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?

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.

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The West Side Quodlibet

In the previous post on this topic, I looked at what I call The Berlin Quodlibet, which works like this:

Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This post is about

The West Side Quodlibet

… which works like this:

One Melody’s Chord Progression Calls the Shots; All Other Melodies Fall Into Line

I’ll admit that One Day More, from Les Miserables, is probably the best-known example of this type of quodlibet, but West Side Story came first, and One Day More has a guilty secret, which I’ll get to.

Tonight Quintet (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story)

The melody for Tonight has already been heard in its entirety earlier in Act One, as a balcony love duet between Tony and Maria (I’m using the stage score, not the film’s, by the way):

westside1_0003

Bernstein begins the quintet version of Tonight with very different melodic shapes, accompanied by very different harmonies.

westside2_0013

and, later:

westside3_0017

As you can see, I’ve given up trying to reduce Bernstein’s harmonic accompaniment to a mere chord symbol. You can’t, really, because at this point the composer is doing some very jazzy things, naturals and sharps happily clashing, the bass line’s rhythm grouped in three against four. It doesn’t matter, though; all that matters is the harmonies are very different from those of the balcony duet. Keep your eyes on those punchy groups of notes I’ve highlighted in blue and red. They’ll be back.

Once the Riff/Jet and Bernardo/Shark motifs are established, Anita sings them in her own slinky way, before Tony pops up and reprises the melody heard earlier on the balcony with Maria. And he reprises it exactly – no quodlibet trickery yet – before Riff reminds him to turn up to the rumble, to the tune of the first melody in the quintet (the one above, with the blue notes).

Then the fun starts. It’s Maria’s turn to sing the balcony tune, but as she does, Tony and Riff keep singing the rumble motifs established earlier, but – and this the crucial ingredient of the West Side Quodlibet – their motifs are shifted up and down to fit the balcony tune’s chord progression:

westside6_0013

That’s it. That’s all there is to the West Side Quodlibet.

Actually, no, I’m lying, that’s really the easy part. What Bernstein does, and does very well, is manipulate the rising tension and increasingly contrapuntal texture throughout the rest of the quintet, all while sticking to the one chord progression. He even gets away with this:

westanita_0014

That’s Anita, singing an altered version of the blue-coloured motif Riff sang at the start of this quintet, right-side-up, and then again, with the ending upside down. It works because Bernstein understands an important element of jogging your memory with a previously-heard tune:

The Rhythm Matters More Than the Intervals

If you’re repeating material, you can change a minor third to a major third, or you can flatten this and sharpen that, and I probably won’t even notice. But if you mess with the rhythm too much, there’s a good chance I’ll no longer recognise the thing you’re counting on me to recognise. And without that feeling of recognition, a quodlibet isn’t doing its job.

Bernstein also has fun introducing completely new material, including my favourite bit, which happens at the same time as Anita’s part above:

westanitaplus_0014

One last point that might seem pedantic, but I think it’s important: by having Anita sing these motifs on her own near the beginning of the piece, Bernstein and Sondheim give her musical permission to join in on those motifs later. As you’ll see, in One Day More from Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schönberg isn’t quite so scrupulous.

One Day More (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer etc etc etc, Les Miserables)

Here’s a bass line built from a descending major scale, and one set of chords you could choose to put over the top:

lesmisbass_0014

When a bass line descends like this over just the first four notes, and is given a chord for every note, it’s often called a lament bass, and there are many famous examples. Since the minor key version of this is called a minor lament, from now on, even though it doesn’t strictly have a chord for every note, I’m going to call the above major key version a major lament.

Several of the songs in Les Miserables are … wait for it … major laments. The bass line and chord progression are first heard, almost completely, as the instrumental introduction to At the End of the Day, and the first time they accompany a song is in Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream:

lesmisdream_0014

I Dreamed a Dream also has a B section, or bridge (“But the tigers come at night …”), which features a different chord progression and melody. Schönberg will use this B section in One Day More, and add some pretty answering phrases for Marius and Cosette, but he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

The major lament next turns up in Jean Valjean’s Who Am I? (strictly, Cart Crash, but seriously, who calls it that?):

lesmiswho_0015

You may notice, in this different key, that the chords aren’t strictly identical, but trust me, this is the same chord progression and bass line. Anyone who tells you there’s a fundamental difference in pop/rock between, say, B and B6, needs to get out more. Also, like I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I? has an extra section, a tag at the end (“He gave me hope when hope was gone …”), which Schönberg will use right at the end of One Day More, but again, he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

A brief reprise of the major lament occurs when Marius meets Cosette – his first words to her are to the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – and then a few minutes later, Javert sings Stars, which is an almost identical major lament. But Stars isn’t used in One Day More, so I’ll skip it for now.

Then, at last, it’s quodlibet time in One Day More. It should come as no surprise that all these tunes, written to the same chord progression, can be played (according to the rules of the Berlin Quodlibet) at the same time.

Jean Valjean begins with the tune he sang earlier in Who Am I? Marius and Cosette join in with the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – remember, Marius was given access to it earlier? – and from here on the chord progression becomes that of I Dreamed a Dream, with key changes, until the very last bars.

Next, Eponine sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream, while Marius and Cosette sing those pretty answering phrases I mentioned. Now, I have no idea how Eponine knows the bridge to I Dreamed a Dream, but it doesn’t matter, because now Enjolras bursts on to the stage and he sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream as well! It’s thrilling and dramatic, and musically it makes no sense. Where did he pick it up? We’ll never know.

After a thumping good key change, Javert gets a crack at things, but he doesn’t sing Stars; instead he sings a leitmotif that is by now associated with him, the police and the law. It was first sung by the constables who arrested Valjean when he nicked the silver from the Bishop of Digne, and also by Monsieur Bamatabois, the prissy bastard who had his face scratched by Fantine. Javert’s first rendition of it:

onedayjav_0016

is altered to fit the major lament (otherwise this might all be an enormous Berlin Quodlibet, but at this point it becomes a West Side Quodlibet). Schönberg even shifts Javert to a different beat of the bar, but it still works a treat because, like Bernstein, Schönberg knows that rhythm matters more than intervals:

onejav2_0016

And the Thenardiers join in, too, with a chunk of the chorus from their signature tune, Master of the House, which needs no altering.

Now it’s time for the bridge from I Dreamed a Dream again, and by now all of Paris knows it. But there are still no quodlibet moments within this section! The quodlibet moments have, so far, been reserved exclusively for the major lament. By now, even if all of this is new to you, you have probably guessed One Day More‘s guilty secret. It is this:

Thousands of Tunes Fit This Chord Progression

So, as we approach another key change, and Marius chooses his bros over a girl, the major lament kicks in again, and everyone repeats their bits, except for Eponine, who gets this, which is frankly piss-weak:

oneeponine_0018

This strikes me as an opportunity missed. Javert could sing Stars. Eponine could start singing On My Own, with a couple of tweaks, even though it’s from Act Two, and even though the song hadn’t been written yet when One Day More was composed (the tune was Fantine’s – it’s complicated).

I’ll go further: Javerts of the world! Eponines all! Next time you’re at this bar, rehearsal letter F in your scores, I want to hear this:

Marius: My place is here, I fight with yoooooooouuuuuuuu …

Jean Valjean: One-

Eponine: ON MY –

Javert: THEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRREEE!

Eponine: OOOOOOOWWWNNNNNN!

Yes, it’s in a high belty key, but you’ll enjoy that. And think what a fun surprise it will be for your musical director.

Featured Image -- 6309

Speed the Plow review, or, why does the theatre hate me this year?

I like reading Cassie Tongue’s theatre criticism; it helps that I agree with her, particularly about where musicals need to get to, most particularly here in Australia.

She’s brave and smart and generous, and there’s very little return in it. Good on her.

cassie tongue

I love the theatre. I’ve loved it for a very long time and I’ve been writingaboutit for several years now as a critic. I love it anew every time I sit down and wait for that hush before the play starts – the promise of something real, something revelatory, that incredible power of the form to tell us something new we’ve always felt, but never quite could put our finger on. Or those times it blows us apart, smashes us open, and remakes us into better humans. I love that.

I just wish the theatre loved me back.

Last night I attended the opening night of Speed-the-Plow, Andrew Upton’s production in the Roslyn Packer theatre. It was a homecoming of sorts, starring Rose Byrne (in the Madonna/Lindsay Lohan role), and that was a hard piece of marketing and casting to resist.

I saw Byrne in an STC…

View original post 1,507 more words

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – (and How to Write Your Own)

This is going to be a pretty geeky series of posts, with a necessary amount of music theory included, but, I hope, no more than necessary.

There’ll be three parts, dedicated to what I’m calling The Berlin Quodlibet, The West Side Quodlibet, and The Dancin’ Quodlibet (this last will contain Ideas For the Future).

Terminology first: in music, generally, a quodlibet (from the Latin, meaning “what pleases”, and it’s pronounced just as it looks) occurs any time previously-heard melodies are played at the same time. In musical theatre, specifically, the word has come to mean the practice of laying out one vocal melody first, followed by another vocal melody later, only to reveal, finally, that these melodies work when sung together.

As for my use of that key word – that the melodies ‘work’ – I desire much from a musical theatre quodlibet. I desire that:

  1. The melodies please, individually.
  2. The melodies please even more when combined.
  3. I can’t hear it coming.
  4. The revelation has some dramatic function.

A quick note: we’re not talking here about little moments of counterpoint, because while all quodlibets employ counterpoint, not all instances of counterpoint qualify as a quodlibet. We’re also not talking about leitmotifs, although – as you’ll see in the later Les Misérables example – leitmotifs are sometimes used in quodlibets, as if to announce “Hey, remember this person’s tune? It fits over this other one!”

Lastly, we’re not talking about what’s known as the Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number. Some of those are quodlibets, but not all are.

So, I’m going to lay out the main types of musical theatre quodlibets and how they work. After that, I’m going to suggest some types I haven’t heard yet, and hope everyone gets to work writing them.

The Berlin Quodlibet

(aka Double Song, or Counterpoint Song) – Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This is probably, in most people’s minds, the classic form of the musical theatre quodlibet: You’re Just in Love, from Call Me Madam is a witty and graceful example. Irving Berlin writes to this chord progression:

quodlibet_0005

If you know your harmony, you’ll recognise right away that this is simply a long stretch of tonic, moving away to the dominant. After this, the next eight bars sit on the dominant, before returning to the tonic. If this is technobabble to you, don’t worry: the most important thing to know is that Berlin has given himself, with these chord choices, a vast range of options for melody-writing.

Over this chord progression, Berlin writes two complementary melodies – longer phrases with a wide range for the lovesick Kenneth Gibson, and shorter, syncopated phrases with a smaller range for Kenneth’s brash boss Sally Adams. Here’s an excerpt of the full 32 bars:

quodlibet2_0005

Students of strict Renaissance polyphony might look at these two melodies and wonder: are those seconds and ninths between D and E a problem? Are those diminished fifths and augmented fourths displeasing to the ear?

No, they’re not. Apart from their regular use in almost every form of music for the last hundred years (you’ll probably hear them a dozen times today), those little dissonances – by Renaissance standards – simply don’t register as long as they’re not exposed, and as long as the rhythm of the melody carries the listener’s ear forward. Trust me, you can get away with things that would have killed Fux if your two tunes fit the underlying chord progression.

Hallmarks of the Berlin Approach

Berlin was especially good at these kinds of quodlibets, which is why I think we should name them after him. There’s a comprehensive list of his output here, including several he composed over tunes not his own. If you’re planning to write a Berlin quodlibet, you could do a lot worse than follow the kind of example he sets in You’re Just In Love, because:

1. The chord progression allows for melodic freedom. With the exception of Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil, which is pretty bluesy, Berlin used the same chords for all his most famous quodlibets (I, ii, IV, V, I7, II7, and the occasional passing diminished chord). These chords might seem like, as the lyrics for Play a Simple Melody put it, good old-fashioned harmony, but they allowed Berlin the freedom to write two thumping good tunes.

2. The melodies have individual character, before they’re combined. In You’re Just In Love, Sally sounds like Sally, even without her lyrics, and Kenneth sounds like Kenneth. You couldn’t sensibly swap their tunes. Then, with their lyrics added, their characters are even further enhanced. Sally gets most of the consonants, in “pitter-patter” and “pleasant ache”, and Kenneth gets most of the open vowel endings, in “trees are bare” and “I wonder why”. Berlin combined similarly romantic and jazzy melodies earlier, with Play a Simple Melody, and again later, with An Old-Fashioned Wedding.

3. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Look at how beautifully the two melodies in You’re Just In Love give each other room, rhythmically and harmonically. The phrases start and end on different beats, and when longer notes are held, the other melody uses different degrees of the accompanying chord (for example, while a bar of G to G6 is happening, Kenneth holds a long b, while Sally sings e, d and g). Thus, to hear these two tunes together is to hear more than just two tunes piled one of top of the other.

4. There’s a dramatic point to the quodlibet. You’re Just in Love doesn’t represent a major turning point in its parent musical (the song was a late addition to the show), but nevertheless, Kenneth poses a question, Sally answers it, and their friendship is strengthened, all through song.

Even in 1914’s Play a Simple Melody, when a dramatic point was not the point, the ingenue (Ernesta Hardacre – no, really) yearns for songs of the past, before Algy Cuffs (true, I promise) demands up-to-date ragtime; the quodlibet then points out that we can all have both, at the same time, and harmoniously.

In 1966’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Frank Butler predicts, in An Old-Fashioned Wedding, that he’ll vow to love Annie Oakley forever, while she’ll “vow to love and honor and obey”. When his part is combined with Annie’s their two sets of lyrics match up: her line “love and honor, yes, but not obey” follows immediately after Frank’s. They’re arguing, good-naturedly, in song, and Berlin must have planned this beforehand, musically and lyrically. It seems effortless; it’s kind of wonderful.

Some Other Berlin Quodlibets, Not Necessarily By Irving Berlin

Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil (Irving Berlin, Music Box Revue 1922-23)

The two individual melodies in this number are fun, but the second has, I think, a weak moment:

Nothin’ on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin’ with his jazz band
And
His
Band
Came from Alabam’ with a melody hot …

On its own, that part doesn’t hang together for me. It sounds like a mere counter-melody, and its purpose isn’t revealed until the two melodies are combined. When combined, since both tunes are pretty busy, they really tumble over one another, except for in this section I’ve cited, where they interlock nicely. The effect of the whole number is that of a patter song, with the point being to dazzle the audience by reprising the two melodies at lightning speed. As for surprise, I didn’t hear the quodlibet coming the first time I heard the song. Dramatic function? Not really applicable, since this song is from a revue. The two singers express the same sentiment: Hell is a pretty jazzy place.

All For the Best (Stephen Schwartz, Godspell)

Schwartz, only in his early 20s when he wrote this gem, had clearly been paying attention. The two melodies have great individual character, and the surprise of the quodlibet is heightened by presenting the first tune, on its first outing, colla voce – it’s in tempo only when reprised. That’s clever stuff, and it really got me the first time I heard it. When combined, the two vocal lines sit on different parts of the accompanying chords, and are rhythmically complementary as well. As if all this were not sufficiently impressive, the two singers express different attitudes (Jesus sings about heaven as the ultimate reward, while Judas rails against earthly inequality), during a number that itself functions as a major turning point in Godspell. In any story of the Christ, there’s got to be a point where the tone darkens. After this song, we reach that point.

You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

I know, it’s heresy to criticise anything in the score for this show, but I’m going for it: I’ve never really cared for this quodlibet. There, I said it.

Dramatically, the song is everything you could ask for: the two young couples make predictions about their rosy futures together, futures that we in the audience know will be distinctly thorny. Sally, part of one young couple, is really in love with Ben, who’s part of the other couple, so there’s a good reason for the tunes to intertwine with one another in this love square.

Lyrically, both refrains are wordy, nifty pastiches expressing similar, cheery sentiments. Rhythmically, when they combine, it’s chaotic, but this is the start of a section in the show where everyone loses their minds, so that’s an apt choice.

Musically, the accompaniment is identical, and in the same key. This is not a quodlibet that’s trying to surprise you, and the first time I heard it, I thought “Ah, here we go. These’ll be in counterpoint later.”

So where’s the problem? I even like the two individual melodies well enough, individually. The problem, for me, is when they’re combined.

Here’s the melody for the refrain of ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’:

you're gonna_0001Sondheim’s accompanying harmonies for these eight bars are Gbmaj9 for four bars, followed by two bars each of Ab13 and Db9, with the occasional passing chord. If this means nothing to you, remember only this: the above melody sits mostly on the major seventh and sixth of the first chord, the root of the second, and the root and ninth of the third.

Here’s the melody for ‘Love Will See Us Through’:

love will_0001Now, where does this second melody sit, predominately, on those same chords? The major seventh and sixth of the first chord! Then the ninth of the second, followed by a phrase ending on the ninth of the third. This is the effect, to my ear, of combining these two melodies:

SAME SAME SAME SAME NEEDLESS CLASH BRIEF INTEREST SAME.

“But Peter,” your inner dramaturg might object, “this is the genius of that song! The tunes are too similar, just as the couples’ woes are too similar! The tunes needlessly clash just as these couples needlessly clash!”

Nah. Sondheim is too well-schooled a musician not to have intended the effect, but I don’t think it works, melodically. Melodically, this quodlibet deprives its audience of one of the chief pleasures of a quodlibet: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s two tunes piled one on top of the other. I can appreciate the mechanics of the effort, but I feel no thrill.

Who’s That Woman? (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

Whereas the equivalent moment in this number, from earlier in the very same musical, has always thrilled me. The two tunes (the second might be titled ‘Mirror, Mirror’) don’t work together as a quodlibet for their entire respective lengths, and upon their reprise the singers revert to ‘Whose That Woman’ wherever the combination would come a melodic cropper.

But before that happens, there’s a full refrain of ‘Who’s That Woman’, after which ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is introduced in a different tempo and key – a deft way of hiding its quodlibet potential. A long dance break follows, and in Michael Bennett’s original staging, the older female ensemble are mirrored by their ghostly younger selves. It builds, and builds, (honestly, if you’ve not seen the reconstructed video and audio I’ve linked to in the title above, watch it, it’s glorious) and builds, until the lead singer Stella is mirrored by her past self, and the two female groups have combined, and the two tunes finally emerge in counterpoint, in a musical equivalent of the staging. Best of all, this is a song about growing older, showing past and present merging, within a whole show about growing older, and about reconciling your present self with the in/decisions of your youth. Two good tunes – tick. Whole greater than parts – tick. Surprise – tick. Dramatic function – tick.

Honourable Mentions

The Inch Worm (Frank Loesser, Hans Christian Anderson)

This song isn’t presented in typical musical-theatre-quodlibet style, since the second tune (“Inch worm, inch worm …”) appears over the first (“Two and two are four …”) without having been heard on its own earlier. My favourite thing about Loesser’s achievement – and I haven’t heard it in any other quodlibet – is that Hans’s tune stays firmly inside the tonic scale, while the children’s tune enjoys all the flattened notes made possible by the chord progression. This is exceptionally good musicianship, from a songwriter with better technique than most of us realise.

Playing Croquet / Swinging / How Do You Do? (Rick Besoyan, Little Mary Sunshine)

People tend to get pretty worked up about how Besoyan combines not two but three separate tunes in this quodlibet, which is itself an affectionate parody of other quodlibets. Personally, I find it laboured. It’s a looooong time to spend in the company of the same generic chord progression.

One (Reprise) (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, A Chorus Line)

This is the first quodlibet I’ve mentioned that is not by a single composer/lyricist; you can see why these things might be a challenge to write with another person.

One, ostensibly a real showtune from the musical everyone in A Chorus Line is auditioning for, has been half-heard earlier in the show; in its reprise, which functions as both A Chorus Line‘s finale and bows, One is presented again, followed by its counter-melody, and then by the quodlibet moment.

If you’re not a musician, you may not appreciate how distinctive the chord progression for One is. There’s no other I know quite like it:

one-chord-progression_0002

That’s like the chords to a bebop tune. Little wonder that, while Hamlisch’s main tune is a cracker, his counter-melody is like a clever student’s exam answer, with too many chromatic runs, and a flabby loss of verve in bars 9-16. Even if you’re not a sight-reader, I reckon you can see it:one-countermelody-comments_0002

Meanwhile, Kleban, the lyricist, is having a field day:

She walks into a room and you know
She’s uncommonly rare, very unique,
Peripatetic, poetic and chic …

Very unique? How unique can something be? By the last bars of the section above, Kleban is essaying:

Loaded with charisma is ma
Jauntily sauntering, ambling shambler.

… which no-one ever hears, because the women of the cast are taking their bows. The following video is grainy – and, fair warning, it cuts out just before the end – but you can see what I mean:

I wonder, did Kleban know, as he sweated over each syllable, that they’d be drowned out nightly? One is a helluva number overall, but as a quodlibet, it’s all about the dancing. Oh, that Michael Bennett.

 

 

 

The Sondheim Review: No guarantee of happiness

David Levy, keeping his ears open and his conclusions likely.

David Levy

The destructive potential of the American Dream

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre's October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures. Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre’s October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Stephen Sondheim has distanced himself from the practice of reusing discarded songs from old shows when writing new pieces. He has only ever acknowledged dipping into his trunk twice, both for Wise Guys: “Addison’s Trip,” present from the first reading in 1998, and “It’s In Your Hands Now” from the 1999 workshop. What distinguishes these from one another is that while “Addison’s Trip” reused material from an unknown song from a dead project (“Lunch” from Singing Out Loud), “It’s In Your Hands Now” came from Assassins.

It makes sense that if two shows were to share music, it would be the two written with John…

View original post 788 more words

Stephen Sondheim’s GREASE! – Sandy and Betty

There’s a fun competition happening on tumblr: write a Grease song as though it’s from Sondheim (or vice versa). My effort’s a la ‘Follies’.

Here’s a little story you may find bizarre
About two unhappy dames.
Let us call them Sandy “D” and Betty “R”
Which are just their real names.

Now Sandy has humility,
But also the ability
To bring out Danny Zuko’s tender side.
Betty has hostility,
That hides her true fragility,
And no-one sees it’s merely wounded pride.

Given how dissimilar these two girls are,
As friends they’d be most unfit.
Not so, I submit,
To wit:

Sandy is candy, but bland to the bone.
Betty is petty, but deep when alone.
Sandy wants to be petty.
Betty wants to be candy.
Sandy wants to be Betty,
And Betty, Sandy.

Dandy! Betty is smutty,
Or so she appears.
Sandy is putty
When pressured by peers.
Betty wants to be putty.
Sandy wants to be Betty.
Sandy learns to be slutty.
Now Danny’s sweaty.

(Dance break)

For Once, Some of the Comments Are Worth Reading

Ben Neutze, theatre critic and Deputy Editor at Daily Review, wrote this article, which highlights one of the heavier ball-and-chains attached to the ankle of Australian musical theatre.

People commented. Some of them commented intelligently. I mouthed off a bit.

Lately, the chat has been between just me and someone name Kim. Hi, Kim, if you’re reading this.

If you have thoughts on the many matters raised, please share them, here or there.

 

Five Things I’ve Learned in Nearly Thirty Years of Cabaret

In 1987, I was 17, and I sang in an a capella group called “Vocal Chords”. OK, shut up, because that was a good pun back then. Anyway, we did six nights over two weeks at the Queanbeyan School of Arts Cafe (a venue that is sadly no more), and that was my first cabaret show of any kind. Since then I’ve done quite a few more cabarets – good, bad, and middling – and right now I’m preparing to do one more, at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival next week.

Shameless plug here.

Since 1987 the following principles have become nearly sacred to me and my usual director/co-writer/patient spouse Carissa Campbell.

(Note I said nearly sacred, because in cabaret nothing is set in stone.)

1. The Second Song Is Crucial

Everyone worries about their opening number, and so they should. But compared with the second number, the opening number is really a bit of a slam dunk: most of us will kick things off with a brash rendition of This Joint Is Jumpin’, or Nothing Can Stop Me Now, or Hey Look Me Over – something of that ilk. Others go against the grain, and ease the audience into things: Try to Remember, maybe? Time in a Bottle?

In any case, once that’s out of the way, then what? It’s too soon for the big ballad (see item number 2), so what should go next?

I’ve seen shows fall apart at this point, and I’ve seen them top their openings in triumph. And I’ve learned from that: the second number is everything. It has to surprise, inform, and consolidate, but not simply repeat. This sounds simple, but it’s remarkably hard to get right.

2. Buy the Audience Dinner First

Pretend the following is my second song, and behold: the beginnings of a bad cabaret act.

Me: “can develop a bad, bad, coooooooooooold!

APPLAUSE

Me: Thank you. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen … You know, in 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason …

Personally, I don’t want my show to get serious until the audience knows me. Yes, I know, some shows are serious right from the get-go. Some performers’ entire persona is serious. So I realise there can be exceptions to my rule.

But in general, if I’m creating the kind of show where I’m the best version of myself, and I’m letting you get to know me as a performer and a person, I don’t want to attempt an emotional wallop only ten minutes into the show.

Yeah, I know, Idina or Patti can get away with it. I’m not Idina or Patti.

3. Vary the Humour

This is subtle, but it’s important. If I’ve just gotten laughs with something pattery and Noel Cowardish, I don’t follow that with more clever wordplay. I’ll probably follow it with a dick joke. Really, you’d be surprised how refreshing a dick joke can be.

And the reverse also applies.

Once the song order for a whole act is in place, I look at where the laughs are, and what causes them. Broad comedy goes here … character humour goes here … self-deprecation here, and political satire here. The audience may not even notice consciously, but I think they can feel it. You can tell.

4. Let Them Rest

And I try to give them a breather, by avoiding this:

Song
Applause
Song
Applause
Song
Applause
Song
Applause

This is exhausting, and tends to produce ever-more-perfunctory applause. This is better:

Song
Applause

Song, segue into monologue, segue into other song
Applause

Song, juggling, aerial stunts, joke, launch into other song
Applause

Q&A section, bring mother onstage, confessional, Song
Applause

5. Patter – it Matters

Tom Lehrer is my model for patter, because he sounds spontaneous, but every word is scripted.

I script my patter.

I learn my script.

Then, of course, I try to be a little free with it on the night, especially if the audience is heckling me.

Patter really matters because songs often live or die on the five words that introduce them. I’ve had songs flop at first, and then rise like a phoenix with no changes at all to the songs – only to the patter leading into them. Needless to say, once I know how important that lead-in patter is, I’m very careful to get it right.

 

Still, as I said, cabaret’s not a hard science. I hope I see someone at the festival who sticks to one kind of humour, opens with a tragic ballad, and puts no thought into their second song or their patter. If the show still works, I’ll applaud good and loud.

 

Learn Your Intervals, Using Only Showtunes! (Descending Edition)

As promised, these are the descending intervals. Ascending ones are here.

Click for full size:

showtune intervals descend

These are notated as in their original vocal scores, and I’ve tried to stick with well-known parts of well-known tunes.

I also tried to get around the decades a bit, because I didn’t want to play favourites. Speaking of favourites, delighted to hear any of yours I might have omitted.