Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

1. Flip the Title Around, and/or Gently Pun Upon It

Punning on a song’s title used be quite the thing, back when lyricists were allowed to be clever for the fun of it. Here’s an attention-getting example from Ira Gershwin:

Beginning of refrain …

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me.
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.

By refrain’s end …

When every happy plot,
Ends with a marriage knot
And there’s no knot for me

That’s “But Not For Me”, from Girl Crazy (1930), and I doubt you could get away with that sort of pun today, outside of a cabaret act or a topical revue. It throws character aside, and pulls the audience out of the story. But Ira Gershwin could be beautifully subtle when he wanted to. This is “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, from the movie Cover Girl (1944):

Refrain starts …

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Refrain ends …

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for
Long ago was you.

Notice how, apart from the downright dreamy sentiment, playing with the title like this gives Gershwin a fresh rhyme for the final syllable, and on a lovely vowel?

One more: here’s Stephen Sondheim in “Good Thing Going”, from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), avoiding the trap of rhyming the last word of a song with the pinched sound of “going”, while also breaking our hearts.

Beginning …

It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realise
We had a good thing going.

Ending …

It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going, going,
Gone.

Advantages of this trope: It obliges you to move the song’s ideas forward. Let me repeat that. It obliges you to move the song’s ideas. Forward. An AABA theatre song should do something like this:

A – only some of what you need to know,
A – a little more of what you need, extra details, elaborations,
B – a fresh perspective, alternative view, dissenting opinions,
A – the last of what you need to know, maybe with a revelation, or a twist.

Here’s what too many contemporary AABA theatre songs do:

A – everything you need to know.
A – what I just told you, only more of it.
B – what you already know, seen from a different vantage point.
A – what you know, louder and higher.

A score that coulda used it: Catch Me If You Can (2011, Shaiman / Wittman)

The central conceit of Catch Me If You Can is that Frank Abagnale, Jr is presenting his life story, through the 1950s and 1960s, as an old-fashioned TV variety special, so it’s understandable that most of the songs use some variation of AABA form. But out of sixteen numbers, guess how many songs end their refrains by rhyming with the title, or the same few words added to the title, every single time? Go on, guess.

Eleven. And that number goes up to the thirteen if I include two songs in verse-chorus form (“Seven Wonders” and “Fly, Fly Away”) that use a repeated ending line which happens not to be the title.

In these thirteen songs, there’s no playing with the words in order to push ideas forward, or to create fresh rhymes at the end. Over and over, these thirteen songs do this:

Here’s a thing I think, and in a style you might enjoy,
Couched in all the language you’d expect me to employ,
So the thing I have concluded is (and was there any doubt?):
The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About.
Yes, The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About

2. Not Much More Than An Octave, And Not Often

I’m going to assume you don’t read standard music notation, but if you don’t, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: the little diagrams you’re about to see work in exactly the same way, as far as timing and pitch go. From left to right, they show when the notes occur. From bottom to top, they show how high they are.

But first, here’s Fred Astaire introducing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” in the 1938 movie Carefree. The song is near the start of the clip, and if you stay for the dance routine I’ll understand completely.

Here’s a diagram showing how this song’s melody works, through its AABA form – I’ve joined the phrases together for simplicity. Look at how beautifully Berlin tackles a practical and commercial consideration of melody: his leading man does not have a big singing range, and neither does the average music customer, so Berlin is very careful about where his tune ascends to an octave or more above the melody’s lowest note. Click if you like full size:

change partners

By heaven, that’s how you write a tune that doesn’t go much over an octave, and doesn’t do it often.

Advantages of this trope: Let’s say you have a character who won’t be hitting the big notes – and a leading character, too, not a bit of Thénardier comic relief. Without the applausebait of loud, high belting near the end of the tune, what will you give this character’s performer to help put the song across? How will you convey emotional intensity and depth of feeling?

Maybe you’ll use dance, as above, or explore more specifics of character, or reveal some new plot, or give better fodder for acting. It’ll have to be real acting, too, and not just emoting. It’ll be worth it, though, because you’ll end up with a character (and a show) that doesn’t sound like all the others. But even better, you’ll have more casting choices, since it won’t be all about the eight bars of high F. One of your stars won’t need so many days of vocal rest. More performers will be able to sing your song, reliably. More audience members too.

A score that coulda used it: Chess (1984, Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice)

All the main characters in Chess have big singing ranges, and all of them indicate emotional intensity by singing loud and high. Fair enough: a singer can’t croon in a rock/pop score; they’d never be heard over the instruments. Also, scores that use repeated melodic chunks often ask one character to sing another character’s tunes, so if one character sings over a wide range, chances are the rest will too.

And yet. And yet.

Consider the Russian, Anatoly, who does not express his feelings as readily as his American counterpart, Freddy. Anatoly’s first big number is “Where I Want To Be”, and the melody of its verses is in a nice register, and prettily shaped, as you’d expect from Benny and Björn. But in the chorus the vocal melody does this:

where i want

This number actually has a smaller range than Berlin’s “Change Partners”, but as any baritone will tell you, it’s not about the height, it’s about how long I have to stay up there. It’s about the tessitura. In the case of “Where I Want To Be”, maybe the Musical Director could transpose the whole thing down, but that wouldn’t help much with Anatoly’s big aria at the end of Act One. Look again at how Berlin prepares the singer’s voice (and your ear) for the higher notes in his song, and then consider this, near the end of Anatoly’s “Anthem”. You know the bit – “how could I leave her …”

anthem

That’s almost the song’s entire range, within four beats. It’s the melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands. Later, in “End Game”, Anatoly will traverse an even wider range, an octave and a major sixth – the entire range of “Ol’ Man River” – within six bars. And this is the guy who doesn’t have to sing “Pity the Child”.

3. The Song That’s Not About Sex (Except It Is)

In Guys and Dolls, the rakish gambler guy Sky Masterson takes the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown to Havana, thereby winning a bet. He plies her with a local drink, “Dulce de leche”, including its “native flavoring” of Bacardi, and she elaborates on its effect with the following examples of the subjunctive mood. In summary:

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is …

If I were a bell I’d be ringing
If I were a lamp I’d light
If I were a banner I’d wave
If I were a gate I’d be swinging
If I were a watch I’d start popping my spring
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding
If I were a bridge I’d be burning
If I were a duck I’d quack
If I were a goose I’d be cooked
If I were a salad, I know I’d be splashing my dressing
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding

We know Sarah is physically attracted to Sky, but look at how composer/lyricist Frank Loesser flirts with, yet avoids, overtly sexual imagery. That’s because he knows two things about a crass possibility like “If I were a camel, I’d hump”:

1. Drunk or not, Sarah Brown would never say such a thing.

2. Sexy songs are sexier when you let the audience supply the sexy details.

Advantages of this trope: I know, it’s no longer 1950 – surely we can be more candid? But if you have a character who, deep down, wants to dance the no-pants dance, and you make them sing a song all about how, deep down, they want to dance the no-pants dance, what have you given the actor to play?

Nothing. There’s no tension. They, and their director, will be forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business” to help the time go by.

On the other hand, if you have a song about two characters buying the firm’s annual office supplies together, and one character deeply, deeply wants to jump the other one’s bones, you’ve got possibilities. Think of what a gift this situation could be to a performer and a director. Think of all the wholesome joy your audience can have supplying filthy, sexy details.

A score that coulda used it: Victor/Victoria (1982, 1995, Mancini / Wildhorn / Bricusse)

Victor/Victoria is all about sexual attraction, from Victoria, who’s attracted to a real man’s man, King Marchand – but can’t reveal it because she’s masquerading as a man herself – to King Marchand, who’s attracted to Victoria, thinking she’s really a man, and is wrestling with this hitherto unsuspected side of his sexuality.

The score gets it right at first with “Le Jazz Hot”, a song all about the hotness of jazz, but really about the hotness of Victoria. Then, later (and to everyone’s credit, this song was later cut), King Marchand’s lover Norma tries to tempt him into bed with “Paris Makes Me Horny”:

Rome may be hot –
Sexy it is not!
Paris is so sexy!
Ridin’ in a taxi
Gives me apoplexy.

Been ta Lisbon
An’ Lisbon is a has-bin!
Schlepped ta Stockholm
An’ brought a lotta schlock home!
Also Oslo
An’ Oslo really was slow!

Paris makes me horny!
It’s not like Californy
Paris is so dizzy, Jack,
It’s such an aphrodisiac!

There it is. A character who wants sex singing about how she wants sex. Even if the song were good, there’d be no tension, and sure enough, performer Rachel York and her director Blake Edwards were forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business”.

There’s a simple fix, though, if this scene is to contain a song, because the wrong character is singing: it should be King Marchand. After seeing Victoria as Victor, he should be singing about he’s not worried about that handsome Victor guy, because King Marchand is a real man, who likes manly things, like football – yeah, King Marchand, grabbing other guys, pulling them to the ground and … no, wait … poker – yeah, poker, King Marchand, with all the fellas, staying up all night, drinking, sucking on cigars, gazing at each other’s hands, looking real deep into each other’s eyes … no, wait, dammit … a sharp, tailored suit – yeah, King Marchand, buying expensive fashionable clothes, and all the guys saying how good he looks …

Then Norma can invite him into bed.

Some Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes That Need a Rest. Maybe Forever.

1. The Song That Fixes An Argument

Here’s how it works. The two of you are fighting. Then one of you starts singing something. The other resists at first, but eventually joins in. Now you’re both singing, and damned if you don’t go into an ol’ soft-shoe together! Magically, once you reach the song’s button, whatever you were arguing about has gone away.

Egregious example: Grey Gardens (“Two Peas In a Pod”)

Edith has just had a big fight with her father, Major Bouvier, in which her daughter Edie firmly took the Major’s side. As a peace offering, young Edie starts singing an old song to her mother, the first song her mother ever taught her. They’re soon singing it together, with Edith’s accompanist George Gould Strong lending two helping hands at the piano. Problem solved.

But not really. After the song, it’s their next bit of dialogue that establishes a truce.

Ingenious subversion: Merrily We Roll Along (“Old Friends”)

Charlie, Frank and Mary are arguing about – well, pretty much everything. Mary starts up an old bit of schtick with the words “Here’s to us …”. Soon, they’re all singing together, but – and this is neat – the song breaks down into an argument midway, before pulling it together for the final button. Also, since the show’s chronology is in reverse, we in the audience have already seen this friendship group break up: no matter how chummy they might be at the end of this song, dramatic irony dangles overhead.

Why this trope needs to die: it’s bogus. And I don’t mean that it’s bogus in the way that all musicals are, by any realistic measure, bogus. No, it’s bogus on its face. If these characters are to resemble real, motivated people (and ever since Show Boat, that’s what the best writers have been trying to achieve, from high drama to low comedy), then it’s the quintessence of bullshit to have characters’ desires and fears allayed, however briefly, by a tune. On the other hand, if the argument were actually resolved in the course of the song, that’d be different. And much better.

2. The “I’m Happy To Be a Slut” Song

She’s brassy, she’s leggy. She likes men and she wants you to know it. Also, she’s … no, that’s it. There’s nothing more to this dame, and she won’t do much in the show to follow. She’ll either be conquered by domestic love or die helping the hero.

Egregious examples: The Producers (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”), Steel Pier (“Everybody’s Girl”)

In The Producers, Ulla turns up at Max and Leo’s office to audition with a song she’s written. She performs it for Max and Leo’s pleasure, they lust after her, and then they compete for her. Her job is to be dumb, and lusted after. I could write – nay, will write – an entire post about the wasted opportunity that is Ulla in this show.

In Steel Pier, the MC of a dance marathon is trying to drum up interest in the competition, so he spruiks the additional talents of some of his contestants. One of these is Shelby, who is pretty fast, as they used to say. She sings a song about how fast she is. It is meant to be ghastly, bursting with second-rate, second-hand jokes; and it is ghastly, since there’s no subtext or other aspects of Shelby’s character to alleviate the ghastliness. Later, Shelby falls in unfulfilling love with a younger man.

Ingenious subversion: Sweet Charity (“Big Spender”)

On paper, this is a come-on from the ladies of the Fan-Dango Ballroom. But as performed it’s clear they don’t mean a word of it, instantly adding layers to their characters. Brilliant. This was in 1964, more than thirty years before my two egregious examples.

Why this trope needs to die: Sure, it’s sexist (where are the male slut songs?), and yes, its time has passed (a female character can now simply say “I like sex”, so why should we sit through an entire song of sniggering jokes about it?), but most importantly, it’s dramatically inert. If you’re going to write a one-joke song, you’d better be Cole Porter. In the 1930s.

3. The Mad Scene Made of Dissonant Reprises

We’re near the end of the show, and a person, or possibly the world itself, is going insane. How to depict this musically? Maybe we’ll use a bunch of tunes we heard earlier in the night, but chopped up and layered over one another, with no concern for dissonance. In fact, dissonance is wanted: we’ll put long, wrong notes under previously pleasant tunes. If the tune’s in C, shove a loud F sharp or an A flat in the bass. (Composer’s confession: these are really easy to write. With some decent notation software, you can whip one up while the kettle boils.)

Eregious example: Sunset Boulevard (“Final Scene”)

Norma just shot Joe dead. The cops have come to take her away, but a journalist helpfully tells the audience that Norma’s “in a state of complete mental shock”. In lyrical terms, what is Norma given to work with? This:

This was dawn.
I don’t know why I’m frightened.
Silent music starts to play.
Happy new year, darling.
If you’re with me, next year will be…
Next year will be…
They bring in his head on a silver tray.
She kisses his mouth…
She kisses his mouth…
Mad about the boy!
They’ll say Norma’s back at last!

To be fair, there’s no dissonant accompaniment to this, which is a series of lines from a bunch of earlier songs, all spliced together. It’s even less work than the sort of thing I’m complaining about.

Ingenious subversion: Cabaret (“Finale Ultimo”)

This is one of the earliest examples I can think of, and it works a treat by undermining the traditional appeal of reprises. Clifford Bradshaw, supposed novelist, hasn’t written anything as far as we in the audience can tell; then, as he takes the train out of Berlin, he starts reading from his latest effort. Songs are heard in reprise, and this is justified as Cliff sorts through his memories. His later experiences of rising Nazism and soured romance justify the dissonances. There’s so much scope for directors in this part of the show that it keeps developing, from mirrors wherein the audience see themselves, to the cast being led off to concentration camps. It’s almost impossible for later writers to repeat this fine achievement, so why bother trying?

Why this trope needs to die: If anything should be personal, and distinctive, it’s madness. But if all madness sounds the same, how mad is it? This trope is almost always an example of writing that mimics other writers’ writing, instead of coming up with something unique to a particular character, at a particular time. Write a brand new song, folks. The Cray Cray Megamix is lazy.

Let’s Call Them ‘Platitunes’

With some songs, you know how nearly every line will end, even if you’ve never heard that particular song before. That’s because the song is made of clichés. I call these songs “platitunes”.

Pros of the Platitune

  • The songwriter need not rhyme. Each line is carried forward by its own pre-fabricated inevitability. If the listener doesn’t pay too much attention, this forward motion can sound like structure.
  • The listener need not pay close attention, since the lines don’t refer to each other, only to themselves. The sensation is one of repeated, short-term, small-scale resolution.
  • The song feels friendly, non-confronting, relatable. Like, totally relatable.

Cons of the Platitune

  • Despite their instant familiarity, the lyrics of the platitune are really hard to remember, since they’re all so similar.
  • Platitunes struggle to build. There’s no cumulative effect of story or dramatic structure, just more of the same. So the only way to reach a climax is to get louder, or higher. Or louder and higher.
  • The platitune, because it relies on over-used phrases instead of minting its own, does not age well. It sinks back into its decade of origin, and is later dredged up only in the service of nostalgia.

Some examples? My pleasure. The following aren’t all pure platitunes, but they demonstrate the essentials at important points. I found them by listening to the Top 20 songs in the current Billboard Hot 100 [all added ellipses are … mine]

Sam Smith – Stay With Me (Sam Smith, James Napier, William Phillips)

Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night … stand
But I still need love ’cause I’m just a … man
These nights never seem to go to … plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my … hand?

As platitunes go, this is not too bad, because it’s still logically coherent, and it’s made of clichés that actually rhyme.

Maroon 5 – Maps (Adam Levine, Ryan Tedder, Benjamin Levin, Ammar Malik, Noel Zancanella)

But I wonder where were you?
When I was at my … worst
Down on my … knees
And you said you had my … back
So I wonder where were you?
When all the roads you took came back … to me

Mix your clichés well, and you get this kind of incoherence, at which the platitune excels. To review: she said she had your back, and all the roads she took came back to you, so when you’re down on your knees, she’s probably behind you, dummy.

So I’m following the map that leads to you
The map that leads to you
Ain’t nothing I can … do
The map that leads to you

Not to be a pedant, but a map doesn’t lead to anything. A map shows where things are. That’s why the preferred cliché is “the road that leads to you” or “the path that leads to you”. Philosophical query: is a botched cliché worse than a correct one?

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj – Bang Bang (Max Martin, Onika Maraj, Savan Kotecha, Rickard Göransson)

She got a body like an hourglass, but I can give it to you all the … time
She got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into over … drive
See anybody could be bad to you, you need a good girl to blow your … mind

It’s encouraging to see these puns being attempted, but lazy clichés have undone them. Are hourglass bodies typically noted for their lack of stamina, or fussiness as to the time of day? I should have thought the opposite. Likewise, is the Cadillac-booty necessarily associated with low gears and slow speeds? And what is the nature of this mind-blowing that only a good girl can execute? Perhaps the chorus will clarify:

Bang bang into the … room
Bang bang all over … you
Wait a minute let me take you … there
Wait a minute ’til ya
Bang bang there goes your … heart
Bang, back seat of my … car

Hmmm. Whatever this “bang bang” is, it’s quick. And yet overdrive-girl, previously critical of slow speeds, wants you to “wait a minute”. Also, it turns out the “good girl” will “blow your mind” in the back of her car, where she believes your “heart” will be gone. I don’t presume to speak for all men, but I don’t think it would be my heart.

John Legend – All Of Me (John Legend, Toby Gad)

What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me … out

Her mouth draws him in. Within that mouth, presumably, are her feet, which then kick him out.

You’ve got my head … spinning, no … kidding, I can’t pin you … down
What’s going on in that beautiful … mind
I’m on your magical mystery … ride
And I’m so dizzy, don’t know what … hit me, but I’ll be … alright

This is OK. It’s deeply unoriginal, but at least it makes sense. In the chorus, the song tries to avoid clichés, and promptly comes a cropper:

‘Cause all of me
Loves all of … you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections

This ‘My Funny Valentine’ approach is commendable, but take a moment to look at your body. Do you see any edges? No, you don’t. You might see the tip of a nose, or the blade of a finger, or the heel of a palm. But you don’t see any edges unless you’re from a race of diamond aliens, or you have suffered a dreadful injury.

(Defenders will say this could be a metaphor, for the edges of a personality. I don’t buy it.)

Give your all to … me
I’ll give my all to … you
You’re my end and my … beginning
Even when I lose I’m … winning
‘Cause I give you all of … me

This sensitive guy schtick always plays well to the back row, but “lose” what? You didn’t lose yourself, you gave yourself. It’s right there in the next line, so what did you “lose”? Even when I give, I’m getting – that would make sense.

I’ll let George Orwell have the final say on platitunes, even though he was writing about prose. From “Politics and the English Language,” 1946:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

 

An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
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Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
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Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
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1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.

How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?

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The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.

Southern Hemisphere Love

Many years ago, I started writing a song.

It’s a song about how love is not, as songwriters would have you believe, a purely above-the-equator pursuit (“the lusty month of May”, “as cold as Christmas”, “the leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September in the rain”, “Summer, you old Indian summer, you’re the tear that comes after June-time’s laughter” etc. etc.)

Last week, I finished it:

 

And by “finished it”, I mean I did up a nice shiny piano-vocal chart too. It’s here.

A New Song, Both Charming and Scurrilous

Like many of our mothers, mine thinks I’m cleverer than I am. So when she lent me the CD sets pictured below …

highly recommended

… it was with the words “You probably know everything on there anyway.”

I did not. And sometimes I knew things, but Professor Bill Messenger put them in a different light and made me slap my forehead for not seeing them that way myself.

For instance, he points out, while covering the period beginning in the 1890s, that “in Tin Pan Alley, mother songs fell to the earth like ivory snow”, but that “to my knowledge not one mother song has been written during the past fifty years”.

So I thought I’d write one. A modern one. Yes, I’m aware that my own mother’s generosity has led me to writing the following. Like many of our mothers, I think she’ll forgive me:

Oh, you want the sheet music? For piano and voice? Right here.

 

 

Dear Mr Croce ….

Many thanks for your submitted song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.

We feel the song has great promise musically, but we would like to see further work done on its characters and dramatic arc.

The setting is well established at the outset, and the character of Leroy is effectively drawn. However, many of his personal details are extraneous to what follows. You state that Leroy “stan’ about six foot four”, but his height doesn’t factor into the ensuing action. Is it possible that, in the conflict that follows, Leroy’s height might become pertinent? Perhaps there could be some amusing comedy involving a ceiling fan?

Similarly, Leroy is a gambler, and he likes his fancy clothes, and he likes to wave his diamond ring in front of everybody’s nose, but none of these is developed later. Perhaps Leroy’s later conflict with the “jealous man” might be over gambling and fashion, in addition to Doris, the girl who looked nice? This would considerably raise the dramatic stakes in what follows.

In much the same way, Leroy’s cars are mentioned, but not used again. Might there be a thrilling chase scene involving the custom Continental and the El Dorado? And could Leroy actually use the .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and the razor in his shoe? It seems odd that he is so heavily armed, but never uses his weapons in the song’s climactic fight.

This brings us to our greatest concern: Leroy, for all that he is badder than old King Kong, and meaner than a junkyard dog, is not the victor in this fight. The listener knows a great deal about him, including his basic desires, but we know nothing of the “jealous man”, who proves to be even badder and meaner than Leroy. Is the song, in fact, about the wrong person? Leroy demonstrates an appealing vulnerability by losing, and we wonder if he could be re-written as “Good, Good Leroy Brown”? Perhaps he was looking to rescue Doris, the girl who looked nice, because she was a prostitute who married her pimp, and he knew and loved her when they were younger? If the two characters had this kind of backstory, we could feel more invested in the fight, and Leroy’s eventual fate could spring from a powerful conflict with his image of himself.

Meanwhile, the “bad” character, the “jealous man”, needs more detail, so we can see him. Who is he, and what is his name? What does he want? What is his inner motivation, in contrast to his simple external desire to maintain status by holding on to his wife? Is there also something vulnerable about him, to offset the rage he feels when another men merely casts his eyes upon Doris?

Your details and imagery are excellent, and we’d like to see them retained. But, in order for you to enjoy the commercial hit that your talents warrant, we feel that more attention must be paid to these characters, and in particular their inner lives.

Regards, etc.

 

Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a guitar instrumental, this:

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

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

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

Standard Excuse No.3 – Rock Swagger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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