August 4, 2017

It’s a big anniversary, ‘round about now, of my musical for children called Popsicle Palace. Except it’s no longer called Popsicle Palace. Merely because the owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, the show is now called Not a Lion. You’d think that, rather than telling us to cease and desist, they might have explored striking up a partnership to our mutual benefit. But good ideas tend to evaporate faster than frozen ade on a stick in the sun.

In a way, Not a Lion is based on another of my musicals that ran into a rights problem. There was a time when the estate of C. S. Lewis allowed anyone to adapt any of his Chronicles of Narnia to the stage. When I was a teenager, my friend Jodi Rogaway proposed that we musicalize The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of the songs I wrote were pretty childish – after all, I wasn’t a grown-up, and knew I was writing for children. But a handful were impressive: cassettes of these helped me get into college and the BMI workshop.

Years passed and Jodi and I lost touch. But then I heard that she’d spent a year studying children’s theatre in Birmingham, England. And there, for one performance, she produced and directed our Through the Wardrobe. I was not yet 20. So I accomplished the coup of getting a show in front of an audience while still in my teens, even if I wasn’t there to see it.

More years passed, and Jodi had married a writer named Lee Rooklin. They lived not far from a family-run theatre in-the-round in Los Angeles, and weekend matinees were musicals for children. Jodi again seized her opportunity and got the theatre all excited about doing Through the Wardrobe. But, after ten years, the rights issue became a big deal. The Lewis estate was no longer allowing adaptations willy-nilly. We thought all was lost.

But Jodi knew she had a hook in a fish. This theatre wanted to work with her, and really liked my songs in that score. Jodi and her husband came up with a completely different story that could utilize at least some of the old Wardrobe songs.

It’s a completely different animal when you’re adults fashioning an original story together. For me, it meant adding a half-dozen songs to the half-dozen we opted to keep from the old score. And I also got to tweak the old ones: a weak piece for a minor character got overhauled with a sort of tap break recitation-in-rhythm. Almost beat for beat, Frozen, decades later, employed the same idea in its best song, In Summer. The cast, and people who saw the production, couldn’t tell the old from the new. But I see them as Before-Lehman Engel and After Lehman-Engel. I knew so much more about moving a story through song.

The premise of our new tale is that an ordinary housecat gets whisked off to a land where the local animals all think he’s a lion. And I found a way of putting that identity crisis smack dab in the middle of a duet. A cat, claiming to be just a cat, points out certain characteristics that indicate his species. An observer – who happens to be a penguin – points out a bunch of things that are true of both lions and cats. Not a Lion became a title song long after the run, but it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

The score’s full of fun forms: there’s a four-part quodlibet, a round, something of a fugue, and, while I was coming up with this stuff, my mind went back to a song I’d enjoyed as a boy, I Am a Fine Musician. In it, different “bandsmen” – that is, singers imitating various instruments, add their sounds to a brief little chorus.

I stole the form but used clashing swords, fife, drum and the sound of an otter whacking its tail against the ground. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I spent that summer in L.A. to orchestrate and musical direct. At the time, my father was moving out of a chalet-like house in the hills, and I got to house-sit for a time, which was good living. The show was so successful, it often got sold out, and the finite run was extended several times. And I recall the company of actors as being particularly warm to me. Which prompts me to quote the finale, which could have been written about them:

I feel warm. Warm. Warm!
Warm as a fire
Or warm as alphabet soup
Warm as a choir
That huddles, like this, in a group
So warm that a snowball
Is no ball in no time at all
We’ve just begun the season
That comes before the fall
And it’s all
Because of you
You humans from beyond the border
Figment’s order is restored
And, speaking of the border, I see the way back home
Home. Home!
Home is where it’s warm as a canyon
That runs through hot desert sands
Warm, my companion
As we’re warmly holding hands
Life here was an igloo
A big losing battle it seemed
But now our home is warmer than we ever dreamed it would be
Warm. Warm. Warm.


Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.


Symphony of wind-up toys

January 27, 2017

Having one of those faintly rhapsodic moments. The midwinter sun is pouring through my office windows, and my office actually has windows on four sides, counting the one in the door to the living room. And so, a tiny space feels much bigger, as if a desk had been set up out of doors. Around me is a well-illuminated partly cloudy sky.

I’m listening to a bunch of instrumental pieces I’ve written over the years. I’ve been thinking of putting them on a CD for my daughter to fall asleep to. One piece was written specifically for that purpose a month or so ago. When composing wordless music, a certain pressure is lifted. In musical theatre songwriting, making sure the audience understands every word is a primary goal. Sans language, that ceases to be a major concern. Even if a piece tells a story (“program music”), the audience isn’t expecting to get it, exactly.

The newest piece – my first composition of 2017 – marks the culmination of a good amount of thinking before a note was written; daydreaming, one might say. And I’ve just reminded myself that this blog is called “There’s Gotta Be a Song” which resembles a song title of mine, There Oughta Be a Song. So, this musical I’m working on should begin with warmth, and there oughta be an overture that puts the audience into a certain frame of mind. The first communication, non-verbally, should get them thinking about a sleeping baby. Then, the first scene of the show is morning: the baby is awake, the father’s feeding it, the mother frenetically gets ready for a day at the office. It’s an anxious and contentious scene and it should be a little startling coming out of the tranquility of a depiction of a sleeping child.

Looking back over my life over the past years, I know that my most harried hours have been spent on the nightly struggle to get my daughter to sleep. But that’s reality, not my fictional musical. So, here’s the program for my program music: A child is gently lulled to sleep with wind-up toys. (I can remember that I, as a child, had one that played To Each His Own, and another that played Tenderly. I can hear neither song today without thinking about childhood.) The first draft of my show had a quodlibet in three-quarter time, with different tunes for each parent. For my overture, I knew I’d start one waltz, which would keep repeating; then, a few bars later, I’d start another one, which would keep repeating. Eventually, there’d be so many, going in counterpoint, the listener would picture a crib with way too many stuffed animals making music – and some cacophony. Eventually, the themes should slow and fade out. (Note: I didn’t quite achieve that goal, yet.)

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I also thought about lighting. Overtures often involve darkening the auditorium. I want lights to gradually come up, as dawn breaks, and end up in a harsh glare of the family’s fraught morning. So, instead of that slow-and-fade thing, I’ve written a segue into the opening number, which is eight-eighth-notes-to-the-bar ostinato rock. And if that’s not what my audience is expecting, all the better. I’m a great believer in rattling expectations.

I’ve talked before about how valuable it is to know the parameters of the piece you’re composing – the more, the merrier. So, what tunes to write for wind-up toys? This may not be true any more, but when I was a kid, music boxes and toys had a tendency to go out of tune. This may have led me to the thought that I could use a wrong-sounding interval, such as the flat fifth. Now, an ascending flat fifth makes everyone think of West Side Story: Bernstein uses it again and again, in that whistle the gang uses, as well as Cool and Maria. So, stay away from that. Start with a descending flat fifth and quickly resolve it because, don’t forget, this theme is not about stress. I repeated the first two bars, and the fifth bar is a rather normal ascending major triad. It was time to go an interesting place, so I chose an unexpected chord, and did a little dance with the minor third of the scale. With much repetition leading to a cadence, I now had my first sixteen-bar theme.

A second theme should contrast. The first involved quarter notes, so now a smattering of eighth notes is called for. If the first danced around the third note of the minor scale on its sixth and fourteenth bars, this could dance around the tonic any place but. By “dance around” I mean fluttering around a note using others close to it. I also went up and down in an arpeggio covering a wider range than a human voice could do. One of the freeing things about writing instrumental music is that you’re not stuck with just what can be sung.

Wondering which should be played first led me to decide on neither. For something introductory I thought of a piece I get unaccountably emotional about, Henry Mancini’s opening credit theme for Two For the Road, a wonderful film depicting the highs and lows of a struggling marriage (something my musical does as well).

On tinkly eighth notes, broken chords are played in an unusual sequence, and the harmonic changes are subtle. I’ve used similar figures with some frequency in instrumental pieces, and also Mommy Is Yummy in the show.

Traditional overtures present themes that will later be heard as songs in the show. At this point, my score has one waltz, and I thought it worth featuring. But it has a different set of harmonies. If I introduce it, there would be clashes. But wasn’t cacophony part of my original plan? The song could enter last and before too long the conflicting wind-up toys could fade out.

Now I had a new idea, one that I didn’t start with. This one theme would emerge from the overlapping counterpoint, and the audience would suspect it’s a tune they’ll hear later in the show. (And they’d be right.) Clarity would emerge from the noise of the seven countermelodies. And, I found, I could use some of those previously stated themes as accompaniment.

Since the song and the newly-composed themes have different chord progressions, those conflicting bars guided my hand in coming up with some of the other melodies. There’s a set of dotted half notes that emerged from looking at what notes are common to the two clashing chords.

I’m a bit self-conscious, now, that I’ve gotten too technical. Certainly, listeners won’t be thinking about any of this inner architecture when they hear the piece. Except you will. Because I just told you.



August 18, 2016

If my thoughts about Fun Home are sort of a jumble, it’s perhaps a reflection of the show itself. The 2015 Tony winner – I caught it off-Broadway and recently, on Broadway at The Circle in the Square, where it plays until September 10 – boldly presents a situation that is so true to life, it’s almost too complex to talk about. It keeps bringing up intriguing questions and, more often than not, refusing to answer them. Because life itself has no easy answers, and the show is based on the formative years of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In an attempt to come to terms with her upbringing, she recounted events in the form of a graphic novel. Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer) adapted this into a 100-minute chamber piece.

And I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It is never dull, constantly fascinating. You, the viewer, search for answers just as Bechdel does, and there she is, on stage at her drawing board, wondering. (And there your fellow observers are, in the background, as it’s staged in the round.) Why did her father do the things he did? What went on inside his controlling, quick-to-temper mind? What traits did he pass on to his daughter, and how did the discovery that his daughter is a lesbian affect him? Even the arrival of an old French novel in a dorm room is shrouded in mystery.

Given my somewhat ambiguous reaction to a show that embraces a certain amount of ambiguity, it makes more sense to discuss Fun Home’s methods here than to write a long overdue review. (And, considering that Jeanine musical-directed my Varsity Show, The New U. many years ago, I can’t legitimately claim to be impartial.) Fun Home seamlessly transitions between four types of expression, which I’ll define, yet is all of a piece. You don’t notice these; you’re too busy reacting emotionally to the characters and their plight.

The first is dialogue. Kron’s previous experience is in songless theatre. I’ve gotten tired, I must admit, of sung-through shows, because I appreciate the shift in energy involved in moving from spoken material to sung. So many writers overemphasize the importance of songs in a musical, relegating interstitial speaking to the status of filler. In Fun Home, we’re all on a mission to solve a mystery, so we carefully attend the words, as each might contain a clue. Bruce examines yard sale junk, pondering its value while we examine Bruce, pondering whether his actions might hold a key to his character.

And then, in song, what we get might fall into three categories. There are refrains with hooks, as shows have always contained. I walked out humming Days and Days and Days but you might fall for the unexpected rests that make Ring of Keys such an unusual waltz. Note, also, that Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is rather sparing in its use of applause buttons. When we give a performer a hand, we can see, across the stage, other people clapping; so, we’re taken out of the moment. Wise creators think long and hard about where and how often to let that happen.

Recitative and verse are two different things, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with Fun Home, I’m going to draw on South Pacific for examples. You know these lines –

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother
There is one particular thing that nothing whatsoever in any way shape or form like any other

Essentially, that’s chanted on a single note, with no bar lines, while the orchestra holds a chord. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of opera, and personally I’m more conversant in the Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon of opera:

I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes

In contemporary musicals, though, recitative is rarely employed. But Jeanine Tesori, throughout her career, has gone beyond the bounds of “what’s done” drawing on a wealth of knowledge of others forms of music. And the surprise benefit is that it allows the performer to deliver “Oh, my God” over and over again in a charming way that reveals a lot about her personality. (Plus, she’s talking about sex – always a piquant topic.)

Speaking of which, a classic musical theatre example of a verse:

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

That has a tune to it – Rodgers comes close to religioso, and I think the accompaniment’s on sixths – but it’s not the main tune. You hear it and you know this, that you’re in the verse rather than the refrain.

After our college freshman heroine bursts out with all those omigods, Tesori subtly brings in a little tune that, just like in South Pacific, is clearly not the main tune. It runs quickly around the scale on lines like “I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot.” We’re tickled, we laugh, but we know we’re not in the main part yet, and then comes a simple but impassioned waltz.

This is so full of joy, discovery, and, yes, sex, that I knew upon first hearing that here was one of the best show tunes of the decade. It’s magical.

Something that always strikes me about Jeanine Tesori is that she usually works with first-time lyricists. It’s as if each collaboration reinvents the wheel, and, the obvious consequence: no composer I can think of is more varied. Violet sounds nothing like Caroline Or Change sounds nothing like Thoroughly Modern Millie sounds nothing like Shrek. Fun Home, the innovation with Lisa Kron is, I think, something none of us was quite prepared for. Every element (including, or especially, set design) combines to tell a compelling and emotional story. Which is what we all want to do: And if we’re ever going to achieve that goal, it behooves us to carefully examine what Tesori and Kron hath wrought.

Bad dad

February 21, 2016

A fortuitous scheduling quirk gave me a week last month in which I had some extra time at the piano. My lot in life – and I may have complained about this far too much – is that when my daughter’s in the house Daddy can’t touch his piano. Truth is, my four-year-old doesn’t let me sing. If I break out into song (as all mentally healthy people are prone to do), she instantly puts her hand over my mouth. She’s associated my singing with my nightly struggles to get her to go to sleep; so she halts me with “That’s for bed.”

Today I saw a meme: “I am a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.” Don’t I know it!

Pre-school started a week before my winter work break finished, affording me three mornings home alone. I was determined to finish one of my argument songs. That’s not some arcane term I coined: I literally mean duets in which characters argue. Before this boon-of-a-week, I’d have said I was about 3/4 done with this one, which just shows you how little we know. I’d had the man rant, wrote “key change” on the score, and started the woman’s response. The plan was for each to have equal time.

Which reminds me: I caught a glimpse of CNN this week and I hate CNN precisely because they make a virtue of equal time. They’ll talk to someone who thinks the earth is flat and devote exactly as many minutes to some scientist who maintains Columbus was right: it’s round. Seems wrong to me, as well as artificial.

So, as I continued work on the argument song it struck me that my bent for equal time was getting it too far from reality. As a songwriter, I love structure: structure makes things easier. But Do It the Hard Way, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, and you can keep an audience on its toes. The equal time stratagem is all too predictable.

The song has a lot of eighth notes. It’s rock that chugs along quickly. I’d come to think of it as something Sara Bareilles might write. Its frenetic power derives, in part, from chords that shift off the beat. That is, new harmonies don’t start on the beats you count, but in-between: 3-and-four-SHIFT-One-and-two-SHIFT. The idea is to keep the audience on edge, just like the warring characters.

But it’s all rather relentless. I didn’t appreciate this until getting to the piano on Tuesday. It seemed a little tiring to play, and that might mean it’s tiring to listen to. Contrast was needed, something a little lyrical, with sustained notes. The energy won’t drop if I continue the eighth note chords in the accompaniment.

I’m thinking, as I write this, about the word “sustain” since it made it into the lyric. My baby’s smile sustains me. I’m wondering whether I would have thought of that verb if “sustain” hadn’t been part of my musical process. Probably, I’ll rewrite the line, as it contains too many S’s, but that’s what I have now. The lyric says something, here, that needed to be said because I’d stated something rather strongly in filling out the woman’s lyric earlier. Her rant tops his, but she’s a tad too insulting and this section serves to humanize her.

Or at least I hope. Throughout writing this show I’ve had one eye on an imaginary likability meter. It’s a two-character musical, in the audience must enjoy being in their presence for the full length of the piece. But there’s bound to be friction, arguing, and times they’re less than pleasant company. I worry I worry about this too much.

Broadway, about fifty years ago, saw another two-character musical about a married couple, I Do, I Do. Not one I’ve seen, but it strikes me they cast the two most charming, inherently lovable stars that could be found: Mary Martin and Robert Preston. More recently came The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway flop that cast the magnetic Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. I saw this show twice and had great difficulty sympathizing with either of the characters. The woman, when introduced, indulged in self-pity, the worst of all possible first impressions. The man, towards the end, did something that destroyed whatever affection the audience built towards him. It’s incumbent on me to learn from the mistakes Jason Robert Brown made in creating his two-character show about a marriage. (I realize, of course, that a lot of people love this show.)

Not sure I’ve ever mentioned my mosaic metaphor. A work can be made up of a ton of tiny pieces. Right now there are 28 cards on my storyboard. This duet is just one of them. The current task is to craft the best tile possible – 1/28 of the whole – and not to worry about how the whole thing works. There will be plenty of time for that later, and audiences – at readings, backer’s auditions and previews – will help

My incessant phobia about whether my characters are likable inspired a new idea for where the lyric could go. Here they are, arguing passionately, a picture of discord. What if, after the release (described above) they find something in common? They share similar frustrations, and perhaps there’s a way to celebrate the fact that they’re sharing. This would justify them singing lines alternately, in harmony, and finally switching to the pronoun, “we” in a unison button.

By Wednesday’s school pick-up time, I had a complete piano score. Feels really good to reach this milestone. While my daughter amused herself, I snuck a peak at my storyboard. The new song brings fire and conflict to an early point in the show, and the next card is a sweet duet. The idea is that one of their parents will call, ask how things are going, and this check-in from the outside world leads both characters to perspective on their plight. Thursday, I got back to the song for that spot. And now I could see I didn’t need the intro that set up the main motif like an eighties pop song. Instead I’ll use whole notes, sort of like the way church bells stop the action in the first scene of My Fair Lady. (“A reminder.”)

Friday there were suddenly two new projects, that will pay me to write, and these will take me away from my musical for a while. But this week seemed like a great leap forward. (And, as you can tell, I got a little ahead on this blog.)

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.

Walk like an Egyptian

February 21, 2014

Writing this on yet another snowy day, so I’m reminded of these words from Sunday in the Park with George. White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.

Too many, if you ask me. If given an assignment, “write a song!” I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need parameters, some guidance, some chipping away of the marble. There’s a pop song that’s much on my mind, as my daughter constantly plays it: “I’m not going to write you a love song.” Songwriters smile at the difficulty of cutting our cloth to order; when a music biz maven asked Sara Bareilles to write a love song, the request is so vague, it’s humorously frustrating.

Your musical gives you a time and a place. Each character has a “voice” in the Creative Writing sense of the word. She’s going to have her own particular way of expressing herself. Idioms – God, I love idioms. If this isn’t the first song in your score, you might consider how this new composition relates to the others. Orchestration is something worth contemplating. And so’s the set of expectations and information that’s in your audience’s head at the time your song starts.

Not such a blank page, or canvas, now, is it?

I’m in the mood to talk about process. Picture, if you will, that you’re composing a lyrics-first song for a musical. (One of my current projects is entirely lyrics-first, so this particular m.o. is fresh in my mind.) The lyricist has handed you a pretty polished lyric, one he feels is ready for your contribution.

1 So, the first step is to examine that question. Is this lyric ready to be set? Collaborators all understand that there will be many changes along the way, but on the one musical I was the composer on and nothing else, the lyric-and-book guy would frequently hand me formless, unmetered verse. I had to communicate – in the nicest way possible – that the lyric needed revision before music-creation could commence. (That guy did not take it well, accusing me of hating him for his politics, of all things.)

2 Take a look at the lyric like a grad student doing a dissertation on poetic form might. What are the metrical feet? Where are the rhymes? Most important: what sections match each other, in terms of general meter and rhyme scheme; which don’t? What’s the title and where does it come up? Now, it’s not a bad idea for the collaborators to have a conversation about title and form in advance. Certainly, you should have talked about the placement of the song in the story, what’s going on with the character in this number, how they’ve changed by the end of it. Sometimes, with some lyricists, form will be obvious.

Which reminds me of how Rodgers and Hammerstein worked.  In his previous collaboration with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ music almost always came first. Hammerstein preferred words-first. In order to put well-constructed lyrics on Rodgers’ plate, Hammerstein would write new words to existing songs, and of course never tell his partner the melody he used. In this odd way, Hammerstein was both a tune-first guy and a lyrics-first guy. And he loved idioms.

3 Auditioning actors sometimes are required to do cold readings. They’re handed a text they’ve never seen, and are asked to instantly perform it with expression, emphasizing certain words for maximal dramatic effect. Make you glad you’re not an actor? Well, sorry, bub: You are!

Because now you’re going to read the lyric out loud, summoning every thespian technique you never knew you had, to insert every possible dramatic pause and emphasis. Luckily, no one’s hurrying you, and you can repeat your performance as many times as you need. Each time, you will gain an understanding of how best to communicate the lyric, where the stresses naturally fall. And I always look for where there might be opportunities to extend singable syllables and create space between words. There is no one “right” answer. So come up with several.

4 In the recent HBO documentary, Stephen Sondheim ascribed a method to Cole Porter. Write out the lyric under a staff and then notate the rhythm – that is, stems only – as you feel it works best in speech. One thing to keep in mind, at this point, is that, in real life, people don’t speak as if they’re schoolchildren reciting poetry. Try to follow the cadences of the way people actually talk. And if you know your character well enough to understand her diction, even the better.

5 Compose music for the title and anything else that might work as a hook. Think of these little motifs as telephone poles you’ll later string wires across. In essence, they’re the most important parts of your structure, and the things your listener will hear again and again. So the ante’s up: these better be interesting.

6 For me, it’s fairly simultaneous to create a harmonic structure that’s going to push the tune along. Sometimes, I come up with chords before the “telephone wire” of the remaining notes. Once you’ve done that you have a complete lead sheet – all the notes and chord symbols.

7 It’s now time to deal with accompaniment. But, for the lazier among you, I should point out that a number of famous musical theatre composers go no farther than lead sheets. They hand their song over to others to deal with how those chords are going to be expressed on the piano, or by the band. Seems to me such shirkers are putting a huge amount of trust in others to do the rest of the work. There’s a story going around about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first love song, People Will Say We’re In Love. Rodgers certainly went well beyond the lead sheet stage: he wrote out a full piano accompaniment. But there’s a five note descending phrase you hear between the lines. “Don’t throw bouquets at me” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. “Don’t please my folks too much.” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. I’m told that this was the creation of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. I think that phrase is key to making People Will Say… a great song. Compose the in-between stuff, or delegate the task to someone else at your own peril.

8 Dynamic marks, and all those Italian adverbs go in last. My belief is that you haven’t done your job until you have a full piano-vocal three-staff score of what you want your composition to sound like. 99% of composers let someone else do the orchestration, which is good enough for me.

9 But, sooner or later, you’re going to have conversations with your orchestrator, and also musical director, in which you must communicate what you intend for the “feel” of your piece. They’re your collaborators, too. Which reminds me that I’ve not yet mentioned that you’re going to let your lyricist hear what you’ve done and his reaction is of paramount importance. The two of you are going to go back and forth, suggesting changes to each other, and making those changes without grumbling.

Unless you can’t stand his politics. Then stamp your foot, dig in your heels, and stonewall.