For my father’s birthday, I’m honoring his request that I avoid writing about him here. (Last year’s birthday blog inspired his appeal.) But I recently mentioned this little musical improv game we played when I was a teen. I’ve been told this game is extraordinary, but the more I think about it, the more I think it essential to the skill-set of any theatre composer or lyricist.
The game is very simple: you think of a classical composer, keep the name to yourself, go to the piano and improvise a piece in that composer’s style until your listeners guess the composer’s name. I don’t have time to record an example, but, suppose you played a slow waltz, with half notes on the second beat in the right hand while the bass hits downbeats. But the “vanilla” harmonies (minor sevenths and such) don’t really lead anywhere; it’s utterly free of tension. By now, some of you have guessed that I’m describing how one might do Eric Satie.
Lest lyricists feel left out, I’m going to describe a similar game my teen friends and I would play, and it’s all about literary style. We’d take a book off the shelf – preferably a not-so-famous novel by a well-known author. Players would then write, on little slips of paper, a sentence that sounded as if it could be the book’s first sentence. These were read out loud – along with the actual sentence – and we’d all vote for what we thought was the real entry. The winner of the round is the fake that fools the most people. Hours of fun, and it was relatively rare that anyone got injured.
Now that I’ve told you how to play these games, I’m going to tell you how to win. Get to know a wide panoply of literary and musical styles. Figure out what defines a style, what characteristics make, say, Ravel Ravel or Melville Melville. As you’re doing this, begin to get a feel for time and place. Satie and Ravel were Frenchmen in the same time period. Figure out what makes them sound “French” and “early 20th century.”
Next, turn your attention to those masters of the apropos, Lerner & Loewe. In the mid-fifties, they produced two musicals so wildly different in setting and feel, it makes the mind reel. Vienna-born Loewe filled Paint Your Wagon with what feel like authentic folk songs of the American west. He did this by utilizing all sorts of compositional techniques that those uncomposed classics (Streets of Laredo, etc.) used. Throughout the world, the pentatonic scale is the building block to folk tunes. In They Call the Wind Maria, Loewe builds the pentatonics into block chords in the accompaniment. As if inspired by what amateur guitarists often do, the eight eighth notes have stresses on the off-beats. In a wholly unsyncopated, non-poppy way that evokes Gold Rush days.
Thirty years later, Claude-Michel Schönberg stole one of Paint Your Wagon’s melodies, popped it up, and made it the release of Les Miserables’ Do You Hear the People Sing?, an anthem meant to stand in for La Marseillaise. What the revolutionary students of the Paris Commune have to do with Forty-Niners I’ll never know, but at least the time periods are similar.
Two years after Paint Your Wagon, Lerner and Loewe successfully convinced Broadway they were veddy veddy British with their nova-bright depiction of the high and low of Edwardian London, My Fair Lady. Does any music ever written by an actual Englishman sound as English as Ascot Gavotte? Or, for the Cockneys, the faux-genteel filigree that leads into the chorus of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly – seems fresh out of the Music Hall. It’s the utter appropriateness, more than any other single trait, that makes Loewe one of the most masterful of Broadway composers.
Matching him stride for stride is Alan Jay Lerner, who gave considerable thought to the verbal devices that enliven his lyrics. In Henry Higgins, he had the ideal character to write for, an aficionado of the glories of the English language. But two years prior, for the uneducated prospectors of Paint Your Wagon, he used shorter words, straight-forward structures, and no clever rhymes at all. That’s dazzling versatility, and one feels he would have done very well in that First Sentence game I used to play.
This might sound like an egotistical juxtaposition, but I can use my own work as an exemplar of properly-applied manifestations of style. In Murder at the Savoy, I had occasion to create one of those duets one often finds in Gilbert and Sullivan, where one character finishes the others’ lines.
Percy, you’re –
— too ill-prepared to
Sing the score!
— I’m much too scared to
Do the role
Oh, stop this drivel!
— On the whole –
You’d rather snivel
I matched this with jaunty 6/8 music, as Sullivan would have, starting in minor and ending in major. And the happy result of all this is that I actually convinced some audience members that Gilbert and Sullivan had written the show. Which pleased my producer even more than it pleased me.
The other week, I was a little startled to read critic Peter Filichia taking Alan Jay Lerner to task for a lyric that didn’t sound appropriate coming out of the mouth of the character he created.
However, the way Lerner wrote Daisy in his book – as a flibbertigibbet – was very different from the way he wrote her in his intelligent and incisive lyrics. Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here, in which Daisy sings to her plants and flowers, is full of delicious wordplay and puns that are beyond the ken of the Daisy who speaks.
Nice to know I’m not the only guy who thinks about this stuff.
Click here to read Peter Filichia on one of my shows.