What Hollywood’s Addiction to The Hero’s Journey is Doing to the Broadway Musical – Part Two

Part One is here.

2. The ‘I Want’ Song – Immovable and Generic

Using Christopher Vogler’s stages in The Hero’s Journey, Julian Woolford observes:

“not every stage of the story necessarily contains a song. There are, however, certain key stages that commonly do contain songs. These tend to be the major stages of the story:

1.  The Ordinary World
2.  The Call to Adventure

4.  Meeting the Mentor …”

That’s fair, and Woolford, who prefers the term ‘I Wish’ to ‘I Want’ goes on [emphases are his]:

“The ‘I Wish’ song can occur at any point in Act One, but is most common at the Call to Adventure or the Refusal of the Call stages; it is one of the cornerstones of any score. The ‘I Wish’ song is about who the Hero is and what he wants.”

But here’s how Steve Cuden applies the Journey’s opening stages to a musical [emphases his]:

“So, you’ve established the world that the protagonist, antagonist, and other characters dwell in. And you’ve shown the audience how those characters interact. You’ve set up what the protagonist wants in his life, but not necessarily his overall goal just yet. A catalyst must occur to drive the protagonist out of his normal world …”

This is the influence of Hollywood thinking: the hero will be longing for something, but not for anything too specific, because The Call to Adventure hasn’t happened yet. So, in Beauty and the Beast (about to be re-made into a live-action film), Belle doesn’t sing:

I’ll stick these peasants with a fucking knife …

No, Belle sings:

There must be more than this provincial life …

There’s an added attraction in putting the ‘I Want’ song so early: the star gets a big sing very shortly after she appears on stage. That makes good box-office sense; but without concrete details in that song, she’ll be stuck singing about some big symbol, which we all know is a mere stand-in for vague self-fulfillment. You know, this kind of rubbish:TGWW1etc.

3. Act One is Bloated; Act Two is Thin

Here are Vogler’s twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. In Woolford’s approach, eight of them will tend to occupy Act One of a basic two-act musical.

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
  8. The Ordeal

Act Two will make use of the remaining four stages:

  1. Reward
  2. The Road Back
  3. The Resurrection
  4. Return with the Elixir

Steve Cuden’s seven plot points look more balanced in print …

  1. Normal World – Opening Image
  2. Inciting Incident – Catalyst
  3. Point of No Return
  4. Midpoint Begins

INTERMISSION

Midpoint Continues

  1. Low Point – The Big Gloom
  2. Climax into Resolution – Final Challenge
  3. New Normal – Closing Image

… but the same problem is hidden therein. You can see it coming, can’t you? Cuden and Woolford point out that Act Two is generally shorter than Act One – and they’re right – but look at the differences in story proportion! To use Cuden’s own analysis of Chicago as an example, Point 3, the point of no return, occurs when Roxie decides to hire Billy Flynn. Between that and Point 4, at the end of Act One, there are twenty-eight pages of script, and six songs. Six, sitting there between two innocuous numbers in a list.

If you’ve ever looked at your watch during Act One, and wondered if this thing could possibly be ninety minutes long, you might be sitting through a Hollywood-style Hero’s Journey musical. If you’ve spent interminable scenes and songs in Act Two in the company of minor characters who don’t matter, because so much of the Hero’s Journey took place in Act One – but it’s too soon to get to the climax – you might be at a monomythsical.

But it’s so prevalent that we’ve grown used to it, even in shows that are not based on screenplays. Here’s what should happen, about ten minutes into the second act of Wicked. Glinda, you will recall, has been telling the assembled Ozians about how she and Elphaba used to be friends.
wicked3

4. Only Two Kinds of Girls

Joseph Campbell, on what he called the Goddess:

“The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love”

And Campbell again, on what he called the Temptress:

“The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond”

If you write according to The Hero’s Journey, and you’re silly enough to think Campbell meant literal women, you’re in great danger of writing a show like this one:


It’s about a guy who …

And he wants …

He meets a girl, who’s … sweet/demure/shy/beautiful/pure/virtuous

There’s also another girl, who’s … brassy/slutty/outspoken/a feminist


This only-two-kinds-of-girls dynamic, which is endemic in Hollywood, is nothing new to the Broadway musical either, and you’ll find it in some great shows (Guys and Dolls, for one). But adopting the Hero’s Journey as a template makes it really, really easy to keep your female characters down to just two kinds – which is bad enough – and to make sure they exist only in relation to the Hero – which is even worse.

This is particularly likely to occur, I think, in original stories, or in stories adapted from an original source without any significant female characters in it.

For example, Avenue Q Jekyll & Hyde is about a guy named Princeton Jekyll who has first met a nice girl named Kate Monster Emma Danvers, but is later tempted by a different girl named Lucy the Slut Lucy the Slut.

At the time of writing, Something Rotten! is in previews. Without going too far into the plot (spoiler: underdogs triumph), there are two main female roles, Bea and Portia. Portia is sweet and unassuming, while Bea is a brassy go-getter. On the message boards, theatrephiles debate the pros and cons of Something Rotten!, but all agree as to the female roles: at this stage, Portia does nothing, and Bea does nearly nothing. Worse, I think, is that these women exist only in relation to their men.

Film Critic Hulk, who loathes the crutch The Hero’s Journey has become in film writing, has some wise, if exasperated, advice for writers: make your female characters more like Princess Leia. Not because she’s perfection in writing, but because she’s an actual character, neither goddess nor temptress, and she has a life when men aren’t around.

But Peter, If It Ain’t Broke … 

I probably seem alarmist, as I fuss over juggernaut successes like Beauty and the Beast, and Wicked. And maybe I seem reductive, when you consider a beautifully structured piece like Fun Home, a memory play as un-Hollywood as anyone could wish.

Also, after all these years, Phantom of the Opera is still running, and if it’s a Hero’s Journey, it’s a very, very thin one. What is it, this weirdly subversive tale, that says it’s OK for girls to get the hots for their Sexy Murdering Mentor-Daddy, provided they settle down afterwards with a Bland Suitable Boy?

Phantom, for all its hokiness, suggests a way out of the Hollywood screenplay trap. Just as detective fiction has, and as science fiction loves to do, Phantom shows how musicals can get away with exploring really interesting, odd, or unpopular ideas, while behaving quite conventionally on the surface.

In any case, if we’re all going to keep writing Cinderella stories, I, for one, would like to see her lift her game. Aim higher, Cinders! Instead of merely being chosen by a Prince, what if you infiltrated and overthrew the whole monarchy?

At least you wouldn’t be boring.

 

 

What Hollywood’s Addiction to The Hero’s Journey is Doing to the Broadway Musical

“Too many musicals are being made from films!” we cry.

But I don’t think the number of films becoming musicals is the real problem. If we want vibrant, innovative musicals, I think there’s a worse problem headed our way, assuming it’s not here already. Are you already familiar with the history of writing manuals for the screen, intentional and un-? You might like to skip this next bit. Otherwise, behold:


1949 – Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is published. Campbell compares myths from many different cultures and eras, and finds they have so much in common that they constitute what he calls a monomyth. Here’s what Campbell wrote:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Here’s what Campbell did NOT write:

“You guys should write all your stories to fit this model from now on.”

1979 – Syd Fields’ Screenplay is published. Fields’ Ideal Paradigm is a three-act structure (Setup, Confrontation, Resolution) that, despite its critics, permeates film writing and thinking to this day.

1985 – Christopher Vogler, a story consultant with Walt Disney Pictures, circulates a seven-page memo titled A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he points out:

“As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided.”

Except Campbell’s work was never a formula. Don’t worry, it soon will be …

1992 Vogler’s memo becomes The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. It’s revised a couple of times, and its title is tweaked, but it remains a combination of Vogler’s version of Campbell’s monomyth (now routinely called The Hero’s Journey), together with Vogler’s version of Jung’s character archetypes, such as the Hero, the Mentor, the Shapeshifter, and the Trickster.

1997 – Robert Mckee’s Story is published, based on a seminar he’s been presenting since the early ‘80s. In McKee’s analysis, the closest thing to Campbell’s monomyth is what he calls the Archplot, the apex of Classical Design:

“Classical Design means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.”

But McKee also describes Miniplots and Antiplots, through which he believes other sorts of stories – quiet stories, absurd stories, ambiguous stories – can be told effectively. Nevertheless, Archplots are “the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice, and couscous of world cinema.”

2005 – Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat uses all of these previous works to break a screenplay down into 15 beats, right down to the page number on which story events should occur.

Now, all of these authors – even Snyder – argue against adopting a rigid formula. All of these authors say, with varying degrees of credibility, that their principles are merely a guide. And none of that matters, because here’s what Hollywood hears:

“You guys should write all your stories to fit this model from now on.”


Heroesjourney.svg (1)What about the how-to manuals for writing a musical? Behold:


Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto, Lehman Engel, 1977
Writing the Broadway Musical, Aaron Frankel, 1977
The Musical From the Inside Out, Stephen Citron, 1991
Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theater, Tom Jones, 1998

These works take their cue from Aristotle’s Poetics. They emphasise Action, Character, and Conflict as ways of generating Drama, and they emphasise the importance of where and when a librettist enters and leaves a story, in order to generate Plot. None of them mentions Campbell, monomyths, Vogler, or The Hero’s Journey.

How Musicals Work: And How to Write Your Own, Julian Woolford, 2012

Woolford uses Christopher Vogler’s version of The Hero’s Journey, explicitly, and Vogler’s character archetypes. Henry Higgins, for example, is a Mentor who becomes a Shapeshifter.

Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories For Musicals That Get Standing Ovations, Steve Cuden, 2013

Cuden advocates three story ‘movements’ (to avoid confusion over ‘Acts’), and seven plot points that outline The Hero’s Journey, incorporating some of Blake Snyder’s beats and terminology, such as the idea of an opening and closing image.

OK, so a pattern begins to emerge, but really, what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t one form of big, populist entertainment use the methods successfully employed in another form of big, populist entertainment? After all, none of these writers advocates a formula, and it’s a lot easier to write a story along the lines of “the Hero might meet a Shapeshifter when he crosses the Threshold”, rather than “additional characters should provide conflict and contrast”.

If The Hero’s Journey (Musical Theatre Version) seemed to be leading us to effective dramatic structure, I’d say that it’s a good thing. And if that structure grew from a central character’s desires and actions, rather than conventional thinking about the page number we’ve reached, that’d be an even better thing. But here’s what I think is happening, instead, to the big, populist Broadway musical.

1. Too Many Cinderella Stories

Gerald Bordman’s  American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle labels the years 1921-24 ‘The Cinderella Era’, because of the number of shows that imitated such earlier hits as Sally and Irene. Over and over in these shows, a subgenre of The Hero’s Journey ran its course: plucky heroines in lowly jobs pretended to be someone else, met wealthy young beaus, fell for them, underwent misunderstandings about them, watched them renounce their fortunes for love, and then won the guy and the money by the second act curtain.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a good or bad storyline, because it might describe, with a few adjustments, anything from a bad sitcom episode to a great Jane Austen novel.

But today’s musical Cinderella hasn’t been adjusted much, fundamentally, even though today she might be male, or two characters. Maybe, because of changes in her outer garments, the ‘Cinderella’ tag is distracting, and we should call this modern incarnation the Appealing Underdog Who Triumphs. In any case, she’s now at the centre of this type of show:

An appealing underdog is unjustly kept down by opposing forces. She triumphs anyway, without losing her appeal.

Thus, Thoroughly Modern Millie, with its pastiche of Cinderella storylines straight out of the 1920s, definitely fits the bill. But so does Hairspray, and so does Legally Blonde. Memphis, also, is a Triumphant Underdog story, as are Sister Act and Wicked, and The Color Purple, and The Wedding Singer, and Billy Elliot, and Matilda, and Elf, and The Book of Mormon, and Kinky Boots, and Rocky.

Of these, Memphis, Wicked  and The Book of Mormon are the only ones that weren’t Hollywood screenplays first, and those last two will become films. Who knows, maybe Memphis will too.

What about the Disney and Dreamworks musicals? All of them are based on screenplays, and of them, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little MermaidAladdin, Newsies and Shrek are Triumphant Underdog stories.

And I haven’t included revivals/adaptations (AnnieRodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), several outright flops (TarzanJane Eyre, Wonderland, Big Fish, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), or works which parody or treat The Hero’s Journey ironically (Urinetown, Spamalot, revivals of Chicago, How to Succeed)

All right, so we like our fictional Cinderellas, onscreen and off. But what about shows based on real life, especially those bio-musical jukebox shows that have been so popular lately?

The Triumphant Underdog approach, it turns out, is one of the most popular ways to tackle a real life story. You start with your Underdog downtrodden, and finish with their greatest success. That’s how Chaplin worked, avoiding the whole problem of “boy, he really liked ’em young, didn’t he?” Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (also to be made into a movie) works that way, and so does Motown: The Musical, thanks to Berry Gordy’s script about himself as the Hero of his own Hero’s Journey.

Even Hamilton, which is refreshing and exciting in many ways, is the Cinderella story you should adopt for historical people whose flaws and deaths are famous: The Triumphant Underdog’s Legacy Lives On.

Upcoming Broadway shows?

Finding Neverland – based on the film that’s based on a play. An underdog triumphs.
On Your Feet! – based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Two underdogs triumph.
Ever After – based on the film, a re-telling of “Cinderella”. An underdog triumphs.
School of Rock – based on the film. An underdog triumphs.
The First Wives Club – based on the film that’s based on a novel. Three underdogs triumph.

You’re thinking of exceptions, I’ll wager. Fair enough, so am I.

But I’m also thinking of Rebecca, The Color Purple revival, Waitress

Is the Cinderella story played out? No, I’m not asking if it’s played out, because sometimes it’s the best way to tell your tale (suggestion – Believe: The Cher Musical). Is the Cinderella story an attractive lie, perfect for capitalist societies where not everyone can succeed or be happy, but everyone likes to be told they can, and pay hundreds of dollars to hear it? Yeah, it probably is, but I’m not asking that either.

What I’m asking is this: aren’t you bored?

.

In Part Two – ‘I Want’ songs, bloated first acts, and only two kinds of girls.

Dr. Fringelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pop Charts and Write More Musical Theatre

There’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, we musical theatre types, and I think it’s a fallacy. It’s a pleasant fallacy, though, because it makes us feel sad and nostalgic. So we tell it to ourselves, until we feel good about feeling sad and nostalgic, and then we bond with one another over our sadstalgic feels.

The story is this:

Once, the sound of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley was the sound of the popular charts. It was the music of the people, and musical theatre sounded fresh and current.

Then rock ‘n’ roll came along, and took over the popular charts. Broadway shows didn’t really take to rock ‘n’ roll, so they soon stopped sounding fresh and current.

Now, hardly any musicals sound like the music of the people. Something valuable has been lost, and it would be nice to get it back.

Sigh. Crank vinyl OBC of ‘She Loves Me‘.

Lately, this Pleasant Fallacy has appeared whenever anything featuring rap/hip-hop lands on Broadway. If the show fails, as Holler If Ya Hear Me did, we ask “why can’t shows sound like the music people are actually listening to?” And if the show does well, as Hamilton is doing, we cry “At last! A show that sounds like the music people are actually listening to!” Then we speculate on which songs might appear on the charts.

Our motives are good. We want younger people to fall in love with the music of musicals, because then we old folks – some of us over forty – can die happy. If the music in musicals sounded more current, we reason, it might appeal to more younger people.

But look again at the Pleasant Fallacy above, and then look at all the misconceptions we have to accept for it to work:

By “Once”, we mean somewhere in the early twentieth century. We don’t look much further back than that.

By “popular charts”, we mean a problematic measure of a particular commodity’s sales, measured over very short periods.

By “the people”, we mean Americans.

By “something valuable”, we mean cultural prominence: songs from current Broadway shows on the radio, and performances from current Broadway shows on primetime television.

Bearing all these misconceptions in mind, I would like to propose two things:

  1. Popular music – really, truly popular music – actually sounds a lot like showtunes.
  2. They’re probably not the showtunes you’d expect.

I’ll begin with …

The most popular music of the 19th century

For the first half of the 19th century, publishers of sheet music didn’t distinguish between what we would now call “classical” and “popular” songs, and popular sheet music sales didn’t really take off until after the 1850s. Nevertheless, sheet music historians have some nifty ways of telling if a song was a hit:

Song sheets: not the full printed music, but just the lyrics, given to a theatre audience so they could sing along. It’s a fair bet the tune to any one of these was well known.

Inclusions in anthologies: in modern terms, if a song is on all the later compilation albums, chances are it did well first as a single.

Answer songs and parodies: if everyone’s supposed to get the references, the original must have been pretty familiar.

Here, then, are some songs you can include in your 1890s cabaret act, and expect your audience to know:

Silent Night, or Stille Nacht (1818) – Franz Xaver Gruber / Joseph Mohr
Home, Sweet Home (1823) – Bishop / Payne
Ave Maria (1825) – the Schubert setting
Jingle Bells (yes, pedants, it’s really called One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857) – James Lord Pierpont
The Lost Chord (1877) – Arthur Sullivan / Adelaide Anne Procter
After the Ball (1891) – Charles K Harris
On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897) – Paul Dresser

Those last two are publishing phenomena; written very late in the century, they sold a wagonload of sheet music. But even without them, you can see what sorts of songs did well in the century before the century before this one: occasional songs, devotional songs and, above all, sentimental ballads.

Furthermore, that sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, the song Nellie Melba used as a crowd-pleasing finale in her concerts, is a showtune. It appeared first in an opera (Clari, or the Maid of Milan), and was then quoted liberally by other composers in their own operas and instrumental works, before later being interpolated into practically everything.

When Clara Butt was about to tour Australia, Nellie Melba advised her “Sing ’em muck; that is all they will understand.” This is usually taken as a slight against us Aussies, but what Melba really said, according to a witness, was “Sing ’em muck. ‘The Lost Chord’ and that sort of stuff, the same as you have been singing tonight.” In other words, Aussies loved a weepy ballad back then, and they still do. But so did everyone back then, and so does everyone still.

If we look further back than the early twentieth century, I think we gain useful context for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley’s later heady era of chart success. The listeners of the nineteenth century didn’t have “charts” as we understand them today, but they had their favourite songs: a mix of the devotional, occasional, and sentimental. Some of it came from the stage.

And so to those problematic charts, which have become less problematic since the IFPI started compiling its reports in 2001. Their more recent reports include download and streaming data.

The top selling singles of each year since 2007

Girlfriend – Avril Lavigne
Lollipop – Lil Wayne feat Static Major
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Tik Tok – Ke$ha
Just the Way You Are – Bruno Mars
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke feat T.I. and Pharrell
Happy – Pharrell

Hmmmm, these songs sound like a lot of movies, because that’s where hit songs wind up nowadays, just as hit pop songs used to be interpolated into stage shows. They don’t sound like a lot of today’s Broadway. But then, Broadway scores don’t really behave like singles, do they? Singles burn quickly and brightly, but not for long. Broadway scores used to be like that, so much so that, when people say …

I wish the charts still sounded like Broadway

what they’re really saying is …

I wish shows still ran 200 performances and were forgotten in a year.

The miracle of those old shows is that some of their songs, meant to be nothing more than immediately accessible and popular, turned out to be deeper and more durable than anyone could have predicted.

But hit Broadway scores today behave more like hit albums: they burn steadily, and for a long time. So instead of singles, here are

The biggest selling albums of all time

Thriller – Michael Jackson
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
Back in Black – AC/DC
Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Come On Over – Shania Twain
Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf

Sceptical about any of these? Fair enough, and look here for why I share your healthy doubt. Nevertheless, two of these albums (Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard) sound like a couple of musicals, but that’s only because stage musicals have been made out of their parent films. One of these albums (Thriller) has a stage show based on its main creator’s life and music. Another (Bat Out of Hell) sounds like any musical by Jim Steinman, but that’s because all Jim Steinman sounds like Jim Steinman.

As far as younger listeners go, however, these albums are really old. The most recent is from 1997. So here are

The biggest selling albums of the last ten years

21 – Adele
X&Y – Coldplay
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
High School Musical – Original Soundtrack Cast
High School Musical 2 – Original Soundtrack Cast
I Dreamed a Dream – Susan Boyle
Midnight Memories – One Direction
Recovery – Eminem

Man, that’s a whitebread list. But you will notice that, once the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the singles chart is taken out of the matter, all those artists we’re convinced the kids have been listening to disappear. No Pharrell, no Ke$ha (or, these days, Kesha), and no Lady Gaga. Nobody feat. anybody else. The only rap artist in that list is Eminem.

Also, there are two bona fide screen musicals in that list, plus an album named after a showtune.

That album, Susan Boyle’s (twice as many copies sold as One Direction’s album, incidentally), contains the following sorts of songs:

Occasional

Silent Night

Sentimental Ballads

I Dreamed a Dream – the showtune I mentioned.
Cry Me a River – originally written for a film set in a 1920s speakeasy.
Wild Horses – cover of the original, by The Rolling Stones
You’ll See – cover of the original, by Madonna
Daydream Believer – not a ballad when The Monkees did it, but this version is
Who I Was Born to Be – a Boyle original
Proud – from the TV show Britannia High
The End of the World – cover of the original by Skeeter Davis, slowed down

Devotional

Up to the Mountain – cover of the original by Patty Griffin
How Great Thou Art
Amazing Grace

If you ask me, Susan Boyle’s album shows how little we’ve changed, because it’s straight out of the nineteenth century. Sing ’em muck indeed.

To summarise: we need to stop worrying about the charts, music theatre lovers, because they don’t tell us what we think they tell us, and success on them doesn’t mean what we think it means. If we look instead at music that sells steadily over years, rather than weeks, we’ll find that people are actually buying and listening to showtunes, albeit ones written for the screen. Sure, they’re not tunes from Sweeney Todd, or even Rent: the showtunes that are really selling sound like High School Musical. Also, Frozen isn’t on that best-seller list yet, but give it time.

And, as fond as we are of our sadness and nostalgia, I think we should rephrase our favourite fallacy:

Once invented, recorded music used what had come before it, then learned how to make its own kind of thing later. Cinema, radio, television, and video games have all walked a similar path.

Recorded music has always gone after disposable money. Its first marks were high-tech connoisseurs, and later, the middle class (this is the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway period). After World War Two, it chased youngsters, and now it’s after anyone with a smartphone.

There was a period when the pop charts and the sound of Broadway more or less aligned. It didn’t last, and it could conceivably happen again, because correlation is not causation: all it would require is for theatre audiences and pop music listeners to want the same thing from their music.

Meanwhile, if you really want your new musical to sound like the music of the people, you should have Coldplay write a lot of sentimental ballads for Adele. Get Eminem to play the villain.

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.