I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about energy. It’s a word that’s hard to define. But I think it’s clear all musicals need a certain amount of energy, wind in their sails, just to keep them afloat.
A vague memory: in college, studying Ibsen, I learned an obscure foreign word that sounded something like liefsgleedje. That wasn’t the word, mind you; it was just how my friends and I misheard it. There’s a young female character in The Master Builder with great gobs of liefsgleedje and she inspires a suicidal old architect to design again. Why am I telling you this? Probably because I like saying liefsgleedje.
On both a macro and micro level, your musical is going to need liefsgleedje. And I’m now reminded of an Irving Berlin song title, Something To Dance About and a Cole Porter film title, Something To Shout About. This may seem obvious, but shows consistently need something to sing about. Often, I’m bothered listening to a number where the character has insufficient justification for singing. In the BMI Workshop, we used to call such things “Please pass the salt” songs.
I’ve probably told this story before, but, in the waning days of Jule Styne’s life, and the early days of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, the veteran Broadway composer (Gypsy, Funny Girl, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) was brought in to take a look at what students were working on. He was shocked – and not in a good way – to find they didn’t quite know what to musicalize. To Styne, this was second nature. With his experience, he had the knack for knowing which moments in a show might make a good song.
For some reason, certain friends of mine have started calling this The Katz Rule: When emotions are so strong, mere spoken words will not suffice, a character should sing. (And if sung words won’t do, go into your dance.) I’m sorry they named that for me, because I can think of plenty of examples in which unsung speech was used to brilliant effect in good musicals. Today I heard tell that Frank Loesser’s earlier draft of The Most Happy Fella contained no dialogue, so he went back and added some. The ear needs a break, sometimes.
And it struck me that musicals can accommodate fairly long stretches of songlessness if the energy of the spoken words supports it. In musical comedies (three leap to mind: Promises Promises, Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down, The Drowsy Chaperone), energy arrives in the form of solid punchlines. We’re laughing so much, we’re not the least bit impatient for the next song.
I recently had a conversation about King Arthur’s big speech of resolutions in Camelot. If I remember correctly, it’s a monologue that brings the curtain down on Act One. And it’s easy to imagine Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe deciding they didn’t need to end the act with a number since they had Richard Burton, the captivating master of fine acting, delivering a big speech. Surely that would get the applause necessary to send them into intermission. Another example is the long stretch of congressional debate found in 1776. Written with flowery flare by Peter Stone, an unusually long amount of time goes by between the rather weaker Sherman Edwards songs.
Hmmm… Two musicals about creating a government based on principles of the Enlightenment. Well, other shows can go song-free for a while, too. My favorite speech in any musical is Adam’s monologue at the end of The Apple Tree‘s Adam & Eve segment:
Eve died today. I knew she would, of course. Well, at least her prayer was answered – she went first. Now that she’s gone, I realize something I didn’t realize before. I used to think it was a terrible tragedy when Eve and I had to leave the Garden. Now I know it really didn’t matter. Because, wheresoever she was, there was Eden. And now, I have to go water her flowers. She loved them, you know.
The energy of an audience crying can be just as potent as the energy of an audience laughing.
But what was this “macro” thing I referred to? Oh, yes. The whole subject matter of your show has to contain the kind of energy that will draw an audience in. I worry, from time to time, that certain topics may be too mundane to make a musical of, the full-length equivalent of Please Pass the Salt. Shows require a certain bigness, even if they’ve a small cast size. And I’ll tell you about a musical I never made it to – and it had a decent Broadway run. The subject matter of two old ladies, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who’d gone batty in an incredibly cluttered, cat-filled and dilapidated Long Island mansion – to say this didn’t appeal to me is putting it lightly. Grey Gardens was, originally, a documentary film. And I had a lot of trouble sitting through that. But the score and performances were so widely admired, I’ve the sinking feeling I missed out on something special. Eventually I got to hear some of the songs – I’ve a pitiful story about rehearsing Around the World like crazy only to be lifted for a substitute pianist minutes before the show – and they’re great show tunes, superbly crafted. But during its run, I never wanted to get out and see the thing.
Besides, who would keep company with my 37 cats?