A young theatre songwriter I very much admire, Ryan Cunningham, has written a perfectly fair article for The Huffington Post about what might as well be called The You-Tubing of Our Industry. He accurately describes the contemporary process of writing a song, uploading a video, people see it and like it (or, perhaps, “like” it). Then you’ve got more people familiar with your work, more singers who want to perform that song, and, the ultimate goal, interesting producers in the musical from whence it came.
Sounds like a sure hit, does it not? – the musical From Whence It Came.
So that’s what it’s come to, here in the second decade of the 21st Century. At the risk of sounding troglodytically mired in 20th Century ways of thinking, I’d like to point out a few problems with our Brave New World.
The biggest one may be the hardest thing to convince you about. There are important differences between the qualities necessary for a song to score on YouTube and what flies theatrically in the context of a story for the stage. These differences were apparent to some, forty years ago, when the musical Pippin pioneered the use of television advertising for Broadway. The show had a smart producer, Stuart Ostrow and the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse as its chief creative force. They took a long hard look at how Stephen Schwartz’s songs might play on the small screen and decided to present a dance with no singing. What makes Pippin a successful entertainment is not stuff a camera could capture.
But surely music, if it’s good, will shine on a video. And also the lyrics, especially if they’re witty. Could be, but finely crafted words and tune might just sit there, like so much lox, in the context of a show’s narrative. I was recently discussing one of Cy Coleman’s best ballads, with a piquant David Zippel lyric, With Every Breath I Take. The rangy and haunting tune, while bearing certain similarities to Rupert Holmes’ Moonfall, from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, seems overflowing with emotion, like an effective jazz standard. I love the song, but watching the show it’s from, City of Angels, I almost didn’t notice it. The scenery was moving during the song; a narrator spoke during the intro. What’s worse, it wasn’t a character we care about expressing herself: it was merely a jazz singer setting the scene, a 1940s night club. The show gives us no reason to pay enough attention to the song that we get any inkling how good it is. Had City of Angels used this gem in TV ads, the lured-in audience would have been outraged.
Imagine Cy and David were writing this today and put this number on YouTube. They’d build an interested and excited viewership but it’s rather deceptive. If one were to list the virtues of City of Angels (and there are many) the emotionality of its torch song wouldn’t bear a mention.
Of course, that’s the age-old problem with excerpts. Like those blind men feeling up that elephant, we can’t quite get a handle on how the song propels the story (if it does). Nowadays there are quite a few songwriters with considerable reputations who have yet to demonstrate that they can move an audience in the theatre with pieces that are pieces of narrative. Why are they renowned musical theatre writers, then? Their videos.
Look, I’m not saying these guys are bad. And I’m not maintaining New York is the be-all and the end-all. But just to make myself clear:
Jonathan Reid Gealt
Kooman and Dimond
Ryan Scott Oliver
have yet to demonstrate to New York audiences that they can write a book musical. For many singers, usually under a certain age, they’re the go-to guys. It’s puzzling to me that prolific show-writers like Peter Mills or Douglas J. Cohen aren’t. But then, I’m puzzled by a lot of things. Illuminate me. I’m just putting this out there.
Speaking of putting it out there, remember Rebecca Black? Or is this teen video star already forgotten, her name only known to trivia contestants? Story goes, she borrowed $4000 from her parents to put up a cheerfully jejune song on YouTube, Friday, and became an overnight sensation, the very personification of going viral. She was lucky her parents had the money to loan: I’m reminded of a political candidate who recently suggested young would-be entrepreneurs can borrow start-up funds from their parents. I won’t say which candidate said this but must note that his father was a very rich auto executive and governor. (Vote, people!) But who was I talking about? Oh, yes: some young girl: I didn’t hear her name mentioned in the Grammy nominations, because, even in pop, the things that make a video eminently clickable are not confused for the qualities of, er, quality.
I don’t talk about pop on this blog. My concern is musical theatre, and the increasingly widespread practice of YouTubing threatens to propel our genre’s equivalent of Rebecca Black into the spotlight, stealing attention from writers with great craft but not-so-great videos.
And maybe their videos aren’t wonderful because there’s something in the nature of musical theatre that even an expensively produced video can never put across. Our songs are written for live performance, in which a live actor sends something across the footlights that’s received by an audience. The audience, in turn, sends an energy back, often as laughter, or applause, or tears hitting the arms of their chairs. This is received by the performer, who will adjust what she’s doing in response to the response. And so it goes. When musical theatre is firing on all cylinders. And no video can ever relate that.