A Note to Lyricists, on Behalf of the Word “Behalf”

“Behalf” is a handy little word, and lyricists like it because because it rhymes with “laugh”:

I’d like to say a word in her behalf
Maria makes me laugh

That’s Oscar Hammerstein, in The Sound of Music.

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features,
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of celebrated heads of state
Or ‘specially great communicators …
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!

And that’s “Popular”, obviously, from Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz.

The world stands still
On my behalf
And I find that I’m in love
With Lucy’s laugh

And that’s “Lucy’s Laugh”, lyric by Christopher Dimond, from the song cycle Homemade Fusion.

Of these three, only Hammerstein gets it right. “In her behalf” means “in her favour” or “for her benefit”. “On their own behalf” means while acting as their representative, and “on my behalf” means the world stood still because I was going to do it, but I got held up by traffic or something.

Schwartz and Dimond mean “for their/my benefit”, but of course, that doesn’t rhyme. I suppose you could argue that Galinda makes the error, not Schwartz, but I don’t buy it.

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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.

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The West Side Quodlibet

In the previous post on this topic, I looked at what I call The Berlin Quodlibet, which works like this:

Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This post is about

The West Side Quodlibet

… which works like this:

One Melody’s Chord Progression Calls the Shots; All Other Melodies Fall Into Line

I’ll admit that One Day More, from Les Miserables, is probably the best-known example of this type of quodlibet, but West Side Story came first, and One Day More has a guilty secret, which I’ll get to.

Tonight Quintet (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story)

The melody for Tonight has already been heard in its entirety earlier in Act One, as a balcony love duet between Tony and Maria (I’m using the stage score, not the film’s, by the way):

westside1_0003

Bernstein begins the quintet version of Tonight with very different melodic shapes, accompanied by very different harmonies.

westside2_0013

and, later:

westside3_0017

As you can see, I’ve given up trying to reduce Bernstein’s harmonic accompaniment to a mere chord symbol. You can’t, really, because at this point the composer is doing some very jazzy things, naturals and sharps happily clashing, the bass line’s rhythm grouped in three against four. It doesn’t matter, though; all that matters is the harmonies are very different from those of the balcony duet. Keep your eyes on those punchy groups of notes I’ve highlighted in blue and red. They’ll be back.

Once the Riff/Jet and Bernardo/Shark motifs are established, Anita sings them in her own slinky way, before Tony pops up and reprises the melody heard earlier on the balcony with Maria. And he reprises it exactly – no quodlibet trickery yet – before Riff reminds him to turn up to the rumble, to the tune of the first melody in the quintet (the one above, with the blue notes).

Then the fun starts. It’s Maria’s turn to sing the balcony tune, but as she does, Tony and Riff keep singing the rumble motifs established earlier, but – and this the crucial ingredient of the West Side Quodlibet – their motifs are shifted up and down to fit the balcony tune’s chord progression:

westside6_0013

That’s it. That’s all there is to the West Side Quodlibet.

Actually, no, I’m lying, that’s really the easy part. What Bernstein does, and does very well, is manipulate the rising tension and increasingly contrapuntal texture throughout the rest of the quintet, all while sticking to the one chord progression. He even gets away with this:

westanita_0014

That’s Anita, singing an altered version of the blue-coloured motif Riff sang at the start of this quintet, right-side-up, and then again, with the ending upside down. It works because Bernstein understands an important element of jogging your memory with a previously-heard tune:

The Rhythm Matters More Than the Intervals

If you’re repeating material, you can change a minor third to a major third, or you can flatten this and sharpen that, and I probably won’t even notice. But if you mess with the rhythm too much, there’s a good chance I’ll no longer recognise the thing you’re counting on me to recognise. And without that feeling of recognition, a quodlibet isn’t doing its job.

Bernstein also has fun introducing completely new material, including my favourite bit, which happens at the same time as Anita’s part above:

westanitaplus_0014

One last point that might seem pedantic, but I think it’s important: by having Anita sing these motifs on her own near the beginning of the piece, Bernstein and Sondheim give her musical permission to join in on those motifs later. As you’ll see, in One Day More from Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schönberg isn’t quite so scrupulous.

One Day More (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer etc etc etc, Les Miserables)

Here’s a bass line built from a descending major scale, and one set of chords you could choose to put over the top:

lesmisbass_0014

When a bass line descends like this over just the first four notes, and is given a chord for every note, it’s often called a lament bass, and there are many famous examples. Since the minor key version of this is called a minor lament, from now on, even though it doesn’t strictly have a chord for every note, I’m going to call the above major key version a major lament.

Several of the songs in Les Miserables are … wait for it … major laments. The bass line and chord progression are first heard, almost completely, as the instrumental introduction to At the End of the Day, and the first time they accompany a song is in Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream:

lesmisdream_0014

I Dreamed a Dream also has a B section, or bridge (“But the tigers come at night …”), which features a different chord progression and melody. Schönberg will use this B section in One Day More, and add some pretty answering phrases for Marius and Cosette, but he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

The major lament next turns up in Jean Valjean’s Who Am I? (strictly, Cart Crash, but seriously, who calls it that?):

lesmiswho_0015

You may notice, in this different key, that the chords aren’t strictly identical, but trust me, this is the same chord progression and bass line. Anyone who tells you there’s a fundamental difference in pop/rock between, say, B and B6, needs to get out more. Also, like I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I? has an extra section, a tag at the end (“He gave me hope when hope was gone …”), which Schönberg will use right at the end of One Day More, but again, he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

A brief reprise of the major lament occurs when Marius meets Cosette – his first words to her are to the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – and then a few minutes later, Javert sings Stars, which is an almost identical major lament. But Stars isn’t used in One Day More, so I’ll skip it for now.

Then, at last, it’s quodlibet time in One Day More. It should come as no surprise that all these tunes, written to the same chord progression, can be played (according to the rules of the Berlin Quodlibet) at the same time.

Jean Valjean begins with the tune he sang earlier in Who Am I? Marius and Cosette join in with the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – remember, Marius was given access to it earlier? – and from here on the chord progression becomes that of I Dreamed a Dream, with key changes, until the very last bars.

Next, Eponine sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream, while Marius and Cosette sing those pretty answering phrases I mentioned. Now, I have no idea how Eponine knows the bridge to I Dreamed a Dream, but it doesn’t matter, because now Enjolras bursts on to the stage and he sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream as well! It’s thrilling and dramatic, and musically it makes no sense. Where did he pick it up? We’ll never know.

After a thumping good key change, Javert gets a crack at things, but he doesn’t sing Stars; instead he sings a leitmotif that is by now associated with him, the police and the law. It was first sung by the constables who arrested Valjean when he nicked the silver from the Bishop of Digne, and also by Monsieur Bamatabois, the prissy bastard who had his face scratched by Fantine. Javert’s first rendition of it:

onedayjav_0016

is altered to fit the major lament (otherwise this might all be an enormous Berlin Quodlibet, but at this point it becomes a West Side Quodlibet). Schönberg even shifts Javert to a different beat of the bar, but it still works a treat because, like Bernstein, Schönberg knows that rhythm matters more than intervals:

onejav2_0016

And the Thenardiers join in, too, with a chunk of the chorus from their signature tune, Master of the House, which needs no altering.

Now it’s time for the bridge from I Dreamed a Dream again, and by now all of Paris knows it. But there are still no quodlibet moments within this section! The quodlibet moments have, so far, been reserved exclusively for the major lament. By now, even if all of this is new to you, you have probably guessed One Day More‘s guilty secret. It is this:

Thousands of Tunes Fit This Chord Progression

So, as we approach another key change, and Marius chooses his bros over a girl, the major lament kicks in again, and everyone repeats their bits, except for Eponine, who gets this, which is frankly piss-weak:

oneeponine_0018

This strikes me as an opportunity missed. Javert could sing Stars. Eponine could start singing On My Own, with a couple of tweaks, even though it’s from Act Two, and even though the song hadn’t been written yet when One Day More was composed (the tune was Fantine’s – it’s complicated).

I’ll go further: Javerts of the world! Eponines all! Next time you’re at this bar, rehearsal letter F in your scores, I want to hear this:

Marius: My place is here, I fight with yoooooooouuuuuuuu …

Jean Valjean: One-

Eponine: ON MY –

Javert: THEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRREEE!

Eponine: OOOOOOOWWWNNNNNN!

Yes, it’s in a high belty key, but you’ll enjoy that. And think what a fun surprise it will be for your musical director.

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – (and How to Write Your Own)

This is going to be a pretty geeky series of posts, with a necessary amount of music theory included, but, I hope, no more than necessary.

There’ll be three parts, dedicated to what I’m calling The Berlin Quodlibet, The West Side Quodlibet, and The Dancin’ Quodlibet (this last will contain Ideas For the Future).

Terminology first: in music, generally, a quodlibet (from the Latin, meaning “what pleases”, and it’s pronounced just as it looks) occurs any time previously-heard melodies are played at the same time. In musical theatre, specifically, the word has come to mean the practice of laying out one vocal melody first, followed by another vocal melody later, only to reveal, finally, that these melodies work when sung together.

As for my use of that key word – that the melodies ‘work’ – I desire much from a musical theatre quodlibet. I desire that:

  1. The melodies please, individually.
  2. The melodies please even more when combined.
  3. I can’t hear it coming.
  4. The revelation has some dramatic function.

A quick note: we’re not talking here about little moments of counterpoint, because while all quodlibets employ counterpoint, not all instances of counterpoint qualify as a quodlibet. We’re also not talking about leitmotifs, although – as you’ll see in the later Les Misérables example – leitmotifs are sometimes used in quodlibets, as if to announce “Hey, remember this person’s tune? It fits over this other one!”

Lastly, we’re not talking about what’s known as the Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number. Some of those are quodlibets, but not all are.

So, I’m going to lay out the main types of musical theatre quodlibets and how they work. After that, I’m going to suggest some types I haven’t heard yet, and hope everyone gets to work writing them.

The Berlin Quodlibet

(aka Double Song, or Counterpoint Song) – Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This is probably, in most people’s minds, the classic form of the musical theatre quodlibet: You’re Just in Love, from Call Me Madam is a witty and graceful example. Irving Berlin writes to this chord progression:

quodlibet_0005

If you know your harmony, you’ll recognise right away that this is simply a long stretch of tonic, moving away to the dominant. After this, the next eight bars sit on the dominant, before returning to the tonic. If this is technobabble to you, don’t worry: the most important thing to know is that Berlin has given himself, with these chord choices, a vast range of options for melody-writing.

Over this chord progression, Berlin writes two complementary melodies – longer phrases with a wide range for the lovesick Kenneth Gibson, and shorter, syncopated phrases with a smaller range for Kenneth’s brash boss Sally Adams. Here’s an excerpt of the full 32 bars:

quodlibet2_0005

Students of strict Renaissance polyphony might look at these two melodies and wonder: are those seconds and ninths between D and E a problem? Are those diminished fifths and augmented fourths displeasing to the ear?

No, they’re not. Apart from their regular use in almost every form of music for the last hundred years (you’ll probably hear them a dozen times today), those little dissonances – by Renaissance standards – simply don’t register as long as they’re not exposed, and as long as the rhythm of the melody carries the listener’s ear forward. Trust me, you can get away with things that would have killed Fux if your two tunes fit the underlying chord progression.

Hallmarks of the Berlin Approach

Berlin was especially good at these kinds of quodlibets, which is why I think we should name them after him. There’s a comprehensive list of his output here, including several he composed over tunes not his own. If you’re planning to write a Berlin quodlibet, you could do a lot worse than follow the kind of example he sets in You’re Just In Love, because:

1. The chord progression allows for melodic freedom. With the exception of Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil, which is pretty bluesy, Berlin used the same chords for all his most famous quodlibets (I, ii, IV, V, I7, II7, and the occasional passing diminished chord). These chords might seem like, as the lyrics for Play a Simple Melody put it, good old-fashioned harmony, but they allowed Berlin the freedom to write two thumping good tunes.

2. The melodies have individual character, before they’re combined. In You’re Just In Love, Sally sounds like Sally, even without her lyrics, and Kenneth sounds like Kenneth. You couldn’t sensibly swap their tunes. Then, with their lyrics added, their characters are even further enhanced. Sally gets most of the consonants, in “pitter-patter” and “pleasant ache”, and Kenneth gets most of the open vowel endings, in “trees are bare” and “I wonder why”. Berlin combined similarly romantic and jazzy melodies earlier, with Play a Simple Melody, and again later, with An Old-Fashioned Wedding.

3. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Look at how beautifully the two melodies in You’re Just In Love give each other room, rhythmically and harmonically. The phrases start and end on different beats, and when longer notes are held, the other melody uses different degrees of the accompanying chord (for example, while a bar of G to G6 is happening, Kenneth holds a long b, while Sally sings e, d and g). Thus, to hear these two tunes together is to hear more than just two tunes piled one of top of the other.

4. There’s a dramatic point to the quodlibet. You’re Just in Love doesn’t represent a major turning point in its parent musical (the song was a late addition to the show), but nevertheless, Kenneth poses a question, Sally answers it, and their friendship is strengthened, all through song.

Even in 1914’s Play a Simple Melody, when a dramatic point was not the point, the ingenue (Ernesta Hardacre – no, really) yearns for songs of the past, before Algy Cuffs (true, I promise) demands up-to-date ragtime; the quodlibet then points out that we can all have both, at the same time, and harmoniously.

In 1966’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Frank Butler predicts, in An Old-Fashioned Wedding, that he’ll vow to love Annie Oakley forever, while she’ll “vow to love and honor and obey”. When his part is combined with Annie’s their two sets of lyrics match up: her line “love and honor, yes, but not obey” follows immediately after Frank’s. They’re arguing, good-naturedly, in song, and Berlin must have planned this beforehand, musically and lyrically. It seems effortless; it’s kind of wonderful.

Some Other Berlin Quodlibets, Not Necessarily By Irving Berlin

Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil (Irving Berlin, Music Box Revue 1922-23)

The two individual melodies in this number are fun, but the second has, I think, a weak moment:

Nothin’ on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin’ with his jazz band
And
His
Band
Came from Alabam’ with a melody hot …

On its own, that part doesn’t hang together for me. It sounds like a mere counter-melody, and its purpose isn’t revealed until the two melodies are combined. When combined, since both tunes are pretty busy, they really tumble over one another, except for in this section I’ve cited, where they interlock nicely. The effect of the whole number is that of a patter song, with the point being to dazzle the audience by reprising the two melodies at lightning speed. As for surprise, I didn’t hear the quodlibet coming the first time I heard the song. Dramatic function? Not really applicable, since this song is from a revue. The two singers express the same sentiment: Hell is a pretty jazzy place.

All For the Best (Stephen Schwartz, Godspell)

Schwartz, only in his early 20s when he wrote this gem, had clearly been paying attention. The two melodies have great individual character, and the surprise of the quodlibet is heightened by presenting the first tune, on its first outing, colla voce – it’s in tempo only when reprised. That’s clever stuff, and it really got me the first time I heard it. When combined, the two vocal lines sit on different parts of the accompanying chords, and are rhythmically complementary as well. As if all this were not sufficiently impressive, the two singers express different attitudes (Jesus sings about heaven as the ultimate reward, while Judas rails against earthly inequality), during a number that itself functions as a major turning point in Godspell. In any story of the Christ, there’s got to be a point where the tone darkens. After this song, we reach that point.

You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

I know, it’s heresy to criticise anything in the score for this show, but I’m going for it: I’ve never really cared for this quodlibet. There, I said it.

Dramatically, the song is everything you could ask for: the two young couples make predictions about their rosy futures together, futures that we in the audience know will be distinctly thorny. Sally, part of one young couple, is really in love with Ben, who’s part of the other couple, so there’s a good reason for the tunes to intertwine with one another in this love square.

Lyrically, both refrains are wordy, nifty pastiches expressing similar, cheery sentiments. Rhythmically, when they combine, it’s chaotic, but this is the start of a section in the show where everyone loses their minds, so that’s an apt choice.

Musically, the accompaniment is identical, and in the same key. This is not a quodlibet that’s trying to surprise you, and the first time I heard it, I thought “Ah, here we go. These’ll be in counterpoint later.”

So where’s the problem? I even like the two individual melodies well enough, individually. The problem, for me, is when they’re combined.

Here’s the melody for the refrain of ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’:

you're gonna_0001Sondheim’s accompanying harmonies for these eight bars are Gbmaj9 for four bars, followed by two bars each of Ab13 and Db9, with the occasional passing chord. If this means nothing to you, remember only this: the above melody sits mostly on the major seventh and sixth of the first chord, the root of the second, and the root and ninth of the third.

Here’s the melody for ‘Love Will See Us Through’:

love will_0001Now, where does this second melody sit, predominately, on those same chords? The major seventh and sixth of the first chord! Then the ninth of the second, followed by a phrase ending on the ninth of the third. This is the effect, to my ear, of combining these two melodies:

SAME SAME SAME SAME NEEDLESS CLASH BRIEF INTEREST SAME.

“But Peter,” your inner dramaturg might object, “this is the genius of that song! The tunes are too similar, just as the couples’ woes are too similar! The tunes needlessly clash just as these couples needlessly clash!”

Nah. Sondheim is too well-schooled a musician not to have intended the effect, but I don’t think it works, melodically. Melodically, this quodlibet deprives its audience of one of the chief pleasures of a quodlibet: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s two tunes piled one on top of the other. I can appreciate the mechanics of the effort, but I feel no thrill.

Who’s That Woman? (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

Whereas the equivalent moment in this number, from earlier in the very same musical, has always thrilled me. The two tunes (the second might be titled ‘Mirror, Mirror’) don’t work together as a quodlibet for their entire respective lengths, and upon their reprise the singers revert to ‘Whose That Woman’ wherever the combination would come a melodic cropper.

But before that happens, there’s a full refrain of ‘Who’s That Woman’, after which ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is introduced in a different tempo and key – a deft way of hiding its quodlibet potential. A long dance break follows, and in Michael Bennett’s original staging, the older female ensemble are mirrored by their ghostly younger selves. It builds, and builds, (honestly, if you’ve not seen the reconstructed video and audio I’ve linked to in the title above, watch it, it’s glorious) and builds, until the lead singer Stella is mirrored by her past self, and the two female groups have combined, and the two tunes finally emerge in counterpoint, in a musical equivalent of the staging. Best of all, this is a song about growing older, showing past and present merging, within a whole show about growing older, and about reconciling your present self with the in/decisions of your youth. Two good tunes – tick. Whole greater than parts – tick. Surprise – tick. Dramatic function – tick.

Honourable Mentions

The Inch Worm (Frank Loesser, Hans Christian Anderson)

This song isn’t presented in typical musical-theatre-quodlibet style, since the second tune (“Inch worm, inch worm …”) appears over the first (“Two and two are four …”) without having been heard on its own earlier. My favourite thing about Loesser’s achievement – and I haven’t heard it in any other quodlibet – is that Hans’s tune stays firmly inside the tonic scale, while the children’s tune enjoys all the flattened notes made possible by the chord progression. This is exceptionally good musicianship, from a songwriter with better technique than most of us realise.

Playing Croquet / Swinging / How Do You Do? (Rick Besoyan, Little Mary Sunshine)

People tend to get pretty worked up about how Besoyan combines not two but three separate tunes in this quodlibet, which is itself an affectionate parody of other quodlibets. Personally, I find it laboured. It’s a looooong time to spend in the company of the same generic chord progression.

One (Reprise) (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, A Chorus Line)

This is the first quodlibet I’ve mentioned that is not by a single composer/lyricist; you can see why these things might be a challenge to write with another person.

One, ostensibly a real showtune from the musical everyone in A Chorus Line is auditioning for, has been half-heard earlier in the show; in its reprise, which functions as both A Chorus Line‘s finale and bows, One is presented again, followed by its counter-melody, and then by the quodlibet moment.

If you’re not a musician, you may not appreciate how distinctive the chord progression for One is. There’s no other I know quite like it:

one-chord-progression_0002

That’s like the chords to a bebop tune. Little wonder that, while Hamlisch’s main tune is a cracker, his counter-melody is like a clever student’s exam answer, with too many chromatic runs, and a flabby loss of verve in bars 9-16. Even if you’re not a sight-reader, I reckon you can see it:one-countermelody-comments_0002

Meanwhile, Kleban, the lyricist, is having a field day:

She walks into a room and you know
She’s uncommonly rare, very unique,
Peripatetic, poetic and chic …

Very unique? How unique can something be? By the last bars of the section above, Kleban is essaying:

Loaded with charisma is ma
Jauntily sauntering, ambling shambler.

… which no-one ever hears, because the women of the cast are taking their bows. The following video is grainy – and, fair warning, it cuts out just before the end – but you can see what I mean:

I wonder, did Kleban know, as he sweated over each syllable, that they’d be drowned out nightly? One is a helluva number overall, but as a quodlibet, it’s all about the dancing. Oh, that Michael Bennett.

 

 

 

For Once, Some of the Comments Are Worth Reading

Ben Neutze, theatre critic and Deputy Editor at Daily Review, wrote this article, which highlights one of the heavier ball-and-chains attached to the ankle of Australian musical theatre.

People commented. Some of them commented intelligently. I mouthed off a bit.

Lately, the chat has been between just me and someone name Kim. Hi, Kim, if you’re reading this.

If you have thoughts on the many matters raised, please share them, here or there.

 

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?

.

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

Dr. Fringelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pop Charts and Write More Musical Theatre

There’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, we musical theatre types, and I think it’s a fallacy. It’s a pleasant fallacy, though, because it makes us feel sad and nostalgic. So we tell it to ourselves, until we feel good about feeling sad and nostalgic, and then we bond with one another over our sadstalgic feels.

The story is this:

Once, the sound of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley was the sound of the popular charts. It was the music of the people, and musical theatre sounded fresh and current.

Then rock ‘n’ roll came along, and took over the popular charts. Broadway shows didn’t really take to rock ‘n’ roll, so they soon stopped sounding fresh and current.

Now, hardly any musicals sound like the music of the people. Something valuable has been lost, and it would be nice to get it back.

Sigh. Crank vinyl OBC of ‘She Loves Me‘.

Lately, this Pleasant Fallacy has appeared whenever anything featuring rap/hip-hop lands on Broadway. If the show fails, as Holler If Ya Hear Me did, we ask “why can’t shows sound like the music people are actually listening to?” And if the show does well, as Hamilton is doing, we cry “At last! A show that sounds like the music people are actually listening to!” Then we speculate on which songs might appear on the charts.

Our motives are good. We want younger people to fall in love with the music of musicals, because then we old folks – some of us over forty – can die happy. If the music in musicals sounded more current, we reason, it might appeal to more younger people.

But look again at the Pleasant Fallacy above, and then look at all the misconceptions we have to accept for it to work:

By “Once”, we mean somewhere in the early twentieth century. We don’t look much further back than that.

By “popular charts”, we mean a problematic measure of a particular commodity’s sales, measured over very short periods.

By “the people”, we mean Americans.

By “something valuable”, we mean cultural prominence: songs from current Broadway shows on the radio, and performances from current Broadway shows on primetime television.

Bearing all these misconceptions in mind, I would like to propose two things:

  1. Popular music – really, truly popular music – actually sounds a lot like showtunes.
  2. They’re probably not the showtunes you’d expect.

I’ll begin with …

The most popular music of the 19th century

For the first half of the 19th century, publishers of sheet music didn’t distinguish between what we would now call “classical” and “popular” songs, and popular sheet music sales didn’t really take off until after the 1850s. Nevertheless, sheet music historians have some nifty ways of telling if a song was a hit:

Song sheets: not the full printed music, but just the lyrics, given to a theatre audience so they could sing along. It’s a fair bet the tune to any one of these was well known.

Inclusions in anthologies: in modern terms, if a song is on all the later compilation albums, chances are it did well first as a single.

Answer songs and parodies: if everyone’s supposed to get the references, the original must have been pretty familiar.

Here, then, are some songs you can include in your 1890s cabaret act, and expect your audience to know:

Silent Night, or Stille Nacht (1818) – Franz Xaver Gruber / Joseph Mohr
Home, Sweet Home (1823) – Bishop / Payne
Ave Maria (1825) – the Schubert setting
Jingle Bells (yes, pedants, it’s really called One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857) – James Lord Pierpont
The Lost Chord (1877) – Arthur Sullivan / Adelaide Anne Procter
After the Ball (1891) – Charles K Harris
On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897) – Paul Dresser

Those last two are publishing phenomena; written very late in the century, they sold a wagonload of sheet music. But even without them, you can see what sorts of songs did well in the century before the century before this one: occasional songs, devotional songs and, above all, sentimental ballads.

Furthermore, that sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, the song Nellie Melba used as a crowd-pleasing finale in her concerts, is a showtune. It appeared first in an opera (Clari, or the Maid of Milan), and was then quoted liberally by other composers in their own operas and instrumental works, before later being interpolated into practically everything.

When Clara Butt was about to tour Australia, Nellie Melba advised her “Sing ’em muck; that is all they will understand.” This is usually taken as a slight against us Aussies, but what Melba really said, according to a witness, was “Sing ’em muck. ‘The Lost Chord’ and that sort of stuff, the same as you have been singing tonight.” In other words, Aussies loved a weepy ballad back then, and they still do. But so did everyone back then, and so does everyone still.

If we look further back than the early twentieth century, I think we gain useful context for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley’s later heady era of chart success. The listeners of the nineteenth century didn’t have “charts” as we understand them today, but they had their favourite songs: a mix of the devotional, occasional, and sentimental. Some of it came from the stage.

And so to those problematic charts, which have become less problematic since the IFPI started compiling its reports in 2001. Their more recent reports include download and streaming data.

The top selling singles of each year since 2007

Girlfriend – Avril Lavigne
Lollipop – Lil Wayne feat Static Major
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Tik Tok – Ke$ha
Just the Way You Are – Bruno Mars
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke feat T.I. and Pharrell
Happy – Pharrell

Hmmmm, these songs sound like a lot of movies, because that’s where hit songs wind up nowadays, just as hit pop songs used to be interpolated into stage shows. They don’t sound like a lot of today’s Broadway. But then, Broadway scores don’t really behave like singles, do they? Singles burn quickly and brightly, but not for long. Broadway scores used to be like that, so much so that, when people say …

I wish the charts still sounded like Broadway

what they’re really saying is …

I wish shows still ran 200 performances and were forgotten in a year.

The miracle of those old shows is that some of their songs, meant to be nothing more than immediately accessible and popular, turned out to be deeper and more durable than anyone could have predicted.

But hit Broadway scores today behave more like hit albums: they burn steadily, and for a long time. So instead of singles, here are

The biggest selling albums of all time

Thriller – Michael Jackson
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
Back in Black – AC/DC
Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Come On Over – Shania Twain
Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf

Sceptical about any of these? Fair enough, and look here for why I share your healthy doubt. Nevertheless, two of these albums (Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard) sound like a couple of musicals, but that’s only because stage musicals have been made out of their parent films. One of these albums (Thriller) has a stage show based on its main creator’s life and music. Another (Bat Out of Hell) sounds like any musical by Jim Steinman, but that’s because all Jim Steinman sounds like Jim Steinman.

As far as younger listeners go, however, these albums are really old. The most recent is from 1997. So here are

The biggest selling albums of the last ten years

21 – Adele
X&Y – Coldplay
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
High School Musical – Original Soundtrack Cast
High School Musical 2 – Original Soundtrack Cast
I Dreamed a Dream – Susan Boyle
Midnight Memories – One Direction
Recovery – Eminem

Man, that’s a whitebread list. But you will notice that, once the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the singles chart is taken out of the matter, all those artists we’re convinced the kids have been listening to disappear. No Pharrell, no Ke$ha (or, these days, Kesha), and no Lady Gaga. Nobody feat. anybody else. The only rap artist in that list is Eminem.

Also, there are two bona fide screen musicals in that list, plus an album named after a showtune.

That album, Susan Boyle’s (twice as many copies sold as One Direction’s album, incidentally), contains the following sorts of songs:

Occasional

Silent Night

Sentimental Ballads

I Dreamed a Dream – the showtune I mentioned.
Cry Me a River – originally written for a film set in a 1920s speakeasy.
Wild Horses – cover of the original, by The Rolling Stones
You’ll See – cover of the original, by Madonna
Daydream Believer – not a ballad when The Monkees did it, but this version is
Who I Was Born to Be – a Boyle original
Proud – from the TV show Britannia High
The End of the World – cover of the original by Skeeter Davis, slowed down

Devotional

Up to the Mountain – cover of the original by Patty Griffin
How Great Thou Art
Amazing Grace

If you ask me, Susan Boyle’s album shows how little we’ve changed, because it’s straight out of the nineteenth century. Sing ’em muck indeed.

To summarise: we need to stop worrying about the charts, music theatre lovers, because they don’t tell us what we think they tell us, and success on them doesn’t mean what we think it means. If we look instead at music that sells steadily over years, rather than weeks, we’ll find that people are actually buying and listening to showtunes, albeit ones written for the screen. Sure, they’re not tunes from Sweeney Todd, or even Rent: the showtunes that are really selling sound like High School Musical. Also, Frozen isn’t on that best-seller list yet, but give it time.

And, as fond as we are of our sadness and nostalgia, I think we should rephrase our favourite fallacy:

Once invented, recorded music used what had come before it, then learned how to make its own kind of thing later. Cinema, radio, television, and video games have all walked a similar path.

Recorded music has always gone after disposable money. Its first marks were high-tech connoisseurs, and later, the middle class (this is the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway period). After World War Two, it chased youngsters, and now it’s after anyone with a smartphone.

There was a period when the pop charts and the sound of Broadway more or less aligned. It didn’t last, and it could conceivably happen again, because correlation is not causation: all it would require is for theatre audiences and pop music listeners to want the same thing from their music.

Meanwhile, if you really want your new musical to sound like the music of the people, you should have Coldplay write a lot of sentimental ballads for Adele. Get Eminem to play the villain.

About That “Great Australian Musical”: A Response

A couple of weeks ago, Currency House published John Senczuk’s Platform Paper “The Time is Ripe For the Great Australian Musical”. If you’re a trifle obsessed with musical theatre in this country and you’re a Currency House subscriber (or happy to pay to read the essay, as I was), Senczuk’s thoughts are well worth your time. His proposal has been summarised in the Daily Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. My response is below.

 

Dear Currency House,

As one of many Australians who writes original musicals, I thank you for John Senczuk’s thoughtful consideration of our plight (Platform Paper 42, February 1). We talk often, but not seriously, about home-grown musicals in this country, largely because there are two standard responses to essays such as Senczuk’s, and I fear his plan for an Australian Music Theatre Foundation will be subjected to both of them.

The first is dismissive, and goes like this: Australia doesn’t have the population to support many shows, and its cities are too far-flung for profitable touring. Besides, we don’t have a long cultural heritage of theatre music, or our own distinctive musical voice.

The second is defeatist (sing along, you all know the words): there aren’t enough theatres, and producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Any composer/lyricist with talent and ambition should head overseas to the real sources of Great Musicals, London and New York.

This latter position amuses writers of musicals from London and New York, because they too complain that there aren’t enough available theatres, and that their producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Additionally, the ones who write songs with a post-1995 sound worry about a cultural heritage too conservative to afford their scores a place on the West End or Broadway.

So far, in the press, Senczuk’s ‘idea to opening night’ funding model and ‘Perth Solution’ have received the most attention. His scheme is ambitious and welcome, but even if we adopt it, we have some important questions to ask first, and one terrible idea we must jettison.

That idea is this: we have yet to produce The Great Australian Musical. It’s a horrible, counter-productive notion, and it’s nonsense. See, the Brits and the Americans aren’t worried about any ‘Great British/American Musical’. They know they’ve written great shows, and they enjoy arguing about which one is the greatest. We, on the other hand, apply vague, ever-shifting criteria to every musical we write, and judge that each effort fails to match some ideal we’ve never fully discussed or defined.

I strenuously urge us all, before we think about the model Senczuk has proposed, or any other model like it, to retire the term ‘The Great Australian Musical’, and promise never, ever to use it again. Instead, let’s banter about which shows were great: I’ll vote for 1933’s Collits’ Inn, by Varney Monk and Stuart Gurr. Senczuk quotes my old Canberra Philharmonic friend, theatre historian John Thomson, who wrote that Collits’ Inn “was not the Great Australian Musical many hoped it would be”. I wish John were still alive to debate with, because what’s wrong with Collits’ Inn? It did a five-performance tryout at the Savoy Theatre in Sydney, then more at Mosman Town Hall, was turned down by J C Williamson, picked up by Frank Thring Sr, given a star-studded, beefed-up production in Melbourne for sixteen sold-out weeks, toured to Sydney for eight more, and finished with a return season in Melbourne. Best of all, in a move familiar to every showbuff’s heart, Collits’ Inn had a sequel that failed, and a film version that was never made.

By the standards of Australia in the 1930s, this success is astonishing. If it happened to a show of mine today, I’d be dancing in Melbourne’s streets. You couldn’t shut me up about it. But no, someone will say: Collits’ Inn is not revived today, and its score has yielded no lasting songs. All right, what about Keating!, or Bran Nue Dae? They toured all over the place, they’re beloved, and Bran Nue Dae’s film version was charming. Oh, but they never played Broadway. The Boy From Oz, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? No, they both played Broadway and won Tony awards, but they didn’t have scores written for the theatre. Crikey, but we’re tough on ourselves.

This self-defeating thinking hobbles us in other ways, and Senczuk applies some familiar leg-irons when he notes that, in contrast to the jukeboxers The Boy From Oz and Priscilla, “the only real impact an Australian composer/lyricist has had on the world music theatre stage is actor and comedian Tim Minchin”. Nothing against Minchin’s well-deserved success, but this will be news in the afterlife to Geelong’s Oscar Asche, who, granted, did not write the tunes, but provided the book, lyrics, direction, and lead role for Chu Chin Chow in 1916. That show was a massive success in London, and was revived for decades, but Ashe’s success prior to Minchin’s is not the point. We have to stop drawing hard distinctions around arbitrary categories, such as where people were born, where their shows played, and what specific contributions were made by Australians, or we will be guilty of saying silly, unhelpful things.

I hope everyone will join me in striking ‘The Great Australian Musical’ from our parlance, and instead focus on a Great Many Australian Musicals, of a Great Many Kinds. To that end, here are those questions I mentioned.

First, and most importantly, what do we think constitutes a successful musical? In Senczuk’s model, with 850-seat theatres (minimum), and Perth hosting the ‘first significant production’ of new Australian shows, the goal of Broadway and West End-sized success, on Australia’s East coast or overseas, is explicit. It’s also presented as an end in itself, with no allowance for any show’s further life. Fair enough, since everyone who’s ever written an Australian musical knows that getting the first production on stage, as difficult as that may be, is really the easy part: eliciting enough enthusiasm and funds the get the show on again, and internationally? That’s a real trick.

But under an 850-seat minimum model, where might an Aussie equivalent of, say, The Fantasticks, or The Rocky Horror Show, or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog find support? And who would label these shows unsuccessful, when each has had enough views to fill a decent-sized theatre for years? Shouldn’t an Australian Musical Theatre Foundation hedge its bets, or, if you prefer, diversify its investments, and develop small, mid-sized, large and online musicals?

Also, if we are to focus on a model whereby shows start in a smaller city and finish somewhere bigger, we will doing what Broadway’s most savvy, hard-nosed corporate producers no longer find tenable. Witness Shrek the Musical, which had a trial run in Seattle before managing a mere 441 performances on Broadway, not nearly enough to recoup its investment. But Dreamworks Theatricals promptly sent Shrek out on tour, just as if it had been a hit, and launched a licensed school version which is now, according to Dramatics magazine’s annual survey, the most produced high school musical in America. Shrek, and The Addams Family, and Seussical (and you can be sure the producers of Matilda, even though it has recouped, will head down a similar path) demonstrate the long game Broadway’s producers are now playing: not only are these producers frequently unfazed by a flop, they’re not even satisfied with a hit. Instead, their eye is on the Grand Prize: decades of independently-mounted community and school productions, around the world. If we want to survive the mad economics of international musicals, we should plan and produce along similar lines.

Second, what do we think is the role of a new musical’s audience? In Stephen Sondheim’s pretty phrase, the audience is ‘the final collaborator’, but if we Aussies really believe this, we’ve been treating our final collaborators pretty shabbily lately. Senczuk characterises Strictly Ballroom, a case in point, as “a work that was placed before an audience too early”, but the truth is less innocent: Ballroom’s producers Global Creatures have demonstrated, as they did with King Kong, an approach to a new musical’s score and script in which the audience’s feedback is neither sought nor welcome; and director Baz Luhrmann, in replacing Ballroom’s opening number for its Melbourne season, has taken more than six months to order surgery that George Abbott would have performed in the first week. Overwhelmed by technical demands and the hideous cost of everything, we Aussie musical-makers tend to respond non-collaboratively to audiences who don’t like our songs, by fiddling with the sound mix and wondering, sadly, how the general public can be so thick.

When it comes to audiences, Senczuk is fond, as many theatre makers are, of the word ‘educate’, and while I think we can talk about ‘educating’ audiences behind the scenes, as we enthuse about turning the punters on to established, tested works, we certainly shouldn’t be talking, or even thinking this way, about audiences for new musicals. Audiences for a new musical don’t want to be ‘educated’; they want to be seduced. Nothing will turn them off more thoroughly than the idea that they ‘should’ like an Aussie show, and this is all the more reason to produce shows at different sizes, based on their likely commercial appeal. To quote the late comedian Bill Hicks, “There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices”, and when it comes to wrong choices and new Aussie musicals, we won’t educate our audiences; they will educate us.

We also have to make allowances for what Senczuk experienced with his own work as co-writer, in 2004, of the musical Eureka!. He describes a painstaking writing process, and all the devoted attention given to the work by director Gale Edwards, but sometimes, even though everyone involved has crafted a show with professionalism and love, an audience just doesn’t like it. In Australia, we are demoralised every time this happens, and we brood over another failed Great Australian Musical, but it’s because we don’t produce enough shows to see how normal this phenomenon is. We have to get many more shows on stage, of all kinds, and only some of them hits, so that we remain comparatively sanguine in the wake of worthy flops.

I appreciate that, by suggesting more shows, of varying sizes, with fleet responses to audience feedback and flops taken in stride, I’m probably suggesting an Australian Music Theatre Foundation with a broader base and more funds than the one proposed by Senczuk. I will go further: rather than trying to match the success of writers from overseas, we should be trying to better them. For starters, we could do much, much more online. The chief trend in music, television, movies, and video games this century has been to get the product closer to the customer. Theatre has barely moved on this front, wedded to the idea that stage shows work better when they’re live (they do), and that audiences new to theatre, somehow knowing this, will attend (they don’t, and they won’t).

Whatever our shows are, we should be doing more to take them to the punters. Our Aussie songs and scenes should be on our radio stations, stages and screens, but also in our school halls, our shopping malls, our parks, and our nursing homes. This may seem an unattainably grand hope, but one of the smartest things any Australian Music Theatre Foundation could do is to start very small, by collecting all the Australian book, lyric and music writers, all of them presently hustling and producing and applying and struggling, separately, and put them to work, together, on musically fruitful properties for which the Foundation has acquired the stage rights. The Foundation could act as the seed, as Jerome Kern once did with a novel called Show Boat, or as Dorothy Fields once did with the life of Annie Oakley.

Then, how liberating for us, the writers, freed from the idea of competing with one another for some mythical brass ring called The Great Australian Musical, to labour instead, together, on creating magical nights in the theatre for people all over the world, present and future, as we decide what brass rings we really want, and forge them ourselves.

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.