We can get all wonky, dissecting the intricacies of craft most folks never see. But what would that get us? The reality is that one can be a perfect craftsman and still write a less-than-successful musical. Shows work when the audience is intrigued, involved (emotionally) and interested (in what’s going to happen next). “Mere” craft is not going to get you there, although errors in craft can be so distracting, it’s hard to achieve any of the good stuff.
It’s tempting to focus on craft here. (The 1776 line “Sing me no sad elegy,” defended by the songwriter’s son, prompted this muse.) It’s easier to discuss craft than it is to describe the set of happy happenstances that make a show a hit. I’ve spoken about this before using a phrase I hope doesn’t sound mystical, “the Knack.”
Writers often ask themselves, “Is this a good idea for a musical?” My inclination is to ask “Is this a good idea for a song?” If there’s no workable premise, if characters aren’t going to change somehow by song’s end, if the song’s been written before, chances are I don’t want to write it.
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was a property that floated around for a number of years. Various writing teams thought it over, asked “Is this a good idea for a show?” and found it lacking. It’s not a love story; it’s more like a long theoretical argument between a handful of people on the subject of class. And class tends to be a subject the British are more frequently aware of than us “classless” Yanks. How could you fit a chorus into a Wimpole Street townhouse?
With the advantage of hindsight, knowing how Lerner and Loewe answered those questions to create the longest running show of all time (a record that’s since been eclipsed), it’s hard to imagine how vexing the musicalization of Pygmalion once seemed. So, without getting all wonky, let’s simply admit Lerner and Loewe had the Knack. In Brigadoon, they managed to mix American cynicism with the flightiest of fantasies to create a great setting for love songs and comedy. I’ve raved before about how chameleon composer Fritz Loewe invented authentic-sounding folk songs for Paint Your Wagon. MGM had them adapt Gigi, winning nine Oscars. Then Camelot tossed classic romance with Enlightenment principles. The pressure of getting the last one on took a toll on Loewe’s heart, and he retired for health reasons. Lerner sans Loewe was never remotely as successful in the theatre. The combination of these collaborators = the Knack.
Over roughly the same years, my favorite songwriter Frank Loesser also had four Broadway hits with a brief detour to write a Hollywood classic (score-wise). What a genius he had for coming up with original and theatrical ideas for songs. Take Make a Miracle. A Victorian couple discusses the future. He’s proposing marriage but she keeps changing the subject to the upcoming great inventions of the nascent twentieth century: “horseless carriages that fly,” “breakfast cereals that explode. (I’m reminded of the title of a comedy show friends did a few years ago: We Were Supposed To Have Flying Cars By Now.) Or the opening number of Guys and Dolls, in which three touts give horse racing tips in counterpoint. Who but Loesser would have thought of such a thing? And I feel like I’ve talked about the brilliance of The Most Happy Fella and How To Succeed way too many times.
But you get the idea: you’re going to need the Knack, and need to know what ideas for songs and shows are likely to fly. How do you get the Knack? Well, start by becoming familiar with the work of knack-possessors like Loesser, Lerner & Loewe, Comden & Green, and especially Bock & Harnick. They wrote the shows that made the whole world smile. And the smiling never stopped: In Summer Stock companies today their shows are performed with impressive ubiquity. And obviously, seeing them is more illuminating than reading them, playing through their scores, listening to cast albums or suffering through disappointingly unfaithful film adaptations.
Which brings me back to 1776, a show with an admirably faithful cinematic rendering. It’s a marvelous musical, mostly due to its excellent book. The score is full of false accents, such as the one on the final syllable of “America” in the opening number and “elegy” in “He Plays the Violin.” A case can be made that songwriter Sherman Edwards intentionally uses an old-fashioned (I’d say operetta-like) style to give us a feel for colonial PhiladelphiAAAAAAAA (sorry – another false accent there). But to my ears, it just sounds like sloppy craft. It can be reasonably assumed that the Founding Fathers spoke somewhat differently than we do today, but accents that off are just … off-putting.
But that last point’s just for the wonks.