On Jukeboxy-ness. Also, How Will Jukebox Musicals Age?

Last August, in the New York Times, theatre critics Jesse Green, Ben Brantley and Elisabeth Vincentelli had a conversation about jukebox musicals.

Everyone asked interesting questions and adopted varying stances on the many issues that jukebox shows raise. But nobody questioned one basic assumption, and it’s an assumption I haven’t seen questioned anywhere else either, leading, I think, to a great deal of woolly thinking.

Early in the article, Vincentelli asks “Is it worth starting with how we define the jukebox musical?”, after which the conversation moves on to revues, pop songs in the theatre and bio-musicals. Later, Brantley notes “but we seem to be too restrictive in our definition, a point Elisabeth raised earlier.” But that definition, despite all the theatre brain-power in the room, has never appeared.

Here’s the neatest definition of a jukebox musical I’ve seen, from theatre critic Cassie Tongue, in her review of Jersey Boys: “a narrative piece of theatre woven together with an artist or band’s discography”. Tongue neatly sidesteps revues and song cycles with her use of the word ‘narrative’, and the only addition I can think of is, perhaps, ‘era’, along with ‘artist’ and ‘band’, to cover those shows that mine a particular decade or genre, such as Motown and Rock of Ages.

In fact, maybe ‘pre-existing’ is sometimes all that’s needed, as in the case of a grab-bag like Moulin Rouge. And after all, isn’t pre-existing really the point?

In any case, even better than Tongue’s definition’s precision is its lack of judgement. Most of us, when we ask for a definition of jukebox musicals, are really asking “What’s a definition that allows me to loathe Mamma Mia! but praise American Idiot?”, and then the woolly thinking kicks in: we all bang on about how American Idiot‘s songs were originally written for a concept album, with an implied narrative, making them theatrical, and the show not really a jukebox show. At other times the question is, truthfully, “What’s a definition that lets me be excited about Moulin Rouge, while castigating every bio-show from Jersey Boys to Summer?”. Then we use words like ‘re-contextualise’ and ‘re-purpose’ and ‘fragment’, until Moulin Rouge is a superior, different kind of jukebox show.

Here’s the assumption we’re all making, though: that a show either is, or isn’t, a jukebox musical. I propose that jukeboxy-ness exists on a spectrum, that many shows employ jukeboxy-ness to varying degrees, and that audiences, generally, do not care about our definitions.

The question we should be asking is not “is this show a jukebox musical?”, but rather “how much does this show behave like a jukebox?”.


A modern jukebox does a very specific thing: it takes your money and in return plays you a song you know and want to hear. The process isn’t pure, since jukebox manufacturers and distributors limit your choices to their own song catalogues. Still, in an age of mp3s these catalogues are huge, and in theory the many available titles on display in a jukebox should soothe you with familiarity.

(Jukeboxes, by the way, used to be almost the opposite: before rock ‘n’ roll radio took off, they were the places you’d find the latest records, and first. If somebody referred to a ‘jukebox musical’ in the 1940s, that would have meant one with the latest jive, where a hep cat might really cut a rug.)

Jukebox musicals often try to soothe you in much the same way as a modern jukebox, usually with their full titles and subtitles: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; Jersey Boys – The story of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons; MAMMA MIA! THE SMASH HIT MUSICAL BASED ON THE SONGS OF ABBA. All of these titles and subtitles are designed to allay some of your ticket-buying fears by answering two of your most pressing ticket-buying questions: “how will the music sound, and will I like it?”

For me, a given show might be very jukeboxy, purely in terms of familiarity, if I know most or all of its songs in advance. I’m an Australian male born in 1970, so how jukeboxy for me is that queen of jukebox shows, Mamma Mia!? Here’s the song list:

ACT I
Prologue: I Have a Dream
Honey, Honey
Money, Money, Money
Thank You For the Music
Mamma Mia!
Chiquitita
Dancing Queen
Lay All Your Love On Me
Super Trouper
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
The Name of the Game
Voulez-Vous

ACT II
Under Attack
One Of Us
S.O.S
Does Your Mother Know
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Our Last Summer
Slipping Through My Fingers
The Winner Takes It All
Take a Chance On Me
I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do
I Have a Dream (Reprise)

If today were April 5th, 1999, the day before Mamma Mia! opened on the West End, I could sing all but two of those songs for you, right now, before we picked up our tickets. For now, let’s leave aside whether I like all those songs, or want to hear that much ABBA in one sitting: as far as familiarity goes, for me Mamma Mia! behaves very much like a jukebox. It helps that I’m in my late 40s, and it really helps that I’m Australian.

Of course, those song choices are nearly all singles, and they’re nearly all hits. Book writer Catherine Johnson has an extensive catalogue to choose from (a complete Fernando has had to wait until the film sequel), but she shows no desire to surprise hardcore fans with obscure deep cuts. There’ll be no Bang a Boomerang tonight, and King Kong Song remains in my childhood, where it belongs. Furthermore, the two songs I don’t immediately know are exactly where they should be: the middle of Act Two, where they can do little harm, right before The Winner Takes It All kicks off three massive hits in succession, all the way to the curtain calls.

Mamma Mia! even relies on my familiarity with its songs, expecting me to know them instantly:

TANYA: What is it?

DONNA: Nothing. Leave me alone. I can’t talk about it. I knew this would happen! Of course it was gonna come out now. It had to. Oh God, why was I such a stupid little eejit?

ROSIE (sings): CHIQUITITA, TELL ME WHAT’S WRONG …

Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. The film version of Moulin Rouge has a similar moment near its beginning:

CHRISTIAN (v/o): There seemed to be artistic differences over Audrey’s lyrics and Satie’s songs.

DOCTOR: I don’t think a nun would say that about a hill.

SATIE: What if he sings, ‘The hills are vital, intoning the descant’?

TOULOUSE: No, no. The hills quake and shake –

DOCTOR: No, no, no, no. The hills –

ARGENTINEAN: The hills are incarnate with symphonic melodies!

This goes on for some time, until our hero Christian cements his place as a songwriter ahead of his time by getting the answer right:

CHRISTIAN (sings): THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Why is only Christian’s answer right? Because it’s Oscar Hammerstein’s actual lyric, of course, and the audience knows this. Head Over Heels, a musical whose jukebox uses The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle discography, plays this fanservice game when Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, announces that one of their predictions for the King of Arcadia has come true:

PYTHIO: Thou with thy wife adultery shall commit … (sings) OOOOOOH, BABY, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT’S WORTH?

You get it. Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. Each of these moments congratulates us for knowing a lyric so well-known that half the planet knows it, and chosen for this moment precisely because it’s a lyric that half the planet knows.


“Oddly I’m not a big fan of “Mamma Mia!” but that’s because I love Abba so much that the show messed with my pre-existing ideas about the songs.” 

Elisabeth Vincentelli

“… partly because they [pop songs] were pre-written for a different context — or for no context — and partly because they tend to cycle through one generic emotion, they make character development difficult.”

Jesse Green

Besides familiarity, there’s at least one other aspect to jukeboxy-ness, which Vincentelli refers to, and it’s what happens after the opening lyric: do the writers then mess with the original? Here’s the original Andersson/Ulvaeus opening for Chiquitita:

Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
You’re enchained by your own sorrow.
In your eyes
There is no hope for tomorrow.

Here’s the altered version from Mamma Mia!:

ROSIE: Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
TANYA: I have never seen such sorrow
BOTH: In your eyes
And the wedding is tomorrow

Mamma Mia! is coy about the credits for its re-written lyrics. Perhaps in the theatre, where clarity is all, there’s little hope for a word like “enchained”, but in this instance, with a mis-accented “is”, and the clunky exposition of two characters telling a third something they all already know, I’m pretty certain no theatre lyricist was involved.

And I’m completely certain, given the show’s success, that nobody important cares. Mamma Mia! tinkers with its original ABBA lyrics all the time, and audiences don’t seem to mind, since changes are rarely made in a song’s first line, and never in an important chorus. More importantly, I think, ABBA’s songs are sometimes broken up with story-in-dialogue, but they’re never asked to convey new plot alone, or to introduce new characters – these tasks are consistently achieved through speech after/beforehand. And, as Green notes, these pre-written pop songs are often staged as dramatically static celebrations of one generic (maybe “unequivocal” is a fairer term?) emotion.

(To be fair, there are plenty of songs from non-jukeboxy original scores that are also dramatically static and emotionally unequivocal, whether they’re celebrating June for bustin’ out all over, or recommending that one give it the ol’ razzle dazzle.)

Nevertheless, this most jukeboxy of jukeboxy musicals is not completely jukeboxy. When it is, it’s unashamedly so, and for those who like the show, this is a big part of its charm:

“… the pure klutziness of Mamma Mia! is what makes it a strange work of genius. It picks up the inner karaoke demon in all of us.”

Ben Brantley

Note, though, that ‘karaoke’ implies knowing the songs in advance. What if you don’t?


The theatre critics at Exeunt Magazine NYC had a range of responses to Head Over Heels, including this observation from Nicole Serratore about the show’s decision to use The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle catalogue:

I just never got into music when I was a teen and still find myself playing catch-up. I wonder how much of this was a miss for me because the music also didn’t provide that extra layer of familiarity or tasty, satisfying musical nostalgia noms.

Nicole Serratore

As far as Head Over Heels goes, I have only three potential musical nostalgia noms: Our Lips Are Sealed, We Got the Beat, and (maybe) Get Up and Go. I never liked Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits, and I’m not even familiar with the show’s title song – although I freely admit that by the end of its first chorus, I feel like I’ve known it for years. That’s an important additional consideration with many jukebox musicals: songs originally aimed at the pop charts should be hooky, even if they’re unfamiliar, and there’s a certain imprimatur that comes with knowing in advance that a show’s numbers are drawn from a catalogue of hits.

But are they? In Head Over Heels, Pythio, the newly-appointed non-binary-plural Oracle of Delphi, has two important jobs to do, plotwise, once they are introduced: announce who they are, and make several predictions that will spur the King of Arcadia into action. Additionally, the performer playing Pythio is Peppermint, the first trans femme actor to originate a principal role on Broadway.

If I were assigned to write an original song for Pythio’s introduction, I’d be salivating. I’d want to do everything at once: address this musical’s themes of breaking down stultifying binary categories, while dropping Pythio’s prediction-bombs, while breaking the fourth wall a little to give Peppermint her debut moment, while also giving her and any future Pythios a showstopping number on its own terms. Not easy, but that’s how high I would set my sights. All in song.

What does Head Over Heels give Pythio? Vision of Nowness, from The Go-Go’s 2001 album God Bless.

To summarise: that’s a non-single, a non-hit, from the band’s non-heyday. Are there any nostalgia noms to be had here? Is anyone nostalgic for the Go-Go’s of 2001? But perhaps the song is intrinsically so well-written, and so apropos that it doesn’t matter. The lyrics:

There are some things I must never reveal
About the way I think and what I feel
To the surface, smooth, calm and cool
Eyes as deep and blue as a swimming pool
And I confess with certainty
No interference will get through to me

So far, that’s an ‘I Am’ song, allowing Pythio to announce what they’re like, rather than who they are: long on attitude, and short on specifics (also, are swimming pools really that deep?). The chorus:

Like a picture that’s been painted
And is hanging on the wall
An admired but untouchable
Reflection
A vision of nowness
A vision of now

There is a second verse, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is mostly more attitude, followed by a repeat of the chorus. As far as all the heavy lifting goes – making predictions, explaining who they are, giving Peppermint her moment – all of that is relegated to speech. All of it, and without the compensating factor of occurring in the midst of a beloved song, a nostalgia nom, a summoning of the inner karaoke demon.

Head Over Heels, then, is jukeboxy except when it isn’t. And this Pythio-introduction moment in particular, a crucial turning point in the story early in Act One, behaves nothing like a jukebox: unless you’re a very ardent Go-Go’s fan, the show takes your money and in return plays you a song you don’t already know, and thus cannot possibly already want to hear.

One of the problems of the regular kind of jukebox is that the songs are not, typically, theatrical and, as such, often just flop on the stage like dead fish.

Jesse Green

I vehemently disagree that pop songs flop in a theatrical setting.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

I submit that Green and Vincentelli are both right, depending on the moment, and depending on the song. Vision of Nowness is, I think, a dead fish. Heaven is a Place On Earth, after the knowing laugh summoned by its opening line, does much better. Again, from the critics at Exeunt NYC:

My eye-rolling never quite recovered from the jamming together of “the beat” and “the governing ethos of a Renaissance nation-state” and wrenching the plot to make “Vacation” literal. Conversely, something like the deep irony of throwing “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” into what’s essentially an underground–like, a cave–sex club seemed to me a more successful synchrony.

Loren Noveck

Noveck’s synchrony is akin to what I think Vincentelli means when she says, of pop songs in a theatrical setting, “Their connection to the audience is very different, and so is their connection to a show’s narrative.” But that synchrony, and that plurality of connections, can only happen if you already know the song. Heaven is a Place on Earth, a 1987 bubble-gum worldwide hit, can produce irony in an underground sex club. Vision of Nowness cannot be, except for the most serious fans of The Go-Go’s, anything but a new song.


Which brings me – and really, if you’ve stayed this long, we shall always be friends – to the second part of the title of this post: how will jukebox musicals age? What will happen when there is only a song’s connection to the narrative, and no pre-existing one to the audience?

A world in which no-one knows the songs of ABBA seems inconceivable – and for all their seeming public nonchalance, the members of the band have gone to considerable lengths to keep their songs worming in your ears, serving as producers and executive producers on different incarnations of Mamma Mia!, as well as endorsing Mamma Mia-themed restaurants, and lending their support to ABBA: The Museum (where the audio tour is written by – who else? – Catherine Johnson).

Likewise, thanks to other people whose job it is to keep catalogues prominent and earning, none of us will stop hearing the songs of The Beatles, The Eagles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Queen, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones etc. any time soon.

But there is a jukebox musical with songs are so old that they’re barely known by anyone in their original incarnations. They now have only their present connection to the musical’s narrative, and no original musical nostalgia noms to provoke. Actually, this musical has been around for long enough to develop new musical nostalgia noms of its own. And, like every jukebox show, it was never completely jukeboxy.

My principal criterion for jukebox musicals is do they summon the pleasure we once derived from the works being hymned?

Ben Brantley

It’s Singin’ in the Rain, conceived by MGM producer Arthur Freed as a vehicle for his songwriting catalogue with lyricist Nacio Herb Brown. This was while, conveniently, Freed was head of the unit responsible for making musicals at MGM, but who in hindsight can blame him for having an ego? When the film debuted in 1952, the oldest of its songs dated from 1929, so in terms of nostalgia, this is like writing a jukebox musical today featuring the hits of TLC and Hootie & the Blowfish.

I first saw Singin’ in the Rain on video when I was 17, with my then-girlfriend, who had a serious and entirely justifiable thing for Gene Kelly. After I’d overcome my seething jealousy at Gene’s magnificent butt, I thoroughly enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain, realising I was seeing, in Moses Supposes, Good Morning, Make ’em Laugh, and the title song, some of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed.

But how much did this jukebox musical function like a jukebox for me? Hardly at all. I’d seen snippets of one or two numbers elsewhere, and I knew the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song. Otherwise, this was all new, with none of Brantley’s summoning of pleasures once derived. Moreover, at the time, I didn’t know this film was using a pre-existing catalogue of songs.

But then, how jukeboxy was Singin’ in the Rain for audiences in 1952? Often not, it turns out. Make ’em Laugh, apart from being a brazen ripoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from four years earlier, was a new song credited to screenplay writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. So was Moses Supposes, with music by the film’s musical director Roger Edens. Edens also wrote the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song, so even that part was new to audiences in 1952.

It would be easy to say “Well, of course, Comden and Green came from Broadway, so they wrote theatre numbers where they were needed.” Except they didn’t. Make ’em Laugh takes four minutes, in terms of plot and character, to achieve this:

COSMO: Come on, Don, snap out of it! The show must go on!
DON: You know what? You’re right.

And Moses Supposes takes four minutes to achieve this:

TEACHER: Moses supposes his toeses are roses …
DON + COSMO (mocking flawlessly): But Moses supposes erroneously …
TEACHER: Well, I can see you two don’t need my help.

Elsewhere, pre-existing songs like Good Morning and the title song are written to function as dramatically static celebrations, capping spoken scenes in which plot and character advance and develop. They’re used, in other words, very much like pre-existing pop songs are used in jukebox musicals today.

A modern stage adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain, then, is a revival of a jukebox, a live version of a familiar film, but with none of that film’s original nostalgia available to it. The audience, if they’ve not seen the movie, are a bunch of 17 year-old mes, not thinking about how this narrative has been woven together with the Freed/Brown song catalogue, but rather about how these songs work – or fail to work – on their own terms.

And a similar fate, eventually, awaits every jukeboxy show.


Jukeboxy-ness is often bewailed, especially by those of us who write original songs, as an affliction, a modern-day blight brought on by risk-averse producers. For what it’s worth, I think it’s more a symptom than a disease: with tickets to a Broadway musical now costing $113 dollars, on average, including the flops, who can blame audiences for wanting to be soothed with familiarity? (An orchestra seat for Carousel in 1945 would have cost you, in today’s money, about $70.)

Elsewhere, shows with original scores but familiar titles and storylines (Mean Girls, Pretty Woman) demonstrate jukeboxy-ness of a different kind: here is a show that takes your money and in return tells you a story you already know, and (presumably) want to hear again, in musical form.

And sometimes, (I whisper this, Frozen and Greatest Showman) those original songs written for original stories sound so much like pre-existing songs that I still feel like I’m hearing a jukebox show.

In 1945, for my $70 or so, Carousel would have presented me, amongst other things, with a seven-and-a-half minute solo number near the end of Act One, slightly pretentiously entitled Soliloquy, and like nothing I’d have heard before, advancing plot, developing character, establishing a star, all in song, and throwing down a challenge for every composer and lyricist to come. None of it familiar, none of it soothing – and part of a score that, for all of Carousel‘s other problems, remains the chief reason it’s revived today.

Not bad for $70. And jukeboxy-ness, for all its charms, can’t do it.

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 “the Hero might meet a Shapeshifter when he crosses the Threshold” is far more specific advice 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 to 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.

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.

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”.

Critics, I Beg You: Please Stop Calling Things “Sub-Sondheim”

Last September, when it was announced that Audra McDonald might possibly be considering the thought of maybe, perhaps, starring in a movie of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again, this was the headline at Showbiz 411:

Audra McDonald May Star in Sexed up “Sub Sondheim” Light Opera Movie Musical

Those quotation marks around “Sub Sondheim” are a nod to The New York Times, where LaChiusa was first damned with this faint-praise epithet.

And here’s a brief, partial history of said label, in roughly chronological order. Look at just some of the writers, well-known and comparatively obscure, who have been called “sub-Sondheim”, in places ranging from stately newpapers to rebellious blogs:

Three Postcards, Craig Carnelia: The New York Times, 1987, “seldom rising above sub-Sondheim”

Starting Here, Starting Now, Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire: The Spectator, 1993, “many of their best numbers and others that are very sub-Sondheim”

Suddenly HopeMorris Bernstein, Kyle Rosen, Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman: Variety, 2000, “The score relies heavily on sub-Sondheim talk-sung songs”

Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens: indielondon, 2003, “If I call the score sub-Sondheim, this is not an insult” (My favourite.)

Nine, Maury Yeston: The Wall Street Journal, 2003, “Mr. Yeston, who used to teach music theory at Yale, is a sort of sub-Sondheim”

Six Pictures of Lee Miller, Jason Carr and Edward Kemp: The Sunday Times, 2005, “Sung to a sub-Sondheim score” and (different critic), The Telegraph, “attractive enough in its sub-Sondheim way”

Parade, Jason Robert Brown: Independent, 2007, “sometimes sounds like a sub-Sondheim Sunday”

Wicked, Stephen Schwartz: West End Whingers, 2007, “sub-Sondheim lyrics”

The Story of My Life, Neil Bartram: The New York Times, 2009, “pretty but repetitive, registering as a blurred series of intricate vamps — might be described as sub-Sondheim”

Postcards from Dumbworld, Brian Irvine and John McIlduff: The Guardian, 2010, “ranges between vaudeville knockabout and sickly sub-Sondheim”

Tomorrow Morning, Laurence Mark Wythe: The Independent, 2010, “interestingly mediocre sub-Sondheim shows like this are the staple fare of endless workshops”

Hello Again, Michael John LaChiusa: The New York Times, 2011, “It’s a sub-Sondheim score, but subliminally infectious”

If/Then, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt: The Wall Street Journal, 2014, “The songs consist of pseudo-tunes and sub-Sondheim lyrics”

Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas: SinfiniMusic, 2014, “an efficient piece of sub-Sondheim music-theatre”

Who is this Sondheim fellow? Well, he’s the man who was once sub-Gershwin, sub-Rodgers etc. I’ll let two famous examples, on two prominent occasions, serve as evidence:

Clive Barnes, 1971, The New York Times (of Follies) – “his words are a joy to listen to, even when his music is sending shivers of indifference up your spine. The man is a Hart in search of a Rodgers, or even a Boito in search of a Verdi.”

John Lahr, 1979, Harper’s Magazine (of nearly everything up to Sweeney Todd) – “Unlike Gershwin, who began his songs with introductions, Sondheim’s songs begin with vamps – an approach that restricts his melodic invention and gives away to the audience what follows. The boldness of the initial musical gesture becomes monotonous because of this imposed pattern.”

Shall I go further back, and find critics who thought Rodgers and Gershwin were sub-Kern?

Instead, critics, let’s stop using the term “sub-Sondheim”. Can we all agree that it is, at best, lazy? I think it’s worse than that, though, because here’s what we are repeatedly saying to budding (and established!) writers of musicals:

1. Your work is not as good as the best guy’s work.

2. We used to think the best guy’s work was not the best. We thought it was not as good as the work of some other, older guys. Still, his work is better than yours.

3. In its day, the work of those other, older guys was not always considered great. Instead, it was thought merely popular, ephemeral, facile. Still, your work’s not as good as the guy whose work wasn’t as good as that work.

4. Why aren’t new songwriters keen on musical theatre? We really need them.

Why We Don’t Need a ‘Dubstep’ Musical, a ‘Punk’ Musical, a ‘Metal’ Musical …

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:

HairOriginal Broadway Cast
Disraeli GearsCream

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
Dominican Republic

[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.

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,
Gone.

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 …”

anthem

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.

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.

Even-Handed Agitprop

What better subject for a brand new song than Australia’s recent spectacular success with asylum seekers? It’s been a triumph, obviously, but I did a little research, and found there’s a rich, happy history to all this success.

PS You can tell it’s a brand new song, because the lyrics are propped in front of me. I almost never allow that.

PPS Recorded last Friday, September 26, at Eastern Riverina Arts, where they host occasional, tiny “office gigs”.