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.