I know. I know. Nobody wants to read about love the day after Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little sick of it, no?
But here’s the deal: As a musical writer, you’re often going to have to write about love when love is the last thing you want on your mind. Because your musical’s going to contain a romance. And if it doesn’t, why the hell doesn’t it? The shows I loved in my youth were musical comedies, which always meant they’d contain un peu d’amour and more than a little wit. In adulthood, it’s come as a major disappointment that so many musicals nowadays contain not a shred of wit and have oddly omitted the love part.
The love part. Now I’m reminded of Woody Allen saying “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ.”
Honestly, I have to wonder what’s motivated all those who’ve chosen to write musicals but shy away from romance and comedy. Go draw a comic book, for crissakes, and nobody will be disappointed. You’re using songs to tell a story, and music has gone hand in hand (and sometimes much further) with romance since… since…
Now I’m thinking about Adam and Eve, the two original humans who appear in the first act of Bock and Harnick’s excellent musical comedy, The Apple Tree. They spend most of their time arguing. Silly bickering about what to call things, and decorating their hut. What doesn’t happen – and it doesn’t need to happen – is Adam and Eve staring into each other’s eyes, expressing ardor and devotion. I suppose other, less creative musical theatre writers would have handled it that way. And yet, as the playlet draws to a close, the audience is wholly invested in their passion for one another. Eve sings a lullaby-like ballad about loving Adam despite his many obvious flaws. She leaves the stage but the melody continues playing as Adam delivers the final diary entry.
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.
I don’t believe there’s a more moving speech in all of musical theatre. And it’s a speech, of all things. Certain schmaltzy songwriters would have had Adam sing a song called I’m Sad Eve Died and the audience wouldn’t have been half as moved. The choice to go with underscored dialogue – well, there’s no topping Bock and Harnick.
It’s a very common mistake for early-career musical theatre writers: stating the obvious. The audience has come to your show with an open mind, and they know nothing when the overture starts. (That’s another thing: why’d you have to omit the overture? What would a Jule Styne show be like without one?) You tell them things, and they’re interested. You re-tell them things, you’re in trouble. Too many songs I hear tell the audience something it already knows, stopping the show – in the bad way.
That’s not to say there aren’t particles of plot that bear repeating. I’m talking about listeners being in an emotional place in which they fully understand something, and then comes a song reemphasizing what they already know. If they’re seats are comfortable, that’ll put ’em to sleep faster than Lunesta.
I Sleep Easier Now is a Cole Porter song title (not one of my favorites). It’s only on my mind because it’s true: I wake up, better rested than I’ve ever been, and look above half-shutters out into a dream of a suburb, with snow on the trees and roofs. (Yes, I seem to be continuing this recent trend of writing these when there’s snow on the ground). People keep asking me if I miss living in Manhattan, and my mind keeps coming back to Adam’s speech. Just replace “Eve” with “Joy” and “the Garden” with Manhattan. (“Eden” can remain a synonym for “paradise.”)