That little bundle of joy

November 28, 2014

It’s my daughter’s birthday today; she’s three. And I learn from her more every day than the collected wisdom I hope to relate in the nearly 300 posts in this blog. But, usually, it’s not about the writing of musicals. But sometimes it is.

One of the things she’s fond of saying occurs whenever I’m laughing at something I read or see on TV: “What’s silly about it?” She wants me to explain jokes, and there are times when she recognizes something is funny (though she really didn’t find it so), knows she’s supposed to laugh, and will rear back her head and deliver an energetic, vociferous and pretty-near-believable fake laugh. In one sense, this is a reminder not to write jokes that will go over my audience’s head. In another, it makes humor seem a little easier: time your punch-line right, have a great comedian deliver it with panache, and some people, far older than three, will laugh at it simply because it feels like they should. There are also times when I think Adelaide’s question should be applied to whole shows. Like that new Broadway musical by a trio of intriguing writers, The Last Ship. I don’t really want to see it unless someone can tell me what’s silly about it.

And yes, I know what I’m saying is a matter of taste. And I wouldn’t deny there have been effective musical tragedies. But most of those are operas. The stage musical, as folks know it, is typically better suited to celebrating moments of happiness than amplifying sadness and pain. I put that sentence in red because it seems so many young musical writers disagree. I’ve sat through shows about men saving Jews from the Nazis: does that “sing” to you? It did to the authors.


my daughter, my father

Back in the day, friends and I used to amuse each other by coming up with World’s Worst ideas for musicals: “The conjoined Hilton Twins!” we’d giggle. “Trial of Leo Frank!”  Never thought I’d live to see the day when these jokes materialized, (as Side Show and Parade) are praised by some, get revived and revised. Adaptations handled with varying degrees of proficiency but they remain wholly unappealing ideas for shows and one kept making me laugh without intending to.

In entertainments devised for kids, there’s a curious habit of writing gags that adults get, but children don’t. Even in the film she’s most obsessed with, Frozen, the lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez humorously signals to supposed grown-ups in a smarmy “wink-wink/nudge-nudge” way. At a key moment, the heroine has to tell her sister that their hometown, Arendelle, is stuck in perpetual winter. She summons her courage to reveal it in song thusly: “Arendelle’s in a deep…deep…snow.” If I’d laughed at that line (which I didn’t), Adelaide would have asked me “What’s silly about it?” and, in the film, there’s really nothing silly about it. But adults read this as an expression that usually ends with a dirty word, and so can be amused while the young ‘uns aren’t. And, and…really, Disney?

But a greater “really, Disney?” moment comes when a princess sings “Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but I’m somewhere in that zone.” To which I say “Ewww!” In the history of Disney princesses, there’s never been any evidence any has a digestive tract, let alone digestive distress. Sure, times have changed, but do they have to exchange in that direction? I may be far behind the times, and hopelessly patriarchal, but I preferred the days when princess weren’t gassy.

A young (adult) friend of mine also points to a line in the same song, “Why have a ballroom with no balls?” She thinks that’s another joke written just for parents, but I accept the line at face value because it’s a sincere expression of exactly what the character is feeling; I don’t hear it any other way. And there’s another joke of this ilk that I’m kind of charmed by. In a duet expressing mutual attraction, there’s “maybe it is the party talking or the chocolate fondue.” Adelaide understands that as a single entendre, that the character is intoxicated by the heady atmosphere of the coronation ball, its deserts, and a terribly attractive prince.

Which reminds me: There’s a father-daughter show tune that’s never far from my mind, Growing Pains from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The little girl is about a decade older than Adelaide, and they openly discuss bittersweet rites of passage: “Papa’s not president since maybe tonight.” Adelaide’s very clear on who the president is, and knows the names of a lot of the former presidents, frequently mentioning James Madison. If I take this as a sign she’s started down the road of becoming president herself (her mother would like that, but she wouldn’t be president unless she wanted to be), it must be the party talking, or the chocolate fondue.

Turn around

November 18, 2014

Of all the many compliments I received on The Music Playing, the one I cherish most is “It sounds so different from your previous shows.” Yes! This is exactly what I was going for. And if you can bear a third post in a row about my creative process, I’d like to talk about the creative leaps in the music.

Which means that we have, here, the old problem that it’s hard to talk about sound. Some of you know a great deal about music theory; some know naught. So, there’s a good chance things I’ll say may go over your head, or under your head, i.e., seem incredibly obvious.

But it’s not too music-student-specific to say that I took a look at the ways I’ve been composing music for years, and attempted to try new paths, things I wouldn’t normally do. In my previous post, I described my attempt to get away from my usual reliance on traditional lyric structure. At times I rebelled against the sort of musical architecture I usually stick to, too.

On one of the first numbers I wrote for the show, The Time Away, I had an idea about what the accompaniment might sound like at an unusually early point in the process. I had the notion that, when the character – a working mother – wasn’t singing a new note, we should hear, on odd beats, two notes one tone apart (the major second interval). The woman’s unsettled, distraught that she gets to spend so little time with her baby. If “time away” is something she loathes, the music might refer to clocks, but in a jagged, uncomfortable way. Now, nobody listening to the finished draft of the song would ever recognize this, but it gave me a point of departure.

Setting the title to notes is something I often do at an early stage in the process. In thinking about what the character had to express, I knew I wanted four tones that don’t naturally fit together. One of the more obvious ways of getting a rarely-heard combination would be to include the hardest interval to sing, the tritone. But that sounded a little too spooky to me. But I think that considering making the phrase hard to sing led me to choose a wide range, and there’s indeed a tritone between the second and fourth notes. Since those aren’t consecutive, it’s not too difficult to sing (the range is a ninth).

But landing on the flatted fifth put me in a place of great tension. I had an impulse to smooth that out by putting a pleasant, and perhaps expected chord under that fourth note. The first three pitches implied a D6, and I first thought I’d deal with the fourth by putting an E over D with it. Not what I ended up doing. But what may have been on my mind at this point is one of the key components of thoughtfully-written music, the interplay between tension and release. So I chose a harmonic palette that was going to lead me out of that knotty fourth note into something more familiar, but not so pleasant that it didn’t fit the character’s disquietude. The first three pitches are heard a cappela, that flat fifth ended up as a D6 with the fifth flatted. The clustery seconds on off-beats are the F# and G#. The next bar is a C#7sus (so the same clusters) which resolves to a C#m7. Then an F#m7, even though the F# doesn’t show up until the final beat of the measure; a G over A; F#9, and then a bar that goes from G major seventh to G minor with a major seventh and the eighth bar begins with one beat of Gm6 over A. This sets us up, as many eighth bars do, for a repetition, an identical section (or second A).

Certainly, my lyric on the page would suggest a repetition. The stanzas match:

The time away
Weighs on my soul
Chiding me
Telling me I’m wrong

It seems to say
Stray from that goal
Work is work.
Home’s where you belong.

What I ended up doing was keeping most of the same rhythms for the second A, but now the melody goes in even odder places. “Say” to “stray” is that dreaded tritone, which did prove difficult to sing. The eighth bar’s an f-natural, and I put pieces of the whole tone scale under it.

Bridges are supposed to contrast, and I went pretty far afield both rhythmically and harmonically. It’s as if the sentiment, which gets far more specific, is made up of a completely different musical fabric. The fifth and sixth bars don’t sound like anything else in the song (but they do sound like part of the show’s overture, a last-minute patchwork of themes I like in the whole show). The bridge concludes with an unexpected curse word, and the eighth bar plays a harsh chord in the right hand while the left hand plays octaves on the off beats, as if the accompanist’s hands are unable to get it together.

The final A may start with the same four notes, but everything else is stuff the listener hasn’t heard before, is unprepared for. In the show, the character’s fraught emotions seem to be coming out of nowhere. In the song, melodic phrases and chords seem to be coming out of nowhere, too. Then the song concludes on a C# minor chord while the singer’s last note was a B – hardly the sort of finish anyone expects from a song in D.100-0063EA22

Sounds crazy, no?

To my surprise, when my musical director received the score, he commented, admiringly, about the crazy unexpected phrases in a different song, That Look To Me. In writing that, I knew I was a danger of writing predictable bubblegum pop, so I rewrote and rewrote, making sure to go places not even a musical director would expect. But that’s a tale for another day.


November 8, 2014

It was time to shake it up a bit.

I’d written songs that followed strict structures for The Music Playing, just like I usually do. My last post detailed how songwriting choices can be guided by formal elements. But often, during the writing of The Music Playing, I had an impulse to do things differently than my usual modus operandi. I always want my new shows to be as different as possible from my many previous shows, and a change in methodology might ensure I do just that.

Many years ago, working on On the Brink, I’d come up with all sorts of strict-format numbers, a fact that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the director/performer Stephen Gee. Late in the writing period, I sketched out a lyric, wrote music to the chorus, and, letting him in on what I had so far, improvised music to the verses, which, at that point, contained no structure in common. Not a rhyme scheme, or a metrical scheme: they merely used the name Washington in the first line. Before Steve could react to what I’d just played, I assured him that I’d clean up the verses, and make them all match. “Don’t you dare!” he blurted. He liked the fact that they rambled, sans schemes. And that departure from my usual way of doing things led to what I consider my best song, Madison Avenue Is Calling Me.

But back to 2014: Here’s what I knew before I started the lyric to Blue Caribbean:

The song didn’t need to convey much information. It was just a chance to show my two characters enjoying a vacation, enjoying each other, childless and carefree. It would need to be sexy – in the tradition of many musical comedy numbers where the singing of a duet in a stand-in for sex – and conclude with a sensual dance getting interrupted by a phone call. It would need to be evocative: In a movie, one could show images of the area’s physical beauty; this song would need to depict the place with music and lyrics. Generally, we’d need to see the characters relating to each other effectively, affectionately, without the subsurface tension that would be in much of the rest of the play.

So, with that in mind, I set about creating a lyric that wouldn’t lean on meter. Where the lines could be of jagged lengths. And I thought it might be nice, for a change, to minimize the use of rhyme. I began:

In the blue Caribbean
All your care is left behind
All your usual anxieties
Out of sight, out of mind

There’s a rhyme there, but it’s four different lines, when you look at the metrical feet. (And here you might think of looking at feet, in flip-flops, at the end of a beach chair.)

“Out of sight, out of mind” suggested a pair of rhythms that would match each other. Which got me to thinking of similar pairs. I came up with “Simmer down; simmer off,” I think, because they kept the repetition of the first two syllables. Might have use for that somewhere.

Next, I thought about how to make this into a playful dialogue:

It’s so blue (What?) The Caribbean

This would use the two words of my title, but it was hard to justify why someone would ask “What?” at that point. And how, in composing, would I deal with the extra syllables? In thinking about the stresses of my words, it struck me that people pronounce the proper noun in two different ways – CaribBEan and CaRIBbean. This led me to use the discrepancy as the topic of a meaningless and mild argument. One pronounces it one way, the other, the other.

And – wouldn’t you know it? – my desire to use rhyme sparingly led me to come up with a clever rhyme I’ve never heard anywhere else before, which is a pretty irresistible realization:

You can share significant time with a starfish
Or swirl in a whirlpool till you’re feeling barfish

Now, I wasn’t confident anybody would appreciate this rhyme other than me. But, once I knew rhyme wasn’t being overused, I felt I could go for a three-syllable rhyme in some key location, like the end of the bridge. So, my entire bridge became:

Simmer down; simmer off
But do your simmering
Where the blue is shimmering

I liked that quite a bit because the use of “blue” as a noun is justified by the context. With a bridge containing so few syllables, I’d need to sustain notes, and I’d slipped in a singable internal rhyme with “do” and “blue.”

At the bottom of my first page of lyrical notes, I wrote a set of chord symbols – Gmaj9 C6/9 Gmaj9 G#m7/C# C#7. But when it became time to come up with the tune, I completely forgot those existed. In fact, there were all kinds of melodic and harmonic sketches that I’d forgotten about by the time I felt I had enough lyric to start on the music. In order to hit the right mood, I knew I wanted to use a Jobim-like sexy Latin dance rhythm, nothing too energetic. And it might add to the hypnotic nature of the thing if I could repeat a set of chords. There’s a chord progression in a love song I wrote about 15 years ago that I always thought was cool: in the key of C, a high E is sustained while the accompaniment goes from an F# Minor seventh with a flat fifth to an F Minor plus major seventh. I wanted to do something like that, but not exactly that, and so came up with this quartet of chords, also in C:

Cmaj7, Bbmaj7/C, F#m7-5, Fm7

One chord per bar in a moderate samba, and I had music as evocative as I’d need to set the mood. Eventually, I had the clever idea of truncating the post-bridge sections by a couple of bars, which allowed for an extended ending.

It’s very likely I’ll fix things in rewrites of the show, but – and I promise you it’s exceedingly rare I say this – I was pretty happy with the song, in general, at the initial reading.