It’s a mystery to me

It seems, to me, that I’ve recently been hammering the same point over and over. It’s the notion that a great show is made up of more than just great songs. There’s a certain number of songwriters out there who are able to craft an impressive quantity of high quality numbers. Far fewer are the craftsmen who are able to create great musicals. That’s because there’s a real difference between show-writers and “mere” songwriters.

It’s understandable that individual songs get the scrutiny in our society. If a piece is short enough, it comes at us in a digestible morsel. In a way, people imagine themselves as the panelists on a TV competition, passing judgment on 32 bars. “Ooh, that’s got a kicky groove; I could dance to it.” So, when musical theatre creators are praised, it’s usually for fashioning individual songs that bear the traits of what we think of as good songs.

Praise is nice. But are we being misled? I recently ran into an old friend, someone who didn’t get serious about writing musical comedies until he’d reach middle age. When I listen to his songs as individual numbers, I’m underwhelmed. But when I saw his musical at NYMF, I thought, What an entertaining evening; funny and moving and fast-paced. The man knows how to write a show. Might never have got an inkling of this from listening to any one of its songs.

Is it because I think he named his child Jenga that I have this image in my mind of a Jenga tower? First, I must confess I’ve never played the game. So, already I don’t know what I’m talking about. In my mind, the tower is made of different pieces, some of which might have odd or particularly beautiful shapes. OK, this may be a tortured analogy, but a good song can sometimes be a particularly beautiful odd-shaped piece, bound to make the tower tumble. And then you don’t have a tower; you’ve a collection of pieces in a heap.

Often, I see that a neophyte has assembled songs into a cycle, or concept album, or a themed revue. At some point, they’ve gotten praise that goes “Your songs are so theatrical, they ought to be on stage in a show.” And the songs may indeed sound like they’re stage-worthy, but the final project turns out to be a heap of interesting pieces, not a tower of entertainment. I’ve gotten stuck in the audience too many times, yawning at yet another heap.

What I wish, what I’m urging, is that contemporary creators start as our cavemen ancestors did, gathering around a campfire. An adept raconteur thinks about the story he’s about to tell, and the best way to tell it, before launching in. Then, to get back to that analogy, thought is given to the architecture of the tower, the skeletal frame. One event followed by another. And the consideration of how to tell the story inspires the ideas for songs.

Pop songwriters, naturally, don’t work this way. To my mind, the tunesmith who hasn’t fashioned material in support of a story is very likely a pop songwriter. And might be a damn good one.

Last post omitted mention of John Bucchino, a widely-admired composer-lyricist who’s won both the Kleban and the very first Fred Ebb Award. I’m crazy about his songs, and when he won those awards I wasn’t surprised or dismayed by the choice. After all, the award judges looked at just a selection of his songs, not the whole musicals they come from. Seeing his musical Lavender Girl was an eye-opener to me.  A song that seemed so emotional and dramatic sung by Patti Lupone on his album, Grateful, just sat there on stage (directed by Harold Prince – no slouch).  It moved me not a whit in the theatre.  The good-on-record and good-on-stage songs are truly different animals.

Earlier I mentioned a mass of judges, assessing individual songs.  Far smaller is the set of people looking at the whole musicals being written. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, given the time and cost (and, sometimes, traveling distance) necessary to take a look at new shows being done. They’re larger-than-bite-size, which I guess makes them what the candy-makers call fun size.  Or do they?  (Sorry, too much Halloween candy has taken a toll on my brain.  But I may have a wrapper I could check laying around here.) Chances are, if someone’s come up with a great musical, you haven’t heard of it.  But a great song instantly gets done a lot.

And the renown of songs spreads, in part, because so many performers are looking for new material. (Sometimes I think that relative newness is the main thing some care about.) In a recent conversation with a pair of young talents, I expressed my loathing for Scott Alan’s formless number, Watch Me Soar.  And that prompted the question, “Do you also hate Ryan Scott Oliver?”  And I don’t, really, but I bring up this exchange because neither Scott nor Ryan Scott have had musicals produced in Manhattan, where I live. So, it’s not as if I’ve an informed opinion of whether they can sustain an evening.  It’s a mystery to me. But the RSO tunes I’ve heard are attractively kicky; I could dance to them. Scott Alan, the polar opposite. Whether either can tell an interesting story, in the theatre, only time (perhaps a lot of time) will tell.

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