Just heard a recent interview with John Kander in which he mentioned that part of his process is to steep himself in the time period and place the show’s set in. He’ll listen to music of the era and setting, in hopes that some of the characteristics will emerge in the score he composes. One can hear the proof of this pudding in those Kurt Weill touches in Cabaret, the echt Greek spirit of Zorba, or the cheery minstrelsy of The Scottsboro Boys.
It seems to me good composers do this and careless composers don’t. I’ve always been particularly impressed with Berlin-born Frederick Loewe. Does anything yell Edwardian England better than those frilly bars leading into Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? Now think of that twang of a banjo that introduces They Call the Wind Maria, the burr of Down on MacConnachy Square, and the utter Gaul of Gigi. In a previous post, I praised Jerry Bock’s knack for such delineation in scores like Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and Tenderloin. And here’s a contemporary example: Jeanine Tesori, with her lovable flapper tunes for Thoroughly Modern Millie. More remarkably, in two excellent shows set in the south in the 1960’s, Violet and Caroline, or, Change, she makes a distinction between the sound of black characters, the sound of whites, and the audience can hear exactly where these styles overlap.
So who’s being careless? France’s “gift” to recent musical theatre, Claude-Michel Schönberg, for one. Years ago, I heard a radio interview in which he talked about the pressure of coming up with a patriotic march for the students of the Paris Uprising. He knew he had to write a tune to stand in for his own country’s national anthem, as the actual students sang La Marseillaise. Schönberg’s rouser, Do You Hear the People Sing? uses dotted rhythms mixed in with the odd triplet, giving it a Scottish quality that is as out of place as biting into haggis when you’re expecting pâté. The bridge of the song is a direct steal from Wanderin’ Star, Frederick Loewe’s veritable vagabond folk song of the American West. Les Misérables also contains a British music-hall number, Master of the House, for a French country innkeeper. The tune would be far more suited for another Loewe character, the cockney Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
In some scores, it’s clear the composer is intentionally using a technically “wrong” style on purpose. The emo rock of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson perversely makes a connection between the 7th president and young people today. In Spring Awakening, dialogue scenes are true-to-the-time and then lights flash on for Duncan Sheik’s appealing contemporary score. Clearly, there’s a method behind this madness. But Elton John’s score for Aida is contemporary rock for no apparent reason. And, sometimes, the 1999 score isn’t all that contemporary: the witless nonsense, My Strongest Suit, sounding awfully similar to Elton John’s early hit, Crocodile Rock, which, itself, harkened back to an earlier age in pop when it came out in 1972.
Which reminds me of how much I enjoy the music of the Vietnam era. Hearing The Doors and The Stones et al. is always a highlight, for me, of attending movies set in Vietnam during the war, and these usually aspire to and achieve a certain degree of verisimilitude. But Schönberg’s musical set there, Miss Saigon, is, to my ears, far too modern and therefore wrong-sounding. Why God Why? is littered with Billy Joel licks, even if the main theme is pilfered from Rodgers & Hart’s There’s a Small Hotel (1936). And that song played on a solo saxophone? Really? Does this have anything to do with Miss Saigon‘s locale? Is the composer alarmingly lazy? Does anyone besides me care?