Music to hear

Tonight at seven you can see the showcase I annually musical-direct (odd verb, that) for free at Alvin Ailey, 55th and 9th. One hour, performed just once, well over eighty hours of rehearsal. What do I think about during all that time?

The most germane thoughts I can share are those about the writing of the twenty-one numbers. For instance, the recent Oscar winner, Let It Go, from Frozen, pops into my head whenever I’m finishing up You and Me (But Mostly Me) from The Book of Mormon. There’s good reason for that, besides the amazing popularity of the newer song. Both were composed by Bobby Lopez: nobody’s stealing from anyone here; a composer has every right to sound like himself. (Cole Porter did all the time.) But here’s what strikes me. The big number for the pair of missionaries subtly spoofs Wicked‘s Defying Gravity. A decade ago Lopez’s previous Broadway score, Avenue Q, beat out box-office king Wicked for the Best Musical and Best Score Tony. I’ve personally heard Stephen Schwartz act the sore loser about it. The Book of Mormon satirizes many musicals, but I’m guessing razzing his old rival brought Lopez some pleasure. And, just as happened with Schwartz, Disney hired Lopez. He and his wife wrote a nifty score for the theme park live musical, Finding Nemo, and then got the plum assignment to write Frozen. In Frozen, a headstrong young woman decides to own her magic powers, rather similar to Elphaba’s big moment that leads to Defying Gravity. The voice of Elsa in Frozen is provided by the original, Tony-winning Elphaba, Idina Menzel, and the song for the similar turning point is Let It Go. So, in a few short years, the latest EGOT honoree went from sending up Idina’s iconic number to writing her another one.

Other heralded composers of our time have utilized a cliché I find tiresome. (Well, you know me: I find all clichés tiresome.) This is the habit of repeating the same chord in the right hand on every quarter beat while the bass hits a few notes off the beat. Usually, the chord’s not a particularly mellifluous one. Songs I’ve been rehearsing of this ilk include Pasek & Paul’s Boy With Dreams, Andrew Lippa’s Two of a Kind, Adam Gwon’s Fine and Jason Robert Brown’s It’s Hard To Speak My Heart (which we decided not to do, but after it had been rehearsed). Textually, all of these songs are very different from each other, with wildly varied emotional content, so why the same device? Are they trying to write in some trendy way they hear other composers writing? Are they lacking in imagination? Is it just easier to write four-to-the-bar accompaniments? These are things I wonder about. And to my ears, there’s something annoying about these ostinatos, which makes Gwon’s use perfectly appropriate, since his Fine is about a couple annoying each other.

Happily, not all of the songs are contemporary. So, like a palette cleanser that’s better than the entrées, I get to play ballads by Gershwin and Weill. They’re endlessly inventive with their chord progressions, and I marvel at the swiftness with which they bring us to a new harmonic landing point. In the verse to They Can’t Take That Away From Me, on the words “the melody lingers on” the listener anticipates a return to the tonic, but, somehow, pivoting on a flat fifth in the bass, we end up on a sixth chord built on the third note in the scale. And that’s not a blue note: it’s what my composition teacher would have called a vanilla chord. But with all the tension-increasing moves towards sevenths, this vanilla surprises us by coming at a place where we expected rocky road. OK: sometimes I get really hungry during a 14-hour rehearsal day.

And that’s not an exaggeration; I do get hungry. And it may have led me to slip a little music theory into the last paragraph. So now, something for lyricists. First, you should know that, because we’re trying to give twenty-two performers equal time and end before an hour’s up, most of the songs have been cut down to size. Sometimes, the sense of words intended to unspool over four or five minutes gets sacrificed, and then I’m called upon to make some minor lyric changes. This year, I had to replace a line in a song that features false rhymes in the original. My substitution, if rhymed correctly, would stand out like a healthy thumb. I found it particularly difficult to think of near rhymes for my substitution. It’s as if I had some aversion therapy and deep within me there’s a sharp pain if ever I think of a false rhyme. I eventually succeeded, but, because sloppy craft makes me wince, I can’t say I’m proud of it. I seriously doubt anyone will notice the change, anyway.

I just realized this is a rare blog entry in that I’m mentioning my day job. One really good thing about the things I do for money is that there’s a significant crossover with my real vocation, writing musicals. I get to work with talented people at the start of great careers. By watching the processes they use to act characters’ intentions in songs, I’m informed, more than I’d otherwise be, on what sort of meat, in music and lyrics, an actor needs to chew on. And nobody looks askance if my mind wanders to other issues of musical theatre writing, while a show tune’s sheet music is in front of my face.

Come see. You’ll be glad you did.


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