Yeah, you read that right: I, Noel Katz, can’t stand semantics. I don’t care if your show christens itself a musical play, a musical comedy, a rock opera or a happening with songs. If you entertain me, I’ll like it; don’t and I won’t.
But over there on the other side of the bed, my wife, the much-esteemed casting director, recently asked the mythical “hive mind” to coin a better term. You see, if she puts out a notice asking for “contemporary Broadway,” some addlepated aspirant will show up with Easy To Be Hard. Yes, that’s a rock ballad you can wail on, it was on the pop charts and in the musical Hair. And it was written about fifty years ago. So two things: How can you call it contemporary? and God, I hate semantics.
I’m fond of musical theatre history, though, so perhaps this will put me in a better mood. For a very long time, people fretted about a schism between the sound of show tunes, which once dominated the airwaves, and the sound of rock, which wasn’t often heard on Broadway. This hysteria didn’t quite jibe with reality. As I pointed out in an essay I wrote earlier this year, Charles Strouse put rock in most of his musicals, sometimes lampooning the genre, sometimes not. But as the demographics of Broadway-attendees skewed older and older, many wished show scores would someday sound just like music you could hear on the radio.
And they got their wish. Have you heard this past season’s original scores? You got some classic rock from the undisputed king of the rock musical, country music from a bona fide pop star, bluegrass from a bona fide comedy star (but it wasn’t funny!), 1980s techno-I’mNotSureWhatToCallItButIHateSemantics, and I think there may have been a show that used a little hip hop.
Yet, many shows shoot themselves in the foot by explicitly telling auditioners not to bring in show tunes. That hearkens back to the rock side of that schism I described a couple paragraphs ago. It’s the manifestation of an unfair prejudice that says a show tune is bound to be hackneyed or clichéd. Whereas non-theatre songs won’t be. They’re more pure, somehow. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on rock, but let’s talk Next To Normal. Isn’t that rock? Is it ever remotely hackneyed? Now – confess it – you know of rock hits with lyrics that make no sense whatsoever. You’ve your own unfavorites, as do I. And I’m not going to spend time listing them lest I turn a whiter shade of pale.
So a shooting gallery of singers pass before a creative team’s eyes, and they’re putting all their efforts into singing and they often seem indistinguishable from each other. That’s often because they’re not paying any attention to the acting of the lyric. And, in certain cases, you can hardly blame them. Some rock lyrics are so stupid they defy all efforts to act them. But rock songs from Broadway shows I admire, such as Two Gentlemen of Verona, Next To Normal and Hamilton, well, those require a great deal of acting. In your audition, you’re not just a singer, you’re a singing actor, which is what wins the role the overwhelming majority of times.
Performers, when faced with that No Show Tunes! decree, make sure you pick a pop/rock song with an actable text.
Writers, feel free to use rock, if the setting of your show calls for it (n.b., Titanic isn’t a rock score, for obvious reasons). But don’t be so imitative of contemporary hits that you forget to fashion an actable text. And now my mind is flashing back to something a critic I know wrote about one of this year’s hit musicals.
…suffers from inexperienced hands treating musical-making as if it’s no different from any other writing form… a justified indie-pop sensation…treats plot and character writing with the same limited scope and reach she does a pop single. She’s not interested in plumbing feelings, particularizing people, or testing the boundaries of how music lands on the ear; she sticks with what she knows and squishes the show around to match.
This all should be obvious, but somehow isn’t: The things that make a rock hit a rock hit are markedly different from the things that make a song work in the theatre. So, like the wishers I referred to earlier, you may have the understandable ambition to have your stage score sound like the songs you love on the radio. But the reasons you love those songs have a lot to do with sound and groove, and hooks and, often, studio-created sounds not easily replicated in a theatre’s orchestra pit. Get your songs, in any style, to particularize character and further your story.
Or, to put it another way, inert songs amplify emotions and these emotions are already present in the story. Her heart is broken, so she sings about how her heart is broken. When Adele does that, it’s fabulous. In the theatre, it’s leaden. Avoid telling us stuff we already know.
And your librettist is an accomplice in this effort. The book’s got to take you to an area in which whatever the lyric says comes as some sort of a surprise. Otherwise, the audience will tune out. It’s a worthy goal to see to it your song takes the singing characters from one emotional place to another. They don’t feel, or even believe, the same things they felt and believed from beginning to end.
Which is why I used the word “inert” just now. Ineffective songs in musicals frequently suffer from a crippling inertia. Be on the look-out for this as you’re fashioning numbers that seem to be simulacrums of pop hits.
But now I feel guilty that I just explained why I used a term. Semantics! – you’ll be the death of me.