Memorable. Catchy. Hummable. Good.

There are some standard responses to a new musical’s original score that pervade chat boards, social media, and even critical reviews by professionals. They’re the responses reserved for new scores found to be underwhelming, and they go something like this:

The songs were all completely forgettable. Not catchy. Afterwards I couldn’t remember a single tune.

These are not songs you’ll be humming as you leave the theatre.

Unmemorable melodies. I couldn’t have hummed you a single one the next day.

These aren’t Golden Age melodies. Golden Age melodies were classics, and are still around today, because they were good. These melodies will not be around in fifty years.

And so on. People are very comfortable saying this sort of thing in print and online. I think they must feel like they’re really saying something, really laying down some judgement on a show’s music.

But they’re not. The above statements are useless as critical evaluation, or audience feedback – and if you, dear reader, are given to using them, please stop. Because you’re talking only about yourself.

Permit me to demonstrate, beginning with a 14 year-old Mozart:

Me: Wolfgang, what did you think of the Miserere by Allegri?

14yo Mozart: Dunno. ‘Salright.

Me: Is it true you transcribed the entire piece, all thirteen or so minutes of it, for two separate choirs, after listening to it only once?

14yo Mozart: Yeah, it was a Wednesday. Dad’s always making me do stuff like that. You know, boost my followers. So I went back again and checked it the following Friday. Nailed it.

Me: Wolfgang, I’m a trained musician, and I think I could probably transcribe a few bars of the Miserere upon one listening, especially that bit where the top line soars way up high and comes back down again, but the whole thing? You must have found the piece very memorable.

14yo Mozart: Memorable? Huh. If that’s what you mean by ‘memorable’, every piece is memorable, when you’re as good as I am.

“The following day, I couldn’t remember a single tune” says absolutely nothing about the music. Maybe the music was rubbish, maybe it was magnificent, and maybe you weren’t listening, there’s no way to tell.

If you ask me to pay attention to a show’s Act One score, and hum you some of the tunes at interval, I could probably manage a good portion of three or four of them. But if you don’t give me a heads-up, I might not manage any. That also says nothing about the music.

And even if I remember every single melody, you know who could always kick my arse in that department? 14 year-old Mozart. 14 year-old Mozart could probably write out most of the orchestra parts after one listening, which also says nothing about the quality of the music. It tells us only what we already know about 14 year-old Mozart: he’s better at this than we are.

There is a useful sense of the word “memorable”, but I see it reserved chiefly for performances, or entire shows, as in “Patti gave a memorable performance”, or “It was a memorable night in the theatre”. People who say this don’t mean it literally, as if they could now recite Patti’s entire role for you, and they would look at you very oddly if you asked them to.

So, in the sense of “significant”, or “distinguished”, or (forgive the pun), “noteworthy”, “memorable” has value. But whether you can literally remember a piece after hearing it once or twice says nothing about the piece itself. It’s merely an observation on your aural skills. You’re talking about yourself.


“Catchy”, happily, is applied much more consistently than “memorable”: “having the quality of catching the mind” dates back to the 1830s. And “catchy” is also, amongst music theatre composers at least, a compliment.

Here’s a catchy and memorable Prokofiev tune, so catchy that it backed a TV and cinema perfume campaign in the ’90s:

But is it hummable? No, not really, and it needn’t be, since it’s not written for the human voice. Here’s how most us would fare attempting to hum this one, depending on vocal range:

Unless you’re already the sort of person who regularly hums a Prokofiev ballet around the house, I’m guessing you won’t accurately navigate those what-the-hell octave leaps mixed with semitones I’ve highlighted above, at least not without attentive effort.

All right, so Prokofiev can be catchy without being hummable, but instead, let’s have a melody written for the human voice. In fact, how about a song written for one of the biggest movie musicals in history? A musical whose soundtrack has sold over twenty million copies, and whose songs have been streamed online hundreds of millions of times. Something like The Sound of Music – those tunes are really hummable, right?

Except I’m not talking about The Sound of Music. I’m talking about Aashiqui (1990), which – trust me – is a hugely beloved, massive, hit movie musical. Here’s one of its most popular songs (music by Nadeem–Shravan, lyric by Sameer Anjaan):

Can you hum the vocal line? The main motif is repeated plenty of times, so you’ve certainly had every opportunity. Ah, but how are your Bollywood melisma chops? Here’s that main vocal motif:

I’m guessing, unless you’re pretty well-steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, that you’ll have to practise those melismatic turns. Maybe you can hum a baroque-era aria, or perform gospel riffs for days, but is a tune like this part of your normal listening diet?

If it isn’t, and you can’t hum Main Duniya Bhula Doonga easily, and you argue that this tune is therefore not hummable, you’re just plain, empirically wrong. Millions of people, who are steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, could hum it for you, right now, without notice.

“Hummable” really means “made up of bits I am already familiar with”. It is neither praise nor censure. It’s a function of how much music you listen to, and how similar it is. Songwriters who mix bits of familiar melody, but in interesting new ways, tend to be popular, and repetition really helps. Those who are too original, or not original enough, tend not to be so popular. But once you say you find a tune hummable, you’re not talking about the tune. You’re talking about yourself.


Which brings me to “good”, and wouldn’t it be nice if the best tunes were simply the longest-lived, with no other forces at play? It’s an appealing idea, and utterly at odds with reality. Pachelbel, by that reasoning, wrote one good piece of music. Yet here’s a less familiar work of his, and I think it’s better:

By the “Golden Age” logic, most women couldn’t write decent tunes until about 1800. Indigenous Australians somehow failed to create good beats until after white people showed up. The longer you think about this notion, the dumber it gets. It’s overwhelmingly Western European, male, English-speaking, record-centric, and it works only if you think in very short time spans. If you say a melody from a mere fifty years ago is an “enduring classic”, when that melody has been heavily supported, promoted and preserved by estates and corporations with money to spend and interests to protect, all you’re saying is “this tune has been prominent in my culture within my lifetime”. The tune might be great, or it might be awful. And you’re talking about yourself.

So, pretend we’re in a foyer together, and you’ve just heard my new score. Pretend you’ve had one too many wines, and you say this to me:

Peter, I just didn’t find any of your tunes hummable tonight. Right now, I can’t remember a single one. They’re not – you know – Golden Age melodies?

I was raised to be polite, so I will say:

I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you enjoy whatever I write next.

But I will be thinking:

You dear, sweet thing, I couldn’t give a flying fuck.

If you want to talk music, I’m all ears. If you want to say my tunes are derivative, or boring, or not suited to the human voice, hooray, let’s do this. But all you’ve said in this scenario is:

Peter, I don’t have a great aural memory. And while I profess to listen to a wide range of music, I don’t, really. Also, what I do listen to sounds pretty much the same.

So excuse me, but I’m off to the bar. I’ll come back when you’re done.

In Which I Am Proud of My Friends …

… and also Facebook is briefly not awful.

This all started because we bought a house.

Among the reasons my family moved from Canberra to Wagga Wagga in 2012 was to, we hoped, save up enough money to buy a place, on the kind of land you don’t find without spending an absolute fortune in and around Canberra. Six years later, we got there: a slightly-too-small house on two acres near the Murrumbidgee River (yes, we’ll probably flood at some point).

View of the back yard:


To the left, a big shed does its best to make up for the slightly-too-small house.

Facing the other way:

There’s a lot to do, but I set up a record player almost immediately in the shed – priorities – and since the only thing over the fence is a reserve of council-owned land, where local golfers practise their shots, the whole family can play music on that record player pretty darn loud without bothering anyone.

The first album I played was Revolver – after which, I’m sorry to say, I really let those golfers know just how white and middle-aged I was with Wings and Billy Joel and Wired Volume 2 (seriously, how offensive is that snare drum on Bucks Fizz’s Land of Make Believe?). Then I changed things, as the young people say, up, by hanging out washing to the strains of:

Later, I planted seedlings to The Firebird Suite, so obviously I had Stravinsky on my mind. I’d also recently seen, and laughed hard at, this tweet:

Thus, I had Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on my mind too, and the next morning I walked to work thinking about the song’s opening lines:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord …

“I wonder what that secret chord was?” I thought. “Could it have been Stravinsky’s Petrushka chord? Huh. What rhymes with Petrushka? Eliza Dushka? Baboushka?”

In any case, I thought, in keeping with Cohen’s original “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth”, any re-write, for maximum music-theory-nerd value, would have to explain what a Petrushka chord actually is. By the time I got to work, I had facebooked this:

No explanation, no context. I just threw it up there and hoped some music theory-nerd friends would like it. And they did, so the next day, having realised that the Tristan chord was pretty much de rigeur for this sort of thing, I walked to work again, and ended up with:

I couldn’t think of a decent rhyme for ‘Tristan’, and besides there wasn’t anywhere it could scan nicely at the end of a line. I also justified near-rhyming ‘sixth’ with ‘fifth’ by noting that Cohen’s original contains near-rhymes, plus parodies should sound like their inspiration. Cough.

Next day, having remembered Strauss’s Elektra chord:

That’s easily the funniest of the three, probably because it doesn’t waste so much time on music theory details, but at this point I was a bit stuck. Could I do Sullivan’s The Lost Chord? Fortunately, this happened:

I love how Helen, whom I know through Canberra’s Impro community, and who is herself a trained musician, included, without any prompting on my part, the necessary music theory nerdery, and in exactly the right spot. She wrote hers really quickly too, dammit. Then:

Helen loved it. Glenn later frowned on his identity of ‘then’ with ‘then’, but I pointed out that he was doing better than half the lyricists on Broadway. Helen again:

Scriabin’s mystic chord is harder to describe than any of the others so far, and so I couldn’t think what to do with it. But Mike could:

James is a songwriter, so he knows when to add an extra syllable for a laugh:

And Jamie brilliantly managed to think of a ubiquitous type of chord that had utterly failed to cross my mind:

I’ll defend ‘When’t’ and ‘vaulted heights of Heaven’ as utterly Leonard Cohen-ian if anyone objects to them.

UPDATE: Two excellent further entries from Andrew Kay and Noel Katz below! I first met Andrew as the superb half-of-two pianists contributing to Canberra Repertory’s Old Time Music Hall, but I later learned he was a formidable songwriting talent in his own right. As for Noel, he’s a music-theatre composer/lyricist with a highly impressive CV, a very much worth-your-while blog, and my own taste (ie the correct one) in the classic virtues of rhyme, scansion and prosody (he may pronounce some words differently from us Aussies):

Obviously, I’m proud of my friends, but think about it: this is a pretty high-level, daunting lyric game. You have to correctly describe some aspect of chordal harmony, make your words scan believably, include a joke if you can, and get it all to rhyme. And they all did it in a matter of days, while working their actual jobs.

I’m not just being kind: my friends are doing better than half the lyricists on Broadway. I won’t say which half.

On Jukeboxy-ness. Also, How Will Jukebox Musicals Age?

Last August, in the New York Times, theatre critics Jesse Green, Ben Brantley and Elisabeth Vincentelli had a conversation about jukebox musicals.

Everyone asked interesting questions and adopted varying stances on the many issues that jukebox shows raise. But nobody questioned one basic assumption, and it’s an assumption I haven’t seen questioned anywhere else either, leading, I think, to a great deal of woolly thinking.

Early in the article, Vincentelli asks “Is it worth starting with how we define the jukebox musical?”, after which the conversation moves on to revues, pop songs in the theatre and bio-musicals. Later, Brantley notes “but we seem to be too restrictive in our definition, a point Elisabeth raised earlier.” But that definition, despite all the theatre brain-power in the room, has never appeared.

Here’s the neatest definition of a jukebox musical I’ve seen, from theatre critic Cassie Tongue, in her review of Jersey Boys: “a narrative piece of theatre woven together with an artist or band’s discography”. Tongue neatly sidesteps revues and song cycles with her use of the word ‘narrative’, and the only addition I can think of is, perhaps, ‘era’, along with ‘artist’ and ‘band’, to cover those shows that mine a particular decade or genre, such as Motown and Rock of Ages.

In fact, maybe ‘pre-existing’ is sometimes all that’s needed, as in the case of a grab-bag like Moulin Rouge. And after all, isn’t pre-existing really the point?

In any case, even better than Tongue’s definition’s precision is its lack of judgement. Most of us, when we ask for a definition of jukebox musicals, are really asking “What’s a definition that allows me to loathe Mamma Mia! but praise American Idiot?”, and then the woolly thinking kicks in: we all bang on about how American Idiot‘s songs were originally written for a concept album, with an implied narrative, making them theatrical, and the show not really a jukebox show. At other times the question is, truthfully, “What’s a definition that lets me be excited about Moulin Rouge, while castigating every bio-show from Jersey Boys to Summer?”. Then we use words like ‘re-contextualise’ and ‘re-purpose’ and ‘fragment’, until Moulin Rouge is a superior, different kind of jukebox show.

Here’s the assumption we’re all making, though: that a show either is, or isn’t, a jukebox musical. I propose that jukeboxy-ness exists on a spectrum, that many shows employ jukeboxy-ness to varying degrees, and that audiences, generally, do not care about our definitions.

The question we should be asking is not “is this show a jukebox musical?”, but rather “how much does this show behave like a jukebox?”.


A modern jukebox does a very specific thing: it takes your money and in return plays you a song you know and want to hear. The process isn’t pure, since jukebox manufacturers and distributors limit your choices to their own song catalogues. Still, in an age of mp3s these catalogues are huge, and in theory the many available titles on display in a jukebox should soothe you with familiarity.

(Jukeboxes, by the way, used to be almost the opposite: before rock ‘n’ roll radio took off, they were the places you’d find the latest records, and first. If somebody referred to a ‘jukebox musical’ in the 1940s, that would have meant one with the latest jive, where a hep cat might really cut a rug.)

Jukebox musicals often try to soothe you in much the same way as a modern jukebox, usually with their full titles and subtitles: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; Jersey Boys – The story of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons; MAMMA MIA! THE SMASH HIT MUSICAL BASED ON THE SONGS OF ABBA. All of these titles and subtitles are designed to allay some of your ticket-buying fears by answering two of your most pressing ticket-buying questions: “how will the music sound, and will I like it?”

For me, a given show might be very jukeboxy, purely in terms of familiarity, if I know most or all of its songs in advance. I’m an Australian male born in 1970, so how jukeboxy for me is that queen of jukebox shows, Mamma Mia!? Here’s the song list:

ACT I
Prologue: I Have a Dream
Honey, Honey
Money, Money, Money
Thank You For the Music
Mamma Mia!
Chiquitita
Dancing Queen
Lay All Your Love On Me
Super Trouper
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
The Name of the Game
Voulez-Vous

ACT II
Under Attack
One Of Us
S.O.S
Does Your Mother Know
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Our Last Summer
Slipping Through My Fingers
The Winner Takes It All
Take a Chance On Me
I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do
I Have a Dream (Reprise)

If today were April 5th, 1999, the day before Mamma Mia! opened on the West End, I could sing all but two of those songs for you, right now, before we picked up our tickets. For now, let’s leave aside whether I like all those songs, or want to hear that much ABBA in one sitting: as far as familiarity goes, for me Mamma Mia! behaves very much like a jukebox. It helps that I’m in my late 40s, and it really helps that I’m Australian.

Of course, those song choices are nearly all singles, and they’re nearly all hits. Book writer Catherine Johnson has an extensive catalogue to choose from (a complete Fernando has had to wait until the film sequel), but she shows no desire to surprise hardcore fans with obscure deep cuts. There’ll be no Bang a Boomerang tonight, and King Kong Song remains in my childhood, where it belongs. Furthermore, the two songs I don’t immediately know are exactly where they should be: the middle of Act Two, where they can do little harm, right before The Winner Takes It All kicks off three massive hits in succession, all the way to the curtain calls.

Mamma Mia! even relies on my familiarity with its songs, expecting me to know them instantly:

TANYA: What is it?

DONNA: Nothing. Leave me alone. I can’t talk about it. I knew this would happen! Of course it was gonna come out now. It had to. Oh God, why was I such a stupid little eejit?

ROSIE (sings): CHIQUITITA, TELL ME WHAT’S WRONG …

Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. The film version of Moulin Rouge has a similar moment near its beginning:

CHRISTIAN (v/o): There seemed to be artistic differences over Audrey’s lyrics and Satie’s songs.

DOCTOR: I don’t think a nun would say that about a hill.

SATIE: What if he sings, ‘The hills are vital, intoning the descant’?

TOULOUSE: No, no. The hills quake and shake –

DOCTOR: No, no, no, no. The hills –

ARGENTINEAN: The hills are incarnate with symphonic melodies!

This goes on for some time, until our hero Christian cements his place as a songwriter ahead of his time by getting the answer right:

CHRISTIAN (sings): THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Why is only Christian’s answer right? Because it’s Oscar Hammerstein’s actual lyric, of course, and the audience knows this. Head Over Heels, a musical whose jukebox uses The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle discography, plays this fanservice game when Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, announces that one of their predictions for the King of Arcadia has come true:

PYTHIO: Thou with thy wife adultery shall commit … (sings) OOOOOOH, BABY, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT’S WORTH?

You get it. Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. Each of these moments congratulates us for knowing a lyric so well-known that half the planet knows it, and chosen for this moment precisely because it’s a lyric that half the planet knows.


“Oddly I’m not a big fan of “Mamma Mia!” but that’s because I love Abba so much that the show messed with my pre-existing ideas about the songs.” 

Elisabeth Vincentelli

“… partly because they [pop songs] were pre-written for a different context — or for no context — and partly because they tend to cycle through one generic emotion, they make character development difficult.”

Jesse Green

Besides familiarity, there’s at least one other aspect to jukeboxy-ness, which Vincentelli refers to, and it’s what happens after the opening lyric: do the writers then mess with the original? Here’s the original Andersson/Ulvaeus opening for Chiquitita:

Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
You’re enchained by your own sorrow.
In your eyes
There is no hope for tomorrow.

Here’s the altered version from Mamma Mia!:

ROSIE: Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
TANYA: I have never seen such sorrow
BOTH: In your eyes
And the wedding is tomorrow

Mamma Mia! is coy about the credits for its re-written lyrics. Perhaps in the theatre, where clarity is all, there’s little hope for a word like “enchained”, but in this instance, with a mis-accented “is”, and the clunky exposition of two characters telling a third something they all already know, I’m pretty certain no theatre lyricist was involved.

And I’m completely certain, given the show’s success, that nobody important cares. Mamma Mia! tinkers with its original ABBA lyrics all the time, and audiences don’t seem to mind, since changes are rarely made in a song’s first line, and never in an important chorus. More importantly, I think, ABBA’s songs are sometimes broken up with story-in-dialogue, but they’re never asked to convey new plot alone, or to introduce new characters – these tasks are consistently achieved through speech after/beforehand. And, as Green notes, these pre-written pop songs are often staged as dramatically static celebrations of one generic (maybe “unequivocal” is a fairer term?) emotion.

(To be fair, there are plenty of songs from non-jukeboxy original scores that are also dramatically static and emotionally unequivocal, whether they’re celebrating June for bustin’ out all over, or recommending that one give it the ol’ razzle dazzle.)

Nevertheless, this most jukeboxy of jukeboxy musicals is not completely jukeboxy. When it is, it’s unashamedly so, and for those who like the show, this is a big part of its charm:

“… the pure klutziness of Mamma Mia! is what makes it a strange work of genius. It picks up the inner karaoke demon in all of us.”

Ben Brantley

Note, though, that ‘karaoke’ implies knowing the songs in advance. What if you don’t?


The theatre critics at Exeunt Magazine NYC had a range of responses to Head Over Heels, including this observation from Nicole Serratore about the show’s decision to use The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle catalogue:

I just never got into music when I was a teen and still find myself playing catch-up. I wonder how much of this was a miss for me because the music also didn’t provide that extra layer of familiarity or tasty, satisfying musical nostalgia noms.

Nicole Serratore

As far as Head Over Heels goes, I have only three potential musical nostalgia noms: Our Lips Are Sealed, We Got the Beat, and (maybe) Get Up and Go. I never liked Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits, and I’m not even familiar with the show’s title song – although I freely admit that by the end of its first chorus, I feel like I’ve known it for years. That’s an important additional consideration with many jukebox musicals: songs originally aimed at the pop charts should be hooky, even if they’re unfamiliar, and there’s a certain imprimatur that comes with knowing in advance that a show’s numbers are drawn from a catalogue of hits.

But are they? In Head Over Heels, Pythio, the newly-appointed non-binary-plural Oracle of Delphi, has two important jobs to do, plotwise, once they are introduced: announce who they are, and make several predictions that will spur the King of Arcadia into action. Additionally, the performer playing Pythio is Peppermint, the first trans femme actor to originate a principal role on Broadway.

If I were assigned to write an original song for Pythio’s introduction, I’d be salivating. I’d want to do everything at once: address this musical’s themes of breaking down stultifying binary categories, while dropping Pythio’s prediction-bombs, while breaking the fourth wall a little to give Peppermint her debut moment, while also giving her and any future Pythios a showstopping number on its own terms. Not easy, but that’s how high I would set my sights. All in song.

What does Head Over Heels give Pythio? Vision of Nowness, from The Go-Go’s 2001 album God Bless.

To summarise: that’s a non-single, a non-hit, from the band’s non-heyday. Are there any nostalgia noms to be had here? Is anyone nostalgic for the Go-Go’s of 2001? But perhaps the song is intrinsically so well-written, and so apropos that it doesn’t matter. The lyrics:

There are some things I must never reveal
About the way I think and what I feel
To the surface, smooth, calm and cool
Eyes as deep and blue as a swimming pool
And I confess with certainty
No interference will get through to me

So far, that’s an ‘I Am’ song, allowing Pythio to announce what they’re like, rather than who they are: long on attitude, and short on specifics (also, are swimming pools really that deep?). The chorus:

Like a picture that’s been painted
And is hanging on the wall
An admired but untouchable
Reflection
A vision of nowness
A vision of now

There is a second verse, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is mostly more attitude, followed by a repeat of the chorus. As far as all the heavy lifting goes – making predictions, explaining who they are, giving Peppermint her moment – all of that is relegated to speech. All of it, and without the compensating factor of occurring in the midst of a beloved song, a nostalgia nom, a summoning of the inner karaoke demon.

Head Over Heels, then, is jukeboxy except when it isn’t. And this Pythio-introduction moment in particular, a crucial turning point in the story early in Act One, behaves nothing like a jukebox: unless you’re a very ardent Go-Go’s fan, the show takes your money and in return plays you a song you don’t already know, and thus cannot possibly already want to hear.

One of the problems of the regular kind of jukebox is that the songs are not, typically, theatrical and, as such, often just flop on the stage like dead fish.

Jesse Green

I vehemently disagree that pop songs flop in a theatrical setting.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

I submit that Green and Vincentelli are both right, depending on the moment, and depending on the song. Vision of Nowness is, I think, a dead fish. Heaven is a Place On Earth, after the knowing laugh summoned by its opening line, does much better. Again, from the critics at Exeunt NYC:

My eye-rolling never quite recovered from the jamming together of “the beat” and “the governing ethos of a Renaissance nation-state” and wrenching the plot to make “Vacation” literal. Conversely, something like the deep irony of throwing “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” into what’s essentially an underground–like, a cave–sex club seemed to me a more successful synchrony.

Loren Noveck

Noveck’s synchrony is akin to what I think Vincentelli means when she says, of pop songs in a theatrical setting, “Their connection to the audience is very different, and so is their connection to a show’s narrative.” But that synchrony, and that plurality of connections, can only happen if you already know the song. Heaven is a Place on Earth, a 1987 bubble-gum worldwide hit, can produce irony in an underground sex club. Vision of Nowness cannot be, except for the most serious fans of The Go-Go’s, anything but a new song.


Which brings me – and really, if you’ve stayed this long, we shall always be friends – to the second part of the title of this post: how will jukebox musicals age? What will happen when there is only a song’s connection to the narrative, and no pre-existing one to the audience?

A world in which no-one knows the songs of ABBA seems inconceivable – and for all their seeming public nonchalance, the members of the band have gone to considerable lengths to keep their songs worming in your ears, serving as producers and executive producers on different incarnations of Mamma Mia!, as well as endorsing Mamma Mia-themed restaurants, and lending their support to ABBA: The Museum (where the audio tour is written by – who else? – Catherine Johnson).

Likewise, thanks to other people whose job it is to keep catalogues prominent and earning, none of us will stop hearing the songs of The Beatles, The Eagles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Queen, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones etc. any time soon.

But there is a jukebox musical with songs are so old that they’re barely known by anyone in their original incarnations. They now have only their present connection to the musical’s narrative, and no original musical nostalgia noms to provoke. Actually, this musical has been around for long enough to develop new musical nostalgia noms of its own. And, like every jukebox show, it was never completely jukeboxy.

My principal criterion for jukebox musicals is do they summon the pleasure we once derived from the works being hymned?

Ben Brantley

It’s Singin’ in the Rain, conceived by MGM producer Arthur Freed as a vehicle for his songwriting catalogue with lyricist Nacio Herb Brown. This was while, conveniently, Freed was head of the unit responsible for making musicals at MGM, but who in hindsight can blame him for having an ego? When the film debuted in 1952, the oldest of its songs dated from 1929, so in terms of nostalgia, this is like writing a jukebox musical today featuring the hits of TLC and Hootie & the Blowfish.

I first saw Singin’ in the Rain on video when I was 17, with my then-girlfriend, who had a serious and entirely justifiable thing for Gene Kelly. After I’d overcome my seething jealousy at Gene’s magnificent butt, I thoroughly enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain, realising I was seeing, in Moses Supposes, Good Morning, Make ’em Laugh, and the title song, some of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed.

But how much did this jukebox musical function like a jukebox for me? Hardly at all. I’d seen snippets of one or two numbers elsewhere, and I knew the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song. Otherwise, this was all new, with none of Brantley’s summoning of pleasures once derived. Moreover, at the time, I didn’t know this film was using a pre-existing catalogue of songs.

But then, how jukeboxy was Singin’ in the Rain for audiences in 1952? Often not, it turns out. Make ’em Laugh, apart from being a brazen ripoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from four years earlier, was a new song credited to screenplay writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. So was Moses Supposes, with music by the film’s musical director Roger Edens. Edens also wrote the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song, so even that part was new to audiences in 1952.

It would be easy to say “Well, of course, Comden and Green came from Broadway, so they wrote theatre numbers where they were needed.” Except they didn’t. Make ’em Laugh takes four minutes, in terms of plot and character, to achieve this:

COSMO: Come on, Don, snap out of it! The show must go on!
DON: You know what? You’re right.

And Moses Supposes takes four minutes to achieve this:

TEACHER: Moses supposes his toeses are roses …
DON + COSMO (mocking flawlessly): But Moses supposes erroneously …
TEACHER: Well, I can see you two don’t need my help.

Elsewhere, pre-existing songs like Good Morning and the title song are written to function as dramatically static celebrations, capping spoken scenes in which plot and character advance and develop. They’re used, in other words, very much like pre-existing pop songs are used in jukebox musicals today.

A modern stage adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain, then, is a revival of a jukebox, a live version of a familiar film, but with none of that film’s original nostalgia available to it. The audience, if they’ve not seen the movie, are a bunch of 17 year-old mes, not thinking about how this narrative has been woven together with the Freed/Brown song catalogue, but rather about how these songs work – or fail to work – on their own terms.

And a similar fate, eventually, awaits every jukeboxy show.


Jukeboxy-ness is often bewailed, especially by those of us who write original songs, as an affliction, a modern-day blight brought on by risk-averse producers. For what it’s worth, I think it’s more a symptom than a disease: with tickets to a Broadway musical now costing $113 dollars, on average, including the flops, who can blame audiences for wanting to be soothed with familiarity? (An orchestra seat for Carousel in 1945 would have cost you, in today’s money, about $70.)

Elsewhere, shows with original scores but familiar titles and storylines (Mean Girls, Pretty Woman) demonstrate jukeboxy-ness of a different kind: here is a show that takes your money and in return tells you a story you already know, and (presumably) want to hear again, in musical form.

And sometimes, (I whisper this, Frozen and Greatest Showman) those original songs written for original stories sound so much like pre-existing songs that I still feel like I’m hearing a jukebox show.

In 1945, for my $70 or so, Carousel would have presented me, amongst other things, with a seven-and-a-half minute solo number near the end of Act One, slightly pretentiously entitled Soliloquy, and like nothing I’d have heard before, advancing plot, developing character, establishing a star, all in song, and throwing down a challenge for every composer and lyricist to come. None of it familiar, none of it soothing – and part of a score that, for all of Carousel‘s other problems, remains the chief reason it’s revived today.

Not bad for $70. And jukeboxy-ness, for all its charms, can’t do it.

Scene: Me and Sir Tim Rice, rewriting ‘Chess’

A spacious lounge room, wooden floor, old, weathered furniture. SIR TIM, attractively rumpled,  is in an armchair, watching something on a laptop computer. ME enters, pulling a script and another laptop from a satchel, a little too keen.

Me: (setting up) Morning, Sir Tim. Day 1, ay? I’ve got the 1990 Sydney script here.

Sir Tim: (pausing the video) Where on earth did you get that? And please, it’s Tim.

Me: Tim! Great. Well, I know people, Tim. Chorus-folk. They hoard stuff.

Tim: (of the video) So are these just sitting there on YouTube? All these versions, out in the open?

Me: Yep, until someone takes one down, and someone else puts it up again. People bloody love that score.

Tim: I know, I know. Every time we do a concert version, it’s “Oh, those songs … shame about the book.” And they look at me as though someone else wrote it.

Me: Could be worse. Could be the other way around.

Tim: What no-one seems to understand, though, is that it’s not just the dialogue.

Me: No, no, it is just the dialogue, Tim, I’m sure of it. We tweak a little here, move a bit there, make everyone nicer –

Tim: (Of the script) May I see that?

ME hands it over.

Tim: (reading) I’d forgotten this. Director’s note: “Chess is virtually unique among modern musicals, in being neither nostalgic nor a period costume drama.” Well, I suppose it is now.

Me: Let’s talk love triangle: Freddie, Florence, Anatoly. Go. Hit the musical beats for me.

Tim: Tea first? Coffee?

Me: I’ve had four already. Love triangle. Beats.

Tim: (reading, sighs) “One or two less mistakes.” It should be fewer.

Me: What? No, no, don’t change ‘The Story of Chess’. People bloody love that song. Get to Freddie and Florence.

Tim: Righto. (leafing) Arbiter announces where we are, who everyone is – dear God, the exposition! The clunking of it. Freddie is this, Florence is that, blah blah blah. Have we another version?

Me: I thought you’d like that one! It’s yours.

Tim: How about the latest fan version?

Me: (swivelling laptop to show) I’d say Wayne Rossi is a bit more than a fan. This is from 2015.

Tim: (reading from screen) Prologue with little Florence and her father, then the lullaby. So two prologues, really. Then Freddie at  – ah, yes, a press conference! Refuge of the destitute. Probably my idea.

Me: Stop being so hard on yourself! It gets the job done. Now, give me love triangle.

TIM stands up and begins pacing.

Tim: No matter which version we’re talking about, when we meet Freddie and Florence, they’re together, after a fashion, and they bicker a lot, sometimes in song.

Me: (typing) Great. One side of the triangle.

Tim: Then, when Anatoly meets Florence, he calls her nice and civilised.

Me: (nodding) Yes, yes. ‘Model of Decorum and Tranquility’. People love that song.

Tim: Later, Florence and Freddie fight after Freddie misbehaves at the first chess match, and – most of the time – Florence sings ‘Nobody’s Side’.

Me: (typing madly now) That’s the one, baby! Goddamn best keyboard riff, makes me want to climb halfway up a staircase to nowhere and stick one hip out. I bloody love that song.

Tim: (undistracted) And in it, Florence sings “the one I should not think of keeps running through my mind” – which I’ve always felt was a bit rich, because all Anatoly has done is treat her with politeness and respect, while Freddie’s been a complete twat. I mean, these are her options?

Me: No, you’re doing great. Second side of the triangle, done.

Tim: Well, then the third side follows almost immediately in the Mountain Duet. Freddie doesn’t show up, and Florence and Anatoly discover they like each other, and sing about it. Then they kiss.

Me: Boom. Three sides, triangle sorted. OK, so let’s just look at the dialogue –

Tim stops pacing.

Tim: See, this is my point, though. It’s not just the dialogue, because it’s all book, all of it. Having a Hungarian prologue, a press conference at the start, the fact that Freddie’s surname is Trumper. God-awful, what was I thinking? The decision not to show Florence and Freddie in love. We’re supposed to care that Florence is thinking of leaving Freddie, but really, who wouldn’t? We never learn what she likes about him, so good riddance, Yank. And then, a couple of compliments from the only man onstage who isn’t a right bastard, and she’s snogging away! That’s all book. I could rewrite every line, I could stop pretending that Persia rhymes with inertia, and none of that would change. Bloody hell, I’ve got a woman singing about seeing her “present partner in the imperfect tense”! Is this someone on the horns of a dilemma, making grammar puns? It doesn’t even make sense!

Me: Don’t you say a word against ‘Nobody’s Side’. That’s a solid-gold hit!

Tim: It’s a bloody albatross around my neck! Nearly as bad as ‘One Night in Bangkok’. This show is supposed to be a love triangle with the Cold War in the background, but instead it’s pallid jokes about the Cold War with a love triangle in the background. No, the only way to fix this is to cut some songs –

Me: No!

Tim: Yes! Cut some songs and write some new ones. That’s what you do when you rewrite the book, you rewrite the score too. Because it’s all book.

Me: But –

Tim: All of it is the book!

A pause. Me is aghast, adrift.

Me: But –

A long pause.

Tim: I know. People bloody love that score.

Tim slumps back into the armchair. Me quietly closes his laptop. Slow blackout.

Bridging The Gap

The second of Trevor Jones’s posts about Oz musicals – in particular, about how they get written, but often don’t get far.

MT Vocal Coach

Transferring original musicals to commercial production

In response to my first article, Craig Donnell, an Executive Producer for the Gordon Frost Organisation, commented on Facebook (with permission to share):

“I support your push for more local content but perhaps you are looking to the wrong people to do the heavy lifting?  Commercial producers are just that, commercial producers – they produce what they believe the public wants to see.  […]  There are numerous organisations around the country who receive funding to develop local content – are they playing their part?  Greater collaboration between those organisations with the advice and experience of commercial producers may prove part of the solution. […] If you want to see Australian content on the main stage touring the big houses then it has to appeal to the wider audience otherwise it will always be constrained to the small stages of pro/am and subsidised theatre –…

View original post 1,086 more words

New Australian Musicals? Here They Are!

Trevor Jones has been writing about the Australian musical, and getting deserved praise on facebook and such. Happily, he’s now started a blog.

MT Vocal Coach

Since my last article, there has been a lot of discussion about the current state of Australian musical theatre. This discussion is certainly not new, with some debate sparked in early 2015 by John Senczuk’s platform paper ‘The Time is Ripe for The Great Australian Musical’. Recently, I was invited to speak on ABC Radio Sydney Mornings with Wendy Harmer and Radio National Drive with Patricia Karvelas, showing that there may now be a growing public interest in the wider community about Australian musicals. It is also clear that the remainder of 2017 sees the development and premiere of many new Australian Musicals which may herald some progress towards major commercial productions.

Today (7th July) sees the premiere of Joh for P.M. (pictured above), a new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This production is a collaboration between a theatre (Brisbane Powerhouse)…

View original post 980 more words

All The All Things The You Things Are You Are

I wrote a canon, to the changes of ‘All The Things You Are’ – I thought it might be a fun challenge, because its chord progression shifts to so many different tonal centres.

This is a strict imitative canon, at one bar’s remove, which means whatever I write for one bar has to fit over the chord of the next bar as well. This is not too hard for, say, Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7, but it’s a bit trickier for Dbmaj7 – G7 – Cmaj7.

Oh, and every bar has to harmonise prettily with the bar before it. I could have done much jazzier harmonies, but I set myself the challenge of lots of pretty thirds and sixths.

A Collection of Chandler Songs

Sometimes you might want to emphasise the word ‘be’. Here’s a famous instance:

To be or not to be that is the question

Nice work from Shakespeare there, letting the iambs do their job of emphasising the important words.

Imagine, by way of contrast, this line, set to music:

I want to be free.

Imagine, as a songwriter, which syllables you might emphasise in this line, through your choices of pitch and rhythm.

I want to be free.

I WANT to be free.

I want to be FREE.

These are all good possibilities. This next one is, I think, not – if you do this, you’ve written what I call a Chandler song:

I want to BE free.

Rules of the Chandler Song Game

1. Modern pop songs don’t count. Scansion is not amongst their chief concerns.
2. If, as in the Shakespeare example, the emphasis is intentional, Chandler-status will not be granted.

As an example of Rule 2, witness this doggerel at the end of With One Look, from Sunset Boulevard:

This time I’m staying
I’m staying for good,
I’ll be back where I was born to BE
With one look, I’ll be me

Although that’s awful, it’s intentional, and the song is not a Chandler song.

(Sidebar: ‘WITH one look’? Not ‘with ONE look’, or ‘with one LOOK‘? Why emphasise the preposition, Don Black? Or is it Amy Powers?)

Also, this, from Tim Rice, gets a reluctant pass …

I want to BE a part of B A, Buenos Aires, Big Apple

… because Eva is using emphasis to make a pun.

(Sidebar: why is Eva making a pun?)

3. Other verb forms will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Also from Evita, there’s the perfect infinitive form:

You let down your people, Evita,
You were supposed to have BEEN immortal

It’s Chandleresque, but it’s not enough for a Chandler song. (Don’t worry, Tim Rice will have his moment later.)

Some Chandler Songs, In No Particular Order

Your cares and troubles are gone
There’ll BE no more from now on

– Jack Yellen, Happy Days Are Here Again, from the film Chasing Rainbows.

Sometimes I wish I could BE more like you

– Michael Korie and Amy Power, Two Worlds, from Doctor Zhivago.

It shall BE completely criminal for a man to break a date

– the generally impeccable Sheldon Harnick, Marie’s Law, from Fiorello!.

It’ll BE so quiet, that who’ll come by it

But a seaside wedding could BE devised.

– the generally impeccable Stephen Sondheim, By the Sea, from Sweeney Todd.

Just stay alive, that would BE enough (six times!)

Let this moment BE the first chapter

– Lin-Manuel Miranda, That Would Be Enough, from Hamilton.

OK, I fibbed about the order, because here, as promised, is my choice for grand champion. It wins because it’s a question:

Did you know your messy death would BE a record-breaker?

– Tim Rice, Superstar, from Jesus Christ Superstar.

A Note to Lyricists, on Behalf of the Word “Behalf”

“Behalf” is a handy little word, and lyricists like it because because it rhymes with “laugh”:

I’d like to say a word in her behalf
Maria makes me laugh

That’s Oscar Hammerstein, in The Sound of Music.

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features,
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of celebrated heads of state
Or ‘specially great communicators …
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!

And that’s “Popular”, obviously, from Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz.

The world stands still
On my behalf
And I find that I’m in love
With Lucy’s laugh

And that’s “Lucy’s Laugh”, lyric by Christopher Dimond, from the song cycle Homemade Fusion.

Of these three, only Hammerstein gets it right. “In her behalf” means “in her favour” or “for her benefit”. “On their own behalf” means while acting as their representative, and “on my behalf” means the world stood still because I was going to do it, but I got held up by traffic or something.

Schwartz and Dimond mean “for their/my benefit”, but of course, that doesn’t rhyme. I suppose you could argue that Galinda makes the error, not Schwartz, but I don’t buy it.

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The Dancin’ Quodlibet (plus Ideas for the Future)

So far, I’ve looked at two kinds of musical theatre quodlibet. Just to reiterate, these are instances when melodies previously heard are reprised, but simultaneously. Quodlibets are a specific instance of counterpoint, and I’ve covered The Berlin Quodlibet, which has two or more different melodies written to the same chord progression, and The West Side Quodlibet, in which melodies that were written to different chord progressions are reprised, but some are altered enough to fit the chords of just one of them.

If you’re kind of mathsy, you may have already spotted the missing combination yourself: is there a quodlibet featuring melodies written to different chord progressions that are later combined without altering any notes?

I know of only one, and it’s …

Dancin‘ (John Farrar, Xanadu)

Yes, Xanadu, which is on nobody’s list of great theatre scores, features the only example I know of, by John Farrar, who is on nobody’s list of great theatre songwriters. But he was – yay! – born in Australia.

Dancin‘ combines two characters’ vision of what a disused auditorium could become once renovated: Danny McGuire sees a ballroom with a ’40s style big band in tuxedos, while Sonny Malone imagines an ’80s nightclub with a synth/rock band in electric orange. Their two visions combine, visually and musically.

Normally, given this kind of writing assignment, a pop/rock writer like John Farrar would do a good job of the ’80s band, and utterly botch the ’40s swing. But instead I think he hits it out of the park. I’m using the original film version (because it’s better: the stage version truncates matters badly), and here’s the relevant part of Farrar’s Andrews Sisters-esque chord progression and melody. This is just the top sister, if you will – naturally, the underlying harmony sisters would have to change their tune if the chord progression changed:

dancin1_0019

All those ninths and thirteenths are exactly the right sort of harmonic flavour for the period being evoked (unlike the anachronistic grinding choreography in the clip I linked to: what a dirty-old-man’s vision that Danny McGuire is having). Here’s what the ’80s rock band sings, to a very pop/rock chord progression – no ninths or thirteenths here:

dancin2_0020

But look at this! Without needing to change a single note, the Andrews Sisters tune can be sung with the rock/pop progression:

dancin3_0018

Actually, there’s one tiny pick-up note that does need to change, by a mere semitone, but even so, this is very neat. I can’t really defend Farrar’s lyrics in the pop/rock verses – they just sound like threats of sexual assault – but musically, I’d rather listen to Dancin‘ than to many other quodlibets by bigger music theatre names. And please, tell me if there are other quodlibets like it that I’ve missed, because I don’t know of any.

Which leads me to …

Ideas for the Future

A word of warning for all of these ideas: since quodlibets link different songs together, they can really kick you in the teeth during rewrites. Sure, you’re cool with changing the big Act One finale, but dammit, now you have to go back and rewrite three other songs to be heard in counterpoint during the bloody thing. No wonder Claude-Michel Schönberg stuck to one of music’s most easygoing chord progressions.

1. The Double Dancin’ Quodlibet

Just like Dancin‘, except there are three tunes, written to three different chord progressions, and they still fit together later on. Hell, if I were attempting this, it might be fun to combine the three tunes over a fourth, as-yet-unheard chord progression.

As for why you’d do this, let’s see: three people who turn out to be related, maybe? Or one character, played by three different actors, at three different but related points in her life?

2. The Diminished/Augmented Quodlibet

Augmentation and diminution involve lengthening or shortening the rhythmic values of a melody, usually by a factor of two. They’re bread and butter techniques to a Baroque-era composer, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them in musical theatre, and I think they could be fun in a quodlibet.

You’d need a dramatic justification, obviously, and you’d have to keep whatever rhythm you were playing recognisable, or the trick wouldn’t work. But pretend one character was very wound up at some earlier point, and sang a very wound-up melody. Then they had a night of passion, maybe, or took pills, or went on a spa retreat, so now we hear their melody again, over the top of their lover’s, or dealer’s, or massage therapist’s, but at half speed. Bonus points if the melody reveals hidden melodic depths at half speed, a la the delightful contrafactum Seventy-Six Trombones/Goodnight My Someone.

Change the pills, and maybe we hear the tune at double speed.

3. The One-Person Quodlibet

Here’s a snippet of a compound melody for cello, by a fellow named J. S. Bach:

compound1_0018

Bach doesn’t present this as two separate melodies first, but he could have, since it’s a combination of:

compound2_0018

Thus, a singer could sing one melody first, followed by the other, followed by a One-Person Quodlibet. For an added thrill, the two sets of lyrics could join up and make sense in a different way once combined. Even Bach never did that.

Reasons for this? J. Pierrepont Finch sings to himself in the mirror in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and his mirror self could sing back. Sid Sorokin sings a duet with his dictaphone in The Pajama Game. Guido tries, and nearly manages, to sing a duet with himself in Nine. A precedent is clearly established for men who are pretty full of themselves. Maybe it’s time to let a female character have a crack at it?

4. The Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen

This one actually exists, but sort of by accident, in Hamilton. Dear Theodosia begins with Aaron Burr’s song to his daughter, followed by Hamilton’s different melody over the same chords to his son. Before the show moved to Broadway, those two melodies used to combine in a quodlibet, which – pace, Hamilton fans – you could hear coming a mile away, because Dear Theodosia is very pretty, but its chord progression is kinda hokey.

Now, forever enshrined on the Original Cast Recording, is a Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen, and whoever had that idea, they were wise. We know Hamilton and Burr are joined by destiny, thanks to the first song in the show, and subsequent songs, and staging, and motifs, and word choices etc., so there’s no need for the two melodies to over-egg the pudding at this point. Instead, we get another musical bond between the two men, but implied rather than stated outright.

I admit it would take modesty and restraint to make one of these quodlibets on purpose, since one of the reasons you write a quodlibet in the first place is to show off a bit. And I’ll also admit you could probably only make one of these work in the audience’s mind if the two chord progressions were the same. Who knows, maybe it would only work if the progression’s kinda hokey?

[EDIT: One week after I posted this, another Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen popped up and I’ve added it in the comments. These things may be all around us, people!]

5. The Ashman Quodlibet

There are two famous quodlibet opening numbers: Tradition, from Fiddler on the Roof, and All That Jazz, from Chicago. They’re both Berlin Quodlibets; Jerry Bock in particular has a ball inventing more and more tunes that can be played over Fiddler‘s fiddler’s leitmotif. They’re also sung by characters who are all in agreement, more or less, whether they’re detailing the traditions of life in Anatevka, or all the hi-jinks in store for Chicago’s town-painters.

But there’s a particular kind of opening number described by Jack Viertel in his Secret Life of the American Musical (a good read, by the way, if you’re interested in structure, and to be avoided if you think ‘secret’ means gossip), and he associates it with lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman. It’s the kind of opening number Ashman structured for Beauty and the Beast: the audience is introduced to the world of the musical, and in the middle of that world there is a main character who has a contrasting ‘I Want’ moment, as opposed to a separate ‘I Want’ song later.

Ashman’s not the only writer who likes this kind of opening: Marc Shaiman’s clearly a fan, having co-written structurally near-identical songs for the openings of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hairspray. There’s also a proto-version at the start of Li’l Abner: A Typical Day introduces the audience to the citizens of Dogpatch, and briefly to Daisy Mae, who wants Abner. But Ashman seems a worthy man to name a quodlibet after, not least because what I’m proposing nearly – nearly – happens at the start of Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop has a Berlin Quodlibet moment towards the end of Skid Row, when Seymour starts up a new tune (“Someone show me a way to get outta here”), which turns out to be a countermelody to the song’s main refrain (“Downtown …” etc). By this point Seymour has already had his introduction as a main character (“Poor, all my life I’ve always been poor …”) and so has Audrey (“Downtown, where the guys are drips …”). As for the tunes of these introductory moments, Audrey’s is the same as everyone else’s, and Seymour’s is not used again.

So, I’m not advocating any rewrites to Skid Row, but what if instead, to use Little Shop as a hypothetical model, we got this?

A section. Skid Row and its lousiness introduced

B. Seymour and Audrey introduced in contrasting sections, with their own melodies and harmony, perhaps according to their I Wants.

A. More lousy Skid Row, building to …

A+B. Big finish: Seymour and Audrey sing their introductory parts at the same time as the A section. Surprise! It was a quodlibet all along.

All other ideas gratefully accepted. Also, any types of quodlibets I’ve missed, because nobody knows every score.