Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

1. Flip the Title Around, and/or Gently Pun Upon It

Punning on a song’s title used be quite the thing, back when lyricists were allowed to be clever for the fun of it. Here’s an attention-getting example from Ira Gershwin:

Beginning of refrain …

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me.
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.

By refrain’s end …

When every happy plot,
Ends with a marriage knot
And there’s no knot for me

That’s “But Not For Me”, from Girl Crazy (1930), and I doubt you could get away with that sort of pun today, outside of a cabaret act or a topical revue. It throws character aside, and pulls the audience out of the story. But Ira Gershwin could be beautifully subtle when he wanted to. This is “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, from the movie Cover Girl (1944):

Refrain starts …

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Refrain ends …

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for
Long ago was you.

Notice how, apart from the downright dreamy sentiment, playing with the title like this gives Gershwin a fresh rhyme for the final syllable, and on a lovely vowel?

One more: here’s Stephen Sondheim in “Good Thing Going”, from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), avoiding the trap of rhyming the last word of a song with the pinched sound of “going”, while also breaking our hearts.

Beginning …

It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realise
We had a good thing going.

Ending …

It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going, going,

Advantages of this trope: It obliges you to move the song’s ideas forward. Let me repeat that. It obliges you to move the song’s ideas. Forward. An AABA theatre song should do something like this:

A – only some of what you need to know,
A – a little more of what you need, extra details, elaborations,
B – a fresh perspective, alternative view, dissenting opinions,
A – the last of what you need to know, maybe with a revelation, or a twist.

Here’s what too many contemporary AABA theatre songs do:

A – everything you need to know.
A – what I just told you, only more of it.
B – what you already know, seen from a different vantage point.
A – what you know, louder and higher.

A score that coulda used it: Catch Me If You Can (2011, Shaiman / Wittman)

The central conceit of Catch Me If You Can is that Frank Abagnale, Jr is presenting his life story, through the 1950s and 1960s, as an old-fashioned TV variety special, so it’s understandable that most of the songs use some variation of AABA form. But out of sixteen numbers, guess how many songs end their refrains by rhyming with the title, or the same few words added to the title, every single time? Go on, guess.

Eleven. And that number goes up to the thirteen if I include two songs in verse-chorus form (“Seven Wonders” and “Fly, Fly Away”) that use a repeated ending line which happens not to be the title.

In these thirteen songs, there’s no playing with the words in order to push ideas forward, or to create fresh rhymes at the end. Over and over, these thirteen songs do this:

Here’s a thing I think, and in a style you might enjoy,
Couched in all the language you’d expect me to employ,
So the thing I have concluded is (and was there any doubt?):
The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About.
Yes, The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About

2. Not Much More Than An Octave, And Not Often

I’m going to assume you don’t read standard music notation, but if you don’t, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: the little diagrams you’re about to see work in exactly the same way, as far as timing and pitch go. From left to right, they show when the notes occur. From bottom to top, they show how high they are.

But first, here’s Fred Astaire introducing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” in the 1938 movie Carefree. The song is near the start of the clip, and if you stay for the dance routine I’ll understand completely.

Here’s a diagram showing how this song’s melody works, through its AABA form – I’ve joined the phrases together for simplicity. Look at how beautifully Berlin tackles a practical and commercial consideration of melody: his leading man does not have a big singing range, and neither does the average music customer, so Berlin is very careful about where his tune ascends to an octave or more above the melody’s lowest note. Click if you like full size:

change partners

By heaven, that’s how you write a tune that doesn’t go much over an octave, and doesn’t do it often.

Advantages of this trope: Let’s say you have a character who won’t be hitting the big notes – and a leading character, too, not a bit of Thénardier comic relief. Without the applausebait of loud, high belting near the end of the tune, what will you give this character’s performer to help put the song across? How will you convey emotional intensity and depth of feeling?

Maybe you’ll use dance, as above, or explore more specifics of character, or reveal some new plot, or give better fodder for acting. It’ll have to be real acting, too, and not just emoting. It’ll be worth it, though, because you’ll end up with a character (and a show) that doesn’t sound like all the others. But even better, you’ll have more casting choices, since it won’t be all about the eight bars of high F. One of your stars won’t need so many days of vocal rest. More performers will be able to sing your song, reliably. More audience members too.

A score that coulda used it: Chess (1984, Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice)

All the main characters in Chess have big singing ranges, and all of them indicate emotional intensity by singing loud and high. Fair enough: a singer can’t croon in a rock/pop score; they’d never be heard over the instruments. Also, scores that use repeated melodic chunks often ask one character to sing another character’s tunes, so if one character sings over a wide range, chances are the rest will too.

And yet. And yet.

Consider the Russian, Anatoly, who does not express his feelings as readily as his American counterpart, Freddy. Anatoly’s first big number is “Where I Want To Be”, and the melody of its verses is in a nice register, and prettily shaped, as you’d expect from Benny and Björn. But in the chorus the vocal melody does this:

where i want

This number actually has a smaller range than Berlin’s “Change Partners”, but as any baritone will tell you, it’s not about the height, it’s about how long I have to stay up there. It’s about the tessitura. In the case of “Where I Want To Be”, maybe the Musical Director could transpose the whole thing down, but that wouldn’t help much with Anatoly’s big aria at the end of Act One. Look again at how Berlin prepares the singer’s voice (and your ear) for the higher notes in his song, and then consider this, near the end of Anatoly’s “Anthem”. You know the bit – “how could I leave her …”


That’s almost the song’s entire range, within four beats. It’s the melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands. Later, in “End Game”, Anatoly will traverse an even wider range, an octave and a major sixth – the entire range of “Ol’ Man River” – within six bars. And this is the guy who doesn’t have to sing “Pity the Child”.

3. The Song That’s Not About Sex (Except It Is)

In Guys and Dolls, the rakish gambler guy Sky Masterson takes the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown to Havana, thereby winning a bet. He plies her with a local drink, “Dulce de leche”, including its “native flavoring” of Bacardi, and she elaborates on its effect with the following examples of the subjunctive mood. In summary:

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is …

If I were a bell I’d be ringing
If I were a lamp I’d light
If I were a banner I’d wave
If I were a gate I’d be swinging
If I were a watch I’d start popping my spring
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding
If I were a bridge I’d be burning
If I were a duck I’d quack
If I were a goose I’d be cooked
If I were a salad, I know I’d be splashing my dressing
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding

We know Sarah is physically attracted to Sky, but look at how composer/lyricist Frank Loesser flirts with, yet avoids, overtly sexual imagery. That’s because he knows two things about a crass possibility like “If I were a camel, I’d hump”:

1. Drunk or not, Sarah Brown would never say such a thing.

2. Sexy songs are sexier when you let the audience supply the sexy details.

Advantages of this trope: I know, it’s no longer 1950 – surely we can be more candid? But if you have a character who, deep down, wants to dance the no-pants dance, and you make them sing a song all about how, deep down, they want to dance the no-pants dance, what have you given the actor to play?

Nothing. There’s no tension. They, and their director, will be forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business” to help the time go by.

On the other hand, if you have a song about two characters buying the firm’s annual office supplies together, and one character deeply, deeply wants to jump the other one’s bones, you’ve got possibilities. Think of what a gift this situation could be to a performer and a director. Think of all the wholesome joy your audience can have supplying filthy, sexy details.

A score that coulda used it: Victor/Victoria (1982, 1995, Mancini / Wildhorn / Bricusse)

Victor/Victoria is all about sexual attraction, from Victoria, who’s attracted to a real man’s man, King Marchand – but can’t reveal it because she’s masquerading as a man herself – to King Marchand, who’s attracted to Victoria, thinking she’s really a man, and is wrestling with this hitherto unsuspected side of his sexuality.

The score gets it right at first with “Le Jazz Hot”, a song all about the hotness of jazz, but really about the hotness of Victoria. Then, later (and to everyone’s credit, this song was later cut), King Marchand’s lover Norma tries to tempt him into bed with “Paris Makes Me Horny”:

Rome may be hot –
Sexy it is not!
Paris is so sexy!
Ridin’ in a taxi
Gives me apoplexy.

Been ta Lisbon
An’ Lisbon is a has-bin!
Schlepped ta Stockholm
An’ brought a lotta schlock home!
Also Oslo
An’ Oslo really was slow!

Paris makes me horny!
It’s not like Californy
Paris is so dizzy, Jack,
It’s such an aphrodisiac!

There it is. A character who wants sex singing about how she wants sex. Even if the song were good, there’d be no tension, and sure enough, performer Rachel York and her director Blake Edwards were forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business”.

There’s a simple fix, though, if this scene is to contain a song, because the wrong character is singing: it should be King Marchand. After seeing Victoria as Victor, he should be singing about he’s not worried about that handsome Victor guy, because King Marchand is a real man, who likes manly things, like football – yeah, King Marchand, grabbing other guys, pulling them to the ground and … no, wait … poker – yeah, poker, King Marchand, with all the fellas, staying up all night, drinking, sucking on cigars, gazing at each other’s hands, looking real deep into each other’s eyes … no, wait, dammit … a sharp, tailored suit – yeah, King Marchand, buying expensive fashionable clothes, and all the guys saying how good he looks …

Then Norma can invite him into bed.

19 thoughts on “Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

  1. Excellent observations. You had me at “melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands”. I’ve had to sing that, and while it’s a personal, physical challenge to get that jump right, and quite satisfying when you do, I’ve sometimes feared that “WHEEEEERE” gives the audience enough of a little shock that it takes them a bar or two to recover, and by then you’ve lost them.

    • Glenn, I freely confess that I can’t sing ‘Anthem’, and I’ll applaud anyone who can get through it. But yes, I do wonder why Anatoly is asked to put so much passion into a request for directions.

  2. Excellent entry. And the whole time you spoke of songs about desire… I was thinking Victor/Victoria and that mess of Norma’s. While I know they deliberately avoided giving material to King because of a smaller range (both film and onstage) I’ve always wondered why the male lead of that piece gets so little to sing.

    • Thanks, Chris. Yeah, it’s weird how that script treats the King Marchand character. Victoria takes one look at him and goes weak at the knees, and Toddy concurs that the guy’s a hunk. Then, as far as things go for us in the audience, that’s supposed to be enough. The authors won’t show us what makes the show’s male romantic lead tick. If only there were some simple way to do it, like – gee, I don’t know – a song?

    • Quite right, Aaron, we’re not crazy! Expecting twentysomethings to belt out a throat-killer eight times a week: that’s crazy.

    • I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.
      I will not let Annette’s kind words make me big-headed.

  3. It’s a good read, but it’s “DULCE de leche” not “doce de leche”. I figure that someone meticulous enough to write this piece would want to know and then correct this error.

    • Damn right I would, Tony! Thanks for spotting that. I’m hanging my head and drinking plain milk as a penance.

  4. I love this article, and I especially love that you mentioned my favorite bad theater song of all time, the atrocious “Paris Makes Me Horny”, as an example of how to not write a sexy comedy comedy song. There are, however, so many truisms in this. I, too, wish composers would learn to write for the normal human voice again.

    • Thanks for your response, John. For what it’s worth, I think we’re stuck in a feedback loop with high belted numbers at the moment. I find it dramatically counter-productive, since it’s become so predictable – and I don’t want to single out any specific songwriters, since the loop is happening everywhere – but it works like this:

      1. Wow, she’s really singing down in her boots (and yes, it’s usually a she)
      2. She’s getting higher …
      3. Woah. She belted there.
      4. Key change!
      5. Holy crap, that’s some serious belting. AUDIENCE SCREAMS, APPLAUDS.
      6. Hot damn, that final note! Vibraaaaaaaatooooooooo. MORE SCREAMS, APPLAUSE

      Singer: “Boy, they liked that. I should sing more of those.”
      Writers: “Boy, they liked that. We should write more of those.”

      Rinse, repeat.

  5. I’m normally a bit skeptical of articles like these, but this was fantastic! And I think it’s important to note that these points absolutely can and should apply to pop/rock/contemporary-sounding scores. In fact, I’d like to add one of my own if you don’t mind:

    A Song Where The Character Sings The Opposite Of What They’re Thinking/Feeling, Making The Actual Truth Much More Powerful

    Too often in contemporary shows, characters will just march onto the stage and sing exactly what they are thinking and feeling, subtext be damned. A lot of writers say they’re trying to “be honest and real” and “show the truth of character” or something along these lines, but when all the songs in the show are 100% honest the audience doesn’t have anything to discover, and the actor doesn’t really have anything to play. Give the audience some credit and make us think a little bit! And if you’re concerned about being “honest” and “truthful”, just think about real life for a second – what’s more realistic than somebody lying through their teeth to get what they want?

    Advantages of this trope: If you have characters who are lying to each other (and themselves), when the truth finally does come out, it’s infinitely more satisfying. Let’s say you’re seeing Gypsy for the first time. At the end of Act I, you’re absolutely expecting Rose to crack. The fact that she doesn’t crack, but instead sings what on the surface sounds like the happiest, most positive song in the world, is HORRIFYING, and FANTASTIC. We know that she’s absolutely bonkers, and that when she inevitably does crack, it’s going to be spectacular. Tension is mounted, the audience is engaged, and we have something to look forward to in the second act. If Gypsy were written in 2014, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” would probably be changed to a song like “I’m So Angry That My Daughter Ran Away And Frustrated With My Lot In Life But I Guess We’ll Keep Going Or Whatever”. There’s no tension, no subtext, nothing left to discover or anticipate from the remainder of the show. Sure, it’s more “honest”, but it’s not interesting in the least.

    A score that coulda used it: Les Miserables (1985, Schoenberg/Boublil)

    While I think that there are more egregious examples out there, I’m going to pick on Les Mis because its place in musical theatre history is so firmly solidified that whatever I have to say won’t affect it whatsoever. A lot of people will vehemently defend Les Mis as either “their favorite musical ever” or “the GREATEST musical ever”, and I’ll admit that I enjoy it and it works very well as a show, but the thing that prevents it (in my humble opinion) from being a truly brilliant show is that there is barely a scrap of subtext to be found. About 95% of the songs in Les Mis can be boiled down to this:

    “Here is who I am.
    Here is what I am doing.
    Here are all the things I think and feel and believe.”

    Every character is so painfully honest that I can’t help but feel like there’s nothing to really discover. The one moment I could think of off the top of my head where someone is dishonest – the Thernardiers selling Cosette to Valjean – actually lands as one of the most genuinely funny and engaging moments in the show. I realize that in a spectacle-driven show (especially one that gets translated into many languages as these mega-musicals usually do) subtext often gets pushed to the side for the sake of making the show more accessible to a wider audience, but it won’t kill us to have to think just a little bit about what’s happening.

    • James, I share your skepticism about online articles, so thank you very much, and I completely agree that these techniques exist independent of genre. In fact, they’re part of what should lift a show out of the rut of being a mere genre-show, an “emo musical” or a “techno musical”.

      Les Mis was the first show I thought of with your trope, so don’t feel bad. To pick another show currently in revival on Broadway, I love “Some Other Time” from On The Town. On paper there’s no big deal with the lyric: we’ll catch up. But with that music, and the war in the background, there’s every chance these sailors could die tomorrow. When I think of that, and hear the octave drop on “Oh, well”, I get something in my eye.

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