A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The Dancin’ Quodlibet (plus Ideas for the Future)

So far, I’ve looked at two kinds of musical theatre quodlibet. Just to reiterate, these are instances when melodies previously heard are reprised, but simultaneously. Quodlibets are a specific instance of counterpoint, and I’ve covered The Berlin Quodlibet, which has two or more different melodies written to the same chord progression, and The West Side Quodlibet, in which melodies that were written to different chord progressions are reprised, but some are altered enough to fit the chords of just one of them.

If you’re kind of mathsy, you may have already spotted the missing combination yourself: is there a quodlibet featuring melodies written to different chord progressions that are later combined without altering any notes?

I know of only one, and it’s …

Dancin‘ (John Farrar, Xanadu)

Yes, Xanadu, which is on nobody’s list of great theatre scores, features the only example I know of, by John Farrar, who is on nobody’s list of great theatre songwriters. But he was – yay! – born in Australia.

Dancin‘ combines two characters’ vision of what a disused auditorium could become once renovated: Danny McGuire sees a ballroom with a ’40s style big band in tuxedos, while Sonny Malone imagines an ’80s nightclub with a synth/rock band in electric orange. Their two visions combine, visually and musically.

Normally, given this kind of writing assignment, a pop/rock writer like John Farrar would do a good job of the ’80s band, and utterly botch the ’40s swing. But instead I think he hits it out of the park. I’m using the original film version (because it’s better: the stage version truncates matters badly), and here’s the relevant part of Farrar’s Andrews Sisters-esque chord progression and melody. This is just the top sister, if you will – naturally, the underlying harmony sisters would have to change their tune if the chord progression changed:

dancin1_0019

All those ninths and thirteenths are exactly the right sort of harmonic flavour for the period being evoked (unlike the anachronistic grinding choreography in the clip I linked to: what a dirty-old-man’s vision that Danny McGuire is having). Here’s what the ’80s rock band sings, to a very pop/rock chord progression – no ninths or thirteenths here:

dancin2_0020

But look at this! Without needing to change a single note, the Andrews Sisters tune can be sung with the rock/pop progression:

dancin3_0018

Actually, there’s one tiny pick-up note that does need to change, by a mere semitone, but even so, this is very neat. I can’t really defend Farrar’s lyrics in the pop/rock verses – they just sound like threats of sexual assault – but musically, I’d rather listen to Dancin‘ than to many other quodlibets by bigger music theatre names. And please, tell me if there are other quodlibets like it that I’ve missed, because I don’t know of any.

Which leads me to …

Ideas for the Future

A word of warning for all of these ideas: since quodlibets link different songs together, they can really kick you in the teeth during rewrites. Sure, you’re cool with changing the big Act One finale, but dammit, now you have to go back and rewrite three other songs to be heard in counterpoint during the bloody thing. No wonder Claude-Michel Schönberg stuck to one of music’s most easygoing chord progressions.

1. The Double Dancin’ Quodlibet

Just like Dancin‘, except there are three tunes, written to three different chord progressions, and they still fit together later on. Hell, if I were attempting this, it might be fun to combine the three tunes over a fourth, as-yet-unheard chord progression.

As for why you’d do this, let’s see: three people who turn out to be related, maybe? Or one character, played by three different actors, at three different but related points in her life?

2. The Diminished/Augmented Quodlibet

Augmentation and diminution involve lengthening or shortening the rhythmic values of a melody, usually by a factor of two. They’re bread and butter techniques to a Baroque-era composer, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them in musical theatre, and I think they could be fun in a quodlibet.

You’d need a dramatic justification, obviously, and you’d have to keep whatever rhythm you were playing recognisable, or the trick wouldn’t work. But pretend one character was very wound up at some earlier point, and sang a very wound-up melody. Then they had a night of passion, maybe, or took pills, or went on a spa retreat, so now we hear their melody again, over the top of their lover’s, or dealer’s, or massage therapist’s, but at half speed. Bonus points if the melody reveals hidden melodic depths at half speed, a la the delightful contrafactum Seventy-Six Trombones/Goodnight My Someone.

Change the pills, and maybe we hear the tune at double speed.

3. The One-Person Quodlibet

Here’s a snippet of a compound melody for cello, by a fellow named J. S. Bach:

compound1_0018

Bach doesn’t present this as two separate melodies first, but he could have, since it’s a combination of:

compound2_0018

Thus, a singer could sing one melody first, followed by the other, followed by a One-Person Quodlibet. For an added thrill, the two sets of lyrics could join up and make sense in a different way once combined. Even Bach never did that.

Reasons for this? J. Pierrepont Finch sings to himself in the mirror in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and his mirror self could sing back. Sid Sorokin sings a duet with his dictaphone in The Pajama Game. Guido tries, and nearly manages, to sing a duet with himself in Nine. A precedent is clearly established for men who are pretty full of themselves. Maybe it’s time to let a female character have a crack at it?

4. The Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen

This one actually exists, but sort of by accident, in Hamilton. Dear Theodosia begins with Aaron Burr’s song to his daughter, followed by Hamilton’s different melody over the same chords to his son. Before the show moved to Broadway, those two melodies used to combine in a quodlibet, which – pace, Hamilton fans – you could hear coming a mile away, because Dear Theodosia is very pretty, but its chord progression is kinda hokey.

Now, forever enshrined on the Original Cast Recording, is a Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen, and whoever had that idea, they were wise. We know Hamilton and Burr are joined by destiny, thanks to the first song in the show, and subsequent songs, and staging, and motifs, and word choices etc., so there’s no need for the two melodies to over-egg the pudding at this point. Instead, we get another musical bond between the two men, but implied rather than stated outright.

I admit it would take modesty and restraint to make one of these quodlibets on purpose, since one of the reasons you write a quodlibet in the first place is to show off a bit. And I’ll also admit you could probably only make one of these work in the audience’s mind if the two chord progressions were the same. Who knows, maybe it would only work if the progression’s kinda hokey?

[EDIT: One week after I posted this, another Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen popped up and I’ve added it in the comments. These things may be all around us, people!]

5. The Ashman Quodlibet

There are two famous quodlibet opening numbers: Tradition, from Fiddler on the Roof, and All That Jazz, from Chicago. They’re both Berlin Quodlibets; Jerry Bock in particular has a ball inventing more and more tunes that can be played over Fiddler‘s fiddler’s leitmotif. They’re also sung by characters who are all in agreement, more or less, whether they’re detailing the traditions of life in Anatevka, or all the hi-jinks in store for Chicago’s town-painters.

But there’s a particular kind of opening number described by Jack Viertel in his Secret Life of the American Musical (a good read, by the way, if you’re interested in structure, and to be avoided if you think ‘secret’ means gossip), and he associates it with lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman. It’s the kind of opening number Ashman structured for Beauty and the Beast: the audience is introduced to the world of the musical, and in the middle of that world there is a main character who has a contrasting ‘I Want’ moment, as opposed to a separate ‘I Want’ song later.

Ashman’s not the only writer who likes this kind of opening: Marc Shaiman’s clearly a fan, having co-written structurally near-identical songs for the openings of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hairspray. There’s also a proto-version at the start of Li’l Abner: A Typical Day introduces the audience to the citizens of Dogpatch, and briefly to Daisy Mae, who wants Abner. But Ashman seems a worthy man to name a quodlibet after, not least because what I’m proposing nearly – nearly – happens at the start of Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop has a Berlin Quodlibet moment towards the end of Skid Row, when Seymour starts up a new tune (“Someone show me a way to get outta here”), which turns out to be a countermelody to the song’s main refrain (“Downtown …” etc). By this point Seymour has already had his introduction as a main character (“Poor, all my life I’ve always been poor …”) and so has Audrey (“Downtown, where the guys are drips …”). As for the tunes of these introductory moments, Audrey’s is the same as everyone else’s, and Seymour’s is not used again.

So, I’m not advocating any rewrites to Skid Row, but what if instead, to use Little Shop as a hypothetical model, we got this?

A section. Skid Row and its lousiness introduced

B. Seymour and Audrey introduced in contrasting sections, with their own melodies and harmony, perhaps according to their I Wants.

A. More lousy Skid Row, building to …

A+B. Big finish: Seymour and Audrey sing their introductory parts at the same time as the A section. Surprise! It was a quodlibet all along.

All other ideas gratefully accepted. Also, any types of quodlibets I’ve missed, because nobody knows every score.

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