What Hollywood’s Addiction to The Hero’s Journey is Doing to the Broadway Musical – Part Two

Part One is here.

2. The ‘I Want’ Song – Immovable and Generic

Using Christopher Vogler’s stages in The Hero’s Journey, Julian Woolford observes:

“not every stage of the story necessarily contains a song. There are, however, certain key stages that commonly do contain songs. These tend to be the major stages of the story:

1.  The Ordinary World
2.  The Call to Adventure

4.  Meeting the Mentor …”

That’s fair, and Woolford, who prefers the term ‘I Wish’ to ‘I Want’ goes on [emphases are his]:

“The ‘I Wish’ song can occur at any point in Act One, but is most common at the Call to Adventure or the Refusal of the Call stages; it is one of the cornerstones of any score. The ‘I Wish’ song is about who the Hero is and what he wants.”

But here’s how Steve Cuden applies the Journey’s opening stages to a musical [emphases his]:

“So, you’ve established the world that the protagonist, antagonist, and other characters dwell in. And you’ve shown the audience how those characters interact. You’ve set up what the protagonist wants in his life, but not necessarily his overall goal just yet. A catalyst must occur to drive the protagonist out of his normal world …”

This is the influence of Hollywood thinking: the hero will be longing for something, but not for anything too specific, because The Call to Adventure hasn’t happened yet. So, in Beauty and the Beast (about to be re-made into a live-action film), Belle doesn’t sing:

I’ll stick these peasants with a fucking knife …

No, Belle sings:

There must be more than this provincial life …

There’s an added attraction in putting the ‘I Want’ song so early: the star gets a big sing very shortly after she appears on stage. That makes good box-office sense; but without concrete details in that song, she’ll be stuck singing about some big symbol, which we all know is a mere stand-in for vague self-fulfillment. You know, this kind of rubbish:TGWW1etc.

3. Act One is Bloated; Act Two is Thin

Here are Vogler’s twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. In Woolford’s approach, eight of them will tend to occupy Act One of a basic two-act musical.

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
  8. The Ordeal

Act Two will make use of the remaining four stages:

  1. Reward
  2. The Road Back
  3. The Resurrection
  4. Return with the Elixir

Steve Cuden’s seven plot points look more balanced in print …

  1. Normal World – Opening Image
  2. Inciting Incident – Catalyst
  3. Point of No Return
  4. Midpoint Begins

INTERMISSION

Midpoint Continues

  1. Low Point – The Big Gloom
  2. Climax into Resolution – Final Challenge
  3. New Normal – Closing Image

… but the same problem is hidden therein. You can see it coming, can’t you? Cuden and Woolford point out that Act Two is generally shorter than Act One – and they’re right – but look at the differences in story proportion! To use Cuden’s own analysis of Chicago as an example, Point 3, the point of no return, occurs when Roxie decides to hire Billy Flynn. Between that and Point 4, at the end of Act One, there are twenty-eight pages of script, and six songs. Six, sitting there between two innocuous numbers in a list.

If you’ve ever looked at your watch during Act One, and wondered if this thing could possibly be ninety minutes long, you might be sitting through a Hollywood-style Hero’s Journey musical. If you’ve spent interminable scenes and songs in Act Two in the company of minor characters who don’t matter, because so much of the Hero’s Journey took place in Act One – but it’s too soon to get to the climax – you might be at a monomythsical.

It’s so prevalent now that we’ve grown used to it, even in shows that are not based on screenplays. Here’s what should happen, about ten minutes into the second act of Wicked. Glinda, you will recall, has been telling the assembled Ozians about how she and Elphaba used to be friends.
wicked3

4. Only Two Kinds of Girls

Joseph Campbell, on what he called the Goddess:

“The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love”

And Campbell again, on what he called the Temptress:

“The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond”

If you write according to The Hero’s Journey, and you’re silly enough to think Campbell meant literal women, you’re in great danger of writing a show like this one:


It’s about a guy who …

And he wants …

He meets a girl, who’s … sweet/demure/shy/beautiful/pure/virtuous

There’s also another girl, who’s … brassy/slutty/outspoken/a feminist


This only-two-kinds-of-girl dynamic, which is endemic in Hollywood, is nothing new to the Broadway musical either, and you’ll find it in some great shows (Guys and Dolls, for one). But adopting the Hero’s Journey as a template makes it really, really easy to keep your female characters down to just two kinds – which is bad enough – and to make sure they exist only in relation to the Hero – which is even worse.

This is particularly likely to occur, I think, in original stories, or in stories adapted from an original source without any significant female characters in it.

For example, Avenue Q Jekyll & Hyde is about a guy named Princeton Jekyll who has first met a nice girl named Kate Monster Emma Danvers, but is later tempted by a different girl named Lucy the Slut Lucy the Slut.

At the time of writing, Something Rotten! is in previews. Without going too far into the plot (spoiler: underdogs triumph), there are two main female roles, Bea and Portia. Portia is sweet and unassuming, while Bea is a brassy go-getter. On the message boards, theatrephiles debate the pros and cons of Something Rotten!, but all agree as to the female roles: at this stage, Portia does nothing, and Bea does nearly nothing. Worse, I think, is that these women exist only in relation to their men.

Film Critic Hulk, who loathes the crutch The Hero’s Journey has become in film writing, has some wise, if exasperated, advice for writers: make your female characters more like Princess Leia. Not because she’s perfection in writing, but because she’s an actual character, neither goddess nor temptress, and she has a life when men aren’t around.

But Peter, If It Ain’t Broke … 

I probably seem alarmist, as I fuss over juggernaut successes like Beauty and the Beast, and Wicked. And maybe I seem reductive, when you consider a beautifully structured piece like Fun Home, a memory play as un-Hollywood as anyone could wish.

Also, after all these years, Phantom of the Opera is still running, and if it’s a Hero’s Journey, it’s a very, very thin one. What is it, this weirdly subversive tale, that says it’s OK for girls to get the hots for their Sexy Murdering Mentor-Daddy, provided they settle down afterwards with a Bland Suitable Boy?

Phantom, for all its hokiness, suggests a way out of the Hollywood screenplay trap. Just as detective fiction has, and as science fiction loves to do, Phantom shows how musicals can get away with exploring really interesting, odd, or unpopular ideas, while behaving quite conventionally on the surface.

In any case, if we’re all going to keep writing Cinderella stories, I, for one, would like to see her lift her game. Aim higher, Cinders! Instead of merely being chosen by a Prince, what if you infiltrated and overthrew the whole monarchy?

At least you wouldn’t be boring.

 

 

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?

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In Part Two – ‘I Want’ songs, bloated first acts, and only two kinds of girls.

How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?

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The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.

Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part One

I think Bob Fosse started it all when he cut the book numbers from the movie version of Cabaret.

Cabaret the stage show has, of course, book numbers – those non-diegetic numbers, the ones that spring out of nowhere – the kind chiefly responsible for audience members who groan, “Oh, no, it’s a musical.” In Cabaret‘s stage version, they’re Why Should I Wake Up, Perfectly Marvellous, What Would You Do?, and so on – all cut from the film.

Non-book numbers, diegetic songs, or (useful term, this) prop songs, are much easier for those groaning audience members to handle. After all, there’s the band, and that girl is really singing, for real. The onscreen audience hears her just as you, the viewer, do. And the dialogue usually has subtle set-up lines like:

Perky Guy: Hey, remember that number we used to do in the old days?

Perky Girl: Oh, that old thing? Nobody wants to hear that

Assembled Throng: Yes we do, go on, oh please etc.

Once the song’s real nature has been established, audiences are usually prepared to forgive all sorts of unreal things: where did those strings come from? How does the band know the chords? Anyone who worries about this sort of thing too much shouldn’t be watching musicals, just as pedants about the laws of physics should avoid action flicks.

Jerome Robbins, after seeing a final rehearsal of Cabaret onstage, apparently suggested that all the numbers outside the Kit-Kat club be removed. Fosse, smart man, did almost exactly that for the film, and the new songs written for the film (Money, Maybe This Time) were prop songs too. The only number outside the Kit-Kat club is Tomorrow Belongs to Me, which was always a prop song.

Three years after the film of Cabaret, the stage version of Chicago (Kander, Ebb and Fosse again) was originally presented as a vaudeville, complete with A Master of Ceremonies to introduce each act. When Rob Marshall staged the movie version as Roxie Hart’s fantasy, he sidestepped the groan-problem with the original show’s book-numbers-done-as-vaudeville-turns by making them all prop songs, complete with proscenium arches and lighting changes, all taking place inside Roxie’s head. How does everyone instantly know their lyrics and dance moves? Because Roxie is imagining this as a song, and Roxie is cuckoo as a Swiss clock, that’s how.

So far so good, except for one thing which hit me at the start of the year, while I was watching the first episode of Smash:

The greatest numbers in the history of musical theatre are non-diegetic.

or, put another way:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I can think of only two exceptions, and they are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly, from – natch – Cabaret and Chicago.

Allow me to demonstrate, with ten great (as in hugely successful) musical theatre characters, in no particular order, and the songs that make them great. Often, these are the songs that introduce them to the audience:

Fantine (Les Miserables) – I Dreamed a Dream

Prof Harold Hill (The Music Man) – Ya Got Trouble

Maria (The Sound of Music) – The Sound of Music

Erik, the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) – The Phantom of the Opera

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Some People

Elphaba (Wicked) – The Wizard and I

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Heaven on Their Minds

Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd) – The Worst Pies in London

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – I Put My Hand In

Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) – Tradition, or If I Were a Rich Man

Not one of these is a prop song. But then again, not one of these characters is a performer. What about characters who are singers?

Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) – her first song is a prop song (Pet Me Poppa or Take Back Your Mink, depending on which version you’re watching – [EDIT: please see gentlemanly correction from Richard Biever below]), but it’s Adelaide’s Lament that establishes her character. A great character, too.

Christine Daaé (The Phantom of the Opera) – her first song is Think of Me, a prop song, followed by Angel of Music, which establishes her character. Such as it is.

Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) – I’m the Greatest Star, which is not a prop song.

Nancy (Oliver!) – Nancy is given to performing the odd prop song in a pub (Oom Pah Pah), but she is introduced with It’s a Fine Life, which is not a prop song (in the stage show – it became one in the film).

Any male singers in musicals? Not many. An awful lot of actors in musicals, and plenty of writers and hoofers. Joey Evans, from Pal Joey, is a nightclub singer, and he is introduced with a prop song, You Mustn’t Kick It Around (“if my heart gets in your hair” writes Larry Hart, cruelly sticking it to lesser lyricists), but Joey’s character is established with a book number, I Could Write a Book. Hey, a number about books which is a book number!

Where am I headed with all this? Well, I contend that the musicals, historically, do not establish great characters with prop songs. And among the many (many) problems of Smash, about to begin its second season, this is the biggest.

(Musicals also, historically, do not farewell great characters with eleven o’clock numbers that are prop songs. Which is the subject of the next post.)

On Writing a Marilyn Musical

I’ve been watching Smash, because it’s trashy and fun. And, like many viewers, I’ve been saying “Wait. They’re auditioning without a script?” and “Hang on, who’s writing the book for this thing?”

Fair enough, Smash is a fantasy, and watching writers at work on a script is incredibly tedious. But the show has glossed over the near-impossibility of writing a decent musical about Marilyn Monroe. The characters of Julia and Tom, Broadway’s hottest songwriting couple, know that Monroe has been the subject of past flops, but they talked themselves out of that problem in the first episode with a hastily staged baseball number (also, incidentally, a feature of more flops than hits), and since then it’s been all systems go.

I’m going to take the task seriously, and really try to write an outline (as in place the scenes and songs) for a Marilyn musical.

First, Some Objections

1. Her story doesn’t sing.

From President Kennedy's birthday gala where M...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t mean it isn’t easy to place songs – it’s too easy, thanks to Monroe’s musical comedies, and her serenading of JFK in that breathless, highly imitable voice (go on, imagine listening to it all night). No, her story doesn’t sing, in that her life doesn’t have a single dramatic focus. Like many film actresses, she went from one project to another. Some films did well, others not. Husbands appeared. Husbands left. Her story is not like that in Evita: girl is born in poverty, sleeps her way upwards, gets married, grows powerful, becomes a paradox, dies of cancer. The only way to give Marilyn Monroe’s life a single dramatic focus is to, well, give her a single dramatic focus. We’re familiar with all the possibilities that offers, and that leads to the next objection.

2. We know too much. Way too much.

The strength of Evita is that she’s not a figure in popular culture. And if she is, it’s because of the musical. Monroe, on the other hand, is exhausted, and exhausting. We know about foster homes, abuse, early divorce, pin-ups, hair dye, the walk, the voice, bras in bed, more divorce, Strasbergs, barbiturates, lateness, Tony Curtis, Hitler, Kennedys, Sinatra, gangsters, death. We know it all, and it’s all been arranged in order to make sense so many times that even the ways of telling it are overly familiar: Marilyn Wanted to be Taken Seriously. Marilyn Just Wanted True Love. Marilyn Was a Proto-Feminist Victim of the System. Marilyn Was Trying to Please Daddy. All of which lead me to the biggest objection of all.

3. PEOPLE WHO GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPY.

This is, for me, why most stories of artists and showbiz types don’t work as bio-fiction. We spend the first hour watching them trying to get famous. They do pretty much whatever it takes. Why can’t the world see what they got? Then the world sees it! They’re famous! They’re beloved! But still not happy. The last hour is spent listening to them whine about how fame wasn’t what they expected. And I think: shut up, you brat. Get a real problem. If you hate it so much, retire. Take photographs of dogs. Care for the elderly. Become a swimming teacher. Because all non-showbiz lives are just as valid as yours, you pampered little wuss.

With those objections in mind, I’m still going to take a crack at it.

On a Thing a Guy Said During a Bit in the Oscars

I was wrong. Randy Newman won.

Far more interesting (and more interesting than if I’d been right) was a remark made during a montage.

It was one of those beautifully-edited and mixed Oscar retrospectives, designed to highlight the awfulness of this year’s Best Song nominees. “My Heart Will Go On” began to play, and a unidentified man was heard to remark something to this effect:

When my Dad was going through his heart surgery, that song was around, and my mom sang it all the time.

This means, unidentified man, that your mom is quite lovely.

The song is a turd.

That’s what Amanda’s line, from Private Lives, refers to: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. It doesn’t mean that cheap music is powerful. It means that humans are wonderful, able to find solace and emotion in whatever music is around them, no matter how tawdry. It means that music is wonderful; even its meanest examples can offer that solace.

Meanwhile, the job of songwriters is to present less tawdry options. That guy’s mom deserves it.

Alright, Let’s Get This Over With

Here are the nominees for this year’s Best Original Song Oscar.  I have posted about the pointlessness of this award earlier.

From Tangled, “I See the Light” (music Alan Menken, lyric Glenn Slater)

Bland ballad, made blander by Slater’s proficient use of cliche and bland imagery (“starlight”, “Standing here it’s all so clear/I’m where I’m meant to be”, “the fog has lifted”, “if she’s here, it’s crystal clear” etc.)

From 127 Hours, “If I Rise” (music A.R. Rahman, lyric Dido, Rollo Armstrong)

It has everything! Exotic cultures! Indecipherable lyrics! Children’s chorus! Non-committal sentiment about being better than your best!

From Toy Story 3, “We Belong Together” (music and lyric Randy Newman)

Fun, up-tempo Randy Newman number that might successfully have accompanied the credits to a thousand other movies.

From Country Strong, “Coming Home” (music and lyric Tom Douglas, Troy Verges, Hillary Lindsey)

So bland and bursting with country-rock cliches that it must make Glenn Slater feel like a phrase-maker. Oh, and sung by Gwyneth Paltrow. It will win.

On the Songs in Tangled

My boy is 11, and his Dad writes musicals. So when, during an animated musical, my boy puts his head in his hands and groans “Another song!”, he doesn’t expect a sympathetic ear.

But he got one at Tangled. I leaned over and whispered, “I’m with you, mate. I don’t think they need the songs.”

We spent the rest of the film enjoying Maximus the horse and counting the number of unnecessary songs. He counted all of them (including reprises), and I counted all of them but the “flower glow and flower shine” healing song. Because that one was part of the plot.

Anyway, here’s why the film doesn’t need songs. Occasional spoilers, if you’re under eight:

1. The songs are in dull, obvious places.

Think about where a computer, raised on musicals, would put the songs in a Rapunzel musical, if it wasn’t trying too hard. An upbeat, hopeful “I want” song for a Princess in a tower? Check. A forbidding “you mustn’t leave” number for the witch/old lady? Check. A ballad for the Princess and her rescuer? Check. Oh, and if any rascally supporting characters are introduced, a comedic kind of “this is who we are” number? Check.

2. The first three songs are structurally identical.

Here’s how I think it went, in a Creative Meeting. Present: Dan Fogelman (screenplay), Glenn Slater (lyricist), Mickey (mouse). Absent: Alan Menken (composer).

Glenn: OK, guys, Alan left me a bunch of demos, and I think there could be some good numbers in here.

Mickey: Do we have to have songs? I mean, Pixar have been doing pretty well …

Glenn: But the soundtrack, Mickey –

Dan: The Oscar, Mickey! We could own that category!

Mickey: I know, I know, but Bambi had songs only by an off-screen chorus. It didn’t need songs, so we …

Dan:  Thanks, Mickey. Whaddya got there, Glenn?

Glenn: Ah, there’s an up-tempo Belle thing for the opening. I think it should be a list of the things Rapunzel does, to keep herself from going mad. Lotsa sight gags for the boys in the audience there, Dan. Then a forbidding, Ursula the sea-witch kind of thing for Gothel the old woman. I’m thinking it should be a list of the reasons Rapunzel shouldn’t step outside. Lotsa sight gags, Dan. Then, when they’re in the Snuggly Duckling tavern, all the thugs reveal their dreams. So I’m thinking a list, Dan, of all their dreams. With sight gags.

Mickey: Notice how none of these ideas move the plot forward? And how they’re all amply covered in Dan’s script?

Glenn: Plus the love ballad.

Dan: Plus the love ballad.

Alan (entering): Hi guys, what did I miss?

Dan: We’re about to break for lunch.

3. The additional songs suck blood out of the one song that matters.

The one song that does have a job to do is the one Rapunzel sings to make her hair glow. It’s a healing incantation, and it’s part of the plot. It’s referred to when Rapunzel admits to Flynn “My hair glows when I sing. Well, not every time. Not that song I sang standing on top of the bar earlier, but this one particular song, which you haven’t heard me sing yet, but you will in a minute.”

That’s what she should have said, for everything to make sense. Or we could cut all the other songs.

4. The songs themselves aren’t much chop.

This wouldn’t matter nearly so much if the songs had something to do, like introducing ideas and characters not already apparent from the dialogue. As it stands, they commit the one unforgivable sin for songs in a musical: they do less work than the script.

Defenders may point to the troubled production history of Tangled, and to all the various versions that were written, and to earlier Disney musicals which also had dud numbers, but you know what I say? Tough.

Check out Pinocchio for a Disney film in which the numbers contribute to the storytelling. It is, incidentally, 12 minutes shorter than Tangled. And you know what the writers did with the numbers they wrote that didn’t move the story along? They cut them.

One additional gripe: the thug with a hook sings about Mozart in the tavern number. In a story clearly set in a late medieval fairytale world: Mozart. Lazy, lazy, sloppy.

Never Sleeps/Doesn’t Sleep, Heap/Something Else

Fred Ebb was too much of a pro to do this:

I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps
To find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap

Fred Ebb knew that “sleeps” doesn’t rhyme with “heap”, so he wrote:

I want to wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep

The “city that never sleeps” comes to mind more easily, probably because it was already an expression in 1977, when the Theme From New York, New York was written.  The City That Never Sleeps is, for starters, the 1953 film above – which I’ve never seen – set in New York.  The City That Never Sleeps is also a silent film from 1924 which no-one has seen, apparently – and I don’t know which city provides its setting.

So if there was a ready-made expression lying around, why didn’t Ebb just use it, and put up with an extra “s”?  Because a Broadway writer (or at least, one of Ebb’s generation and craft) would develop an ulcer if he left superfluous un-rhyming letters lying about the place.

Liza Minnelli’s version, the first, leaves Ebb’s words as written at the climax:

… doesn’t sleep …
… king of the hill,
head of the list,
cream of the crop,
at the top of the heap …

Frank Sinatra’s recorded version, probably the best-known, has “doesn’t sleep” the first time, and then:

… nevers sleeps …
… A Number One,
top of the list,
king of the hill,
A Number One …

Ebb went on the record about not liking the “A Number One” line, although he acknowledged the big hit (and he was probably relieved that Sinatra didn’t mangle the sleep/heap rhyme).  Sinatra was, apart from adopting his usual cheery indifference to a written lyric, giving himself a better vowel for the long, drawn-out note, before the “These little-town blues” that follows.

I don’t know what the Chairman of the Board was smoking before this live performance, but we get “the city that never sleeps” in the spoken word intro, followed by “doesn’t sleep” the first time, and then:

… doesn’t sleep
… I’m number one,
top of the list,
head of the heap,
king of the hill …

What?  Why set up the sleep/heap rhyme, and then non-rhyme with “hill”?  And since when does a heap have a head?

Steve Lawrence’s version:

… doesn’t sleep
… king of the hill,
head of the list,
cream of the crop,
on the top of the … list …

Now that’s just weird.  It sets up the rhyme correctly, heads off down Minnelli’s path, then changes a word, Sinatra-style, but changes it to a non-rhymer with a bad vowel. Crazy. 

This confusion is a gift to drunken karaoke singers.  You can now sing pretty much anything, and sound like somebody.