I think Bob Fosse started it all when he cut the book numbers from the movie version of Cabaret.
Cabaret the stage show has, of course, book numbers – those non-diegetic numbers, the ones that spring out of nowhere – the kind chiefly responsible for audience members who groan, “Oh, no, it’s a musical.” In Cabaret‘s stage version, they’re Why Should I Wake Up, Perfectly Marvellous, What Would You Do?, and so on – all cut from the film.
Non-book numbers, diegetic songs, or (useful term, this) prop songs, are much easier for those groaning audience members to handle. After all, there’s the band, and that girl is really singing, for real. The onscreen audience hears her just as you, the viewer, do. And the dialogue usually has subtle set-up lines like:
Perky Guy: Hey, remember that number we used to do in the old days?
Perky Girl: Oh, that old thing? Nobody wants to hear that …
Assembled Throng: Yes we do, go on, oh please etc.
Once the song’s real nature has been established, audiences are usually prepared to forgive all sorts of unreal things: where did those strings come from? How does the band know the chords? Anyone who worries about this sort of thing too much shouldn’t be watching musicals, just as pedants about the laws of physics should avoid action flicks.
Jerome Robbins, after seeing a final rehearsal of Cabaret onstage, apparently suggested that all the numbers outside the Kit-Kat club be removed. Fosse, smart man, did almost exactly that for the film, and the new songs written for the film (Money, Maybe This Time) were prop songs too. The only number outside the Kit-Kat club is Tomorrow Belongs to Me, which was always a prop song.
Three years after the film of Cabaret, the stage version of Chicago (Kander, Ebb and Fosse again) was originally presented as a vaudeville, complete with A Master of Ceremonies to introduce each act. When Rob Marshall staged the movie version as Roxie Hart’s fantasy, he sidestepped the groan-problem with the original show’s book-numbers-done-as-vaudeville-turns by making them all prop songs, complete with proscenium arches and lighting changes, all taking place inside Roxie’s head. How does everyone instantly know their lyrics and dance moves? Because Roxie is imagining this as a song, and Roxie is cuckoo as a Swiss clock, that’s how.
So far so good, except for one thing which hit me at the start of the year, while I was watching the first episode of Smash:
The greatest numbers in the history of musical theatre are non-diegetic.
or, put another way:
Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.
I can think of only two exceptions, and they are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly, from – natch – Cabaret and Chicago.
Allow me to demonstrate, with ten great (as in hugely successful) musical theatre characters, in no particular order, and the songs that make them great. Often, these are the songs that introduce them to the audience:
Fantine (Les Miserables) – I Dreamed a Dream
Prof Harold Hill (The Music Man) – Ya Got Trouble
Maria (The Sound of Music) – The Sound of Music
Erik, the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) – The Phantom of the Opera
Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Some People
Elphaba (Wicked) – The Wizard and I
Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Heaven on Their Minds
Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd) – The Worst Pies in London
Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – I Put My Hand In
Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) – Tradition, or If I Were a Rich Man
Not one of these is a prop song. But then again, not one of these characters is a performer. What about characters who are singers?
Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) – her first song is a prop song (Pet Me Poppa or Take Back Your Mink, depending on which version you’re watching – [EDIT: please see gentlemanly correction from Richard Biever below]), but it’s Adelaide’s Lament that establishes her character. A great character, too.
Christine Daaé (The Phantom of the Opera) – her first song is Think of Me, a prop song, followed by Angel of Music, which establishes her character. Such as it is.
Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) – I’m the Greatest Star, which is not a prop song.
Nancy (Oliver!) – Nancy is given to performing the odd prop song in a pub (Oom Pah Pah), but she is introduced with It’s a Fine Life, which is not a prop song (in the stage show – it became one in the film).
Any male singers in musicals? Not many. An awful lot of actors in musicals, and plenty of writers and hoofers. Joey Evans, from Pal Joey, is a nightclub singer, and he is introduced with a prop song, You Mustn’t Kick It Around (“if my heart gets in your hair” writes Larry Hart, cruelly sticking it to lesser lyricists), but Joey’s character is established with a book number, I Could Write a Book. Hey, a number about books which is a book number!
Where am I headed with all this? Well, I contend that the musicals, historically, do not establish great characters with prop songs. And among the many (many) problems of Smash, about to begin its second season, this is the biggest.
(Musicals also, historically, do not farewell great characters with eleven o’clock numbers that are prop songs. Which is the subject of the next post.)