Friday, 4 October 2013

Do Musicals Need Great Songs?

Do Musicals Need Great Songs?

Legend has it that Broadway lyricist Ed Kleban disliked his song “What I Did for Love” so much that he left explicit instructions in his will that it not be sung at his memorial service.  He would dismiss it with a curt “the money men made me do it”.[1]  While A Chorus Line composer Marvin Hamlisch was anxious for a “breakout” song that would have a life outside of the theatre, Kleban believed it was a sell-out.  Why?  If a song interrupts the story telling in some way, it can damage the show”, says   John Sparks, artistic director of the Academy for New Musical Theatre in Los Angeles.  “It’s far more important that the music and lyrics give some insight into the character in the moment of the drama.”   It could be argued, however, that it is also important that certain key songs contain a strong melodic, rhythmic or lyrical “hook” in order to make an impression on the audience, thus “landing” their point.

So why is “What I Did for Love” in the show? Co-choreographer Bob Avian explains, “The first song that Marvin wrote that everybody loved, Michael [Bennett] more than anything, was ‘At the Ballet’. And Michael turned to Ed Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch and said, ‘That's the score.’ What bothered Marvin … was that it was so specific to A Chorus Line that it didn’t have any commercial possibilities. It was all about the particular attitude in the context of the play. Every composer wants chart hits. And the whole score was becoming like that, whether it was ‘Nothing’ or ‘The Montage’ or ‘At the Ballet’ or ‘God I Hope I Get It’. They were all plot-specific. And then when we got to the end of the play they wrote ‘What I Did for Love’. [Hamlisch] pleaded with Michael to let [him] write this song that might have potential to be pulled outside the score… [Bennett] said, ‘OK, see what you can come up with,’ and they wrote that and Michael went, ‘Oh OK,’ and sure enough it happened to work because emotionally it was right even though it was a song of generalities. It works great.”[2]  John Sparks concedes, “I found it quite moving in the context of the show.” 

Of course, it could be argued that the most memorable song in that show is not “What I Did for Love” but “One”, a diagetic showbiz promenade in the well-trodden tradition of Jerry Herman, Jule Styne and Cy Coleman.

Was Hamlisch’s desire for a breakout song purely commercial, or does it fulfill a valid artistic purpose?  The time was, from the 1920s through the 1950s, when the classier hit songs all came from musicals – either Broadway or Hollywood.  But those days are, for the most part, over.  There have been the odd exceptions – Andrew Lloyd Webber managed to get Irish boy band Boyzone to record a cover version of “No Matter What” from Whistle Down the Wind, but it only proved the rule.  Carly Simon released her version of “Not a Day Goes By” two months before Merrily We Roll Along opened in 1981, and Frank Sinatra similarly covered “Good Thing Going”.  Neither were major chart hits.

While hit parade songs may not come from stage musicals anymore, have we gone too far the other way?  Seattle based librettist and playwright Stephen Oles sees a disturbing trend.  “Theatre music and pop have gone off in their own direction, leaving pop songwriting bereft of craft and intelligence… and theatre composers wandering off into increasingly sterile, etiolated idioms… Virtually every number is medium tempo.  Melody is replaced by the repetition of short, uninteresting phrases of four or five notes – in the manner of Sondheim on an off day – and emotion, previously the essence of musical theatre, is eschewed as old-fashioned.”

Even in the so-called Golden Age, writers and composers struggled with the demands of writing successful songs that worked both in and out of context.  When composer and lyricist Hugh Martin wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for the film Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944, his original lyrics went, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York.” [3]  In the show’s context, the family was distressed at the thought of leaving their home town.  However, Judy Garland didn’t want her character to sing such a dark lyric to her younger sister – she was supposed to be comforting her, not frightening her.  Martin reluctantly changed it to the more familiar “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”.  Even still, it contained the line “Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.”  Only after Frank Sinatra persuaded Martin to change the line to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” for his 1957 recording did the song become the standard that we know today.

“The business of writing songs to become hits has never bothered me because I really don’t know what makes a hit”, said Stephen Sondhein in 1973.  “And I have to tell you, it’s a great relief not to worry about it any more.  When Jule Styne and I wrote Gypsy, Jule was appalled when in ‘Small World’ I wrote a line that said, “Funny, I’m a woman with children.”  He said, ‘Well, that means no man can sing the song.’  I said, ‘Jule, if I make the song general, then it’s got no texture for the show at all.  We’ve got a general song, ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me,’ that’s general. ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, general.  But here’s this lady, she’s trying to con this guy into handling her vaudeville act – and it’s a con song.  It’s got to be terribly personalized.’  Well, I changed the lyric for the printed music, the sheet music, so that a man could sing the song.  But nowadays nobody has to worry about that sort of thing... I had a chance, I suppose, to make a hit song out of Forum, because ‘Lovely’ is a very pretty, easily hummable tune, and those were the days, back in 1962, when you were still occasionally listening to easily hummable tunes.  But it’s a comic show, and I can’t have a straight song in a comedy show, so I had to write ‘I’m lovely, all I am is lovely, lovely is the one thing I can do.  Well, Eydie Gorme is just not going to sing a song that says ‘Lovely is the one thing I can do,’ is she?  So I screwed myself out of a possible hit.”[4]

Alan Jay Lerner found a solution of sorts to this problem by confining the more show-specific elements to the verse (often omitted in cover versions), leaving the chorus with a more broadly generic lyric, e.g. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and, to a lesser extent, “Almost Like Being in Love”.  In the so-called Golden Age, hit songs occasionally even came from flop musicals, such as “The Gentleman is a Dope” (from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro) and the title song from Lerner and Burton Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

However, composer Alan Menkin says, “If a show has a clear and marketable concept, with enough structural integrity and production values to deliver on that concept, the quality of the songwriting is not the principal concern. Songs, although the driving force of a musical-theater piece, are perceived and commented on, based more on their style and intent, rather than their intrinsic quality. That’s not to say that quality of songwriting has actually diminished. But great songs are not an absolute necessity for a show to succeed.”[5]  Really? 

“I tend to agree with Alan Menkin”, says John Sparks. “Not that great songs aren’t needed – they are!  But not necessarily great in the chart-topping or even ‘take-home-hummable’ sense… Writers… need to concentrate on dramaturgy – tell the story, who does what to whom, why and what is riding on the outcome of the action.”  

Menkin’s point may be an accurate observation, but does it bode well for the future of the musical?  Have musical writers become so obsessed with dramaturgy that they have – musically at least – lost the plot?  I hear audiences complain that modern Broadway musicals have no memorable songs, and so they turn to revivals and jukebox musicals.  Is it too much to ask that songs be both functional and memorable?  Frank Loesser managed it many, many times.  So did Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Carousel is full of songs that advance the dramaturgy yet have become standards.

Lyricist Tom Jones (The Fantasticks) says, “Partly in rebellion against the long established (and too easily anticipated) [Rodgers and Hammerstein] format, there is a desire to make musicals less simple and more challenging, not only in their songs, but in their stories and characters. I personally think this is a good thing. If the musical is ever to ‘grow up’ and become more than just a happy-go-lucky reassuring pop massage, it must be able to take on stories or characters that are more complex. And it must be able to bring them to life in song forms that are more flexible than the old thirty-two bar AABA. There must be room for recitative, for long-line and diffuse musical elements. Having said that, I hasten to add that these complexities must not replace the popular song form, but be an addition to it… Blocks of music built around one basic, simple, solid song with a memorable melody and a clear lyric.” [6]

I would argue that if “What I Did for Love” is weak, it’s because Kleban assumed that a “hit” song had to have a generic lyric.  The problem with that song is that it just doesn’t sound like something that a character would say.  I believe that he could have come up with a way of expressing the same sentiment in words that sound like they came out of the mouth of Diana Morales, and still have had a memorable “take home tune”.  What did she do for love?  What sacrifices did she make to be a dancer?  The song doesn’t tell us that.  It seems ironic given that so many of the popular songs of the past fifty years have come from singer-songwriters expressing what is very personal to them that anybody should think a hit show tune has to be generic.  If the world can accept Joni Mitchell pouring her heart out, surely it can accept Diana Morales – a fictional character – doing the same.

I find it hard to imagine that a century ago, people found the music of Debussy and Satie (among others) to be discordant, as to my ears it is lushly harmonic.  However, they achieved this by contrasting the harmony against dissonance, thus highlighting it.  In a similar vein, in the song “God That’s Good!” in Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim allows the rich, almost romantic melody (“Is that a pie fit for a king?...) to rise up out of the cacophony.  (The fact that this rhapsodic melody is accompanied by a lyric referring to cannibalism and murder simply piles on the irony.)  The lesson is that, just as darkness can be used to point to the light, the discord helps you to hear the melody; it is not there for its own sake.

In opera (as well as in film scores), a leitmotif is a theme that is used like an icon, a kind of musical shorthand that acts as a signpost.  Grove’s Dictionary of Music defines a leitmotif as “a theme, or other coherent idea, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances, and whose purpose is to represent or symbolise a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work, usually operatic but also vocal, choral or instrumental”.[7] In a musical, leitmotifs are a form of mnemonic that helps the audience to remember and recognise key plot points in a story.  What is the point of a leitmotif if one doesn’t recognise its recurrence? Is not the same principle true of a song?  How can we expect a song to be effective if it’s not memorable?

Los Angeles based producer and lyricist Mitchell Glaser says, “What are actually needed are stand-out moments, and the best moment in a musical had better include a song or you are doing something wrong in my opinion.”  I know that when I begin work on a musical score, I like to find the emotional core of the piece and start from there.  That song may or may not end up being the “big number” that the show is identified with, but it will likely be a song of yearning.

Placement is everything.  Many a good song is lost because it’s in a place that doesn’t deserve it, or where its characters haven’t earned the right to sing.  It is at this point that the audience collectively rolls its eyes and exclaims, “Not another bloody song!”  Bearing this in mind, “What I Did for Love” holds the classic “eleven o’clock” position in A Chorus Line, and its basic sentiment strikes at the heart of what the show is all about.  It’s true that its lyrics could have been made more character based, but I believe this could have been done without losing its viability outside of the show.

Stephen Oles makes an interesting point when he talks about emotion in theatre songs.  I remember having a discussion with a fellow lyricist – the creator of somewhat campy kitsch shows – in which she told me that she would never write about anything she was emotionally invested in – how else would she maintain detachment? While for many people the best remembered song in Wicked is probably “Defying Gravity”, for me it is “I’m not that Girl”, a song that expresses its character’s deep vulnerability.  It’s not afraid of emotion, nor is it a mawkish “power ballad”.  I believe that’s because Stephen Schwartz was not afraid to invest himself in that song.  (He once told me that he regarded his work on The Baker’s Wife as a sort of Freudian therapy session.)  While Wicked’s score certainly does contain power ballads, it was this tender and restrained number that for me touched the core of the piece.

Among the fraternity of musical theatre writers, it is “politically correct” to worship at the altar of Sondheim, while deriding the mostly European pop operas.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  While I think that Les Misérables contains some of the feeblest recitative ever written, its big moments certainly come off and connect with a very wide audience, a quality that we ignore to our peril.

I must admit that my beliefs fly in the face of much of what is being taught in musical theatre composition classes, and finding its way onto (usually subsidized or non-profit) stages.  When I saw The Light in the Piazza, I must confess that the score had no emotional impact on me whatsoever.  Even its so-called standout song “Dividing Day” sounded to me like the introduction to a song that never came.  I have had a similar reaction to the rest of Adam Guettel’s oeuvre. 

“Adam Guettel is a talented guy,” says Stephen Oles, “but has he ever written a song anyone but an undergraduate theatre major can love or even remember?”  I don’t have this problem with the work of Michael-John Lachiusa, who possesses a rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.  To my ears, Guettel’s music is dry and brittle.  Many people disagree, but the gulf between what the theatre establishment deems to be good and what audiences want to see and hear is widening.  I believe that the only way to bridge that gulf is to do what Bernstein (and Mozart) did – to meet them in the middle, and try to entice them your way.


[1] Harry Haun, What They Did For Love: A Class Act Comes to Broadway”,, 1 March 2001
[2] Jasper Rees, 10 Questions for Choreographer Bob Avian”,, London, 20 Feb 2013.
[3] Martin, Hugh (2010). The Boy Next Door. Trolley Press. pp. 196–197
[4] P. Max Wilk, They’re Playing Our Song, Atheneum, New York, 1973,  236-7
[5]How Can Musical Theater Be Saved? Broadway Veterans Give Their Advice”, Scott Brown,, 24 May 2012
[6] Tom Jones, Making Musicals, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998,p. 134-139.
[7] Arnold Whittall, "Leitmotif." In Grove Music Online  Oxford Music Online , http://0-