For goodness sake

In my last entry, I recalled suggesting an extremely strict structure to college students looking to create a score with nothing but comedy songs. That sort of precision isn’t de rigueur for every song, or every writer.  Yet when the masters of musical comedy writing make the audience laugh, a hard-and-fast form is most often adhered to, so it can’t be coincidence. 

A rhyme scheme, faithfully used, for example, gives the audience something to listen for.  You can fulfill expectations, or better yet exceed expectations. But, for heaven’s sake don’t deny expectations. That’s bound to be disappointing. Many great comedy songs have something that might be called a joke scheme. Take Cole Porter’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It’s clear that each verse will contain three couplets, all using a Shakespeare title in a silly rhyme. The audience quickly catches on to the game, and we listen, assured that Cole Porter will provide new jokes of this type at these regular intervals.

Just declaim a few lines from “Othella”
And they’ll think you’re a helluva fella.
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes? “Much Ado About Nussing.”
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kowtow.

With the wife of the British embessida
Try a crack out of “Troilus and Cressida,”
If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
Make her tike it, what’s more, “As You Like It.”
If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the “Coriolanus.”

Cole Porter’s strict adherence to the joke scheme has a host of ramifications.  One is that it cuts out his work for him: Go through the list of the Bard’s play titles and see what you can make of them.  (Two Gentlemen of Verona?  Nothing there.  Anthony and Cleopatra? Gold.) Secondly, things with good form are things of beauty.  There’s an aesthetic pleasure in the construction.  More importantly, the format focuses the audience’s attention.  We listen extra carefully to places in a song where we know the joke is coming.  During the repeated title, we might even play along, trying to think of what he’s going to do with Pericles or Romeo & Juliet (nothing, it turns out).  Porter outplays us, coming up with cleverer lines than us mere mortals – who else could have come up with the quip for Coriolanus?  Sticking to an unbending structure makes Brush Up Your Shakespeare the perfect joke-delivery system.

Or perhaps you think the whole thing is old-fashioned.  Unspontaneous. Arch.  Most artists want to be mad experimenters, wild and free.  Is form anathema to you?  Do those sonneteers, from centuries long over, filling out verse after verse in immaculately rhymed and metered fourteen line patterns seem like your polar opposite?  Do you long for a more organic-seeming, free-flowing expression?  It’s natural to feel this way.

I often marvel at the architecture of those new buildings hanging over the High Line at Twenty-Third Street. Seems wildly creative to fashion structures that don’t rise straight up, but rather up and out, like a tree.  A lot of us aspire to such innovation, but you know the cliché: In order to get to the level of proficiency required for such bulging weirdness, the architect had to demonstrate, over and over again, that he could design a building the normal way, with regular vertical lines.

Writing songs in 32-bar AABA format may seem terribly stifling, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  And then tried it again, literally hundreds of times. Those who’ve ample experience with structured songwriting understand that this sort of precision, no matter how uncomfortable and inorganic it seems, leads to more effective songwriting.  We all want to move our audiences, and the masters succeed with careful fidelity to architectural principles.

In my notebook, I jotted down an idea for this blog about comparing two Broadway love songs with unusual structures.  It’s taken me all this time to get to it.  Two of our greatest living composers:  Charles Strouse in 1966; Stephen Sondheim in 1971.  After much study (Strouse at Eastman; Sondheim with Milton Babbitt) and much experience writing hit Broadway musicals, each decided to take a creative leap with the architecture of the principle love songs in musicals they were writing (Golden Boy and Follies).

In Golden Boy, a black prizefighter has started a relationship with his white manager’s white girlfriend.  The stakes are extremely high when they finally give voice to their feelings about each other.  The accompaniment starts with a long tremolo on a tense, suspended chord. Clearly, something major’s about to be said:

Lorna and Joe
Somehow, it feels so right
Somehow, you feel what I feel too

These lines play up the notes of that fraught chord, ascending higher with each line.  It’s as if Joe’s getting bolder or bolder (and Lorna must react in an encouraging way).  This intro has no set rhythm, so it’s a little like recitative, but the effect is that words seem to be bursting forth from a heart that can no longer hold its peace.

Then comes the title, assumedly the inspiration of lyricist Lee Adams: I Want To Be With You.  The words carry a subtle extra meaning, as “be with you” has a sexual sense.  This ups the stakes, and makes the entire song seem dangerous.  (I’d bet this musical didn’t tour in the deep south.) Strouse sets this on six notes that repeat, frequently, as a motif. Sometimes with the same words; sometimes with others.  The phrase is so strong, not only can it bear repetition, but, repeated twice, it serves as the A section of the song.  This is extremely out of the ordinary for a show tune.  The B section, in tempo, echoes the intro, building up various suspended chords.  Then there’s a C section (I have a feeling some readers who are new mothers just uttered “ouch”) in which the voices ring out on long notes.  Adams provides syllables that don’t end in consonants see/how/me/now.  Little wonder so many musical theatre writers named him as their favorite lyricist when the Dramatist Guild Quarterly took a survey forty years ago.

In Follies, two former flames, now unhappily married to others, reunite for the first time in a quarter century.  The possibility of their hooking up means a lot to Sally; it’s not clear, at this point in the play, how much such a liaison would mean to Ben.

So, sans intro, Ben expresses the romantic notion that too many mornings over those twenty-five years were spent pretending he was reaching for Sally in bed.  The music here uses what I like to call the vanilla chords, a major ninth and peacefully related harmonies.  There’s very little tension, so we have to believe Ben is earnest.  A B section starts with a phrase we’ll hear again later, but the B section won’t be heard again.  It neatly brings us back to the opening harmony, and the A is heard again.  Now the C utilizes scales, but fights the routine nature of this by going into different harmonic places.  The D section is passionate and bold, almost like something you’d find in an operetta.

With the A section underscoring, Sally speaks, asking for a kiss.  Then, it seems she’s starting the B section, but she’s not calm enough to use it, breaking off into a variant involving the same dance-like rhythm Richard Rodgers used – too often for my taste – in a comic trio with words by Sondheim, No Understand.  Then there’s something of a climax on the words “You remembered, and my fears were wrong!” Next comes a quieter sentimental theme, and, if you’ve been following this very carefully, you’ll recognize it uses the same rhythm as I Want To Be With You‘s C section (no one would call this a steal; it’s just coincidence).  Then Ben restates the theme as Sally’s self-recriminative nature gets the better of her.  She sings a countermelody that plays on chromatically descending thirds.  On the word “happy” both characters trail off as the orchestra plays a set of eighth notes.  These sound, to me, like musically treading water, but it gives the characters time to look into each other’s eyes, commune and decide to sing together.  They do, a truncated restatement of the song, and, rather than cuing the audience to applaud, on the final sung note the sentimental theme returns on a solo violin.

It’s probably no secret which of these two duets I prefer, but both are very sophisticated approaches to going beyond the standard construction of the Broadway love song.  And I hope every writer reading this aspires to that level of non-standard sophistication.  Someday.  When you’re ready.

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