Last night I caught a cabaret concert by an organization called The Contemporary Traditionalists. Last year, I had a couple of songs in a similar concert they did, featuring world premiere performances of material from new musicals. I must say, this more recent show was a step in the right direction. Most of the songs were effective comic pieces, and just about all of them seemed influenced by great musical theatre songs of the past. This is a really good thing.
It’s been my observation that the lion’s share of contemporary musical theatre writing appears to have been wholly uninfluenced by what I’ll awkwardly call the Show Tune Tradition. Songs, at all levels of quality and exposure, resemble some of the quirkier pop songs of our time, rather than songs-from-musicals. There’s something odd, and perhaps self-defeating, about creating songs-for-musicals that don’t sound anything like previous songs-from-musicals. Are writers of show tunes today expressing a disdain for the show tunes of yesterday?
It seems plausible that some of these upstarts are unfamiliar with our heritage. Obviously, they’re familiar with contemporary pop. I’ve seen “Ben Folds-y groove” written over the first bars of sheet music. I’ve never seen “Jule Styne-ish build” written anywhere. They write what they know. It makes me think it would be nice if BMI’s Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop required participants to learn the repertoire. And how hard would it be to familiarize oneself? Many of the great shows of the 40s, 50s and 60s are still produced regularly around the country. Outside of She Loves Me and The Most Happy Fella, most of the really good ones have film versions. From my perspective, you’ve got to have your head in the sand to not be aware of our Show Tune Tradition.
It could be a matter of taste. For my last musical, I literally asked myself “What would Jule Styne do?” because my show was set in 1950 and nobody, in my view, typifies 1950 shows more than Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl). I suspect that tradition-rejecting scribes love – I don’t know – Sara Bareilles the way I love Styne and so aspire to sound like her. So, their songs have catchy rhythms, guitar-based accompaniment, and, when they’re not ballads, truck along in a jaunty four. An example, and it’s a song I like, is Someday, by Beguelin and Sklar, from The Wedding Singer. (Yes, I know it has a good excuse for sounding like 80s bubblegum pop – it’s a period piece.)
Note how the staging adds drama with an awful lot of shtick. The director has wisely compensated for a distinct lack of drama in the song. The poor would-be bride states her desire, and then states it again, and again, repeating some of the same lyrics. Just like pop songs do. Just like good theatre songs don’t.
Look at it this way: If you were writing a monologue for this character to express at this moment in the play, would you feel a need to have her say “Someday when it’s me I’ll know our love was meant to be. Not one single complication or cause for hesitation. Someday when the dream is coming true, all you’ll need is me and all I’ll need is you” three times? Seems like a bit of overkill, no?
But we’re used to repetition in songs, especially pop songs, and this mindless iteration is somehow acceptable.
So here’s the good news: Eight songwriters last night eschewed pop clichés and vacuous repetition. (Andre Catrini, Chris Fitz, James Harvey, Omri Schein & James Olmstead, Michael Shapiro & David Christensen, Keith Varney) In so doing, they created amusing musical theatre pieces. They sounded like the output of young writers who are very aware of the fine Show Tune Tradition. And that’s why the producing outfit’s title, The Contemporary Traditionalists, seemed so apt. The focus was on comic turns, such as Ashley Brooke as the world’s most ambitious girl scout and Brad Siebeking bidding goodbye to an unwanted organ. Oh, how we laughed.
For last year’s concert at The Broadway Comedy Club, the program had a higher percentage of rapturous ballads, such as my own Miracle and Teach Me How To Love. In retrospect, I think they might have been hoping I’d instead give them a couple of comedy songs (I seem to be known for that). But, since they asked for recently-written stuff from a current project, and I like my ballads better than the gag numbers on that one, I saddled them with Miracle, which is introspective and haunting, not funny. I apologize.
But, I’m proud to state – using lower case letters – that I am a contemporary traditionalist. What rolls around in my head, all the time, are show tunes, from musicals new and old. You’re unlikely to hear me humming Call Me Maybe, although, when I see cars illegally blocking crosswalks, and I’m pushing my baby in a stroller, a certain CeeLo Green hit comes to mind.
Kevin Michael Murphy singing my Teach Me How To Love