Haven’t we met?

January 31, 2013

Encores’ revival of Fiorello!, like Proust’s Madeleine, took me back to the time I dined with Howard DaSilva. The venerable character actor had once starred in a TV series my father produced; this was a meal with our family. I only recall he was jovial and funny, and it felt like I was sitting next to Benjamin Franklin himself, for that was his most famous role. I later learned DaSilva’s career in musicals involved key roles in important musicals in four different decades. A remarkable feat – even more incredible when you consider he didn’t possess a particularly mellifluous singing voice. As I often tell young musical theatre aspirants, It’s not about the voice.

In the 1930s, DaSilva played the lead in one of the era’s most extraordinary productions, The Cradle Will Rock.  Marc Blitzstein wrote book, music and lyrics, with John Houseman producing for the Federal Theatre, Orson Welles directing and Lehman Engel conducting.  Since this was a government-supported production, and Blitzstein’s incendiary pro-union/anti-plutocrat text was, to say the least, controversial, the cast and audience arrived on opening night to find their theatre padlocked.  Not to be denied, they all marched up Seventh Avenue and filed into an empty theatre.  Blitzstein sat at the piano, and the actors performed from seats in the audience, since their union wouldn’t allow them to appear on stage.  Quite a night, that, but DaSilva had a more revolutionary role ahead of him.

For in 1943, Oklahoma! changed practically everything about how musicals were written, and DaSilva played the heavy, Jud Fry.  Some other time I’ll outline how the show permanently altered the genre, but it’s DaSilva’s most famous roles of the 1950s and 1960s that provide an interesting comparison.  In 1959 came Fiorello!, an unusual-for-its-time biographical show; it won the Pulitzer Prize.  In 1969 came the revolutionary show about a revolution, 1776, and folks I know are still shocked it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize.

Both Fiorello! and 1776 tell bits of history the audience was already familiar with, raising the question: How can you keep an audience wondering what’s going to happen next when the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen?

Peter Stone’s much-heralded book for 1776 uses ample humor – most coming from Benjamin Franklin – and a focus on the intricate details of founding a nation.  We see the days ticking off on a wall calendar: as July 4 approaches, the odds still seem insurmountable.  The machinations of politics involve getting one Virginian to introduce a resolution and another to write up a declaration.  And the central dramatic issue becomes the one that would rip the nation apart four score and seven years hence, whether to abolish slavery.  Watching it, we get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of the process, each step along the way is fraught with tension: the birth process of our nation wasn’t easy, and we sympathize with the founder’s struggles even though we know how it all turned out.

Fiorello! was fashioned for an audience which knew Fiorello H. LaGuardia well.  He left office a mere fourteen years before the show opened.  The book is by Jerome Weidman and the show’s director, George Abbott, the premiere shaper of traditional musicals (Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees).  Abbott knew more than anyone, perhaps, the value of pacing and the modulations of tone.  What Fiorello! has in spades is emotion: we feel for the long-suffering secretary, the long-suffering right-hand man, the political boss DaSilva played and a brave comic character who loves a crooked cop.  Sure, we see LaGuardia grab rungs up the political ladder, but the show keeps coming back to relatable emotional touchstones.  It’s never wonky, and the amazing score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is allowed to shine.

But here’s the odd thing: LaGuardia himself is not given much time to shine.  He has very few songs, and, as he confesses late in the show, he has trouble expressing himself when it comes to romance.  It’s a biography in which we get to know the subject largely through the eyes of others.  He sings very little, but he’s sung of often.

So many biographical entertainments are hagiography, designed to convince the viewer that the subject is some sort of a superman.  The authors of Fiorello! knew better than to do that, because they correctly judged that their audience already believed LaGuardia was a superman.  After all, he’d cleaned big old bad old New York City of the evil Machine known as Tammany Hall.

But this brings us to why this brilliant musical can’t be produced today.  You tell people nowadays you’re going to a show about LaGuardia and they say “The airport?”  Unlike the audience of 54 years ago, people today are unaware of urban political Machines, how corrupt they were, and what it was like to be a citizen under their rule.  The primary victory of LaGuardia’s life, putting an end to the Tammany Machine, is unknown today to people who weren’t history majors.  And the musical doesn’t depict it.  After a brief framing device, the entire show depicts years before LaGuardia became mayor.  Weidman and Abbott didn’t have to restate what the audience already knew.  So they didn’t.  And today people don’t know the essential facts required to understand a Tony-winning musical’s plot.

In my musical, Such Good Friends, I dealt with the scoundrel time, the mid-century persecution and blacklisting of suspected Communists in the entertainment industry.  I had to keep an eye on what my audience knew about the subject, and what they didn’t.  Like 1776 and Fiorello!, I used an ample amount of humor: It’s about funny people trying to go about the funny business of putting a comedy variety show on the air in the early days of television.  The inevitable tragedy of what Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt did to old friends is leavened by the way comic characters crack jokes at their own misfortunes, plus the on-camera antics and also the off-.  My show comes to mind because Howard DaSilva lived through blacklisting, just like my characters, and I stumbled on this remarkable picture of him refusing to name names.

Oh, horror

January 27, 2013

A quarter century running on Broadway. This impressive milestone was just reached by Phantom of the Opera. Last February, when this production played its ten-thousandth performance, I wrote a somewhat positive piece explaining its success. This winter, a great quantity of movie-goers are becoming aware of the witless sobfest that is Les Misérables. In the minds of many, these are the two pillars of the Eurotrash era, the best that genre has to offer. Ooh, here’s an honest confession: writing that last sentence, I made a Freudian typo, “the best the genre has to awful.”

It feels somewhat like jumping on a huge pile of linebackers who’ve already tackled the little-Phantom-that-could to mention some of the things that bother me about this show and Eurotrash musicals in general.  So I’ll try to be brief and hopefully say a few things others haven’t.

The title tune was a late-era disco hit.  And therein lies a problem.  I can remember a disco version of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina earlier, but apparently Andrew Lloyd Webber had a yen to have a disco hit that was actually conceived of as disco music.  Playing this thing on the piano is a real pain in the left hand.  Every measure contains eight eighth notes in octaves (I can hear the non-musicians going “Huh?”) which is the sort of obstinate ostinato you’d hear nowhere else but the disco.  Lloyd Webber’s girlfriend at the time, the annoyingly chirpy chipmunk Sarah Brightman, had – or powers-that-be thought she had – an impressively high soprano range. So, before there was any show to be produced, out came a disco single, and it charted.

So, next the creators were compelled to build a musical around that one hit.  Did this mean that every song would be in proto-Goth disco style?  Thankfully, no.  In my favorite number from the score, Think Of Me, Lloyd Webber goes from the tonic to the dominant-over-a-tonic-bass.  This might remind one of actual nineteenth century operas: the song successfully evokes time and place, and even manages to spoof the genre a little.  As the play progresses, there are other musical moments that seem apt for the world of The Paris Opera.  And then the Phantom takes the diva to the basement and all hell breaks lose.

Because, in order to justify the inclusion of that previously-created disco song, we have to step into an alternate reality.  A boat is gliding along in the manner of those slow Disneyland rides that grandparents enjoy.  A smoke machine is having a conniption.  The lyric has so little to say, nobody listens to it. It’s as if all the good work Lloyd Webber has done setting up the time and place with purloined themes has gone out the window. And it’s one of those little windows, high on the wall, because we’re in the basement.

Or, considering there’s a raft down there, maybe it’s a sewer: another trope-in-common with CamMac’s Miserable musical.

Phantom of the Opera seems guided by the principle that an audience will accept a narrative detour as long as there are special effects involved. So, for no reason I could discern, our heroine visits the grave of her late father. After dark, of course, for that’s what people do. She sings a gloss on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ah Leave Me Not To Pine with a title taken from Hallmark, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Then we’re all startled when, out of nowhere, a laser show begins. Oddly, it’s less impressive than the light sculpture lampoon in Sunday In the Park With George.  Hey: I came to see a falling chandelier, not Late Night At the Planetarium.

But I guess one can appreciate an unfettered willingness to do anything to entertain. But the issue becomes: what passes for entertainment? I think back, as I often do, to Oklahoma!

Why should a woman who is healthy and strong
Blubber like a baby if her man goes away?

I could go on and on about how influential Oklahoma! was (at the drop of a ten-gallon hat).  But here’s what’s germane: this character refuses to pity herself. And in musical theatre for the next twenty-five years or so, no character pitied herself. And why not? Because the great writers of the forties, fifties and sixties all believed self-pity was not the sort of emotion worthy of a place on the stage. More commonly, characters who felt bad struggled to persevere with some positive energy. This sort of thing can be thrilling.

What a horrifying reversal has beset us in the age of Phantom. In what surely would have disgusted the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, characters regularly pity themselves. The expression “I hate to see a grown man cry” applies: That Phantom is so upset his face is disfigured,  so heartbroken that the ingenue doesn’t love him, he whines about it, at length. It motivates all sorts of creepy behavior.

But, somehow, the authors expect us to sympathize with him and his plight. I think of those after-school specials I saw as a kid: someone has a disability, schoolmates are cruel or standoffish, but he learns to rise above it and excels. Phantom, in a huge contrast, shows a scarred grown-up behaving badly. Had the creators never seen those specials?

It’s possible Lloyd Webber, born in 1948, was too old to have seen them. But his lyricist, Charles Hart, was a young man who’d done very little before and startlingly little since. Offhand, I can’t think of a more puerile set of lyrics for a successful score. The melodies, by comparison, have ample amounts of prettiness. But the texts of the songs are so dull and clichéd, I’m wholly unmoved. Phantom of the Opera is a love story with no real love in it, primarily because the sung material is so empty, devoid of feeling.

Frankly, I’d rather see a planetarium’s laser show. More impressive, special effects-wise, and, with the projected night sky, more romantic.


January 22, 2013

I had a thought while attending a production of H. M. S. Pinafore.

But wait: I can’t start with a Gilbert and Sullivan reference. G & S are such a turn-off, to so many, only a stalwart few will make it beyond the second paragraph.

On the other hand, I’ve buried the lead. Deep. For this is not a piece about Gilbert and Sullivan. (I’m saving that for when I really need to reduce the traffic here.)

And it can’t be denied: they are The Fathers Of Us All. As such, they used techniques which can still be applied today. Such as what I’ll call Dialectic, a highlight of My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver.

In one of those quirks you only find in Gilbert & Sullivan, the program defined the heroine’s second act soliloquy as a Scena. Why? It kinda gets the mind going. Turned out, in this case, it was a longer-than-typical number with different musical sections. Each of these had vastly different feels: there’s a quiet intro, a set of rising recitatives chanted on one note, a very energetic chorus, and more. Sullivan’s keeping us on our toes, but I was more fascinated with what Gilbert was doing, as a dramatist. The character uses considerable imagination to envision two contrasting lifestyles – what her world will be like if she marries the ruler of the queen’s navy or a simple sailor.

There are many fabulous things about this song, but the aspect I wanted to discuss is the way we watch a character’s thought process.  As Strouse and Adams once wrote, It’s Fun To Think, and I find it fascinating to watch a brain in action.  On stage.  In song.

I alluded to this just the other week, but one can get the best possible lesson in dialectical songwriting by examining Henry Higgins’ solos in My Fair Lady.  Alan Jay Lerner, late in life, said he was influenced by a series of lectures he’d heard at Harvard given by Maxwell Anderson, one of the last century’s most successful dramatists.  True, Anderson wrote a couple of musicals, but I’ve long found it fascinating that Lerner, a master of musical theatre writing, cited a playwright whose biggest hits weren’t musicals.  The lessons learned are clearly evident in a Scena like I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face
And isn’t it appropriate that this masterpiece is based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, the theatre’s eminent employer of dramatic political argument? Of course, there’s nothing like this song in Pygmalion.

And I’d like to believe some of Anderson’s wisdom filtered through Lerner and trickled down to me.  In The French Wheel, from The Christmas Bride, a man who is addicted to gambling gets waylaid from searching for his lost-in-London love at a casino.  Romantic duty and the thrill of a new betting game from France pull him in two directions.

Now that’s a Scena It’s rare I get so much enjoyment out of my own songs, but I guess I’ve always loved watching brains work.  Musical theatre affords the opportunity to see the inner workings of a brain, not unlike Shakespearean soliloquies.  As a child, I loved how Tevye – hardly an intellectual – puzzled out dilemmas with the phrase “On the other hand,” far exceeding his hand quantity in the process.  Or Fagin’s Reviewing the Situation with its dizzying increasing speed – a lot of fun, that.  And there’s also the wife of the baker in Into the Woods, a show I’m not very fond of as a whole.  But whenever Joanna Gleason was on stage, you could watch her mind work, which was worth the price of a ticket.  Of course, tickets cost a lot less 25 years ago.

And with those increasing ticket prices, I’m afraid, we’re seeing a disappointing lack of dialectic.  I’ve suffered through too many songs in which characters express one basic thought over and over again, a mind like a steel trap: not a skull I enjoy peeking into.  So, do me a favor, show-songwriters: thinking about writing a song where thoughts bounce back and forth?  Weigh out the pros and cons, let “pro” win out and write a song in which someone weighs out the pros and cons.

Birthday song

January 17, 2013

Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”  Thanks a lot, Sam: I resemble that blockhead.

To commemorate my birthday, I’m going to indulge my nostalgic side (again!), looking back to some career highlights, and times I did, and didn’t, earn Johnson’s epithet.

The first time I got paid to write anything, a television producer gave me a thousand dollars to write a treatment about a boy and a dolphin.  Like the overwhelming majority of treatments, it never got picked up by anyone who actually wanted to shoot it.

In order to scratch the itch of writing something that ended up on film, for no money, I wrote a short movie musical to be directed by a friend who was at the USC film school.  It was an assignment for a class in lighting.  Since he only had to demonstrate he could illuminate a scene properly for camera, he never recorded the sound.  Not a satisfying experience.

So, in 2010 – after quite a long wait – I finally achieved that dream of writing a short film musical, Learning Curve, as part of the most recent Ripfest.  At Ripfest, you’re given a short amount of time to create a short movie; I even had a short collaborator composing the music, the talented and tuneful Jihwan Kim.  A very satisfying experience.

Sometimes, though, a collaboration can be such hell, the quality of what you produce fades into a second tier of memory. I’m thinking of the one musical for which I only did music, not the lyrics or book. When I step back, and try to put the experience of the process out of my mind, I think “Damn, that was a good book!” It had the exact same sort of historical detail, and mining history for truly dramatic interpersonal conflict that you’ll find in the current film, Lincoln.

My favorite of all my experiences writing musicals was one in which I had no collaborator to fight with, Such Good Friends.  With the libretto chore up to nobody else but me, I attempted to find both the humor and pathos of a specific historical time and place. The project took a huge step forward when I met director Marc Bruni.  He questioned everything, with such intellectual rigor, that both the show, and me as a writer, were fully transformed.  It got raves at NYMF like no NYMF show had ever received before, such as “one of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”

It’s a sad fact of this business that the works of the greatest quality can get the least quantity of performances.  Such Good Friends was only seen six times.  Fear of Scaffolding, even fewer, although it’s fondly remembered by all who attended.  And I wish I had a list of those who saw it, because there’s the possibility that the young Barack Obama could have attended.  He lived nearby at the time.  Just saying.

But the show that contains what I consider my best score, The Company of Women, has been seen by no one.  It’s my only show, written as an adult, to never see a full production.  When I started the project, an exploration of the special nature of female friendships seemed a particularly commercial idea.  Submitted to roughly sixty theatres across the country, time has proven the opposite to be true.

So I guess that shows how little I know about what audiences are interested in.  That’s a blockhead, for you, knowing rather little. Thinking about my most lucrative productions, it seems that, for me, sidling up to the opera world leads to the most remuneration. My murder mystery in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, Murder at the Savoy, earned me nothing in its original New York production (when it was called Pulley of the Yard), but, many years later, led to many British productions that paid me royalties (in pounds!). Then, when I was commissioned to write an opera for children, I was paid a pittance. But over many years of playing in dozens of schools in four states, it added up to a modicum.

My first two musicals, written when I was 14 and 15, centered on characters who had a healthy egos.  When you don’t think that much of yourself, are you said to have an unhealthy ego?  Seems like flammable and inflammable: they mean the same thing.

Where was I?  Oh, yes: pinning laurels on myself.  The Best Music Prize, of my musicals, would probably go to The Christmas Bride.  It was a little over a year ago I got to see it performed in a sprightly production for which I created a new orchestration.  This was a time-consuming task, one I wouldn’t have taken on if I didn’t love the score.  Also, my wife was pregnant at the time.  Not sure what one fact has to do with another, but I started with the clarinet part and finished with the cello.

Best Lyrics is a tough one, but I’ll go with Area 51 because it was a tough assignment.  The wackiness of Tom Carrozza’s book required nothing but comedy songs.  Some musicals (I’m looking at you, Wild Party by Andrew Lippa), eke by with just one song that’s funny.  I had to write two dozen.  Which seems like a lot of pressure until you realize it took twenty months to finish the thing.Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Did I promise nostalgia and fail to deliver?  Then, damn it, I’m going to have to open the envelope for Best Musical I was a part of and utter the name On the Brink (not that that’s what’s on the card – you can never really trust those presenters, can you?).  You see, On the Brink was my first professional work, playing in an actual off-Broadway theatre people had heard of, for a paying audience, and I was the old man on the writing team at the ripe old age of 25.  Audiences saw this revue about young urbanites, adrift in many ways, and thought, These kids show a lot of promise.  It was the Edges or Songs for a New World of its time, only far, far funnier.  And that’s the one thing you can only do while you’re still young: get hailed as a prodigy.  I kinda miss that me.

This is it (part two)

January 12, 2013

As children, we teach ourselves to do some fairly annoying things.  I remember being about nine or so, and inventing something that bugged the hell out of my mother, yet, today, I consider a valuable technique in composing music.

She’d say something and I’d instantly mimic it back to her, sans words, using the nonsense sounds I associated with instruments.  I’d keep her rhythm, and an approximation of the pitch.  So, I might use the sound I felt sounded like an oboe, and oboe back to her what she’d just said in English.

Is this making any sense?  An illustration, with strings, is Steve Reich’s Different Trains, starting around :36 in the video.  Various different old people say various things about train trips they remember.  Reich gets an instrument to repeat their rhythm and pitches. I was the pioneer; Reich followed my lead many years later.

When you’re setting a lyric to music, this might be a worthwhile way to start. Before composing anything, act the lyric. If you consider yourself an inept actor, get a good actor to help you out. Record the spoken text. Jot down the rhythm on a staff. On a separate piece of paper, notate the pitches. Now you’ve got something to play with, and this proto-draft, self-evidently, follows natural speech patterns. In good musicals, sung passages co-exist with spoken dialogue. It can be valuable to have lyrics hit the ear as naturally as human speech does.

The trickier part is figuring out how to alter this speech-with-recorded-pitch-and-rhythms into something a little more mellifluous, something that makes formal and harmonic sense. Yes, as I’m always saying: you’re going to change things. But at least you’re starting with a natural-sounding spine.

Lyricists – yes, I said lyricists; I’m not just talking to composers here – need to understand this process. Ideally, they’ll create text that speaks well. That is, can be acted. They must understand form: the forms you find in poetry, the structural forms you find in music. So composers setting the lyric will already have some of the work (of finding the form) done for them.

In some of the recent press about “live singing” in the miserable movie, the name Rex Harrison came up. The tale is told that he insisted on “live singing” the My Fair Lady film since he never performed his songs the same way twice and couldn’t imagine lip-syncing to some way he’d done it previously. In considering this process of speech-to-music, think about Lerner and Loewe writing songs for this brilliant actor who couldn’t sustain notes the way singers do. The lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, fashioned songs with fairly complex forms. These are worthy of careful examination, because Lerner knew it’s amusing to watch Harrison shift emotional gears. Think of the contrast between “I’m an ordinary man” and “But let a woman in your life.” Composer Frederick Loewe didn’t skimp on the pitches. In the accompaniment, you can hear a tune for everything Harrison sings – er, doesn’t sing – I believe the verb is Rex: a tune for everything Harrison Rexes.

It should go without saying that the spoken-by-an-actor baseline is merely a point of departure. Composers know that, just as singing is the result of heightened emotion in a musical’s text, a good melody is a lot more than a musical replication of speech. For me, the fantastic world of harmony, and the emotional associations of every combination of chords, is the subject of endless fascination. Since the onset of puberty, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time playing show tunes and standards – preferring those I haven’t played before – and what I’m usually thinking about is how one chord leads to another. As an exercise, I’d write a simple melody and then harmonize it a dozen different ways, just to look at what the chords do to the affective feeling of a piece. I don’t think these things make me particularly unusual. Composers are naturally interested in harmony. I’ve heard of worse reactions to puberty.

A song popped into my head to illustrate all of this, an 80-year-old ballad called If I Love Again. The refrain’s lyric is filled with simple five-syllable phrases.

If I love again
Though it’s someone new
If I love again
It will still be you.
In someone else’s fond embrace,
I’ll close my eyes and see your face.
If I love again
I’ll find other charms
But I’ll make believe
You are in my arms.
And though my lips whisper “I love you,”
My heart will not be true,
I’ll be loving you
Every time I love again

The composer setting this would immediately note that the first and third stanzas match each other. So, the overall structure is likely to be ABAC. In this case the composer dealt with the longer final stanza by repeating the hook in the manner of a tag. If you have the sheet music (and I hope you do: I’ve misplaced my copy. Could you send it to me?), play just the melody line. It’s pretty simple: many quarter notes and there’s something merry and sing-songy about the second line of the A.

Now, play the whole thing, and see how the chords chart emotional changes. That second title sounds so much sadder than the first. That sing-songy line rings false on “I’ll find other charms” as if the character is trying to maintain she’ll be just fine. So, with the contrasting harmonies, “But I’ll make believe” sounds exquisitely sad. The penultimate chord is – I think (remember, I’ve lost my sheet music), a diminished one, suggesting that the person singing this will love again, but joylessly.

It’s said that artists observe more than mere mortals. I’ll tell you this: You can train yourself to observe more. So, if that truism is true, you’re part of the way there.

I wrote my first musical at the tender age of 14, and its main love song was the result of an exercise I created for myself. I opened up the Rodgers and Hart songbook to a song I didn’t already know, copied down the chord symbols, and wrote a melody to those harmonies. Few people have heard this song – and I can’t even remember the title – but nobody who has could identify the original I’d pilfered from. I don’t think this resulted in a great song, but I do think it’s a great exercise. Steal one element (harmony) from one of the best and learn what it’s like to work with a brilliant chord sequence. That should take you one step closer to coming up with your own.

This is it (part one)

January 7, 2013

Through 150 posts, I’ve shied away from specific discussion of music-writing techniques.  Compared to lyrics, script and story, music is harder to talk about – naturally; it’s an amorphous thing.  And we don’t all speak the same language here.  Non-musicians’ eyes glaze over at our technical terms, while what I’m about to write will seem laughably simplistic to experienced composers.  But, with all that in mind, it’s time I put forth some ideas, endeavoring to keep this entertaining as always.

Music’s like a liquid: it can take almost any shape.  I therefore find it easier to write lyrics before music.  You can bend a tune to fit a text with less trouble than it takes to force words to work in conjunction with a melody’s stresses, rises and falls.  Of course, going both ways (tune-first, text-first) and, for me at least, the blissful simultaneous creation – all orders will be necessary at different times.  You can’t be rigid in your desire to go first or second – hell, you can’t be rigid about anything: it’s all going to have to change, eventually.  Richard Rodgers had 17 years of unparalleled success writing melody-first with Larry Hart; then he accommodated Oscar Hammerstein, who preferred to write words first, for 17 years of the greatest shows ever.

Just as things are made of molecules, melodies have smaller components.  You hear interchangeable terms such as hook or motive; the examples I’m about to give are three notes that appear in their songs again and again.  In Jule Styne’s Just In Time, it’s three notes that are just two different notes, as the first and third are the same.  Sing it, or listen to Dean: you hear the characteristic phrase on the title, right at the beginning.  A note, then the note just below it, then the original note – about as simple as three notes could get.  So why is this a great song?  Because Styne knew how to develop a whole song out of the restatement of the sequence.  Prepare for eyes glazing over, unschooled ones, we’re going to mention some harmonies.  The first “just in time” begins on the third of the scale.  That middle note takes us, very briefly, from major to minor and back again.  There’s tension in doing that: much of the joy of music is in the concept of tension and release.  (Much of the joy of sex is too, but this is a family blog.)  The second time the lyric gets to its title, Styne puts the same three notes on a different chord, (a minor seventh built on the seventh note in the major scale) one that surprises the ear, since it’s not closely related to the previous harmony.  Once he’s done something that interesting, he could afford to be a little predictable.  The next chords take us down the circle of fifths: simply put, of all the harmonies you can choose, there are chords that are the most common, that appear to flow most naturally from one to another.  What’s fun here is that, for a long time, the tune hasn’t gone anywhere, although the chords have.  It’s the same two notes alternating until the “ning” of “running.”  This would sound pretty dull on a solo instrument, but the set of chords make two notes sound fresh, as well as inevitable. Styne loved building songs this way, with very short hooks involving notes next to each other on the scale.  Now listen to Styne’s I’ve Heard That Song Before and you can understand why it seems like you have heard that song before the first time you’ve heard it.

Boy, it feels like I’m the magician spilling the beans on how the trick is done.  So, in theory (or with theory), everyone reading this can now write a song the way Jule Styne did.  But I think the more surprising thing I’m revealing here is that sometimes a song can be an academic exercise.  Suppose you did the opposite of what Styne did, and tried to build a song on a difficult interval.  Remember, his were often right next to each other on the scale (Never Never Land, People, Bye Bye Baby); what if you went the opposite way.  Cole Porter set himself the challenge of using the most unusual of intervals (of an octave or less) as a two-note motif, and harmonizing it so it’s both singable and listenable.  It’s a descending major seventh – if you must know – and appears all over his 1940s hit, I Love You.  The song strikes me as something of an inside joke: the lyric of the verse sets up the idea that the character singing is no good at coming up with words to express love.  So, Cole utilizes clichés along with a tune that uses an interval almost no song uses.  Do you see why I suspect an intellectual exercise may have led to this song’s creation?  And let’s unite Porter and Styne with this: both created melodies out of the chromatic scale (that is, the notes that are right next to each other on a piano).  Anything Goes has, as its main love song, All Through the Night, which descends this scale.  And the Styne piece that comes up in every audition, All I Need Is the Girl, meanders up the chromatic scale from the start of the refrain to the end of the title.  When I first started noticing these things, as a boy of 12 or so, it blew my mind.  (This is why I keep this a family blog.)

Two of my other compositional heroes, Jerry Bock and Leonard Bernstein, each challenged themselves to deal with the extreme tension brought about by the flatted fifth.  In medieval times, a composer using the tritone would be burned at the stake, because it was thought to be a sign that the tunesmith was possessed by the devil.  In Bock’s first Broadway score, there’s a ballad called Ethel Baby.  It starts on that oh-so-tense flat fifth, and the un-flattens it, up to the perfect fifth, releasing the tension.  It’s a rather simple number, really, but starts in a very unusual place.  The next season on Broadway brought Bernstein’s West Side Story, and those devilish diminished intervals are all over the score.  The first two notes of Cool (a melisma on the word, “boy”), the Jets’ whistled signal, which gets used again in dance music.  And the song that develops what’s traditionally thought of as an ugly sound into something gorgeous, Maria.  You can hear the tension and release right in the second and third syllables of the girl’s name.  It goes from strange to sublime in an instant.

Now here’s the thing contemporary performers seem to have forgotten about Maria.  When the song was written, in the “Anglo” milieu of the Jets, nobody had a name like Maria.  To them, it’s exotic – a very ethnic sounding name.  Which is why the boy repeats it so often.  He’s testing out the sound on his lips.  He feels such love for the sister of the rival gang’s leader, he finds the rapturous music in her name.  Today, you meet Marias every day of the week.  But back then, Tony and the Jets certainly didn’t.  So, the song lingers, for a moment, on the strangeness of the flat fifth, before lifting it up (just as Ethel Baby does) in joyous consonance.  I can’t believe this was an intellectual exercise for Bernstein, who was long past such academy foolishness: it’s strange and then sublime for a purpose.

Sasha says “woof”

January 2, 2013

Feels like I’ve been arguing a lot lately. You know the kind: on the internet,  in newsgroups and Facebook threads. It’s been stuff I’m fairly passionate about (of course). I never resorted to name-calling and didn’t bring up Hitler. (Did others?  Guess!) At one point, a conservative friend said I’d changed his mind – How often does that happen? It’s enough to make a fighter forget he has a blog.

Because here the views expressed are rarely argued with. Not that that’s a good thing. You’re welcome to rebut in the comments section. (I’ve never deleted a comment.) I’m not bringing up politics, I assure you, but my spate of debate started with some newsgroup writers’ insistance that there’s a good reason to use false rhymes in musicals. Then. after the horrible school shooting, I found myself debating gun ownership advocates. Finally, just when it looked safe to go back in the water, a guy I know started comparing the Sandy Hook victims to aborted fetuses, thrusting me into a discussion so unpleasant I longed for the day I could return to the deathless but death-free topic of the correct way to rhyme.

Oh, happy day: you’re finally here!  Here are the reasons every good musical theatre writer uses perfect rhymes. Just so you know, the moment you let a false rhyme into your score, you’ve opened Pandora’s box, and you don’t get any of the good stuff that comes from rhyming perfectly.

Something I find myself saying over and over again – and it’s not true of pop songs – is that songs in the theatre must work their magic on first hearing. People have paid a great deal of money to see a show on stage; they want – and deserve – to “get it” then and there. If they only understand your lyrics after they’ve listened to a recording multiple times, perhaps with a dictionary in hand, you’ve failed. A pop song is just the opposite: you often get several listens while it grows on you. And that’s fine in the pop world. We in the theatre don’t have that luxury.

Good rhyming gives pleasure; bad rhyming makes me wince, and gives a physical pain not unlike fingernails on a blackboard. Now maybe I’m an odd duck. Or an old duck, insisting on things being done as they were in the good old days.  But, unless you’re certain you’re playing for an audience of young ducks who’ve never heard a good musical before, you’re running the risk that there’s someone like me in the audience.

Good rhymes tickle the funny bone.  There’s a Sondheim song about a woman who divides her time between high society and low-brow Bohemia.  Its bridge makes me gasp with delight:

She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s
And starts to pine for a stein with her Village chums
But with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s bar
She thinks of the Ritz.  Oh, it’s so schizo.

Imperfect rhymes fail to produce mirth, like this couplet from Spamalot: “This is one unhappy diva/The producers have deceived her.

If a perfect rhyme is a thing of beauty, than a bad rhyme is a thing of ugly, no?

So, a new musical hits the stage, which means roughly two hours of previously unheard songs are hitting the audience’s ears. Help them out, for God’s sake, with the ultimate aid to comprehension, perfect rhyming…

When you hear the first half of what you know is going to be a rhyme, your mind automatically goes through possible words that might complete it, and, so you only really need to listen to the first consonant of the rhyme, if that.

I asked out a girl
I thought was groovy.
I thought I’d take her
To a m–

The moment “M” forms on the singer’s lips, we know the next word is “movie”. And once we know this, we don’t have to listen so hard. During the time that’s filled by “ovie” we can sit back and relax. The ear gets a break.

Once you use an imperfect rhyme, or don’t continue a rhyme scheme you’ve started, all that aid-to-comprehension stuff flies out the window.

I asked her name
And she said “Jill”
And then I asked her to a film.

The ear got no break here. I hear that “F” and I’ve no idea what follows. “Filling station? Why would he take her to a filling station?  Or a “filbert shelling plant” – seems mighty unlikely.  Maybe he’s taking her to a philodendron garden – that must be it.  Oh, a film.  That doesn’t rhyme.  No pleasure of a good rhyme.  No time off from thinking.  And my previous thoughts were for naught.

And there’s another by-product to bad rhyming: the character singing sounds stupid. Honestly, I thought every character in American Idiot WAS an idiot. Of course, the trouble there is that none of those songs was meant to be heard in a Broadway theatre, but that’s a different blog entry.

The completion of a rhyme is like punctuation at the end of a sentence. It tells you to pay attention, to stop and consider what’s just been said. Using false rhymes is a little like talking in run-on sentences, sans cadence, sans comprehensibility.

In those golden years when most of the great musicals were written (the two dozen or so beginning with Oklahoma! In 1943) no self-respecting lyricist would have even entertained the thought of using a false rhyme. I aspire to be like Loesser, Lerner, Sondheim, Porter, Fields, Berlin, I. Gershwin, Dietz, Rome, Comden & Green, Leigh, Ebb, Maltby, Carnelia, Zippel and the four whose names begin with Ha- Hart, Harburg, Hammerstein and Harnick. You’d rather write like Steven Sater or Bill Russell, be my guest. Just don’t invite me to your shows. Deal?