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.

The Lizard Of Oz – photos, stories, the whole bewdy bottler

Late last year, I posted about the joy of writing music and lyrics for a new show, The Lizard of Oz, with script and direction by Peter Cox and Mark Grentell. If you haven’t seen their film Backyard Ashes, I highly recommend it.

We have only four performances left in our initial season, so here, courtesy of some fine photographers and our absurdly talented designer Aron Dosiak, is the next best thing to seeing the show live at Wagga’s Wollundry Lagoon.

The composer at the piano:

Kane at the piano
Kane Toad. Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

My favourite shot of our heroine, Dotty:

dotty
Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

Jacqueline Irvine, who plays Dotty, is way more savvy and much less naive than her character. She’s also physically fitter than the rest of us put together, although I do bring down the company average somewhat.

Andrew Strano is Leonardo de Emu …

leonardo
Photo: Laura Hardwick, Daily Advertiser

… and Big Red the kangaroo:

big red face down
Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Apart from being talented and hilarious, Andrew is a lyricist, and he’s co-written, completely independently of my effort, a song about being inappropriately close with a family member. So I have a bit of a man-crush on Andrew.

Our villainess, Arachna, is played by Karla Hillam. She manages to belt it out from this balcony to the whole audience, totally unamplified:

arachna on the balcony
Photo: Les Smith, Daily Advertiser

This moment of staging necessitated my favourite bit of songwriting in the show, because we needed something to cover Arachna’s move from the balcony down to ground level. So, in rehearsals, I pretended I was wearing Karla’s outfit, and took the elevator down one floor, with our stage manager Liz holding all the doors for me. That took 58 seconds, and we all thought that was a bit long. So I waddled down the stairs on foot, and that took only 38 seconds. I scrawled these ideas in an old diary while we were rehearsing other scenes:

look at that

That night, I wrote a tune, and we learned the vocals the next day. With Karla in costume, from balcony to ground level, it took 40 seconds.

“Karla,” I said, “I just totally Sondheimed your move downstairs.” Then I had to explain to everyone about the elevator in Company, on Boris Aronson’s original set, and then I felt old.

Arachna decrees that only one song can be heard in all of Oz – her song, “It’s All About Me”, an anthem of Idolesque genericness, with an appalling I-V-vi-IV chord progression.

arachna idol
Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Jamie Way is Dodo the dog and Bitza the platypus (although he doesn’t know he’s a platypus until the end of the show):

bitza and leo
Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

At this point, Bitza’s identity crisis has forced him to adopt an outrageous French accent. Jamie can do all the accents, while singing, and in celebrity versions if you request them. I haven’t heard him run out of ideas yet.

Michelle Brasier is PC Kookaburra, and Katerina Pavlova, the world-famous opera singer and desert dessert:

katerina
Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

Katerina’s entrance and exit music, a mishmash of a pavlova recipe and soprano warbling, is just my attempt to transcribe what Michelle improvised effortlessly at the first read-through. I could never have done any better, or any funnier.

The finale:

finale
Photo: Grant Harper, Livestream Australia

By this point, Arachna has been vanquished, Michelle is PC Kookaburra, Karla has dressed up as Katerina Pavlova, I’ve been inside a Lizard’s head (and operated a Bilby rod puppet), and the sun is about to set. It’s a hoot.

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.

Ulla is Wasted in ‘The Producers’

I wrote in an earlier post about female characters in musicals who are little more than lust-bunnies for male characters. I mentioned Ulla, from The Producers, as an example.

Some Ulla Inga Fansens thought I was criticising Ulla herself, and leapt to her defence. But I was actually criticising the work of Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, who both have remarkable careers, stacks of great things they’ve written, and half a dozen Tony Awards between them.

I was also suggesting that an important character doesn’t work in a show that ran 2502 performances on Broadway – so, you know, I don’t think I can do much damage here. Nevertheless …

How Ulla Should Be Re-Written

As The Producers stands right now, Max Bialystock subjects a gorgeous blonde in the street to some sexual harassment. This blonde, we later discover, is Ulla.

Max seeks out the worst play ever written, and finds it. He takes it to Roger De Bris, and in the course of Max’s convincing Roger to direct Springtime For Hitler, the play becomes a musical.

(Question: where will the songs come from? The show never explains it.)

Ulla turns up to audition for Max with a song she’s written. The song is good, and Ulla wrote it in a day.

Now ve join de dots, ja?

Springtime for Hitler needs songs.

________________Ulla writes songs.

____________________________Springtime for Hitler needs songs.

___________________________________________Ulla writes songs.

So here’s what we do. Early in Act Two, Ulla dumps a bunch of songs she’s written on Max’s desk. Max confides to Leo that the songs are, happily, dreadful. One of the songs is “Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band”, which lands Franz Liebkind the role of Hitler.

On the opening night of Springtime for Hitler, among the unexpected praise in the newspapers is a valentine for Ulla’s brilliant, savage, parody songs. (If she performs in Springtime, as she does now, that’s odd, since Max remarks that they’ve hired the worst singers and dancers they could find. Poor Ulla!)

Then, when Ulla proposes to Leo that the two of them run away to Rio, she makes it very clear that she was in on the scam the whole time. Yes, she knew about Max schtupping every little old lady in New York. Yes, she knew about Leo’s two sets of accounting books. But most of all, yes, she deliberately wrote those dreadful songs, because that’s what Springtime needed. Leo is astonished: what a brilliant, gorgeous woman.

With these touches, we have achieved three good things:

1. Tidied up a plot point.
2. Given Ulla depth.
3. Made Ulla’s relationship with Leo smarter and sexier.

And to avoid adding to The Producers’ running time, I say we make these additions at the expense of some of Carmen Ghia’s mincing schtick. It will not be missed.

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.

Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 2)

For background (and a TL;DR summary), see the previous post.

Now, I didn’t go looking for the following songs; I kept my ears open, and they found me. I listened for effective rhymes away from the world of show tunes, and I tried very, very honestly to find a better part of each song that didn’t rhyme properly.

Standard Excuse No.1 – The Unschooled and Ephemeral Nature of Teen Pop

(Note: rhymes are red, off-rhymes are blue)

Here’s how ‘My Boyfriend’s Back‘ (Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer) begins its first refrain:

My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
You see him comin’, better cut out on the double
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Three things to notice, this early in the song. One, that the “hey lah-day-lah” response puts extra pressure on each rhyme, because the listener has more time to hear it coming. Two, that the most telling word, in terms of the singer’s character, is a non-rhymer, “cut”. That “cut out on the double” rings true to me. Three, that each rhyming line ends with a two-syllable rhyme (I won’t use the term “feminine rhyme”, even though it’s tempting here), and that this two-syllable rhyme challenge is dropped almost immediately, to the song’s detriment:

You been spreading lies that I was untrue
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
So look out now ’cause he’s comin’ after you
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

This obliges the singer to sing “untrue-oo”, and “you-oo”, and there are no compensating additions, in terms of fresh ideas or subject matter, to make up for this loss of craft in the rhyme department. It’s just a weak follow-up to the first refrain.

Hey, he knows what you been tryin
And he knows that you been lyin

The two-syllable rhyme returns in the bridge, but it’s not ideal, since both words (tryin’ and lyin’) are, as W K Wimsatt would have pointed out, the same parts of speech, and so not as effective when paired. Sondheim would add that words with the same spelling aren’t as surprising. Yeah, I just made reference to Wimsatt and Sondheim in a blog post about ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’.

He’s been gone for such a long time
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Now he’s back and things’ll be fine
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Really disappointing. The words don’t rhyme (in fact, they’re a clichéd off-rhyme), the syllables again have to be stretched to fit the notes, and nothing new is said. Happily, better times are ahead.

You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Cause he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

These are still off-rhyming words, and they’re still lazy one-syllable off-rhymes, but “kinda” and “awful” are perfectly in character.

Hey, he knows I wasn’t cheatin
Now you’re gonna get a beatin

That’s more like it! Wimsatt would approve, because a verb rhyming with a verbal noun is better than two verbs. And the rhyming words are in character, too.

What made you think he’d believe all your lies?
(Wahooo, wahooo)
You’re a big man now but he’ll cut you down to size
Wahooo, wait and see

A second bridge! This is actually where the single syllable rhymes belong.

My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
If I were you, I’d take a permanent vacation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

That’s it. That’s how good the whole song should be. There they are, two-syllable rhymes, perfectly in character and the syntax is spot on. This is, unsurprisingly, the last couplet: the song closes with ad-libbing over the refrain.

Standard Excuse No.2 – Folksy Insouciance (aka Being Authentic, Staying Real etc.)

This is ‘For the Ages‘, from Paul Kelly’s 2012 album Spring and Fall. The song is credited to Paul Kelly and Dan Kelly.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
I’m glad you live here in mine
Your face and figure belong
To centuries been and gone
Those Renaissance and Roman times

Wise, this, because if you’re gonna not rhyme, you should be a not-rhymer right from the beginning. Notice there are two single-syllable off-rhymes set up here, between the second and last line of each stanza, and between the third and fourth line.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
Long may you live in my rhyme
The years will cut us down,
But they won’t keep us in the groun
Out of the grave we’ll climb.

But wait, now these are true rhymes, since “ground” loses its terminal letter (and rhyme is mentioned explicitly, so it’s probably just as well). Notice, though, that the idea is trite, and a little bit gross?

Oh, darling you’re one for the ages
You’ll never go out of style
You walked into the ball
Dressed by St Vincent de Paul
With that shy, serious smile

This is superb. This is a marvellous example of rhyme leading the mind in fresh directions (a paraphrase of Goethe, I think, but I can’t find a source). The “shy, serious smile” is shopworn, yes, but rhyming “ball” with “St Vincent de Paul” is gorgeous. It scans beautifully, it’s surprising (you won’t find it at rhymezone), and it’s effortlessly in character (unlike, say, “forestall” or “Nepal”).

After a guitar instrumental, this:

Darling you’re one for the ages
Your beauty suits ev’ry clime
There’s a mystery deep within
And in the light upon your skin
I could study for all time

True rhymes all the way, but it’s weak for four reasons. One, nobody says “clime” when they mean “climate”. Two, this rhyme has already been used, but as “climb”. Three, the “mystery deep within” and “light upon your skin” is hackneyed – and no, I don’t care how many listeners swoon at it (having already mentioned face, figure, and smile, the song is now perilously close to a shopping list). Last of all, the syntax means I can’t make sense of it: could you study in the light upon the skin, as if it’s a sort of lamp? Or is there a mystery in the skin-light, and you could study that mystery?

Even though it doesn’t end well, I love this song for demonstrating, so neatly, that not all off-rhymes are bad (the opening verse works well), and that not all true rhymes are good (the last verse is the song’s weakest). But when everything is done just right (tone, prosody, syntax and a perfect rhyme), the song has its finest moment.

Standard Excuse No.3 – Rock Swagger

Now, when it comes to rock, I’ll admit it: we should rhyme sparingly, and rhyme carefully. If rhyme tends to indicate presence of mind, or forethought, or intelligent analysis, then a song encouraging abandon, gettin’ loud, or gettin’ wild, has little use for it.

For example, in a song about boredom, frustration and alienation, Jagger and Richards demonstrate the value of repetition:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

Count the rhymes – none. But notice, also, no off-rhymes? And look at that beautiful variation in vowel sounds (vowel-boredom can be a real trap when you’re adopting repetition): short a, short e, long o, short i, long i. I don’t think Mick and Keef said “Man, we better, like, vary the vowels if we’re gonna, like, eschew traditional rhyme in this fashion.” I think they opted for what sounded good, and maybe for what felt good to sing. And they were right.

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say

And so the rest of the song goes. There are some rhymes (their position moves about in different verses, but they’re true rhymes), and there are off-rhymes, but there’s more repetition than anything else.

Incidentally, my favourite line in the song has always featured one of its few rhymes:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girlie action

Except that’s not the line. I’ve been wrong for forty years, because the line is

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girl reaction

At the risk of presumption, I think the first version is better – and I wonder, how many other people think it’s “girlie action”?

We have all heard the opening of ‘Sweet Home Alabama‘ (Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant) far too many times, and so we have all forgotten how good it is. Pretend this was written for Assassins, by Sondheim:

Big wheels keep on turnin’
Carryin’ me home to see my kin
Singin’ songs about the southland,
I miss Alabamy once agin, and I think it’s a sin

Look at how beautifully a truck or a bus is implied, while character is created (‘kin’, ‘agin’ and ‘Alabamy’ are terrific), and even religion gets a nod. It’s superb, and all the rhymes are perfect. I think it’s the best part of the song, but I’ll admit that many listeners probably prefer: 

In Birmingham they love the governor
(Boo, boo, boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth

This has only one off-rhyme, but the song has started to weaken at this point, because the verses have begun using the same “oo” rhyming sound as in the chorus:

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord I’m comin’ home to you

Vowel-boredom! It’s a shame, and it continues into the next verse about the Swampers of Muscle Shoals. I’m happy if people think the Watergate verse is the best, but I’d like to see a rehabilitation of the opening lines’ reputation, because they’re enviably good.

One more rock song which, like Paul and Dan Kelly’s “For The Ages”, demonstrates the virtues and pitfalls of rhyme:

Back In Black
(Angus Young/Malcolm Young/Brian Johnson)

Back in black
I hit the sack
I been too long I’m glad to be back

It’s a pity that “back’ is repeated, but still, there aren’t many rock classics with an inner rhyme in the title, and on a good, hard “ack” sound to boot. I have never understood “hit the sack”, though, because to me it means going to bed, and that’s not very rock. Maybe it’s “hit the sac”?

Yes I am
Let loose
from the noose
That’s kept me hanging about

Best lines in the song. It’s a perfect rhyme, on a fresh vowel sound, it’s in character, and it makes a pun about hanging.

I keep looking at the sky cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse cause I’ll never die
I got nine lives, cat’s eyes
Using every one of them and runnin’ wild

Some say it’s “abusing”, not “using”, but that’s not important: how many cat’s eyes do you have? How impressive is using or abusing all of them?

After the refrain, which is largely made up of the title, this:

Back in the back of a
Cadillac
Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack

I don’t mind the repetition of “back” so much here, but it’s used in two different senses, and it’s an inner identity, rather than an end rhyme. “Cadillac” is excellent, and those bullets are a great image, but power packs? Not so much. That sounds like a prepared nerd to me: “It’s alright, everyone, I function as a power pack!”

Yes I am in a bang
With the gang
They gotta catch me if they want me to hang

A new rhyming sound, which is good, but this image was used up earlier, in the much better “oose” rhyme.

Cause I’m back on the track and I’m beatin’ the flack
Nobody’s gonna get me on another rap
So look at me now I’m just makin’ my play
Don’t try to push your luck just get out of my way

You can see the Young brothers and Johnson trying to stick to the “ack” rhymes here, but they know they’ve used several of the good ones, and in any case they know some variety is in order. I think “rap” is a particularly weak off-rhyme, and the clue to what they should have done is right there, in that little word, “luck”. By changing the vowel, while keeping the consonant, they could have mentioned a neck (which you can stick out), and “stick” rhymes with kick, or trick, while neck rhymes with deck (which you can hit, or deal), and if you duck those earlier bullets then duck rhymes with … luck.

Standard Excuse No.4 – The Iconoclastic Nature of Hip Hop and Rap

I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop or rap, and I freely admit I don’t know a great deal about either. I’m middle-aged, so I think Chuck D and Busta Rhymes are really talented, and I can’t understand the fuss over Eminem or Kanye West. But here’s what I hear rappers doing all the time: matching lazy rhymes with lazy ideas. And the better ones also do the converse.

This is the refrain from “Chum” by Earl Sweatshirt (credited writers are Sweatshirt, Taiwo Hassan, Kehinde Hassan, and Hugo), which I heard on NPR’s All Songs Considered – see, I told you I was middle-aged:

Something sinister to it,
pendulum swinging slow, A degenerate movin
through the city with criminals, stealth
Welcome to enemy turf,
harder than immigrants’ work
“Golf” is stitched into my shirt

This last line might seem arcane, but it’s a reference to Sweatshirt’s hip hop collective Odd Future, and its meaning would be clear to his fans. That aside, notice that this opening image is presented in slightly overworked terms, is a little pretentious (to be fair, the performer was only 18 when this released), is made mostly of weak off-rhymes, and is one of the most well-worn in literature: the sensitive poet, alone, an outsider.

It’s probably been twelve years since my father left,
left me fatherless

Personally, I imagine this is devastating, but in literary terms, the absent father is a faithful standby. The lyric improves when the ideas turn to specific details of self-loathing and rebellion, and “fatherless”, which was a clumsy off-rhyme with “left”, rhymes with what comes next [Warning: the N-word is coming]

… left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jes
When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six
And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it
Sixteen, I’m hollow, intolerant, skip shots
Storm that whole bottle, I’ll show you a role model

I realise that poring over every rhyme like this in a rap, and deciding whether it’s true or off, is a bit like listening to Steve Reich for the chord changes. Most rap fans would prefer to let the words flow at speed, but look at how the song gets better as the imagery and observations become more specific and original. That inner rhyme of “hollow” and “intolerant” is good stuff and, since bottle is pronounced “boddle”, its rhyme with “role model” is, I think, excellent. If it’s a rap cliché, I stand corrected, but it’s new to me.

Momma often was offering peace offerin‘s
Think, wheeze, cough, scoffin’ and he’s off again
Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that
And plus he liked how I rap,
The blinded mice in the trap:
Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks
From honor roll to crackin’ locks up off them bicycle racks

And there they all are again: specific image, tone, implied character, natural syntax, perfect rhyme, best lines in the song.

But as I said, I don’t know enough rap or hip hop. If anyone can show me an artist who does everything I suggest with true rhymes, but still produces their best work with off-rhymes, I’d be wiser than I am now. At this point, though, I feel perfectly confident saying:

If you get everything right – prosody, tone, syntax, and agreement in sound – a perfect rhyme will always be better than an off-rhyme, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 1)

This Maclean’s article came out last May, and I nearly wrote about the matter right away, in a high-handed manner. But I decided to try being thoughtful instead, and I’ve been trying ever since.

First, here’s the TL;DR version …

There’s more to a perfect rhyme than merely getting the sounds to agree. Perfect rhymes didn’t become the norm in musical theatre until around the 1940s, and they didn’t hold sway for very long. Perfect rhymes are still worth pursuing, though, in every genre of songwriting. I can back this up with examples.

To address two assumptions in Jaime Weinman’s first paragraph of that article – and these assumptions are made pretty much everywhere, so I by no means lay them at Weinman’s feet:

1. “the last refuge of perfect rhyme”

For me, there are many elements to a perfect rhyme, especially in theatre, and agreement in sound is only one of them. There are also prosody and scansion to consider (songwriters tend to use these terms interchangeably, but what I mean is singable syllables, naturally stressed), syntax (words in the right order should be), and tone (you can’t whip out just any old word, simply because it rhymes). Different songwriters and different eras have valued these elements differently. Early in the last century, for example, this sort of thing was pretty common:

He: In every foreign country I have met my fate.
I’ve met her so much, I am tired.
She: Can you remain quite neutral and to me relate,
Which you most admired?

That’s part of ‘Some Sort of Somebody‘ from Very Good Eddie (1915), music by Jerome Kern, lyric by Elsie Janis. Notice the phrase “to me relate”, which I bet no-one has ever said, ever. Before the First World War (and, indeed, until well after the Second), rhyme often trumped natural syntax in this way.

While I’m using tunes by Kern, ‘How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?‘ was the equivalent of a pop hit in 1905, and interpolated into The Earl and the Girl for that show’s Broadway run:

I don’t know why I am so very shy,
I always was demure,
I never knew what silly lovers do,
No flirting I’d endure; [syntax]

How’d you like to spoon with me?
How’d you like to spoon with me?
Sit beneath an oak tree large and shady,
Call me little tootsy wootsy baby

“Shady” and “baby” are an off-rhyme; here, the jazzy-slang attraction of “tootsy wootsy baby” has upstaged any true agreement in sound, and this process still goes on today, especially in pop. Entire songs are built upon it.

Here are two more examples, with music by Kern – although you can do this with many composers of the teens, twenties and thirties – from Roberta. By 1933 Kern had worked with better lyricists, and better lyrics were starting to be the fashionable thing. But in Otto Harbach’s lyric for ‘Yesterdays’, there’s this:

Yesterdays,
Yesterdays,
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days [toneprosody]

Then gay youth was mine,
Truth was mine,
Joyous free and flaming life,
Forsooth was mine [tone, prosody]

Roberta also offers, in ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’:

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed …
[prosody, tone and syntax!
This is a category 5 rhymestorm]

The examples could go on, because there are many music theatre lyrics prior to, say, those for Oklahoma!, that demonstrate rhyming without much regard for syntax, or rhyming without regard for a character’s vocabulary. And there are some that don’t rhyme at all, because they’re too busy being slangy. The best lyricists of the ’40s and ’50s (Berlin, Loesser, Fields, Porter, Hammerstein) demonstrated that it’s possible to rhyme deftly without sacrificing character or syntax – and the greats often invented slang. By the late 1960s, though, the various elements had shifted in importance to the point where syntax and character started to matter more than rhyme (look at my favourite song in Hair, ‘Frank Mills’). And that’s what I think we’re hearing in many theatre lyricists’ work today: rhyme dropped in favour of something considered more important, like making a character “authentic” or “relatable”.

So, musical theatre isn’t really the last refuge of perfect rhyme. There’s a corner of musical theatre where perfect rhyme sits, hoping to be offered a drink; just as there are corners of country music, cabaret, comedy, and political satire, where perfect rhymes wait shyly while other more brazen considerations get all the attention.

Which leads me to the second assumption in Weinman’s opening paragraph:

2. “… poetry, which hasn’t had strict rhyming rules since Emily Dickinson”

This is true, but only because poetry didn’t have strict rhyming rules before Dickinson, either. Some forms have developed traditional rhyme schemes, yes, and poets often change or subvert or vary these schemes, for their own reasons. This means there’s now a standard argument, usually heard in defence of the techniques of modernism, which non-rhyming songwriters have learned to use: “I’m attempting something shocking, and new, so why would I soothe the listener with the familiar?”

My problem with this argument is that it’s almost never true of the non-rhyming song. Far from attempting something shocking, the non-rhyming songwriter is usually succumbing to cliche, and trotting out ideas heard in dozens of other songs. Furthermore, every time I hear false/slant/near/off- rhymes defended as “modern” or “acceptable these days”, I cannot help but note that:

Rhyme Has Never Been Denounced By A Songwriter Who’s Really Good At It

At this point, music theatre types tend to produce a list of off-rhymes in some writer’s work and leave it there, as if to say “Really, what can we do? Why can’t the people hear?”

I think that’s dogmatic, and snobby. But what if I could look at some standard excuses for not rhyming properly, and at some successful popular songs where those excuses are in evidence? And what if I could then demonstrate that the best parts of those songs are still the parts with proper rhymes?

Coming Soon, In Part Two …

On ‘Smash’, and Its Self-Defeating Terror of the Book Number

A quick recap: there are, I think, only two main characters in the musical theatre canon who are established with a prop song:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Velma Kelly – Chicago

And there are only two who are given a prop song as an 11 o’clock number:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Fanny Brice – Funny Girl

Velma

We both reached for the gun!
We both reached for the gun! (Photo credit: shari thompson)

In the case of Velma Kelly (left in the photo), she’s a vaudeville performer, and she announces the evening’s themes in a prop song called ‘All That Jazz’. While she’s putting over this nightclub routine, we in the audience meet the show’s other main character, Roxie Hart (on the right), who murders her lover and later lies to her husband about the man’s identity.

This is important: Velma is established as a fairly static character, happy with her lot (“Oh, I’m no-one’s wife, but oh, I love my life”), and the audience sees no reason not to believe her. Roxie, meanwhile, is restless, unsatisfied, longing to be on her way to somewhere. Despite all the tinkering that’s been done with Chicago over the years, this hasn’t changed: Velma refuses to become a character who wants and needs things, and changes over the course of the evening – even though she’s been given songs designed to achieve precisely that – because of how she was introduced in the first place.

The show’s 11 o’clock number, in terms of its running length, should be ‘Nowadays’, but only Roxie has an 11 o’clock number realisation available to her (namely, that fame is insubstantial, which Velma knew at the start of the show), and so the number functions instead as a kind of Brechtian summing-up of the night. Then Fosse, clever guy, pioneers the 11 o’clock prop dance, ‘Hot Honey Rag’, into which ‘Nowadays’ segues, and in which Velma and Roxie dance in perfect sync as one woman. This dance, not the song, is what lands with audiences – both Velma and Roxie’s fictional audience, and the real one watching the show.

As a static character, Velma could deliver the kind of 11 o’clock number that sums up the evening in satirical fashion, while showing that her character hasn’t changed. The Engineer gets such a song in Miss Saigon, and Fagin gets one in Oliver! The problem is that this number has already happened in Chicago: it’s ‘Razzle Dazzle’, and another static character, Billy Flynn, sings it earlier in Act Two.

So, spare a thought for Velma, established in spectacular fashion with a fantastic song, and then doomed to a slow decline in importance throughout the remainder of the show.

Fanny

funny-girl-barbra-streisand-dvd-cover-art
funny-girl-barbra-streisand-dvd-cover-art (Photo credit: ttom_thgwid)

Fanny (right of photo, no moustache) is not established with a prop song, but she welcomes 11 o’clock (or 10:30) with one: in the stage show, it’s ‘The Music That Makes Me Dance’, a number begun in rehearsal, but transformed midway into a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza. Fanny’s audience thinks she’s just performing a number, but we, the real audience, know that Fanny is singing about her newly incarcerated husband, Nicky Arnstein.

(In the movie of Funny Girl, Fanny’s last big sing is ‘My Man’, a song which the real Fanny Brice actually sang as a comedy piece. Barbra Streisand performs it as a torch song, and once again we, the viewers, know it’s really about Nicky.)

Sally

Sally Bowles
Sally Bowles (Photo credit: nglacrosse23)

Sally Bowles (on the right, not a chair) is truly extraordinary: she is introduced with a prop song (originally, ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, then ‘Mein Herr’ in the film, and after the Donmar Warehouse revival of the stage show, both numbers – two prop songs!), and she later sings the show’s 11 o’clock number, ‘Cabaret’, which is also a prop song. Sally’s Kit Kat Klub audience thinks she’s just doing her usual devil-may-care stage routine, but we know that she just had an abortion, without telling her boyfriend Cliff. This knowledge (plus don’t forget the Nazis), makes a lie of the song’s central thesis, that life is only a cabaret, old chum.

Fanny and Sally Don’t Really Make Sense

Both Cabaret and Funny Girl briefly get away with not making sense, and yet a thoughtful audience member might later wonder: Fanny is supposed to be a funny girl, but she’s singing a sad song? How was her fictional audience supposed to respond to that? They don’t know about hubby Nicky, do they? And wow, it’s pretty convenient that just the right song is waiting to be rehearsed at that point, isn’t it? I mean, she sings a hundred songs that are all goofy, and then this one pops up, a sad song. No-one says “Hey, Fanny, we’re gonna try a little something different, a torch song, you wanna?” It just happens.

And what about Sally? Did she really have a friend known as Elsie? Maybe she wrote this song herself for her nightclub act? Actually, we have no idea where her songs come from, and this one seems pretty damned specific to her current situation. Are her songs written for her? If they are, they’re written by someone really good – she should move in with that person, not the drip novelist Cliff.

Smash

And so to ‘Smash’, a show that is terrified of book numbers. Every song in ‘Smash’ is a prop song, not matter what level of contrivance this requires. Every number is really happening: a real song, being rehearsed or performed; or a cover, sung spontaneously but for real; or a vision, a Dennis Potter-esque dream sequence.

The show’s worst moments have sprung from this terror of book numbers: the sight of 13 year-olds gettin’ down to Florence and the Machine at a Bar Mitzvah, the cast of Bombshell “singing” Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Dance to the Music’ at a bowling alley, and (horror), a Bollywood dream sequence.

These aren’t just moments of delicious cringe. They are structurally fatal, because …

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

Look at how Karen and Ivy, the two main women in ‘Smash’, are presented in song in the pilot episode.  Karen sings ‘Over the Rainbow’ at an audition, but is interrupted. Ivy is in the chorus of ‘Heaven on Earth’, and is unfulfilled. Ivy sings for a demo recording of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’, from an in-progress Marilyn Monroe musical. Karen sings a truncated version of Christine Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ for her audition for that very show. Ivy performs ‘The National Pastime’ in a workshop session of the Marilyn musical, and Karen sings ‘Happy Birthday To You’, Marilyn-style, while letting Derek the director sexually harass her. Only the last of these adds to Karen or Ivy’s character, by showing that Karen can be slutty when it’s really important. As far as what these women want, and how they express themselves, viewers have to rely on dialogue. Then, at the episode’s climax, both women sing, for their respective callbacks, a full version of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ (music by Marc Shaiman, lyric by Scott Whittman). Karen gets this:

Fade in on a girl
With a hunger for fame,
And a face and a name to remember.
The past fades away
Because as of this day,
Norma Jean’s gone.
She’s moving on.

Her smile and your fantasies play a duet
That will make you forget where you are.
The music starts playing,
It’s the beat of her heart saying,
“Let me be your star.”

This is Marilyn’s ‘I Want’ song from Bombshell and, we later learn, Bombshell‘s opening number. Julia Houston, the show’s book-writer, made it so by moving an index card – it’s that easy, folks.

Ivy gets this:

Flashback to a girl
With a song in her heart,
As she’s waiting to start the adventure.
The fire and drive
That make dreams come alive:
They fill her soul,
She’s in control.

The drama, the laughter, the tears just like pearls,
Well, they’re all in this girl’s repertoire.
It’s all for the taking,
And it’s magic we’ll be making –
Let me be your star.

After a bridge, about the past being past, the two women sing together:

Fade up on a star
With it all in her sights,
All the love and the lights
That surround her.
Some day she’ll think twice
Of the dues and the price
She’ll have to pay
But not today

Then she’ll do all she can
For the love of one man,
And for millions who look from afar.
And what you’ve been needing
Is all in my heart, pleading
Let me be your star!

This song tries to play it three ways, as an ‘I Want’ song for Marilyn, Karen and Ivy, simultaneously. This prevents it from being specific (remove the words ‘Norma Jean’, and this song could be about any girl trying to become a screen idol) or accurate (Norma Jean has a song in her heart? That great singer, Norma Jean? And who is this man Ivy will do all she can for?). Worse, it’s far too passive for characters we’re supposed to care about (“Let me be your star”? Really? How about “I Will Be Your Star”?), and perhaps worst of all, it concludes with an apparent arrival at stardom (“Fade up on a star / With it all in her sights”), followed by more passivity (she became a star so she could do it all for a man’s love? Are you kidding?).

This is not a song you give to a character who is going to change. This is a static character’s song. And sure enough, Karen and Ivy have struggled to change ever since. They’ve had characteristics forced upon them (Ivy later takes pills, for example), but without a book number they have never been established as characters in song, and without later book numbers they have no way to show how their characters have changed.

I don’t think the fault is purely Shaiman and Wittman’s, who were given the impossible task of writing a prop song that couldn’t be specific about the stage show it came from, and also couldn’t be specific about the characters who were singing it, yet had to function as a leitmotif underpinning all of Season One. Rather, it’s the fault of all of the show’s creators, for thinking that prop songs can do what book numbers can do, and for thinking that anyone can be Sally Bowles.

But so far, only Sally Bowles can be Sally Bowles.