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.

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

Ep4. – Writers who get in the way

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

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

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

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

Tell a kid

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

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

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

Tell a dead person

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

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

Put a Hat On a Supporting Character

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

Dream Sequence!

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

Have the chorus do it

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

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

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

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

Where’s the message?

Maybe I should get a ghost to sing it.

Tim Rice, Please Explain

When Howard Ashman died, he and composer Alan Menken were part way through Aladdin, their third score for Disney. Tim Rice took over the lyric-writing duties and, according to Menken, did a fine job of adapting his style to sound more like Ashman’s, so the score wouldn’t contain abrupt changes in tone.

One of Rice’s lyrics was for the magical carpet-riding song A Whole New World:

Aladdin: I can show you the world
Shining, shimmering, splendid
Tell me, princess, now when did
You last let your heart decide?

One could quibble at this point, because not many street urchins use the word ‘splendid’, but let’s be charitable, and say that because Aladdin has been turned into a Prince by the Genie, his vocabulary has expanded. What’s matters more is the hidden trap in the two syllable rhyme of ‘splendid’ with ‘when did’. If other verses follow, a lyricist has two choices:

  1. Drop the two-syllable rhyme, like a total wuss, or:
  2. Keep it up, with the risk of making all the characters sound like Cole Porter.

How does Rice do?

Take you wonder by wonder
Over, sideways and under
On a magic carpet ride

That’s OK. What about when it’s Jasmine’s turn?

JasmineUnbelievable sights
Indescribable feeling
Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling
Through an endless diamond sky

Nice. Nicely done. Challenge met, and no-one sounds like they’re in a Harvard revue. What about the backing lines in the chorus?

Jasmine: A whole new world
(Aladdin: Don’t you dare close your eyes)
Jasmine: A hundred thousand things to see
(Aladdin: Hold your breath – it gets better)

So now the words to rhyme are ‘eyes’ and ‘better’

Aladdin: A whole new world
(Jasmine: Every turn a surprise)
AladdinWith new horizons to pursue
(JasmineEvery moment red-letter)

Wait. What? Come again? Every moment red-letter? What the hell is a red-letter moment? A red-letter day is fine, that would look like this:

M     T     W     Th    F    Sa    Su

Ooh, look, a special visitor on Wednesday! But what does a red-letter moment look like?  What would the letter be? The letter M?

A moment ago                   This Moment                          Next Sunday

I’m baffled. I can’t work it out. Maybe Jasmine has a rush of nitrogen to the brain and doesn’t know what she’s singing, but I think the song was written, storyboarded, outlined, filled-in, inked, animated, recorded, re-recorded, covered, covered again, and no-one, no-one said, “Oi. Tim. What letter?”

Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle sang the lyric as written, but when those titans of the larynx, Peter Andre and Katie Price – then married – covered the song, they resolved the problem by having Price sing ‘every moment gets better’. Who says she’s dumb?