Often, on this blog, I’ve illustrated writing principles by drawing on examples from real musicals. From time to time, I’ve been unable to name certain shows, because they’re examples of what not to do and I don’t want to upset people I know who were involved with the show. For an unusually long period of time, now, out of necessity, I’ve not been attending theatre. The exception is the new production of my musical, The Christmas Bride and so, while it’s the freshest thing on my mind, I thought I’d describe some of the things we did, in the writing, to make it an effective and moving stage experience.
If I were in a self-flagellating mood, I’d spell out what we did wrong. Then, I’d seem modest or self-deprecating. But damn, those standing ovations are still ringing in my ears, so:
Music: Cohesive and Memorable
People hummed my melodies on the way out of the theatre, and kept humming them days later. What accounts for that?
One thing is the simplicity of the tunes themselves. There aren’t any dissonances, or particularly surprising intervals or rhythms. They go where you expect them to go, so, if you’re attempting to recall them later, it’s not a question of remembering a bunch of jagged turns of phrase.
Some of the songs that are built on very simple motifs are enlivened by changing key for almost every section, a trick that adds interest but doesn’t get in the way of memory at all.
Then, there’s the traditional use of reprises. The Act One ballad Keep Her Well, with its misdirected romanticism, returns in Act Two as a prayer – that is, literally directed towards God in a church – for four other characters. The hero’s passionate imploration to Take a Gamble returns when he exhorts a drunken jailer to roll dice for his freedom. And so on.
But there’s also something we might as well call embedded repetition, where a section of one tune is used again as a section of another. In a trio towards the end of the show, the heroine sings a bit of her I Want song, Fluttering. The much-used minor descent of the act one finale is restated in a major key when, later, the lovers recall what they felt that night. And a phrase the leading lady uses to argue fidelity to home is then used by her sister, to argue the same thing to her: a musical equivalent of using one’s own words against one.
Plus – and, in retrospect, this is hard to believe – in my youth I had the idea than an entire score could stem from a single chord. In the case of The Christmas Bride, I often came back to a suspended chord – one that uses the fourth instead of the third. It creates a pleasant tension when resolved. (I’d learned this as a teen, from, of all unrelated things, The Who’s Pinball Wizard.) By utilizing this harmonic tool again and again, some of the score instantly feels familiar to the listener; indeed, they’ve heard the resolution earlier in the score.
I’m not saying any of these devices is particularly brilliant, just that they help the audience to take in a lot of new music, and hum it on their way home from the theatre.
“Heavy Rhyming Is Not Cleverness”
In lyric-writing, I tend to worry a lot about my propensity to rhyme too cleverly and too often. For the first of my shows I saw produced, Murder at the Savoy (then called Pulley of the Yard), I had a good excuse for verbal pyrotechnics: the piece was set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan company, and the entire show was written in G & S style. But The Christmas Bride is populated by unsophisticated country folk, out of whose mouths dazzling verbiage would not naturally flow. So I tried to tone down the cleverness.
And cleverness was a subject discussed in my exchange of letters with Stephen Sondheim. The man who wrote “such lovely Blue Danube-y music, how can you be still?” told me “heavy rhyming is not cleverness” so of course I felt I’d failed to tone down the wordplay sufficiency. A few years later, MK Wolfe and I embarked on a revision, and some of the new characters were to be big city quick-talkers we wanted to contrast with the rural yokels. Two minor characters – a dishonest stevedore and a casino croupier – would be given parts of songs. For them, at last, I felt I could create intricate rhymes. The device jibed with what the inveigling the characters were doing in song.
Here’s the lying longshoreman:
I KNOW A CRONE, MRS. HAYES
WHO’S IN NEED OF A HELPER
SHE’S ALONE, BUT SHE PAYS
OH, INDEED, PRETTY WELL PER
DAY – A FRIEND OF THE AUNT
OF THE WIFE OF MY COUSIN
AND I’LL TELL YOU WHERE SHE LIVES…
FIRST TRAVEL EAST, LEAVE THE DOCKS
TILL YOU COME TO A COURT
THEN GO AT LEAST TWENTY BLOCKS
SHE’S AT NUMBER SIX-FORT-
Y ON A ROAD THEY CALL UTOPIA
I’m proud of the internal rhymes you don’t hear every day, ones that use the first syllables of two-syllable words like “forty” and “number” – common words not commonly rhymed. It’s intended to have a dizzying effect, for The Christmas Bride herself is fooled by this flim-flam.
The leading man gets convinced to try his hand at roulette in a lightning-speed patter:
STEP RIGHT UP, BET A SHILLING
TAKE A TURN, AIN’T YOU WILLING?
BETTER AMBLE OVER HERE
AND LEARN YOUR FATE
AT THE LATEST THING FROM FRANCE
TAKE A TRY, MAKE A KILLING
AT ROULETTE, AIN’T IT THRILLING?
TAKE A GAMBLE, GATHER NEAR
AND BET A CROWN
PUT IT DOWN AND TAKE A CHANCE
Scammers are clever, and the abundant rhymes serve the purpose of taking the lead characters in, and all of us in the audience as well.
The Most Dickensian Story Dickens Never Wrote
If you read the fine print, you discover that The Christmas Bride is based on an unheralded novella by Charles Dickens called The Battle of Life. If you see our musical first, and then read the story, you’re bound for disappointment. The Dickens tale is notably lacking in plot. Too little happens – that is, too little to provide the story of a musical. So MK Wolfe took in the tropes readers have always associated with Dickens and created a new plot filled with melodramatic incident, chance meetings, duals, deceptions and desertion. It feels very much like Dickens, but the reality is, it’s the creation of Wolfe alone.
As the musical evolved, we’d be asked what the show is about, thematically . Usually the questioner was director Al D’Andrea, who took a Jerome Robbins-like interest in making sure the libretto was shaped for optimal emotional power. MK Wolfe had various ideas about love, duty and family that she hoped to illustrate. The story needed to be fashioned and refashioned, run by audiences to see what was landing (we held many readings to this purpose) and eventually much of what had once been expressed in speeches came out through the machinations of plot. The audiences in Maine had tears in their eyes. I daresay they were far more impressed with The Christmas Bride than they’d been with The Marvelous Wonderettes the month before, because here was a show that abounded in melody, reveled in wit, and touched the heart.