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