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.

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The Five Worst Album Covers I Found In My Father-In-Law’s Shed

The band is called Fire, and the album is “A Frame of Purple Roses”.  The year is 1986:

No.5

In this stunning re-imagining of the Promethean myth, our hero’s punishment is to be blindfolded and have an eagle fly threateningly towards his rude bits. Plastic covers the walls, for ease of cleaning.

There were a lot of cheesecake covers – mostly girls in just a T-shirt proclaiming the virtues of polka – but this was by far the worst:

No.4

It looks like the model is somehow causing the waterfall.

No.3

Here, on a similar theme, Joe has accidentally wandered into the girls’ lavatory, a minimalist affair with a single occupant, who is tired and emotional by the evening’s end.  Joe, ever the gentleman, turns his head.

The Addrisi Brothers had a long career, and gathered many followers (they wrote and performed the charming theme to The Nanny and Professor, for example).  And they found exactly the right look for the late ’70s. Here, Don (or is it Dick?) is asking his brother if he can borrow just one of his belts. Dick (or is it Don?) looks at the camera as if to say, “What do you think, fans? Can I really spare even one?”

And here is …

No.1
It’s not the make-up.  It’s not the goatee.  It’s not the soulful expression.  It’s not the year of 1983.

It’s the wonderful, wonderful combination of all four.

What I Found In My Father-In-Law’s Shed

It’s not strictly a shed.  It’s Campbells Building & Construction, Oura Road, Oura.  Apart from bathroom fittings, kitchen tiles, used furniture, a lot of timber off-cuts and the like, there is a room devoted to dusty paperbacks, and another that looks like this:

Turn around, and it looks like this:

Up close:

But Peter, I hear you cry, WHAT CAST RECORDINGS DID YOU FIND?

There was this, which I have read about, but never heard:

And there was this, an utter mystery to me:

This latter one, a little sleuthing reveals, is originally a Brit show from 1969, the second by Salvation Army writers Gowans and Larsson.  Their first, Take-Over Bid, played the Tivoli, and their second, Hosea, apparently yielded an Australian cast recording!

Yes, I am still reeling. It must be the dust.

Notes on an Australian Cast (Concept) Recording – Ned Kelly

Damn, but Google Books is an ugly place to visit. I swear, it was designed by someone who hates books.

But the occasional gem is hidden thereon, like this account of Ned Kelly‘s first season at the Adelaide Festival centre in 1977.

Reg Livermore has given his own clear-eyed account of the show (more properly, Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show), in his book Chapters and Chances, and here, on his website. Great pics there too.

The show began in pretty hip fashion for the 1970s, with an original 1974 concept recording, and then a stage adaptation, a la Jesus Christ Superstar and (later) Evita. After a contentious run in Adelaide, December 1977 (of the “is-public-money-wasted-on-this-sort-of-thing?” variety), it opened in February 1978 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (the theatre is now no more), and quietly disappeared until 2000, when the songs and lyrics were revised, and the stage rights became available to amateur and community groups.

There is no official cast recording of any stage production, but the original concept album can still be found (in my case, in a library), and has additional historical interest because most of the cast (Trevor White, Jon English, Arthur Dignam, John Paul Young, Livermore himself) had lately distinguished themselves in the Australian cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Dignam and Livermore, between concept album and stage version of Ned Kelly, starred as The Narrator and Frank-n-Furter in the Australian premiere of  The Rocky Horror Show. Oh, and Livermore managed, in all that spare time, to squeeze in the first productions of Betty Blokk Buster Follies and Wonder Woman.

This is in the space of four years, which is now the average length of time between a musical’s first reading and its lukewarmly received second workshop. Perhaps this is not always a bad thing, because the consensus on Ned Kelly is that the score had promise, but that it was probably unstageable, in the 1970s, in its 1970s form.

How’s the album holding up these days?

1. What Else Is New? – John (Paul) Young, Trevor White & Peter Chambers with Arthur Dignam

The opening bars sound like a proficient high school band, so things are off to an inauspicious start. Then, happily, everyone starts to rock out, and all the guys are obliged to hit high C sharps. Characterisations aren’t subtle: “once upon a time, there were these greedy squatters”; meanwhile, Dan, Steve, Joe and Edward “Bang Bang” Kelly are “fighting for your liberty”.

2. Put ’em Down – Dignam, Reg Livermore

The villains appear – cops and judges who they don’t rock like the Kelly boys. They are exceptionally daggy, and their beef with the common folk is both too self-knowing and vague, for the “unhygienic rabble” … “do exactly as they please”.

Incidentally, Flynn’s melody is not dissimilar to the one Benny and Bjorn would later write for “1956 – Budapest is Rising” in Chess. And nice countermelodies!

3. Lullaby – Janice Slater

Janice has a touch of Olivia Newton-John, especially when she hits the top notes. Or is it the other way around? This is a very, very loud lullaby, and the music is blithely that of the American southwest, with no attempt to sound Aussie, and not a hint of worry about it: “there’s a chahld … crahn to bee a may-uhn.”

4. Rob A Bank – J(P)Y, White, Chambers

A bluegrass patter number, with good, specific imagery from lyricist Livermore: “velvet suit” and “mad Uncle Harry”. At this stage the gang are still lovable ruffians.

5. Never Going Home – JPY, White, Chambers, Jon English & Tony Rose

And now they’re not. This is a big set-piece of a number, intelligently contrasted with  what went before. At Stringybark Creek the Kelly boys, in reverse historical order, graduate from bank robbers to killers. Flynn again proves adept at the big choral counterpoint stuff, alternating with solo passages. It builds and builds but it’s all a bit ponderous. Ned gets a chance to prove, once again, that heroes are heroes because their voices rock out.

6. Better Watch Yerself – White

Now that he’s crossed the threshold, Ned gets a short choral commentary, just as Judas did in Jesus Christ Superstar.

7. Dark Walk Home – White

A Kelly boy theatre-ballad at a moment of dilemma and, like many of them, too self-knowing: “I can walk two roads, one of them home. I can be two men, one man alone … gonna be a dark walk home tonight.” The chord progression wanders ambivalently through key centres, a nice touch.

8. Queen Victoria’s Fuzz – Livermore & Cast

The police are back, and they’re still jokes, led by a Queen Villain: “My blunderbuss bent, and a touch of waratah scent”. Livermore’s rhymes are true, and the images are specific, true to the period. There’s a kick-line finish, and the bad guys are given no more motivation than Iago was: ” … no grand parade, it’s just the way I’m made.”

9. If I Was A King – English

Ned in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Oh Lord, you’ve lost your touch”), with another balls-out vocal (high C sharps up to high Es!) over a minor key vamp in the middle.

10. Die Like A Kelly – Slater

This is the only song I knew prior to listening to this album, thanks to Geraldine Turner’s performance on ABC TV’s Once in a Blue Moon, back in 1994. That was a theatre ballad performance – this one is Renee Geyer at two in the morning. The caterwauling has the unintended effect of making Ellen Kelly’s grief all about herself, and not about her sons’ impending deaths.

11. Band Together – English, JPY, White, Chambers

“The people gonna come and band together … the people gonna have that family feeling”.  It’s not explained precisely who “the people” are, and if anyone (the fuzz?) is not included. The people are a bit like Hair‘s tribe: if you have to ask, you ain’t one of them. This singalong at the end, utterly without irony, feels icky.

12. Finale – Jon English

A whooshy, electronic ending for our hero. Also very Superstar – a choir, with a few sprinkles of Holst and Ligeti, sees him off.

It’s immediately apparent, all these years later, that the fate of Ned Kelly (the show, not the man) deprived us of two valuable musical theatre writers in Flynn and Livermore. Flynn (who also composed the score for Sunday Too Far Away) had real composing chops, and could write honest Ozrock – a combination rare in Aussie musicals, then and since. Flynn eventually moved abroad, conducting orchestras in both the UK and USA. He co-wrote three new songs for the revised Ned Kelly in 2000, and died in 2008.

Livermore remains better known for theatre roles and television presenting, despite all the writing entailed by his one-man shows, on both the large and Clarendon-scale. I wish, though, we all knew more of his lyrics: based on the evidence of this show, he had real craft, and he could do the modern Tim Riceish vernacular without resorting to cringey undergraduate jokes.

On Listening to Emily Howell, Non-Human Composer

Emily Howell’s debut album as a composer was released in February of this year.

I first read about Howell, David Cope’s astonishing feat of programming, here. Other articles here, here and here. You’ll notice the recurring reactions (fear and denial), not to Howell’s work, but to her existence. These are helpful for Cope and Howell’s notoriety, but neither makes sense. Howell, and her imminent offspring, are not going anywhere.

Fans of Howell say her critics are too harsh because they know she’s not human. If you didn’t know she was software code, their argument goes, you’d be more inclined to like her music. If there were a Turing test for music, Howell fans argue, Howell has passed it.

Excluding the false parallel with Turing’s test for language (notes and words are not the same), I think this is missing the point. Knowing that Howell is not human is no different to knowing that Elena Kats-Chernin is female, that Shostakovich was Russian, or that Beethoven went deaf. How’s the music? Any good?

I’m going to listen as I would to any other composer’s work. Open mind, hoping to love it.

The album is titled From Darkness, Light, and already Howell resembles many young composers trying to make a splash: her album title is just awful, and its cover (as you can see above) is even worse.

From Darkness, Light I: Prelude – This, as with the other five parts of this work, is for two pianos. Arpeggios running up the keyboard, firmly tonal, minor key. Harmonic rhythm kind of dull.

From Darkness, Light II: Fugue – If you’ve never written a fugue, it might seem that software is ideal for a form with such rigorous rules of structure and harmony. But for me, the rules are the least impressive part with great fugues. It’s the ability to extract surprise and freshness while remaining economical that I admire. This one has a skinny first subject, but its counter-subject has promise. The treatment is a bit relentless. Excerpts from these first two movements here.

From Darkness, Light III: Prelude – pretty, and with a more satisfying harmonic rhythm than the first prelude. It develops a little predictably, seems as if it’s really going somewhere, and then it stops. Hear most of it here.

From Darkness, Light IV: Fugue – a much better subject, and it develops nicely, culminates well, dies away as it should. You can lose yourself in this one, if that’s how you like to listen to fugues. A keeper.

From Darkness, Light V: Prelude – Howell has an odd way of not knowing when she’s on to something good. And I say this without meaning that she’s non-human, and can’t judge individual sections of music in their relation to the whole. I am sure she can, but for some reason she often chooses not to. This piece plays on the contrast between its two sections, and fairly obviously at that. Some subtlety in the tansitions would help.

From Darkness, Light VI: Fugue – Good subject, perfunctorily treated.

Land of Stone – Ms Howell, you will have noticed, has no gift for titles. Scored for chamber orchestra, this is probably what people are expecting from a non-human composer. It begins with single notes, drawn out by passing them among the instruments, Webern-style. There are small outbursts of dissonance before the single notes resume, and the piece builds to a longer end-section, with individual instruments given their own lines. The texture becomes more dense as the bass drum pumps away underneath. In terms of orchestration, Howell is comfortable with the strings, has yet to master the woodwinds, and is uninspired in the percussion and brass departments.

Shadow Worlds I – Performance credited to Howell herself, on three Disklaviers. This is a perpetuum mobile affair, with short flurries of notes in different registers, over a grinding bass run. The implied harmonies vary, as do the dynamics, and the bass gives way to high-register trills. Then it all collapses to the left, with the dampers off, and I am not sorry to see it go.

Shadow Worlds II – Brian Eno turns up. Single notes, arranged around the three different keyboards, struck and allowed to hang in the air. Some shorter clusters, usually up high, all of it pleasantly atonal. Is it a twelve tone row? Don’t think so. Nice enough, but extraordinarily similar to an extraordinary number of other pieces.

Shadow Worlds III Howell has yet to demonstrate any love for rhythmic games, but here a single chord stabs out on different keyboards and, as the rhythms begin to intersect, a funky kind of pattern builds. The single chord begins to thin out into its component parts, until individual dots speak out from each keyboard, and the combined rhythm disappears bit by bit. I like it. I like it a lot, and if I’d heard it without knowing its human composer’s name, I would have immediately sought him/her out to find out what else he/she had written.

Shadow Worlds IV – Grand opening, modal motif, repeatedly coming back to its tonic, bang bang bang. The three keyboards stick to one register each: low, middle, high. It sounds like the Siege of Leningrad would sound if we didn’t already have a tune for that.

Based on this album I think Howell’s future, at first, is in film. Her predecessor, EMI, was incredibly prolific and fast, but Howell has been more taciturn so far. If she is capable of composing quickly, she’s already proven herself to be very reliable, and sometimes good. From a purely mercenary point of view, I’d sign her tomorrow for a film score, and if I were an overworked film composer, I’d use her as an assistant, probably uncredited. If she (or any others like her, and they will come) can learn orchestration, she can own the generic film music market, the corporate video market, the porn music market, the techno market …

From an artistic point of view, I’d like to see Howell let off the chain, and break more rules. Could Cope insert a line or two of maverick-code? Howell’s greatest compositional deficiency, I think, is her lack of skill in development. When she masters that, she’ll get the emotional response from audiences that isn’t quite there yet. She also has no sense of humour, but that won’t hurt her career.

Could Howell learn to improvise? Could she learn the principles of inventing a great jazz solo, and whip one out in real time? I’d love to hear that.

In fact, if I were the Artistic Director of a Festival, looking to make a splash, I’d be trying to commission a piece entirely by non-human creators. Visual art with a Howell score. A dance piece with choreography and music by non-humans. The hard part would be getting the creators to work with each other, but that’s already the case with humans.