Critics, I Beg You: Please Stop Calling Things “Sub-Sondheim”

Last September, when it was announced that Audra McDonald might possibly be considering the thought of maybe, perhaps, starring in a movie of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again, this was the headline at Showbiz 411:

Audra McDonald May Star in Sexed up “Sub Sondheim” Light Opera Movie Musical

Those quotation marks around “Sub Sondheim” are a nod to The New York Times, where LaChiusa was first damned with this faint-praise epithet.

And here’s a brief, partial history of said label, in roughly chronological order. Look at just some of the writers, well-known and comparatively obscure, who have been called “sub-Sondheim”, in places ranging from stately newpapers to rebellious blogs:

Three Postcards, Craig Carnelia: The New York Times, 1987, “seldom rising above sub-Sondheim”

Starting Here, Starting Now, Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire: The Spectator, 1993, “many of their best numbers and others that are very sub-Sondheim”

Suddenly HopeMorris Bernstein, Kyle Rosen, Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman: Variety, 2000, “The score relies heavily on sub-Sondheim talk-sung songs”

Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens: indielondon, 2003, “If I call the score sub-Sondheim, this is not an insult” (My favourite.)

Nine, Maury Yeston: The Wall Street Journal, 2003, “Mr. Yeston, who used to teach music theory at Yale, is a sort of sub-Sondheim”

Six Pictures of Lee Miller, Jason Carr and Edward Kemp: The Sunday Times, 2005, “Sung to a sub-Sondheim score” and (different critic), The Telegraph, “attractive enough in its sub-Sondheim way”

Parade, Jason Robert Brown: Independent, 2007, “sometimes sounds like a sub-Sondheim Sunday”

Wicked, Stephen Schwartz: West End Whingers, 2007, “sub-Sondheim lyrics”

The Story of My Life, Neil Bartram: The New York Times, 2009, “pretty but repetitive, registering as a blurred series of intricate vamps — might be described as sub-Sondheim”

Postcards from Dumbworld, Brian Irvine and John McIlduff: The Guardian, 2010, “ranges between vaudeville knockabout and sickly sub-Sondheim”

Tomorrow Morning, Laurence Mark Wythe: The Independent, 2010, “interestingly mediocre sub-Sondheim shows like this are the staple fare of endless workshops”

Hello Again, Michael John LaChiusa: The New York Times, 2011, “It’s a sub-Sondheim score, but subliminally infectious”

If/Then, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt: The Wall Street Journal, 2014, “The songs consist of pseudo-tunes and sub-Sondheim lyrics”

Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas: SinfiniMusic, 2014, “an efficient piece of sub-Sondheim music-theatre”

Who is this Sondheim fellow? Well, he’s the man who was once sub-Gershwin, sub-Rodgers etc. I’ll let two famous examples, on two prominent occasions, serve as evidence:

Clive Barnes, 1971, The New York Times (of Follies) – “his words are a joy to listen to, even when his music is sending shivers of indifference up your spine. The man is a Hart in search of a Rodgers, or even a Boito in search of a Verdi.”

John Lahr, 1979, Harper’s Magazine (of nearly everything up to Sweeney Todd) – “Unlike Gershwin, who began his songs with introductions, Sondheim’s songs begin with vamps – an approach that restricts his melodic invention and gives away to the audience what follows. The boldness of the initial musical gesture becomes monotonous because of this imposed pattern.”

Shall I go further back, and find critics who thought Rodgers and Gershwin were sub-Kern?

Instead, critics, let’s stop using the term “sub-Sondheim”. Can we all agree that it is, at best, lazy? I think it’s worse than that, though, because here’s what we are repeatedly saying to budding (and established!) writers of musicals:

1. Your work is not as good as the best guy’s work.

2. We used to think the best guy’s work was not the best. We thought it was not as good as the work of some other, older guys. Still, his work is better than yours.

3. In its day, the work of those other, older guys was not always considered great. Instead, it was thought merely popular, ephemeral, facile. Still, your work’s not as good as the guy whose work wasn’t as good as that work.

4. Why aren’t new songwriters keen on musical theatre? We really need them.

Rhyme Challenge: Music

It’s easy to off-rhyme with “music”, and plenty of songs do. Oooh, that music, you can’t abuse it, or refuse it. And so on.

It’s also easy to fudge the “z” sound in the middle, by adopting an “s” sound instead: grew sick of music, for example.

What about a perfect rhyme, though? And none of this rhyming-each-syllable-individually nonsense, like “who’s Rick?” or “ruse hick”. No, I desire a two syllable rhyme, emphasis on the first syllable, and a zzzz sound in the middle.

Here’s the best I can come up with. Imagine a sign-on day for college courses, and a banner for the Biology Department:

Music? Theology?
Choose Ichthyology!

Why We Don’t Need a ‘Dubstep’ Musical, a ‘Punk’ Musical, a ‘Metal’ Musical …

Many years ago, I was in the pit band for a production of Merrily We Roll Along. I played 2nd keyboard (meaning I sounded like woodwinds, strings, a typewriter), and one afternoon a substitute bass player sat in on the gig. He played the show deftly at sight – no mean feat – and said this of the score as he packed away his instrument:

Some nice lines, but no real grooves.

He’s right, of course: there are some cool bass lines in Merrily, but if you’re hoping to hear them settle in for a funky jam of three or four minutes, you’ll be disappointed. This is a show about time marching on, even if it does so backwards, and characters who change their minds need music that changes with them.

This is why, whenever someone remarks that stage musicals haven’t embraced a comparatively recent music genre like, say, dubstep, I always wonder “Well, what would that ‘dubstep’ musical be about?” The whole point to dubstep is intricate rhythms, forward drive, repetition, bowel-loosening bass notes. That might work really well for a scene, or a number, or part of a number, but for a whole show?

This genre problem with musicals, their “granny sound”, is always presented as a post-rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon: showtunes have failed to keep up with the kids, we cry. We’re guilty of generational blinkerism, though, because there’s no ‘jazz’ musical either. Oh, sure, there are jazzy musicals, with chords and riffs and ideas borrowed from jazz. But a bona fide jazz musical? With improvised, extended solos, different every night, and an over-riding focus on instrumental ability? Loose, spontaneous invention for ninety percent of the running time, eight times a week? Singers scatting, and trading fours with the band? Nup.

There aren’t many ‘rock’ musicals either, no matter how they’re marketed. Hair certainly isn’t rock. Yes, I’m serious. Compare the experience of listening to these two albums:

HairOriginal Broadway Cast
Disraeli GearsCream

For all the orthodoxy that has sprung up about Hair, about the devastating daring of the sound of electric guitars emerging from a Broadway pit, it’s a ‘folk-rock’ musical if it’s anything. That’s because composer Galt MacDermot is no dummy; he knows that folk-rock is far more emotionally flexible than rock.

Emotional flexibility is what theatre songwriting is all about, and I don’t mean flexible over the course of an evening. No, I mean flexible within a song, within a line, between two words. An actor should be able to take a theatre song lyric and do what every first-year actor is taught to do with every dramatic spoken monologue: mark the beats, the thought changes.

But a great rock groove is not about changing your mind. It’s not emotionally flexible, and shifting its mood is like turning a powerboat: it takes time, and it needs space. That’s why progressive rock sounds the way it does, and it’s also what most critics of prog-rock dislike about it. The more it progs, they say, the less it rocks.

What, then, to do about our granny sound? Could today’s writers of musicals, just as earlier writers pinched things they liked from jazz, borrow stylistic elements from today’s popular music genres, and use them in emotionally flexible ways? Yes. Here are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mantzoukas and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writers of In the Heights, pinching useful things from rap and Latin dance, and moving briskly from character to thought change to plot point. Near the start of the show, Usnavi introduces himself to the audience:

Reports of my fame
Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
Dominican Republic

[character right here]
I love it,
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that,
Ever since my folks passed on,
I haven’t gone back

[thought change right here]
Goddamn, I gotta get on that

[plot point right here]
Oh! The milk has gone bad, hold up just a second
Why is everything in this fridge warm and tepid?

This is not a rap musical. This is a musical with characters who express themselves through rap, but they’re still being emotionally flexible and telling stories while they do it. Big difference.

So, which music genres are useful and which ones aren’t? That probably comes down to taste and craft, but I would argue that the more certain a popular music genre is, the less useful it is in the theatre. This is why, amongst many other considerations, it’s easier to write a Carole King bio-musical than it is to write a Spice Girls bio-musical. In fact, here’s a really broad, but useful rule of thumb:

Good popular music is mostly about certainty.

Good theatre music is mostly about doubt.

Like I said, it’s broad. Many exceptions. There are theatrical popular songs, like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”, Eminem’s “Stan”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Also, there are weirdly effective theatre numbers containing one, simple, unchanging idea, presented over three or four minutes. Turkey Lurkeys, if you will.

Nevertheless, we don’t need an ‘emo’ musical, or a ‘progressive trance’ musical. Instead, we need songwriters with voracious listening appetites, routinely stealing useful things from all kinds of genres, and listening to more than just cast recordings.

And, as our musicals start to sound more varied and contemporary, whenever we see a show marketed as a ‘dubstep’ musical, we can think “Well, best of luck to all involved, but I really hope that’s just marketing guff.” Because if that description is literally true, the show is either bad dubstep or a bad musical. Probably both.

Ulla is Wasted in ‘The Producers’

I wrote in an earlier post about female characters in musicals who are little more than lust-bunnies for male characters. I mentioned Ulla, from The Producers, as an example.

Some Ulla Inga Fansens thought I was criticising Ulla herself, and leapt to her defence. But I was actually criticising the work of Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, who both have remarkable careers, stacks of great things they’ve written, and half a dozen Tony Awards between them.

I was also suggesting that an important character doesn’t work in a show that ran 2502 performances on Broadway – so, you know, I don’t think I can do much damage here. Nevertheless …

How Ulla Should Be Re-Written

As The Producers stands right now, Max Bialystock subjects a gorgeous blonde in the street to some sexual harassment. This blonde, we later discover, is Ulla.

Max seeks out the worst play ever written, and finds it. He takes it to Roger De Bris, and in the course of Max’s convincing Roger to direct Springtime For Hitler, the play becomes a musical.

(Question: where will the songs come from? The show never explains it.)

Ulla turns up to audition for Max with a song she’s written. The song is good, and Ulla wrote it in a day.

Now ve join de dots, ja?

Springtime for Hitler needs songs.

________________Ulla writes songs.

____________________________Springtime for Hitler needs songs.

___________________________________________Ulla writes songs.

So here’s what we do. Early in Act Two, Ulla dumps a bunch of songs she’s written on Max’s desk. Max confides to Leo that the songs are, happily, dreadful. One of the songs is “Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band”, which lands Franz Liebkind the role of Hitler.

On the opening night of Springtime for Hitler, among the unexpected praise in the newspapers is a valentine for Ulla’s brilliant, savage, parody songs. (If she performs in Springtime, as she does now, that’s odd, since Max remarks that they’ve hired the worst singers and dancers they could find. Poor Ulla!)

Then, when Ulla proposes to Leo that the two of them run away to Rio, she makes it very clear that she was in on the scam the whole time. Yes, she knew about Max schtupping every little old lady in New York. Yes, she knew about Leo’s two sets of accounting books. But most of all, yes, she deliberately wrote those dreadful songs, because that’s what Springtime needed. Leo is astonished: what a brilliant, gorgeous woman.

With these touches, we have achieved three good things:

1. Tidied up a plot point.
2. Given Ulla depth.
3. Made Ulla’s relationship with Leo smarter and sexier.

And to avoid adding to The Producers’ running time, I say we make these additions at the expense of some of Carmen Ghia’s mincing schtick. It will not be missed.

Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

1. Flip the Title Around, and/or Gently Pun Upon It

Punning on a song’s title used be quite the thing, back when lyricists were allowed to be clever for the fun of it. Here’s an attention-getting example from Ira Gershwin:

Beginning of refrain …

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me.
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.

By refrain’s end …

When every happy plot,
Ends with a marriage knot
And there’s no knot for me

That’s “But Not For Me”, from Girl Crazy (1930), and I doubt you could get away with that sort of pun today, outside of a cabaret act or a topical revue. It throws character aside, and pulls the audience out of the story. But Ira Gershwin could be beautifully subtle when he wanted to. This is “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, from the movie Cover Girl (1944):

Refrain starts …

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Refrain ends …

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for
Long ago was you.

Notice how, apart from the downright dreamy sentiment, playing with the title like this gives Gershwin a fresh rhyme for the final syllable, and on a lovely vowel?

One more: here’s Stephen Sondheim in “Good Thing Going”, from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), avoiding the trap of rhyming the last word of a song with the pinched sound of “going”, while also breaking our hearts.

Beginning …

It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realise
We had a good thing going.

Ending …

It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going, going,
Gone.

Advantages of this trope: It obliges you to move the song’s ideas forward. Let me repeat that. It obliges you to move the song’s ideas. Forward. An AABA theatre song should do something like this:

A – only some of what you need to know,
A – a little more of what you need, extra details, elaborations,
B – a fresh perspective, alternative view, dissenting opinions,
A – the last of what you need to know, maybe with a revelation, or a twist.

Here’s what too many contemporary AABA theatre songs do:

A – everything you need to know.
A – what I just told you, only more of it.
B – what you already know, seen from a different vantage point.
A – what you know, louder and higher.

A score that coulda used it: Catch Me If You Can (2011, Shaiman / Wittman)

The central conceit of Catch Me If You Can is that Frank Abagnale, Jr is presenting his life story, through the 1950s and 1960s, as an old-fashioned TV variety special, so it’s understandable that most of the songs use some variation of AABA form. But out of sixteen numbers, guess how many songs end their refrains by rhyming with the title, or the same few words added to the title, every single time? Go on, guess.

Eleven. And that number goes up to the thirteen if I include two songs in verse-chorus form (“Seven Wonders” and “Fly, Fly Away”) that use a repeated ending line which happens not to be the title.

In these thirteen songs, there’s no playing with the words in order to push ideas forward, or to create fresh rhymes at the end. Over and over, these thirteen songs do this:

Here’s a thing I think, and in a style you might enjoy,
Couched in all the language you’d expect me to employ,
So the thing I have concluded is (and was there any doubt?):
The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About.
Yes, The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About

2. Not Much More Than An Octave, And Not Often

I’m going to assume you don’t read standard music notation, but if you don’t, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: the little diagrams you’re about to see work in exactly the same way, as far as timing and pitch go. From left to right, they show when the notes occur. From bottom to top, they show how high they are.

But first, here’s Fred Astaire introducing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” in the 1938 movie Carefree. The song is near the start of the clip, and if you stay for the dance routine I’ll understand completely.

Here’s a diagram showing how this song’s melody works, through its AABA form – I’ve joined the phrases together for simplicity. Look at how beautifully Berlin tackles a practical and commercial consideration of melody: his leading man does not have a big singing range, and neither does the average music customer, so Berlin is very careful about where his tune ascends to an octave or more above the melody’s lowest note. Click if you like full size:

change partners

By heaven, that’s how you write a tune that doesn’t go much over an octave, and doesn’t do it often.

Advantages of this trope: Let’s say you have a character who won’t be hitting the big notes – and a leading character, too, not a bit of Thénardier comic relief. Without the applausebait of loud, high belting near the end of the tune, what will you give this character’s performer to help put the song across? How will you convey emotional intensity and depth of feeling?

Maybe you’ll use dance, as above, or explore more specifics of character, or reveal some new plot, or give better fodder for acting. It’ll have to be real acting, too, and not just emoting. It’ll be worth it, though, because you’ll end up with a character (and a show) that doesn’t sound like all the others. But even better, you’ll have more casting choices, since it won’t be all about the eight bars of high F. One of your stars won’t need so many days of vocal rest. More performers will be able to sing your song, reliably. More audience members too.

A score that coulda used it: Chess (1984, Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice)

All the main characters in Chess have big singing ranges, and all of them indicate emotional intensity by singing loud and high. Fair enough: a singer can’t croon in a rock/pop score; they’d never be heard over the instruments. Also, scores that use repeated melodic chunks often ask one character to sing another character’s tunes, so if one character sings over a wide range, chances are the rest will too.

And yet. And yet.

Consider the Russian, Anatoly, who does not express his feelings as readily as his American counterpart, Freddy. Anatoly’s first big number is “Where I Want To Be”, and the melody of its verses is in a nice register, and prettily shaped, as you’d expect from Benny and Björn. But in the chorus the vocal melody does this:

where i want

This number actually has a smaller range than Berlin’s “Change Partners”, but as any baritone will tell you, it’s not about the height, it’s about how long I have to stay up there. It’s about the tessitura. In the case of “Where I Want To Be”, maybe the Musical Director could transpose the whole thing down, but that wouldn’t help much with Anatoly’s big aria at the end of Act One. Look again at how Berlin prepares the singer’s voice (and your ear) for the higher notes in his song, and then consider this, near the end of Anatoly’s “Anthem”. You know the bit – “how could I leave her …”

anthem

That’s almost the song’s entire range, within four beats. It’s the melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands. Later, in “End Game”, Anatoly will traverse an even wider range, an octave and a major sixth – the entire range of “Ol’ Man River” – within six bars. And this is the guy who doesn’t have to sing “Pity the Child”.

3. The Song That’s Not About Sex (Except It Is)

In Guys and Dolls, the rakish gambler guy Sky Masterson takes the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown to Havana, thereby winning a bet. He plies her with a local drink, “Dulce de leche”, including its “native flavoring” of Bacardi, and she elaborates on its effect with the following examples of the subjunctive mood. In summary:

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is …

If I were a bell I’d be ringing
If I were a lamp I’d light
If I were a banner I’d wave
If I were a gate I’d be swinging
If I were a watch I’d start popping my spring
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding
If I were a bridge I’d be burning
If I were a duck I’d quack
If I were a goose I’d be cooked
If I were a salad, I know I’d be splashing my dressing
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding

We know Sarah is physically attracted to Sky, but look at how composer/lyricist Frank Loesser flirts with, yet avoids, overtly sexual imagery. That’s because he knows two things about a crass possibility like “If I were a camel, I’d hump”:

1. Drunk or not, Sarah Brown would never say such a thing.

2. Sexy songs are sexier when you let the audience supply the sexy details.

Advantages of this trope: I know, it’s no longer 1950 – surely we can be more candid? But if you have a character who, deep down, wants to dance the no-pants dance, and you make them sing a song all about how, deep down, they want to dance the no-pants dance, what have you given the actor to play?

Nothing. There’s no tension. They, and their director, will be forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business” to help the time go by.

On the other hand, if you have a song about two characters buying the firm’s annual office supplies together, and one character deeply, deeply wants to jump the other one’s bones, you’ve got possibilities. Think of what a gift this situation could be to a performer and a director. Think of all the wholesome joy your audience can have supplying filthy, sexy details.

A score that coulda used it: Victor/Victoria (1982, 1995, Mancini / Wildhorn / Bricusse)

Victor/Victoria is all about sexual attraction, from Victoria, who’s attracted to a real man’s man, King Marchand – but can’t reveal it because she’s masquerading as a man herself – to King Marchand, who’s attracted to Victoria, thinking she’s really a man, and is wrestling with this hitherto unsuspected side of his sexuality.

The score gets it right at first with “Le Jazz Hot”, a song all about the hotness of jazz, but really about the hotness of Victoria. Then, later (and to everyone’s credit, this song was later cut), King Marchand’s lover Norma tries to tempt him into bed with “Paris Makes Me Horny”:

Rome may be hot -
Sexy it is not!
Paris is so sexy!
Ridin’ in a taxi
Gives me apoplexy.

Been ta Lisbon
An’ Lisbon is a has-bin!
Schlepped ta Stockholm
An’ brought a lotta schlock home!
Also Oslo
An’ Oslo really was slow!

Paris makes me horny!
It’s not like Californy
Paris is so dizzy, Jack,
It’s such an aphrodisiac!

There it is. A character who wants sex singing about how she wants sex. Even if the song were good, there’d be no tension, and sure enough, performer Rachel York and her director Blake Edwards were forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business”.

There’s a simple fix, though, if this scene is to contain a song, because the wrong character is singing: it should be King Marchand. After seeing Victoria as Victor, he should be singing about he’s not worried about that handsome Victor guy, because King Marchand is a real man, who likes manly things, like football – yeah, King Marchand, grabbing other guys, pulling them to the ground and … no, wait … poker – yeah, poker, King Marchand, with all the fellas, staying up all night, drinking, sucking on cigars, gazing at each other’s hands, looking real deep into each other’s eyes … no, wait, dammit … a sharp, tailored suit – yeah, King Marchand, buying expensive fashionable clothes, and all the guys saying how good he looks …

Then Norma can invite him into bed.

Some Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes That Need a Rest. Maybe Forever.

1. The Song That Fixes An Argument

Here’s how it works. The two of you are fighting. Then one of you starts singing something. The other resists at first, but eventually joins in. Now you’re both singing, and damned if you don’t go into an ol’ soft-shoe together! Magically, once you reach the song’s button, whatever you were arguing about has gone away.

Egregious example: Grey Gardens (“Two Peas In a Pod”)

Edith has just had a big fight with her father, Major Bouvier, in which her daughter Edie firmly took the Major’s side. As a peace offering, young Edie starts singing an old song to her mother, the first song her mother ever taught her. They’re soon singing it together, with Edith’s accompanist George Gould Strong lending two helping hands at the piano. Problem solved.

But not really. After the song, it’s their next bit of dialogue that establishes a truce.

Ingenious subversion: Merrily We Roll Along (“Old Friends”)

Charlie, Frank and Mary are arguing about – well, pretty much everything. Mary starts up an old bit of schtick with the words “Here’s to us …”. Soon, they’re all singing together, but – and this is neat – the song breaks down into an argument midway, before pulling it together for the final button. Also, since the show’s chronology is in reverse, we in the audience have already seen this friendship group break up: no matter how chummy they might be at the end of this song, dramatic irony dangles overhead.

Why this trope needs to die: it’s bogus. And I don’t mean that it’s bogus in the way that all musicals are, by any realistic measure, bogus. No, it’s bogus on its face. If these characters are to resemble real, motivated people (and ever since Showboat, that’s what the best writers have been trying to achieve, from high drama to low comedy), then it’s the quintessence of bullshit to have characters’ desires and fears allayed, however briefly, by a tune. On the other hand, if the argument were actually resolved in the course of the song, that’d be different. And much better.

2. The “I’m Happy To Be a Slut” Song

She’s brassy, she’s leggy. She likes men and she wants you to know it. Also, she’s … no, that’s it. There’s nothing more to this dame, and she won’t do much in the show to follow. She’ll either be conquered by domestic love or die helping the hero.

Egregious examples: The Producers (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”), Steel Pier (“Everybody’s Girl”)

In The Producers, Ulla turns up at Max and Leo’s office to audition with a song she’s written. She performs it for Max and Leo’s pleasure, they lust after her, and then they compete for her. Her job is to be dumb, and lusted after. I could write – nay, will write – an entire post about the wasted opportunity that is Ulla in this show.

In Steel Pier, the MC of a dance marathon is trying to drum up interest in the competition, so he spruiks the additional talents of some of his contestants. One of these is Shelby, who is pretty fast, as they used to say. She sings a song about how fast she is. It is meant to be ghastly, bursting with second-rate, second-hand jokes; and it is ghastly, since there’s no subtext or other aspects of Shelby’s character to alleviate the ghastliness. Later, Shelby falls in unfulfilling love with a younger man.

Ingenious subversion: Sweet Charity (“Big Spender”)

On paper, this is a come-on from the ladies of the Fan-Dango Ballroom. But as performed it’s clear they don’t mean a word of it, instantly adding layers to their characters. Brilliant. This was in 1964, more than thirty years before my two egregious examples.

Why this trope needs to die: Sure, it’s sexist (where are the male slut songs?), and yes, its time has passed (a female character can now simply say “I like sex”, so why should we sit through an entire song of sniggering jokes about it?), but most importantly, it’s dramatically inert. If you’re going to write a one-joke song, you’d better be Cole Porter. In the 1930s.

3. The Mad Scene Made of Dissonant Reprises

We’re near the end of the show, and a person, or possibly the world itself, is going insane. How to depict this musically? Maybe we’ll use a bunch of tunes we heard earlier in the night, but chopped up and layered over one another, with no concern for dissonance. In fact, dissonance is wanted: we’ll put long, wrong notes under previously pleasant tunes. If the tune’s in C, shove a loud F sharp or an A flat in the bass. (Composer’s confession: these are really easy to write. With some decent notation software, you can whip one up while the kettle boils.)

Eregious example: Sunset Boulevard (“Final Scene”)

Norma just shot Joe dead. The cops have come to take her away, but a journalist helpfully tells the audience that Norma’s “in a state of complete mental shock”. In lyrical terms, what is Norma given to work with? This:

This was dawn.
I don’t know why I’m frightened.
Silent music starts to play.
Happy new year, darling.
If you’re with me, next year will be…
Next year will be…
They bring in his head on a silver tray.
She kisses his mouth…
She kisses his mouth…
Mad about the boy!
They’ll say Norma’s back at last!

To be fair, there’s no dissonant accompaniment to this, which is a series of lines from a bunch of earlier songs, all spliced together. It’s even less work than the sort of thing I’m complaining about.

Ingenious subversion: Cabaret (“Finale Ultimo”)

This is one of the earliest examples I can think of, and it works a treat by undermining the traditional appeal of reprises. Clifford Bradshaw, supposed novelist, hasn’t written anything as far as we in the audience can tell; then, as he takes the train out of Berlin, he starts reading from his latest effort. Songs are heard in reprise, and this is justified as Cliff sorts through his memories. His later experiences of rising Nazism and soured romance justify the dissonances. There’s so much scope for directors in this part of the show that it keeps developing, from mirrors wherein the audience see themselves, to the cast being led off to concentration camps. It’s almost impossible for later writers to repeat this fine achievement, so why bother trying?

Why this trope needs to die: If anything should be personal, and distinctive, it’s madness. But if all madness sounds the same, how mad is it? This trope is almost always an example of writing that mimics other writers’ writing, instead of coming up with something unique to a particular character, at a particular time. Write a brand new song, folks. The Cray Cray Megamix is lazy.

Even-Handed Agitprop

What better subject for a brand new song than Australia’s recent spectacular success with asylum seekers? It’s been a triumph, obviously, but I did a little research, and found there’s a rich, happy history to all this success.

PS You can tell it’s a brand new song, because the lyrics are propped in front of me. I almost never allow that.

PPS Recorded last Friday, September 26, at Eastern Riverina Arts, where they host occasional, tiny “office gigs”.

Let’s Call Them ‘Platitunes’

With some songs, you know how nearly every line will end, even if you’ve never heard that particular song before. That’s because the song is made of clichés. I call these songs “platitunes”.

Pros of the Platitune

  • The songwriter need not rhyme. Each line is carried forward by its own pre-fabricated inevitability. If the listener doesn’t pay too much attention, this forward motion can sound like structure.
  • The listener need not pay close attention, since the lines don’t refer to each other, only to themselves. The sensation is one of repeated, short-term, small-scale resolution.
  • The song feels friendly, non-confronting, relatable. Like, totally relatable.

Cons of the Platitune

  • Despite their instant familiarity, the lyrics of the platitune are really hard to remember, since they’re all so similar.
  • Platitunes struggle to build. There’s no cumulative effect of story or dramatic structure, just more of the same. So the only way to reach a climax is to get louder, or higher. Or louder and higher.
  • The platitune, because it relies on over-used phrases instead of minting its own, does not age well. It sinks back into its decade of origin, and is later dredged up only in the service of nostalgia.

Some examples? My pleasure. The following aren’t all pure platitunes, but they demonstrate the essentials at important points. I found them by listening to the Top 20 songs in the current Billboard Hot 100 [all added ellipses are … mine]

Sam Smith – Stay With Me (Sam Smith, James Napier, William Phillips)

Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night … stand
But I still need love ’cause I’m just a … man
These nights never seem to go to … plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my … hand?

As platitunes go, this is not too bad, because it’s still logically coherent, and it’s made of clichés that actually rhyme.

Maroon 5 – Maps (Adam Levine, Ryan Tedder, Benjamin Levin, Ammar Malik, Noel Zancanella)

But I wonder where were you?
When I was at my … worst
Down on my … knees
And you said you had my … back
So I wonder where were you?
When all the roads you took came back … to me

Mix your clichés well, and you get this kind of incoherence, at which the platitune excels. To review: she said she had your back, and all the roads she took came back to you, so when you’re down on your knees, she’s probably behind you, dummy.

So I’m following the map that leads to you
The map that leads to you
Ain’t nothing I can … do
The map that leads to you

Not to be a pedant, but a map doesn’t lead to anything. A map shows where things are. That’s why the preferred cliché is “the road that leads to you” or “the path that leads to you”. Philosophical query: is a botched cliché worse than a correct one?

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj – Bang Bang (Max Martin, Onika Maraj, Savan Kotecha, Rickard Göransson)

She got a body like an hourglass, but I can give it to you all the … time
She got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into over … drive
See anybody could be bad to you, you need a good girl to blow your … mind

It’s encouraging to see these puns being attempted, but lazy clichés have undone them. Are hourglass bodies typically noted for their lack of stamina, or fussiness as to the time of day? I should have thought the opposite. Likewise, is the Cadillac-booty necessarily associated with low gears and slow speeds? And what is the nature of this mind-blowing that only a good girl can execute? Perhaps the chorus will clarify:

Bang bang into the … room
Bang bang all over … you
Wait a minute let me take you … there
Wait a minute ’til ya
Bang bang there goes your … heart
Bang, back seat of my … car

Hmmm. Whatever this “bang bang” is, it’s quick. And yet overdrive-girl, previously critical of slow speeds, wants you to “wait a minute”. Also, it turns out the “good girl” will “blow your mind” in the back of her car, where she believes your “heart” will be gone. I don’t presume to speak for all men, but I don’t think it would be my heart.

John Legend – All Of Me (John Legend, Toby Gad)

What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me … out

Her mouth draws him in. Within that mouth, presumably, are her feet, which then kick him out.

You’ve got my head … spinning, no … kidding, I can’t pin you … down
What’s going on in that beautiful … mind
I’m on your magical mystery … ride
And I’m so dizzy, don’t know what … hit me, but I’ll be … alright

This is OK. It’s deeply unoriginal, but at least it makes sense. In the chorus, the song tries to avoid clichés, and promptly comes a cropper:

‘Cause all of me
Loves all of … you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections

This ‘My Funny Valentine’ approach is commendable, but take a moment to look at your body. Do you see any edges? No, you don’t. You might see the tip of a nose, or the blade of a finger, or the heel of a palm. But you don’t see any edges unless you’re from a race of diamond aliens, or you have suffered a dreadful injury.

(Defenders will say this could be a metaphor, for the edges of a personality. I don’t buy it.)

Give your all to … me
I’ll give my all to … you
You’re my end and my … beginning
Even when I lose I’m … winning
‘Cause I give you all of … me

This sensitive guy schtick always plays well to the back row, but “lose” what? You didn’t lose yourself, you gave yourself. It’s right there in the next line, so what did you “lose”? Even when I give, I’m getting – that would make sense.

I’ll let George Orwell have the final say on platitunes, even though he was writing about prose. From “Politics and the English Language,” 1946:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

 

An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
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Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
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Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
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1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.

How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?

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The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.