A spacious lounge room, wooden floor, old, weathered furniture. SIR TIM, attractively rumpled, is in an armchair, watching something on a laptop computer. ME enters, pulling a script and another laptop from a satchel, a little too keen.
Me: (setting up) Morning, Sir Tim. Day 1, ay? I’ve got the 1990 Sydney script here.
Sir Tim: (pausing the video) Where on earth did you get that? And please, it’s Tim.
Me: Tim! Great. Well, I know people, Tim. Chorus-folk. They hoard stuff.
Tim: (of the video) So are these just sitting there on YouTube? All these versions, out in the open?
Me: Yep, until someone takes one down, and someone else puts it up again. People bloody love that score.
Tim: I know, I know. Every time we do a concert version, it’s “Oh, those songs … shame about the book.” And they look at me as though someone else wrote it.
Me: Could be worse. Could be the other way around.
Tim: What no-one seems to understand, though, is that it’s not just the dialogue.
Me: No, no, it is just the dialogue, Tim, I’m sure of it. We tweak a little here, move a bit there, make everyone nicer –
Tim: (Of the script) May I see that?
ME hands it over.
Tim: (reading) I’d forgotten this. Director’s note: “Chess is virtually unique among modern musicals, in being neither nostalgic nor a period costume drama.” Well, I suppose it is now.
Me: Let’s talk love triangle: Freddie, Florence, Anatoly. Go. Hit the musical beats for me.
Tim: Tea first? Coffee?
Me: I’ve had four already. Love triangle. Beats.
Tim: (reading, sighs) “One or two less mistakes.” It should be fewer.
Me: What? No, no, don’t change ‘The Story of Chess’. People bloody love that song. Get to Freddie and Florence.
Tim: Righto. (leafing) Arbiter announces where we are, who everyone is – dear God, the exposition! The clunking of it. Freddie is this, Florence is that, blah blah blah. Have we another version?
Me: I thought you’d like that one! It’s yours.
Tim: How about the latest fan version?
Me: (swivelling laptop to show) I’d say Wayne Rossi is a bit more than a fan. This is from 2015.
Tim: (reading from screen) Prologue with little Florence and her father, then the lullaby. So two prologues, really. Then Freddie at – ah, yes, a press conference! Refuge of the destitute. Probably my idea.
Me: Stop being so hard on yourself! It gets the job done. Now, give me love triangle.
TIM stands up and begins pacing.
Tim: No matter which version we’re talking about, when we meet Freddie and Florence, they’re together, after a fashion, and they bicker a lot, sometimes in song.
Me: (typing) Great. One side of the triangle.
Tim: Then, when Anatoly meets Florence, he calls her nice and civilised.
Me: (nodding) Yes, yes. ‘Model of Decorum and Tranquility’. People love that song.
Tim: Later, Florence and Freddie fight after Freddie misbehaves at the first chess match, and – most of the time – Florence sings ‘Nobody’s Side’.
Me: (typing madly now) That’s the one, baby! Goddamn best keyboard riff, makes me want to climb halfway up a staircase to nowhere and stick one hip out. I bloody love that song.
Tim: (undistracted) And in it, Florence sings “the one I should not think of keeps running through my mind” – which I’ve always felt was a bit rich, because all Anatoly has done is treat her with politeness and respect, while Freddie’s been a complete twat. I mean, these are her options?
Me: No, you’re doing great. Second side of the triangle, done.
Tim: Well, then the third side follows almost immediately in the Mountain Duet. Freddie doesn’t show up, and Florence and Anatoly discover they like each other, and sing about it. Then they kiss.
Me: Boom. Three sides, triangle sorted. OK, so let’s just look at the dialogue –
Tim stops pacing.
Tim: See, this is my point, though. It’s not just the dialogue, because it’s all book, all of it. Having a Hungarian prologue, a press conference at the start, the fact that Freddie’s surname is Trumper. God-awful, what was I thinking? The decision not to show Florence and Freddie in love. We’re supposed to care that Florence is thinking of leaving Freddie, but really, who wouldn’t? We never learn what she likes about him, so good riddance, Yank. And then, a couple of compliments from the only man onstage who isn’t a right bastard, and she’s snogging away! That’s all book. I could rewrite every line, I could stop pretending that Persia rhymes with inertia, and none of that would change. Bloody hell, I’ve got a woman singing about seeing her “present partner in the imperfect tense”! Is this someone on the horns of a dilemma, making grammar puns? It doesn’t even make sense!
Me: Don’t you say a word against ‘Nobody’s Side’. That’s a solid-gold hit!
Tim: It’s a bloody albatross around my neck! Nearly as bad as ‘One Night in Bangkok’. This show is supposed to be a love triangle with the Cold War in the background, but instead it’s pallid jokes about the Cold War with a love triangle in the background. No, the only way to fix this is to cut some songs –
Tim: Yes! Cut some songs and write some new ones. That’s what you do when you rewrite the book, you rewrite the score too. Because it’s all book.
Me: But –
Tim: All of it is the book!
A pause. Me is aghast, adrift.
Me: But –
A long pause.
Tim: I know. People bloody love that score.
Tim slumps back into the armchair. Me quietly closes his laptop. Slow blackout.
“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.
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?
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:
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:
But look at this! Without needing to change a single note, the Andrews Sisters tune can be sung with the rock/pop progression:
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 contrafactumSeventy-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:
Bach doesn’t present this as two separate melodies first, but he could have, since it’s a combination of:
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.
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.
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):
Bernstein begins the quintet version of Tonight with very different melodic shapes, accompanied by very different harmonies.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?):
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:
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:
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:
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 –
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.
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:
The melodies please, individually.
The melodies please even more when combined.
I can’t hear it coming.
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!”
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:
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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’:
Sondheim’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’:
Now, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:etc.
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.
The Ordinary World
The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting with the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies and Enemies
Approach to the Innermost Cave
Act Two will make use of the remaining four stages:
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir
Steve Cuden’s seven plot points look more balanced in print …
Normal World – Opening Image
Inciting Incident – Catalyst
Point of No Return
Low Point – The Big Gloom
Climax into Resolution – Final Challenge
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.
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 & Hydeis 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, Phantomshows 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?
Late last year, I posted about the joy of writing music and lyrics for a new show, The Lizard of Oz, with script and direction by Peter Cox and Mark Grentell. If you haven’t seen their film Backyard Ashes, I highly recommend it.
We have only four performances left in our initial season, so here, courtesy of some fine photographers and our absurdly talented designer Aron Dosiak, is the next best thing to seeing the show live at Wagga’s Wollundry Lagoon.
The composer at the piano:
My favourite shot of our heroine, Dotty:
Jacqueline Irvine, who plays Dotty, is way more savvy and much less naive than her character. She’s also physically fitter than the rest of us put together, although I do bring down the company average somewhat.
Andrew Strano is Leonardo de Emu …
… and Big Red the kangaroo:
Apart from being talented and hilarious, Andrew is a lyricist, and he’s co-written, completely independently of my effort, a song about being inappropriately close with a family member. So I have a bit of a man-crush on Andrew.
Our villainess, Arachna, is played by Karla Hillam. She manages to belt it out from this balcony to the whole audience, totally unamplified:
This moment of staging necessitated my favourite bit of songwriting in the show, because we needed something to cover Arachna’s move from the balcony down to ground level. So, in rehearsals, I pretended I was wearing Karla’s outfit, and took the elevator down one floor, with our stage manager Liz holding all the doors for me. That took 58 seconds, and we all thought that was a bit long. So I waddled down the stairs on foot, and that took only 38 seconds. I scrawled these ideas in an old diary while we were rehearsing other scenes:
That night, I wrote a tune, and we learned the vocals the next day. With Karla in costume, from balcony to ground level, it took 40 seconds.
“Karla,” I said, “I just totally Sondheimed your move downstairs.” Then I had to explain to everyone about the elevator in Company, on Boris Aronson’s original set, and then I felt old.
Arachna decrees that only one song can be heard in all of Oz – her song, “It’s All About Me”, an anthem of Idolesque genericness, with an appalling I-V-vi-IV chord progression.
Jamie Way is Dodo the dog and Bitza the platypus (although he doesn’t know he’s a platypus until the end of the show):
At this point, Bitza’s identity crisis has forced him to adopt an outrageous French accent. Jamie can do all the accents, while singing, and in celebrity versions if you request them. I haven’t heard him run out of ideas yet.
Michelle Brasier is PC Kookaburra, and Katerina Pavlova, the world-famous opera singer and desert dessert:
Katerina’s entrance and exit music, a mishmash of a pavlova recipe and soprano warbling, is just my attempt to transcribe what Michelle improvised effortlessly at the first read-through. I could never have done any better, or any funnier.
By this point, Arachna has been vanquished, Michelle is PC Kookaburra, Karla has dressed up as Katerina Pavlova, I’ve been inside a Lizard’s head (and operated a Bilby rod puppet), and the sun is about to set. It’s a hoot.
Many years ago, I was in the pit band for a production of Merrily We Roll Along. I played 2nd keyboard (meaning I sounded like woodwinds, strings, a typewriter), and one afternoon a substitute bass player sat in on the gig. He played the show deftly at sight – no mean feat – and said this of the score as he packed away his instrument:
Some nice lines, but no real grooves.
He’s right, of course: there are some cool bass lines in Merrily, but if you’re hoping to hear them settle in for a funky jam of three or four minutes, you’ll be disappointed. This is a show about time marching on, even if it does so backwards, and characters who change their minds need music that changes with them.
This is why, whenever someone remarks that stage musicals haven’t embraced a comparatively recent music genre like, say, dubstep, I always wonder “Well, what would that ‘dubstep’ musical be about?” The whole point to dubstep is intricate rhythms, forward drive, repetition, bowel-loosening bass notes. That might work really well for a scene, or a number, or part of a number, but for a wholeshow?
This genre problem with musicals, their “granny sound”, is always presented as a post-rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon: showtunes have failed to keep up with the kids, we cry. We’re guilty of generational blinkerism, though, because there’s no ‘jazz’ musical either. Oh, sure, there are jazzy musicals, with chords and riffs and ideas borrowed from jazz. But a bona fide jazz musical? With improvised, extended solos, different every night, and an over-riding focus on instrumental ability? Loose, spontaneous invention for ninety percent of the running time, eight times a week? Singers scatting, and trading fours with the band? Nup.
There aren’t many ‘rock’ musicals either, no matter how they’re marketed. Hair certainly isn’t rock. Yes, I’m serious. Compare the experience of listening to these two albums:
For all the orthodoxy that has sprung up about Hair, about the devastating daring of the sound of electric guitars emerging from a Broadway pit, it’s a ‘folk-rock’ musical if it’s anything. That’s because composer Galt MacDermot is no dummy; he knows that folk-rock is far more emotionally flexible than rock.
Emotional flexibility is what theatre songwriting is all about, and I don’t mean flexible over the course of an evening. No, I mean flexible within a song, within a line, between two words. An actor should be able to take a theatre song lyric and do what every first-year actor is taught to do with every dramatic spoken monologue: mark the beats, the thought changes.
But a great rock groove is not about changing your mind. It’s not emotionally flexible, and shifting its mood is like turning a powerboat: it takes time, and it needs space. That’s why progressive rock sounds the way it does, and it’s also what most critics of prog-rock dislike about it. The more it progs, they say, the less it rocks.
What, then, to do about our granny sound? Could today’s writers of musicals, just as earlier writers pinched things they liked from jazz, borrow stylistic elements from today’s popular music genres, and use them in emotionally flexible ways? Yes. Here are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mantzoukas and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writers of In the Heights, pinching useful things from rap and Latin dance, and moving briskly from character to thought change to plot point. Near the start of the show, Usnavi introduces himself to the audience:
Reports of my fame
Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
[character right here]
I love it,
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that,
Ever since my folks passed on,
I haven’t gone back
[thought change right here]
Goddamn, I gotta get on that
[plot point right here]
Oh! The milk has gone bad, hold up just a second
Why is everything in this fridge warm and tepid?
This is not a rap musical. This is a musical with characters who express themselves through rap, but they’re still being emotionally flexible and telling stories while they do it. Big difference.
So, which music genres are useful and which ones aren’t? That probably comes down to taste and craft, but I would argue that the more certain a popular music genre is, the less useful it is in the theatre. This is why, amongst many other considerations, it’s easier to write a Carole King bio-musical than it is to write a Spice Girls bio-musical. In fact, here’s a really broad, but useful rule of thumb:
Good popular music is mostly about certainty.
Good theatre music is mostly about doubt.
Like I said, it’s broad. Many exceptions. There are theatrical popular songs, like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”, Eminem’s “Stan”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Also, there are weirdly effective theatre numbers containing one, simple, unchanging idea, presented over three or four minutes. Turkey Lurkeys, if you will.
Nevertheless, we don’t need an ’emo’ musical, or a ‘progressive trance’ musical. Instead, we need songwriters with voracious listening appetites, routinely stealing useful things from all kinds of genres, and listening to more than just cast recordings.
And, as our musicals start to sound more varied and contemporary, whenever we see a show marketed as a ‘dubstep’ musical, we can think “Well, best of luck to all involved, but I really hope that’s just marketing guff.” Because if that description is literally true, the show is either bad dubstep or a bad musical. Probably both.