My definition of a well-written number is colored by my repugnance at certain currently-popular compositions that make their way onto my piano-stand with far more frequency than they deserve. I’m tempted to say, for example, “A well-written number is the polar opposite of Astonishing” that tuneless formless abomination that consistently misaccents its title as if the character was struggling to learn English. So, let me here acknowledge, there are plenty of older show tunes that nobody sings that really aren’t very good. Twenty-Four Hours a Day is pretty bad.
So, first, just because it’s on my mind, the well-crafted number is reasonably succinct. The ideal would be not a word wasted, not one unnecessary note. Get to a point and don’t let the song outwear its welcome. A lot of people love Stephen Schwartz’s Meadowlark, but to me it’s the sort of bedtime story that puts me to sleep. It’s an unfamiliar fairy tale that’s supposed to have a parallel in the lives of the characters. While I get who the old king must be, the turns in the tale are stated over such a long period of time, it’s an allegory that’s nearly impossible to follow. Leave aside the fact that it’s the character’s self-justification for doing something horrible to the one character we love at the end of Act One. The proper reaction is to boo and hiss, although people generally applaud because they appreciate the stamina of the singer, getting through such a long song.
Repeating the title is pretty important, but Jason Robert Brown goes overboard in a four-minute number called I’m a Part of That. It’s a pretty good name for a song, I think, exactly what the character is thinking, as she desperately grasps at straws about what’s good about her relationship. I like the Doritos joke. But twelve times? Does she have to say “I’m a part of that” twelve times? It’s eating up a lot of stage time.
This will seem pretty simple, but the music and lyrics should feel like they go together. One of my least-favorite musicals, Miss Saigon, set up a fairly dramatic situation when the wife of a Vietnam veteran meets the woman he loved while at war. In Now That I’ve Seen Her, Claude-Michel Schönberg provides a rinky-dink melody, going up and down the first three notes of the major scale in a catchy dotted quarter-dotted quarter-quarter rhythm. Its lightness and levity befits juvenile joy, not such an adult problem. Try the tune with the lyric “Going to nurs’ry school” and you’ve got a better match.
Is it too much to ask that a song tells-me-something-I-don’t-already-know? Be a little fresh and avoid stating the obvious. Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are nothing if not traditional in their approach to writing songs. There’s a troubling line in Without Love (a title they use seventeen times, which seems to be a magic number for them, since, in the same score, they use another title seventeen times): I’m in love with you no matter what you weigh. The feeling, and the objection the character has overcome, have already been stated in the script. Why would he be saying “no matter what you weigh” to her again? The audience already understands this, and so does the girl.
If you’re going to write a comedy song (and I pray that you do), the jokes should provoke laughter. Andrew Lippa’s Pulled is catchy, energetic, emotional, and just lays there because so many of its punch lines lack, well, punch. I’m a little bemused by his using the title three times in one measure: It’s as if he knows he’s got a bad title and thinks that repeating it will ironically show up second rate writing in a humorous way. Nope, it’s just bad times three.
My composition teacher – perhaps quoting his composition teacher, Aaron Copland – said the highest praise that can be applied to music is “It holds together well.” Now, it’s hard to talk about music, because it’s an abstract art, and people’s reactions to tunes have so much to do with individual taste. I like melodies that soar and go to unexpected places. I get impatient with repeated riffs, or energy for the sake of energy. Performers love Pasek & Paul’s Monticello, I think, because they can show a lot of fire and power. To me, though, it’s a chore to listen to.
Lest it seem I don’t like anything from recent musicals, I’m going to list ten that are well-enough crafted to move me, just off the top of my head. I suggest you get to know them, perhaps by playing through the sheet music, or, the best way: see the shows they’re from.
- The “I Love You” Song by William Finn
- One White Dress by John Bucchino
- Sensitive Song by Larry O’Keefe
- How Can I Lose You? by Adam Guettel
- The Next Best Thing To Love by Ed Kleban
- Venice by William Finn
- Why? by Jonathan Larson
- You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez
- Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True by David Yazbek
- I Won’t Mind by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler, and Libby Saines