On ‘Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Libretto’ – Lehman Engel

I don’t usually post reviews on goodreads, because I’m tired. I don’t usually provide reading reports here, either, because everyone’s read the same books, and I don’t have anything interesting to add.

But for this book, I think the two predominant responses (“Engel had some good ideas, but we’ve moved on” or “Yes, if only shows could be what they once were”) both miss the point. And so …

If you’re seeking a How-To manual for creating a musical libretto, this ain’t that book. Engel’s approach is a How-It-Was-Done manual, and he clearly wishes it were still done that way.

Engel examines classic musicals (‘Fiddler’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘My Fair Lady’) in order to lay out what he believes are the principles of good musical theatre construction. He urges you to do consider these models when making your own shows. Some useful sections include a side-by-side scene comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with ‘West Side Story’, and an analysis of how well contrast is used in the opening scenes of ‘South Pacific’.

Engel’s principles are worth your attention. You will have to put up with a great deal of shaky generalising and straw-man erecting before you get to them. This edition contains comments after each chapter (Engel’s original was published in 1972) written by the critic Howard Kissel in 2006. Kissel points out where Engel’s opinions have not always dated well, and provides his own opinions, which haven’t always dated well either.

Many readers will be turned off by the fact the Engel loathed ‘Hair’, and ‘Man of La Mancha’. Heck, he didn’t even like ‘Cabaret’ much (he calls it a “success-failure”), but if we indulge in rage-blindness over our favourite shows, we’ll miss the troubling and interesting questions Engel raises about what’s possible and what’s not possible in a musical.

For example, Engel says all musical theatre is essentially lyrical, and so a purely intellectual exercise cannot succeed on the musical stage, as it can on the non-musical stage. Is he right? If he’s wrong, where are the counter-examples?

Because of the time necessarily given over to song, Engel also argues, the principal characters’ storyline in a musical cannot be too complex, and will therefore be too thin to occupy the entire evening. A subplot will almost always be necessary. Now, sure, we can all think of exceptions – Engel provides some himself – but we have to admit the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on his side.

These considerations are the most valuable parts of the book, but they’re not the noisiest, and they don’t occupy the most pages. Engel rails against rock throughout; Kissel gently points out rock’s endurance, then commits the same sin by dismissing hip-hop. These are the silliest parts of the book, and should remind us all of how silly we too could sound in ten or forty years.

About That “Great Australian Musical”: A Response

A couple of weeks ago, Currency House published John Senczuk’s Platform Paper “The Time is Ripe For the Great Australian Musical”. If you’re a trifle obsessed with musical theatre in this country and you’re a Currency House subscriber (or happy to pay to read the essay, as I was), Senczuk’s thoughts are well worth your time. His proposal has been summarised in the Daily Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. My response is below.

 

Dear Currency House,

As one of many Australians who writes original musicals, I thank you for John Senczuk’s thoughtful consideration of our plight (Platform Paper 42, February 1). We talk often, but not seriously, about home-grown musicals in this country, largely because there are two standard responses to essays such as Senczuk’s, and I fear his plan for an Australian Music Theatre Foundation will be subjected to both of them.

The first is dismissive, and goes like this: Australia doesn’t have the population to support many shows, and its cities are too far-flung for profitable touring. Besides, we don’t have a long cultural heritage of theatre music, or our own distinctive musical voice.

The second is defeatist (sing along, you all know the words): there aren’t enough theatres, and producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Any composer/lyricist with talent and ambition should head overseas to the real sources of Great Musicals, London and New York.

This latter position amuses writers of musicals from London and New York, because they too complain that there aren’t enough available theatres, and that their producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Additionally, the ones who write songs with a post-1995 sound worry about a cultural heritage too conservative to afford their scores a place on the West End or Broadway.

So far, in the press, Senczuk’s ‘idea to opening night’ funding model and ‘Perth Solution’ have received the most attention. His scheme is ambitious and welcome, but even if we adopt it, we have some important questions to ask first, and one terrible idea we must jettison.

That idea is this: we have yet to produce The Great Australian Musical. It’s a horrible, counter-productive notion, and it’s nonsense. See, the Brits and the Americans aren’t worried about any ‘Great British/American Musical’. They know they’ve written great shows, and they enjoy arguing about which one is the greatest. We, on the other hand, apply vague, ever-shifting criteria to every musical we write, and judge that each effort fails to match some ideal we’ve never fully discussed or defined.

I strenuously urge us all, before we think about the model Senczuk has proposed, or any other model like it, to retire the term ‘The Great Australian Musical’, and promise never, ever to use it again. Instead, let’s banter about which shows were great: I’ll vote for 1933’s Collits’ Inn, by Varney Monk and Stuart Gurr. Senczuk quotes my old Canberra Philharmonic friend, theatre historian John Thomson, who wrote that Collits’ Inn “was not the Great Australian Musical many hoped it would be”. I wish John were still alive to debate with, because what’s wrong with Collits’ Inn? It did a five-performance tryout at the Savoy Theatre in Sydney, then more at Mosman Town Hall, was turned down by J C Williamson, picked up by Frank Thring Sr, given a star-studded, beefed-up production in Melbourne for sixteen sold-out weeks, toured to Sydney for eight more, and finished with a return season in Melbourne. Best of all, in a move familiar to every showbuff’s heart, Collits’ Inn had a sequel that failed, and a film version that was never made.

By the standards of Australia in the 1930s, this success is astonishing. If it happened to a show of mine today, I’d be dancing in Melbourne’s streets. You couldn’t shut me up about it. But no, someone will say: Collits’ Inn is not revived today, and its score has yielded no lasting songs. All right, what about Keating!, or Bran Nue Dae? They toured all over the place, they’re beloved, and Bran Nue Dae’s film version was charming. Oh, but they never played Broadway. The Boy From Oz, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? No, they both played Broadway and won Tony awards, but they didn’t have scores written for the theatre. Crikey, but we’re tough on ourselves.

This self-defeating thinking hobbles us in other ways, and Senczuk applies some familiar leg-irons when he notes that, in contrast to the jukeboxers The Boy From Oz and Priscilla, “the only real impact an Australian composer/lyricist has had on the world music theatre stage is actor and comedian Tim Minchin”. Nothing against Minchin’s well-deserved success, but this will be news in the afterlife to Geelong’s Oscar Asche, who, granted, did not write the tunes, but provided the book, lyrics, direction, and lead role for Chu Chin Chow in 1916. That show was a massive success in London, and was revived for decades, but Ashe’s success prior to Minchin’s is not the point. We have to stop drawing hard distinctions around arbitrary categories, such as where people were born, where their shows played, and what specific contributions were made by Australians, or we will be guilty of saying silly, unhelpful things.

I hope everyone will join me in striking ‘The Great Australian Musical’ from our parlance, and instead focus on a Great Many Australian Musicals, of a Great Many Kinds. To that end, here are those questions I mentioned.

First, and most importantly, what do we think constitutes a successful musical? In Senczuk’s model, with 850-seat theatres (minimum), and Perth hosting the ‘first significant production’ of new Australian shows, the goal of Broadway and West End-sized success, on Australia’s East coast or overseas, is explicit. It’s also presented as an end in itself, with no allowance for any show’s further life. Fair enough, since everyone who’s ever written an Australian musical knows that getting the first production on stage, as difficult as that may be, is really the easy part: eliciting enough enthusiasm and funds the get the show on again, and internationally? That’s a real trick.

But under an 850-seat minimum model, where might an Aussie equivalent of, say, The Fantasticks, or The Rocky Horror Show, or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog find support? And who would label these shows unsuccessful, when each has had enough views to fill a decent-sized theatre for years? Shouldn’t an Australian Musical Theatre Foundation hedge its bets, or, if you prefer, diversify its investments, and develop small, mid-sized, large and online musicals?

Also, if we are to focus on a model whereby shows start in a smaller city and finish somewhere bigger, we will doing what Broadway’s most savvy, hard-nosed corporate producers no longer find tenable. Witness Shrek the Musical, which had a trial run in Seattle before managing a mere 441 performances on Broadway, not nearly enough to recoup its investment. But Dreamworks Theatricals promptly sent Shrek out on tour, just as if it had been a hit, and launched a licensed school version which is now, according to Dramatics magazine’s annual survey, the most produced high school musical in America. Shrek, and The Addams Family, and Seussical (and you can be sure the producers of Matilda, even though it has recouped, will head down a similar path) demonstrate the long game Broadway’s producers are now playing: not only are these producers frequently unfazed by a flop, they’re not even satisfied with a hit. Instead, their eye is on the Grand Prize: decades of independently-mounted community and school productions, around the world. If we want to survive the mad economics of international musicals, we should plan and produce along similar lines.

Second, what do we think is the role of a new musical’s audience? In Stephen Sondheim’s pretty phrase, the audience is ‘the final collaborator’, but if we Aussies really believe this, we’ve been treating our final collaborators pretty shabbily lately. Senczuk characterises Strictly Ballroom, a case in point, as “a work that was placed before an audience too early”, but the truth is less innocent: Ballroom’s producers Global Creatures have demonstrated, as they did with King Kong, an approach to a new musical’s score and script in which the audience’s feedback is neither sought nor welcome; and director Baz Luhrmann, in replacing Ballroom’s opening number for its Melbourne season, has taken more than six months to order surgery that George Abbott would have performed in the first week. Overwhelmed by technical demands and the hideous cost of everything, we Aussie musical-makers tend to respond non-collaboratively to audiences who don’t like our songs, by fiddling with the sound mix and wondering, sadly, how the general public can be so thick.

When it comes to audiences, Senczuk is fond, as many theatre makers are, of the word ‘educate’, and while I think we can talk about ‘educating’ audiences behind the scenes, as we enthuse about turning the punters on to established, tested works, we certainly shouldn’t be talking, or even thinking this way, about audiences for new musicals. Audiences for a new musical don’t want to be ‘educated’; they want to be seduced. Nothing will turn them off more thoroughly than the idea that they ‘should’ like an Aussie show, and this is all the more reason to produce shows at different sizes, based on their likely commercial appeal. To quote the late comedian Bill Hicks, “There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices”, and when it comes to wrong choices and new Aussie musicals, we won’t educate our audiences; they will educate us.

We also have to make allowances for what Senczuk experienced with his own work as co-writer, in 2004, of the musical Eureka!. He describes a painstaking writing process, and all the devoted attention given to the work by director Gale Edwards, but sometimes, even though everyone involved has crafted a show with professionalism and love, an audience just doesn’t like it. In Australia, we are demoralised every time this happens, and we brood over another failed Great Australian Musical, but it’s because we don’t produce enough shows to see how normal this phenomenon is. We have to get many more shows on stage, of all kinds, and only some of them hits, so that we remain comparatively sanguine in the wake of worthy flops.

I appreciate that, by suggesting more shows, of varying sizes, with fleet responses to audience feedback and flops taken in stride, I’m probably suggesting an Australian Music Theatre Foundation with a broader base and more funds than the one proposed by Senczuk. I will go further: rather than trying to match the success of writers from overseas, we should be trying to better them. For starters, we could do much, much more online. The chief trend in music, television, movies, and video games this century has been to get the product closer to the customer. Theatre has barely moved on this front, wedded to the idea that stage shows work better when they’re live (they do), and that audiences new to theatre, somehow knowing this, will attend (they don’t, and they won’t).

Whatever our shows are, we should be doing more to take them to the punters. Our Aussie songs and scenes should be on our radio stations, stages and screens, but also in our school halls, our shopping malls, our parks, and our nursing homes. This may seem an unattainably grand hope, but one of the smartest things any Australian Music Theatre Foundation could do is to start very small, by collecting all the Australian book, lyric and music writers, all of them presently hustling and producing and applying and struggling, separately, and put them to work, together, on musically fruitful properties for which the Foundation has acquired the stage rights. The Foundation could act as the seed, as Jerome Kern once did with a novel called Show Boat, or as Dorothy Fields once did with the life of Annie Oakley.

Then, how liberating for us, the writers, freed from the idea of competing with one another for some mythical brass ring called The Great Australian Musical, to labour instead, together, on creating magical nights in the theatre for people all over the world, present and future, as we decide what brass rings we really want, and forge them ourselves.

Slant Rhyme: A Mathematical Approach

Let y=mx + b

m represents the slantiness of the rhyme, its change in y over its change in x, its ability to get a rise out of me over its likelihood of making me run away.

For m=0, or no slant at all, a rhyme for ‘peace’ would be true: geese, niece, Rhys, fleece.

For small positive values of m, a slant rhyme for ‘peace’ would be close but not true: appease, freeze, heats, peaks.

As m increases, slantiness rises to the heights of bravery: leers, dweebs, mist, pizza, pickle, Pynchon, fisticuffs, moonlight.

Negative values of m produce reverse rhymes: seep, Streep, peeps.

This is, of course, in only two dimensions. We’ll consider the z-axis (produced when singers distort their vowels) next week.

The Lizard Of Oz – photos, stories, the whole bewdy bottler

Late last year, I posted about the joy of writing music and lyrics for a new show, The Lizard of Oz, with script and direction by Peter Cox and Mark Grentell. If you haven’t seen their film Backyard Ashes, I highly recommend it.

We have only four performances left in our initial season, so here, courtesy of some fine photographers and our absurdly talented designer Aron Dosiak, is the next best thing to seeing the show live at Wagga’s Wollundry Lagoon.

The composer at the piano:

Kane at the piano

Kane Toad. Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

My favourite shot of our heroine, Dotty:

dotty

Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

Jacqueline Irvine, who plays Dotty, is way more savvy and much less naive than her character. She’s also physically fitter than the rest of us put together, although I do bring down the company average somewhat.

Andrew Strano is Leonardo de Emu …

leonardo

Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

… and Big Red the kangaroo:

big red face down

Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Apart from being talented and hilarious, Andrew is a lyricist, and he’s co-written, completely independently of my effort, a song about being inappropriately close with a family member. So I have a bit of a man-crush on Andrew.

Our villainess, Arachna, is played by Karla Hillam. She manages to belt it out from this balcony to the whole audience, totally unamplified:

arachna on the balcony

Photo: Les Smith, Daily Advertiser

This moment of staging necessitated my favourite bit of songwriting in the show, because we needed something to cover Arachna’s move from the balcony down to ground level. So, in rehearsals, I pretended I was wearing Karla’s outfit, and took the elevator down one floor, with our stage manager Liz holding all the doors for me. That took 58 seconds, and we all thought that was a bit long. So I waddled down the stairs on foot, and that took only 38 seconds. I scrawled these ideas in an old diary while we were rehearsing other scenes:

look at that

That night, I wrote a tune, and we learned the vocals the next day. With Karla in costume, from balcony to ground level, it took 40 seconds.

“Karla,” I said, “I just totally Sondheimed your move downstairs.” Then I had to explain to everyone about the elevator in Company, on Boris Aronson’s original set, and then I felt old.

Arachna decrees that only one song can be heard in all of Oz – her song, “It’s All About Me”, an anthem of Idolesque genericness, with an appalling I-V-vi-IV chord progression.

arachna idol

Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Jamie Way is Dodo the dog and Bitza the platypus (although he doesn’t know he’s a platypus until the end of the show):

bitza and leo

Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

At this point, Bitza’s identity crisis has forced him to adopt an outrageous French accent. Jamie can do all the accents, while singing, and in celebrity versions if you request them. I haven’t heard him run out of ideas yet.

Michelle Brasier is PC Kookaburra, and Katerina Pavlova, the world-famous opera singer and desert dessert:

katerina

Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Katerina’s entrance and exit music, a mishmash of a pavlova recipe and soprano warbling, is just my attempt to transcribe what Michelle improvised effortlessly at the first read-through. I could never have done any better, or any funnier.

The finale:

finale

Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

By this point, Arachna has been vanquished, Michelle is PC Kookaburra, Karla has dressed up as Katerina Pavlova, I’ve been inside a Lizard’s head (and operated a Bilby rod puppet), and the sun is about to set. It’s a hoot.

The Search for Name That Christmas Tune, Mr Spock!

Peter J Casey:

I imagine these sung, by Nimoy himself …

Originally posted on Nannygoat Hill:

The hereditary ruler of Bohemia observed evidence of a heavy snowfall on the anniversary of the death by stoning of the protomartyr of the Christian religion.

A woody shrub bearing red berries and spiked leaves, and a tenacious, leafy vine capable of climbing for great distances over trees, rocks and artificial structures: of all the vegetative life-forms in this biome, the former is metaphorically endowed with a metal headdress indicating its superiority.

I recommend that you refrain from emitting verbal noises at a level above that of ordinary conversation, from expressing emotional distress by keening and emitting saline fluid from your eyes, and from protruding your lips in a petulant manner, for the following reason: we anticipate the arrival of an incarnation of Nikolaos, the sanctified Bishop of Myra, in this human settlement.

The period of time when this planet’s primary is hidden by the horizon is distinguished by both a lack of audible frequencies and an atmosphere of reverence. Nonetheless, and without disturbing…

View original 23 more words

In Partial Defence of ‘Accidently Kelly Street’ (sic)

Most Australians of my vintage would be familiar with this single from 1992:

It’s mentioned only as a subject of mockery these days. Oh, Frente! Oh, that daggy song.

Yes, there is something wrong with the song. But it’s not the notoriously banal opening lines …

Here’s a door and here’s a window
Here’s a ceiling, here’s a floor
The room is lit like a black and white movie
The TV’s on, that’s what it’s for

… and it’s not the tune, nor the girlish vocals, nor the video.

No, here’s what’s wrong with the song: every one of its elements is twee. Twee lyrics, twee music, twee performance (in this case, audio and video), and twee production. At no stage did anyone say, of bass player Tim O’Connor’s innocent, nursery-rhyme song, “Hey, how about for this bit we go against the material?”

It might have been different. Look at those opening lines again, and imagine them slowed down, sung by Randy Newman, and with bordello-piano backing …

The room is lit like a black and white movie
The TV’s on, that’s what it’s for

Well, now ya got something! That’s a little satirical dig at suburbia, that is. Some of the elements are tugging against one another, and there’s tension.

I’ll admit, though, that not much could have been done with these lines …

Perhaps this optimism
Will crash on down
Like a house of cards.
I know that my decision
To change my life was not that hard

Some twee is just too twee.

I got to thinking, and so in the following diagram, there’s a little bird for every twee element, and for its opposite (“cool” is the best I can come up with), a pair of sunglasses. Click for full size:

tweecool

Obviously, my choices are subjective. I picked the best-known songs I could think of, but they still say a lot about my background, and taste. Your list might be much more indie and hip. Still, I think my overall point stands: you can deliberately inject twee elements into a recording that is otherwise cool, especially if you’re trying for irony, or camp, but you better have something that’s cool in there. Popular songs need elements tugging against one another; and if not they need to be very, very, very cool.

Other singles deserving four sunglasses: Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side”, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”.

Other singles deserving four birds: Wham’s “Last Christmas”, Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby”, MC Hammer’s “Addams Groove”.

Writing In My Own Accent is Fun

I’ve been writing songs for ‘The Lizard of Oz’, an Aussie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, crafted with kids in mind, and to be performed outdoors next January. There were two challenges for me: forgetting the songs from the famous MGM movie, and forgetting the songs from the famous MGM movie.

Helpfully, the script (Mark Grentell and Peter Cox) is fancy-free, ratbaggy and unselfconscious. This is very much a traditional style here in the real Oz, and a happy legacy of our who-gives-a-stuff theatre of the 1970s.

This, and the fact that Dotty’s companions (an emu, a kookaburra and a platypus) are uniquely Australian, means that I get to play in my own accent.

How To Sing Aussie

We don’t like the letter ‘r’ at the end of a word. Too much hard work. Actually, we don’t pay it much heed in the middle of a lot of words, either. Thus, if your Aussie accent is pretty strong, these two words are identical:

minor

Mynah

Also:

father

farther

And neither “father” nor “rather” comes close to rhyming with “bother” (sorry Lerner, sorry Sondheim).

Also, if one of Odin’s sons were frozen, and you had to un-freeze him, an Aussie would

thaw Thor

That’s the same sound, twice, and it rhymes with pore, paw, shore, sure and Shaw.

Now, I won’t rhyme all these words if I’m writing something for the whole world to sing, but I will for a character from Straya (we also tend to ignore any letter L that’s in the middle).

There are also great words that only Aussies use, like “nong”, which a stupid sort of person, a bit of a galah. “Brung” is great, too: not uniquely Australian, but very popular with Aussie kids.

Hence, Bitza the platypus, who cannot figure out where he comes from, since he seems to be made of bits of other animals, and so he keeps dropping in and out of other accents and foreign phrases …

See, I swim like el pez (that’s fish),
But fish don’t have a lung.
They look at me and say
“Who brung this mongrel?”

I don’t know what the future holds, but I bet I never, ever get to bring off an inner rhyme of “brung” with “mongrel”, ever again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhyme Challenge: Music

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

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

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

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

Music? Theology?
Choose Ichthyology!

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

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

Some nice lines, but no real grooves.

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

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

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

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

HairOriginal Broadway Cast
Disraeli GearsCream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good popular music is mostly about certainty.

Good theatre music is mostly about doubt.

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

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

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