While it’s still somewhat fresh in my mind, I thought I’d jot down some notes on my process in writing The Music Playing. And, since someone just accused me of loving structure more than I should, I thought I’d start with an instance where having an imposed and imposing framework seemingly forced some writing choices on me.
It’s the title song. And might that title ring a bell? Thirty years ago or so there was a “light listening” hit by Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman called How Do You Keep the Music Playing? It addressed the same topic I wanted my show to address: preserving the passion in a marriage as the years go by. To me, The Music Playing refers to the amorous happiness that endures once the wedding gifts have all broken. (Side note to my friend Julie: I still use the coffee-maker every day.)
I thought and thought but couldn’t come up with a better phrase, describing this phenomenon, than the Bergmans’ – can it be coincidence that they, too, have been married for many years? So, there was nothing to do but steal it. The next step in creating this lyric was to compose some music. I set the purloined title to a simple waltz. The third bar, where the word “music” appears, involves a traditional musical idea, that of tension and release. My moment of dissonance utilizes a minor second, that is, a clash between a note and the note right next to it. I liked this sound so much, I decided to do it again two bars later, a bit lower, and then do it again. Then, to clear the air of this crafted ugliness, I ran up the major scale to a nice-sounding high phrase mirroring the shape of the fraught ones. That immediately suggested the lyric could use synonyms for “the music playing” to sit on all those descending tension-release snatches I just described.
But, as I also said above, it wasn’t easy to come up with easily-understood catch-phrases that mean something similar. Here, my knowledge of a zillion songs proved my savior. In the World War One era, there was a popular song, Keep the Home Fires Burning. I knew it from the cast album of Oh What a Lovely War – another example of how everything I know I know from show records. Home fires burning may have been meant literally, referencing a time when ovens were always lit, but it soon took on the figurative meaning. Keep feeling that warmth you feel in your heart for me. So, “fires burning” could be one of my synonyms, and, now that I had that image, “embers glowing” suggested itself.
How to put these three in an order? I knew my hearth images were similar, so thought it better to separate them. And all the “-ing” words are easy feminine rhymes. Choosing which of them to rhyme would dictate their placement.
I often worry about being led by rhyme, but had earlier decided that the only way to progress on this project was to throw my worries aside. Looking at the potential rhymes for playing, burning and glowing, the literal statement of what I wanted to say leaped out at me: How do you keep a marriage going? I knew I had to put this in a prominent place in the stanza, lest anyone misconstrue the three figures if speech.
But there was another problem: trading in clichés. This is such a fear of mine, I actually made a sign for my office, “Eschew cliché.” I fretted I was going against my framed (and famed) admonition. Again, would I let myself be governed by fears? Might as well own up to it:
How do you keep the fires burning?
The music playing?
The embers glowing?
All are clichés but it’s well worth knowing
How do you keep a marriage going?
Somehow, I managed to sneak an extra rhyme in there.
That stanza, with the length of music I composed for it, would comprise what’s called an A Section, roughly one-quarter of the final song. The overall structure of this song, I safely assumed, would end up being A-A-B-A. Most theatre songs use this, and I like it. The subsequent A Sections allow the listener to hear a tune he’s heard before, and the B, or bridge, can go some contrasting place. So, the next step was to decide what would be the subject matter of the later parts. Now, those –ing words suggest that the lines have a certain similarity to each other. So, for the second A, I decided the characters might look at how their relationship has progressed over the years, with three lines that have similar weight.
The first thing I thought of was “We two have gone from rice to quinoa.”
Pretty silly, I know. But it’s something I thought of in considering the changes in the world since Joy and I met. Back then, quinoa wasn’t a food I’d heard of. It’s fancier than rice, and our lives are fancier. But I suspected the audience wouldn’t immediately grasp the fanciness of one grain over another. So, I thought of some phrases that kept the same structure, but make more sense:
We two have gone from hot to tepid
From tight to loose-knit
From strong to dwindling
And, if the couple’s going to come to a resolution, the final A Section might involved a vow to get back to the earlier passion in their lives:
Let’s bring this back from pecks to smooches
From safe to daring
Polite to doting
To make my bridge a true contrast, I thought I’d have the couple scratch their heads a bit. With the standard minim-crotchet combo used in so many measures of the A, I knew I wanted long notes in the bridge. So, I wrote a few short sentences that made sense for the middle of their exploration of the problem.
Wish I knew
What can we do?
Don’t have a clue
When I say “I love you”
It falls on deaf ears
The last note of the second A became the first note of the B, but with a fresh and unexpected chord. This little section of long notes became my favorite passage in the whole score, especially as sung by Andy White and Nadia Vynnytsky.
One of my fears, in writing about this, is that I’ll come off as conceited somehow. But I’ll continue to ignore the things I’m usually afraid of and remind you that there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about my process here. I let traditional structures guide my hand. You can be the judge of the result: