On the Songs in Tangled

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

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

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

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

1. The songs are in dull, obvious places.

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

2. The first three songs are structurally identical.

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

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

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

Glenn: But the soundtrack, Mickey –

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn: Plus the love ballad.

Dan: Plus the love ballad.

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

Dan: We’re about to break for lunch.

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

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

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

4. The songs themselves aren’t much chop.

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

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

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

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

What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 4.

Ep4. – Writers who get in the way

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

The above is usually attributed to Frank Capra, but I suspect it was a pretty common sentiment in 1930s Hollywood; in any case, Capra could get very messagey when it suited him. Every writer succumbs once in a while, usually in the younger years, because the people, dammit, the people need to hear the truth.

It happens a lot in musicals. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the lure of a populist art form, with lots of educated, middle-class people sitting still and listening, lulled, sleepy, ready for indoctrination. That, and writers who, because the musical theatre is such a closed little world, truly believe we are the first to notice that people should be a bit nicer to each other.

It’s not necessarily bad to get all messagey, but there are accepted ways of going about it. Here they are.

Tell a kid

This is easy. Sometimes the kid is part of the storyline, as in Falsettos; when characters need to unburden, and make some of the evening’s points clear, they tell the kid, Jason, in the spirit of educating him. Jason, of course, wiser than his years, can usually be counted on to say something pert, and teach the grownups a little something about themselves.

Sometimes the kid is the hero’s younger self (see Nine, The Boy From Oz), so he’s useful for early scenes of optimism, and that all-important “What happened to you, man? What happened to our dreams?” scene, later.

If the main character is already a kid (Annie), give them a dog. Oliver! is an impressive exception to the rule.

Tell a dead person

These are usually parents or wives and they’re great fun, because your main character, alone onstage, is still addressing someone without breaking the fourth wall. Examples include the lovely ‘Mamma, Mamma’ from The Most Happy Fella, and Sweeney’s part in ‘Johanna (Quartet)’, from Sweeney Todd. Also Jesus, addressing God (OK, not technically dead, but still up in the sky), in ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar.

You can also bring a ghost onstage, and have them tell the characters Great Truths, as dead Billy Bigelow does in Carousel, and glowing white dead Fantine does in Les Miserables.

Put a Hat On a Supporting Character

The characters are discussing the Message of the Play, and wishing they could tell the People Who Need to Hear, who Aren’t Listening. So they slap a hat on one of their own and – hey presto! – he becomes Officer Krupke. Number ensues.

Dream Sequence!

These are helpful, if dated. You can show How Things Could Be (West Side Story), How Things Might Turn Out (Oklahoma!), How Things Used To Be (Follies, On a Clear Day), and – most messagey of all – How Things Truly Are Beneath The Surface (Follies again, and Lady in the Dark). In fact, Follies used dream sequences so well, it probably put the last nail in their collective coffin.

Have the chorus do it

Probably the least effective technique, but Brecht is usually cited as a precedent, and the chorus come downstage, point fingers and list all the faults we will nevertheless take home intact. Examples include “Bui Doi”, from Miss Saigon, the end of Sweeney Todd (the stage version), and far too much of Rent.

It’s when these tehniques are not employed that everything can go horribly wrong. Tim Rice really got it right in Superstar: Judas sings to Jesus when he wants to make his points. By the time of Evita, Che and Eva are bantering with each other about the way couples use each other (even though Che has no love interest); then, in the first version of Chess, The Russian and Florence sit and analyse their own scene to one another, while quoting Cole Porter. Awful.

I love Into The Woods, but I don’t need the witch (hot version) telling me at evening’s end how I should be careful the things I say, children will listen. I know, I get it, I was listening myself for the last two hours, and it’s a bit late if I wasn’t.

When my 20 min draft of The Happy Medium appeared at OzMade musicals in 2007, the audience filled in little feed-back slips, most of which, I’m happy to say, were really encouraging. But writers only remember the criticism: one person observed, accurately, that the show was preaching to the choir, and would probably never become a big, thumping, mainstream success. Guess what another wrote?  Well, there’s a song in the show called ‘Put it Back’, in which our hero is upbraided by two Brits for making changes to his performance in a Brit show; then our heroine is patronised by two Americans for improving the blocking of a scene in an American show. “Put it back, put it back, put it back,” they all sing, and this one feed-back slip read:

Where’s the message?

Maybe I should get a ghost to sing it.

Scene From “Writing An Opera”

Cast
Writer: Peter J Casey
Dramaturg: Peter Matheson
Director: Caroline Stacey

The Scene
Writer, Dramaturg and Director are in the Director‘s office at the Street Theatre. Writer and Dramaturg are on one side of the Director‘s desk; she is behind it. The walls are festooned with posters and flyers for various productions, and Writer looks at these when he is not taking notes on his large notepad. Dramaturg‘s notepad is a notepad computer, which he wields with considerable dexterity.

Director: I was thinking, for Act One …

Writer: You think it’s a little short?

Director: It could use … room to breathe.

Dramaturg: I’m not getting a sense of the supporting characters.

Writer: Well, you’re right, of course, they don’t really have anything to do, do they? I’ve got to give them a reason to be in the scene, I figure.

Dramaturg: And relationships with each other. The action needs to come from character.

Director: I’m thinking of some kind of ritual. Could Renard, the priest, enact some kind of ritual in Act One? Because we need to know where the girls’ possession comes from.

Dramaturg: Yes, what does he do to possess them?

Writer: Oh, damn. That’s brilliant. That’s great, because he could chant the next part of the Mass, after the sermon, and that could be what starts their infatuation with him.

Director: And we need to be, for that ritual, inside their world. We need to see their view of what’s going on.

Writer: Oh, crap. That’s so good. How am I going to get that in there?

Dramaturg: And, for me, the justification for that would be in Act Two, with another scene that balances that first one. It should be before Joan goes to confront Renard. Maybe we see the schoolgirls bored, and Caterina pregnant.

Writer: Shit, that’s really good.

Dramaturg: But this time, unlike in Act One, Robert’s there. He’s part of it, and sings against it.

Director: Yes, so we see his world changing as well.

Writer: Son of a bitch.  The only problem with all of that is my lack of talent.

Dramaturg+Director: Oh, stop it, you’ll be fine. You can write that, you’ll do a great job … (etc.)

END OF SCENE

 

So, the next time you hear a writer fail to give credit to his/her collaborators, smack him upside the head and ask him/her “Alright, God-almighty, whose idea was the Latin chant in Act One?”

I’m An Idiot: Obligatory Post About Twitter No2.

Helen Porter is writing an opera.  The libretto is being supplied by random tweets from all over the world, and Porter is setting them to music.

Opera libretti – and this has been on my mind recently, because I’m writing one – are not long.  They run to about 5000-12000 words, depending on stage directions and so forth.  And of course, the words don’t necessarily correspond to running time, because three syllables may take anywhere from a second to half an evening to sing.  That said, some stats:

Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro, libretto by Da Ponte, runs for a little over three hours, and has approximately 72 000 characters in the libretto.  That’s slightly more than 500 tweets, assuming everyone approaches the 140 character maximum.

Richard Strauss, Salome: quite short, only 1 hour 50 mins or so, and about 32 000 characters in the libretto.  That’s 230ish tweets.

A chamber-sized work, like Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw, with 35 000 characters?  About the same running time as Salome, and about 250 tweets.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde? Five stinkin’ hours for its 68 ooo or so characters (485 or so tweets).  See, you can really stretch those words out.

Now the Royal Opera House is billing this as “the people’s opera”, because anyone can contribute, but it seems to me the most people-friendly option would be a comedy, like Figaro, with lots of words, and therefore the maximum number of contributing tweeters, and a manageable running time. 

Also, it’s a shame that you can see what’s already being set to music, because it would be so much more fun if you were tweeting in the dark.  As it is, the piece is already travelling a well-trodden forest path with magic potions and people talking to birds.

Oh, well.  I might start sending in my libretto, 140 characters at a time, and get Helen Porter (incidentally, Nellie Melba’s real name was Helen Porter) to set it for me.  But I’ve been worrying myself silly about things like structure and character.  I’m an idiot.

Chess (the musical) For Beginners

There’s been a resurgence of interest in Chess lately, because the young people have noticed that it is brimming with thumping good tunes.  Stephen Schwartz name-checked its score as one of his faves, and that sent young girls, finally tired of Wicked, off to the interweb to find out more.

But it’s a minefield, this becoming a Chessophile: so many versions, so much debate.  A user-friendly critical summary and synopsis is in order.

Critical Summary

Good tunes. God-awful plot.  Show doesn’t work.

Synopsis

Molokov: Hehehe.  We Soviets are so devious.  But, really, are the Americans any better?

Florence: Whom should I love?  The Russian, who treats me so lovingly, or that American douche?  If only Daddy were alive, he could help for some reason.

Freddie: Love me! Love me! LOOOOOOVEEEE MEEEEEEEEE!

Anatoly: I defected from Russia, leaving behind a wife and child, and the Soviets used that against me.  How could a world champion chess player see that coming?

Arbiter: I’m the Arbiter.

Svetlana: Where the hell was I all through Act One?  Anyway, I’m here now.  My vagina is angry.

Everyone: It’s so like chess, unless you’re actually familiar with the game.

What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 1.

Ep1. Subjectitis

This is the moment, usually in Act Two, when it’s too soon to reach the story’s climax, and too late to introduce any characters or plot points.  So the characters are left sitting around, and the writers decide to elaborate on the themes of the evening.  In truly dreadful shows, they preach, but more often they indulge in subjectitis.

Many, many Australian musicals do this, but it seems cruel to point out any show in particular (really, things are tough enough), so I’ll improvise a typical example:

Madge and Amy are on the verandah, fanning themselves.  Chips enters and puts down his swag.

Madge: Hot, isn’t it Chips?

Chips: Aw, I don’t worry about that, Madge.  I got nothin’ to do until after dinner.

Amy: Me neither.

She sings. 

Amy:  What do you call it when the day is half over?

Your chores are done and you’re rollin’ in clover,

Every little swaggy and every strappin’ drover

Knows what time it is

The time that he can call his …

 

Madge and Chips join in the chorus.

 

All:  That’s afternoon, afternoon,

you’re happily too tired for

laughternoon.

Afternoon, afternoon,

Everybody from a cow to a

calfternoon

looks forward to the afternoon,

On his own behalfternoon …

Why It’s Wrong

  1. Nothing is happening. 
  2. Because nothing is happening, this number will have a protracted dance break in the middle.  Probably involving rakes.
  3. The plot is still – oh, so very still – but the writers have not used specific imagery.  No trains, no X-rays, goldfish or bay leaves, just bland, bland generalities.  This is particularly bad in plots involving love.  The heroine should be singing about eyebrows, missed phone calls and weekends in Bermagui, but instead she sings about love, love, feelings and relationships. 
  4. Without the benefits of something happening and specific imagery, the lyricist has been given free reign to indulge in all the little punning rhymes he wasn’t allowed to use anywhere else: ‘laughternoon’, ‘behalfternoon’.  When lyricists do this, husbands in the audience look at their watches.  I’ve seen it happen.

When It’s Allowed

  1. Never.  Make the plot move or shut up.
  2. Alright, if you must have an attack of subjectitis, at least add to it a bona fide star performance.  Now, I mean a star here, a star for the general public, not just for show queens, a line-around-the-block-ohmigod-it’s-her-touch-me-I’m-dreaming star.  The hot guy who plays the son?  Not enough.
  3. You know “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story?  How Maria sings about how pretty she feels, and how she’s in love?  That might seem like subjectitis, but the audience knows that the guy she loves just stuck her brother in the guts with a knife.  That’s some serious dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony and subtext are the only cures for subjectitis.

On the Plot of “I Puritani”

Because I’m writing a chamber opera, I’m trying to lessen my woeful ignorance of the operatic repertoire. To that end, I’ve been watching a bunch of operas: lately, that’s included Wagner’s Ring cycle, Verdi’s La Traviata, and – today – Bellini’s I Puritani.

It’s a standard joke that opera libretti don’t make sense, but this one, by Count Carlo Pepoli, is particularly stupid.

Act One. Civil War England, and young Elvira is about to marry. She was promised to Riccardo, but Riccardo’s just been told by Elvira’s dad, Gualtiero, that Elvira really loves another, Arturo, and he would prefer that she married Arturo instead. Gualtiero tells Riccardo this, and Riccardo gets to sing a lament. But Gualtiero does not tell his own daughter. About her own wedding. Which is that day.

Because nobody tells her anything, Elvira gets to sing a lament about marrying the wrong man. Then her uncle tells her that she’s really marrying Arturo, that day. Later on, everyone’s surprised when Elvira goes batshit crazy.

All these people are Roundheads except for Arturo, who is a Royalist, but no-one seems to mind. When a female Royalist prisoner is introduced, and everyone sings about how the woman is doomed, it makes sense to leave her alone with the only other Royalist, Arturo, so they do. Arturo discovers the woman is Enrichetta, the widow of Charles I, and he promises to help her escape. Elvira lets Enrichetta wear her veil, and Arturo realises that with the veil on, she is the spitting image of his bride-to-be:

372px-Giulia_Grisi_som_Norma
A typical bel canto soprano
38252
A typical mezzo soprano (without the veil)

Arturo is hot-footing it out of there with the disguised Enrichetta when he is stopped by Riccardo, who figures he just has to kill Elvira’s lover before her eyes to win her heart forever. The prisoner reveals her true identity, and Riccardo lets them go. Elvira, abandoned at the altar, is convinced her lover has run off with another woman. Riccardo, because he loves her so much, doesn’t tell her that Arturo’s only a traitor.

Act Two.  Elvira goes batshit crazy. Riccardo and Elvira’s uncle sing a big duet about how they’ll kill Arturo if he fights with the Royalists in the big battle tomorrow. Oh, the big battle tomorrow, they sing – what a big battle the big battle tomorrow will be, they sing.

Act Three.  We don’t get to see the big battle. It’s months later and Arturo has returned to the Roundhead stronghold, because his escape was so successful. He and and Elvira meet up and she is relieved to discover he’s just a traitor and couldn’t be bothered, you know, dropping her a note or something. All seems well until the other Roundheads turn up, intent on showing Arturo his own entrails. Then Cromwell’s heralds arrive with the news that the Stuarts are all dead.

So everything’s alright: Arturo has his political dreams crushed and is saddled with a girl we know is always a hair’s breadth from going batshit crazy. And Riccardo will probably kill him the first chance he gets.

That said, there are some ravishing melodies, some brutal high notes, a mad scene worth celebrating, and historical revisionism: Cromwell, victorious at last, pardons all the Royalists. Yeah, right.