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:
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
[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.