Some Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes That Need a Rest. Maybe Forever.

1. The Song That Fixes An Argument

Here’s how it works. The two of you are fighting. Then one of you starts singing something. The other resists at first, but eventually joins in. Now you’re both singing, and damned if you don’t go into an ol’ soft-shoe together! Magically, once you reach the song’s button, whatever you were arguing about has gone away.

Egregious example: Grey Gardens (“Two Peas In a Pod”)

Edith has just had a big fight with her father, Major Bouvier, in which her daughter Edie firmly took the Major’s side. As a peace offering, young Edie starts singing an old song to her mother, the first song her mother ever taught her. They’re soon singing it together, with Edith’s accompanist George Gould Strong lending two helping hands at the piano. Problem solved.

But not really. After the song, it’s their next bit of dialogue that establishes a truce.

Ingenious subversion: Merrily We Roll Along (“Old Friends”)

Charlie, Frank and Mary are arguing about – well, pretty much everything. Mary starts up an old bit of schtick with the words “Here’s to us …”. Soon, they’re all singing together, but – and this is neat – the song breaks down into an argument midway, before pulling it together for the final button. Also, since the show’s chronology is in reverse, we in the audience have already seen this friendship group break up: no matter how chummy they might be at the end of this song, dramatic irony dangles overhead.

Why this trope needs to die: it’s bogus. And I don’t mean that it’s bogus in the way that all musicals are, by any realistic measure, bogus. No, it’s bogus on its face. If these characters are to resemble real, motivated people (and ever since Show Boat, that’s what the best writers have been trying to achieve, from high drama to low comedy), then it’s the quintessence of bullshit to have characters’ desires and fears allayed, however briefly, by a tune. On the other hand, if the argument were actually resolved in the course of the song, that’d be different. And much better.

2. The “I’m Happy To Be a Slut” Song

She’s brassy, she’s leggy. She likes men and she wants you to know it. Also, she’s … no, that’s it. There’s nothing more to this dame, and she won’t do much in the show to follow. She’ll either be conquered by domestic love or die helping the hero.

Egregious examples: The Producers (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”), Steel Pier (“Everybody’s Girl”)

In The Producers, Ulla turns up at Max and Leo’s office to audition with a song she’s written. She performs it for Max and Leo’s pleasure, they lust after her, and then they compete for her. Her job is to be dumb, and lusted after. I could write – nay, will write – an entire post about the wasted opportunity that is Ulla in this show.

In Steel Pier, the MC of a dance marathon is trying to drum up interest in the competition, so he spruiks the additional talents of some of his contestants. One of these is Shelby, who is pretty fast, as they used to say. She sings a song about how fast she is. It is meant to be ghastly, bursting with second-rate, second-hand jokes; and it is ghastly, since there’s no subtext or other aspects of Shelby’s character to alleviate the ghastliness. Later, Shelby falls in unfulfilling love with a younger man.

Ingenious subversion: Sweet Charity (“Big Spender”)

On paper, this is a come-on from the ladies of the Fan-Dango Ballroom. But as performed it’s clear they don’t mean a word of it, instantly adding layers to their characters. Brilliant. This was in 1964, more than thirty years before my two egregious examples.

Why this trope needs to die: Sure, it’s sexist (where are the male slut songs?), and yes, its time has passed (a female character can now simply say “I like sex”, so why should we sit through an entire song of sniggering jokes about it?), but most importantly, it’s dramatically inert. If you’re going to write a one-joke song, you’d better be Cole Porter. In the 1930s.

3. The Mad Scene Made of Dissonant Reprises

We’re near the end of the show, and a person, or possibly the world itself, is going insane. How to depict this musically? Maybe we’ll use a bunch of tunes we heard earlier in the night, but chopped up and layered over one another, with no concern for dissonance. In fact, dissonance is wanted: we’ll put long, wrong notes under previously pleasant tunes. If the tune’s in C, shove a loud F sharp or an A flat in the bass. (Composer’s confession: these are really easy to write. With some decent notation software, you can whip one up while the kettle boils.)

Eregious example: Sunset Boulevard (“Final Scene”)

Norma just shot Joe dead. The cops have come to take her away, but a journalist helpfully tells the audience that Norma’s “in a state of complete mental shock”. In lyrical terms, what is Norma given to work with? This:

This was dawn.
I don’t know why I’m frightened.
Silent music starts to play.
Happy new year, darling.
If you’re with me, next year will be…
Next year will be…
They bring in his head on a silver tray.
She kisses his mouth…
She kisses his mouth…
Mad about the boy!
They’ll say Norma’s back at last!

To be fair, there’s no dissonant accompaniment to this, which is a series of lines from a bunch of earlier songs, all spliced together. It’s even less work than the sort of thing I’m complaining about.

Ingenious subversion: Cabaret (“Finale Ultimo”)

This is one of the earliest examples I can think of, and it works a treat by undermining the traditional appeal of reprises. Clifford Bradshaw, supposed novelist, hasn’t written anything as far as we in the audience can tell; then, as he takes the train out of Berlin, he starts reading from his latest effort. Songs are heard in reprise, and this is justified as Cliff sorts through his memories. His later experiences of rising Nazism and soured romance justify the dissonances. There’s so much scope for directors in this part of the show that it keeps developing, from mirrors wherein the audience see themselves, to the cast being led off to concentration camps. It’s almost impossible for later writers to repeat this fine achievement, so why bother trying?

Why this trope needs to die: If anything should be personal, and distinctive, it’s madness. But if all madness sounds the same, how mad is it? This trope is almost always an example of writing that mimics other writers’ writing, instead of coming up with something unique to a particular character, at a particular time. Write a brand new song, folks. The Cray Cray Megamix is lazy.

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6 thoughts on “Some Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes That Need a Rest. Maybe Forever.

  1. Love this, and I could add a few: “I am/I want” songs that literally include those words in the chorus, the “Hey-we’re-all-here-and-this-is-a-musical-about-us” opening number. I think your last trope, though, had its apotheosis with “Rose’s Turn,” and the reason not to repeat it is mainly that it can’t be topped.

    • Thanks, Rob! Yep, I’m through with those really bald “I want” songs, mainly because I think “If you’re so clear on precisely what’s needed, where’s the problem? Go get it, or shut up.”

      And you’re right about “Rose’s Turn”, but I felt guilty suggesting that it might have been easy to write, since it’s a little masterpiece of subtle construction. I certainly couldn’t have whipped it up while the kettle boiled.

  2. If you’ve scrolled down this far, hello, and here’s another one I thought of while mowing the lawn yesterday:

    4. Revival Equals Gospel. Gospel Equals Revival.

    Is something in a parlous state, in need of a lift? Gospel song! Career in the crapper? Gospel song! Factory losing money? Gospel song!

    An excellent overview by Jaime J Weinman (who is more fond of this trope than I, but also makes a vital distinction between pastiche and solemnity) can be found here: http://zvbxrpl.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/fake-gospel-songs-i-love-em.html

  3. If we’re ditching the happy slut songs (and not to forget “Hey Big Spender,” “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No,” “Always True to You In My Fashion,” and –ack — “Lovely Ladies” from Les Miz), could we lose the sad slut songs too? (Starting with “Our Polly is a Sad Slut” through to Grease, Evita and Miss Saigon.) Musical theatre employs a lot of women but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on women. And how do we get around the “he beats me but I love him” songs? (Now there’s a big list.)

    • DC, I shudder to recall the “he beats me but I love him” songs, and I’d really like to think they’ve been retired, except for divisive and problematic revivals.

      As for Ado Annie, at least in 1943 Hammerstein had the advantage of not being allowed to be frank. For my money, “do fer him what he would do fer me” is much funnier, and more charming, than “Just share me with the neighbors” in ‘Everybody’s Girl’.

      But you’re right, we’re too lax on ourselves when we write women. I wouldn’t mind a lusty female character if there were more to her than that. We seem to do this by reflex with our horny GIs, conniving producers, ruthless police inspectors etc.

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