nobody gets into showbiz (or works at a start-up, for that matter) for the guarantees. We do it for the glory. And not the red carpet glory, or not only that. The number of directors, actors, and writers I’ve known who worked tirelessly on a show, through years of dogged, unpaid work, countless readings, untold hours spent polishing a scene or a script—only to be moved aside for the hotshot new guy, right before the move to the big time? Well, that list could fill a theatrical graveyard. When you’re gently screwed out of something that you invested good faith in, there are two options: Grab a margarita (or two) with a friend, find a corner booth, and quietly cry your eyes out… or take the vitriol public, online even, where it ain’t going to do you much good.

Put your phone on airplane mode and choose the margarita. Have one for me.

I promise you that weeks or perhaps months after your friend has picked up the check, it’ll be your turn for the competition to be envious. And you’ll have gotten there with hard work, years of good karma, and the luck of a little stardust.

I don’t care who you are: We could all use some magic on our way to making our mark.


If you’ve ever seen a group of kids dominate a playground (or inhabit a pillow fort) for hours on end, then maybe you’ve marveled at their limitless imaginations. My theory is that they haven’t been told their fantasies are silly, yet, so they flex them at full force. And nowhere is a child’s sense of wonder more apparent than at play practice—the word is, after all, play.

Recently, my parents moved out of my childhood house, from Pittsburgh to Palo Alto. In doing so, they uncovered a diary I kept when I was twelve years old, at a sleepaway camp in the Poconos for the first time. The camp’s focus was both sports and arts, and we campers had to choose a focus on day one (any guess as to my major?). In my ancient leather journal, I painstakingly detailed the process of auditioning for the camp’s production of Annie. As a much younger boy, I’d been heartbroken that Annie contained no orphan roles for boys, as there are only so many productions of Oliver! your hometown theater can put on at a time. So I was over-the-moon excited when I learned that this time, not only had I landed a plum role in the camp’s production of Annie, but I wasn’t even going to have to shave my head to play the part. Yes, I was a prepubescent Daddy Warbucks.


  • "Hilarious, wise, and one-of-a-kind. This book is so damn brilliant I'm surprised it didn't already exist."—-Sarah Knight, bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • "Federle (Tequila MockingbirdT) draws on his experience as a Broadway dancer in this delightful handbook of "hard-won showbiz lessons" that can be applied to all aspects of life and contribute to helping readers build more successful futures. Presenting advice "borrowed from Broadway" in a series of 50 witty vignettes, Federle aims to inspire readers to make any changes they may be seeking, whether these changes are in service to getting a better job, a healthier relationship, or simply a greater sense of intuitive guide that puts life into perspective in humorous and entertaining fashion."—-Publishers Weekly
  • "With tongue-in-cheek cocktail books, a middle-grade series, an acclaimed YA novel, and a Broadway show to his name, Federle has proven himself to be a veritable chameleon of a writer. Now he offers up a self-help guide by way of Broadway. In 50 bite-sized chapters, he doles out life lessons and little wisdoms gleaned from his years in the theater, sparkling with the trademark cheeky wit so evident in his Twitter account. ... Theater lovers will enjoy the peek behind the curtain of the industry, but this is valuable advice for all.—-Booklist

On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
224 pages
Running Press

Tim Federle

About the Author

Tim Federle’s hit series of cocktail recipe books, including Tequila Mockingbird, Gone with the Gin, and Are You There, God? It’s Me Margarita, have sold over half a million copies worldwide. Declared "a prolific scribe whose breezy wit isn't bound to a single genre" (Huffington Post), Federle is the creator and showrunner of the GLAAD-winning High School Musical: the Musical: the Series on Disney+; won the Humanitas Prize for co-writing the Oscar-nominated Best Animated Feature Ferdinand; and wrote and directed the Disney+ original film Better Nate Than Ever, based upon his New York Times Notable Book of the same title. He lives and drinks in Los Angeles. 

Lauren Mortimer is the illustrator of the bestselling cocktail recipe books Tequila Mockingbird, Gone with the Gin, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita. She studied Fashion Communication with Promotion at Central Saint Martins before deciding that she’d make a career being an illustrator. Lauren feels inspired and content when she’s sitting in a park, looking at birds through a pair of binoculars, listening to folk music, or sketching. Her clients include Running Press, Penguin Random House, Nike, the BBC, Nespresso, Le Monde, Vanity Fair, Scholastic, Sony, and more. She lives in London.


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