02 October 2011

Theatrical and Popular Songs

By Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward, as I believe I’ve said, is not only a playwright but he’s a musical theater playwright and composer. You may take this to mean he knows whereof he writes when it comes to music and musical theater. He’s also directed and acted in many musical plays over his career, so he also knows how they work on the stage. (It doesn’t hurt that his wife, Pat, is a musical theater director and actor, too, and also teaches musical theater acting—that is, acting while you’re singing—or singing while you’re acting.) So when it comes to analyzing the music of the stage and comparing it to the popular music of the recording studio, the concert, or the nightclub, I’d say Kirk has a handle on the subject. When Kirk told me in August that he’d be seeing Baby, It’s You!, the jukebox musical based on the songs of the ‘60s girl group The Shirelles and other singers of that time, and then told me his response to it, I suggested a play report—I’m always on the look-out—and he considered it in an oblique way. Ultimately, instead of a report on Baby, which closed on 4 September after 148 regular performances, Kirk began working on a consideration of the kind of music that goes into a stage musical and how songs in a musical play work that’s different from pop tunes. “Theatrical and Popular Songs” is part of that discussion; Kirk continues with an examination of the jukebox musical itself. I trust readers of ROT will find this discussion as interesting and enlightening as I did. ~Rick]

A song is a song is a song, or so one might think, and so a part of the public may not be aware of the difference between songs written directly for the popular market – “popular songs” – and songs written for the musical theater. However, those differences are substantial.

There is general agreement that a musical is by its nature a dramatic presentation, with characters in situations of conflict, just as is the case in plays, and that songs in musicals are elements of the drama. To completely justify this thesis would take some time, and some explanation too, because the fact is that for generations, songs in musicals were often treated as independent events, like raisins tossed on top of a cake. Songs used to be shuffled in and out of a musical at a producer's whim and were often composed by several songwriters who might not even know the others were working on the show. The Black Crook (1886), often cited as the first American musical, was such a composite.

All the same, even as far back as the early days of the musical, the nature of the theater event was nudging it toward character-based songs. Jerome Kern and his collaborators, including P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Oscar Hammerstein II, had that conscious intention long before Oklahoma!, which was by no means the first musical to aim to integrate its songs into its story – something that Gilbert and Sullivan, and operetta in general, had always done. A song like "I'm Falling In Love With Someone" (Naughty Marietta, 1910, Victor Herbert) presumably could be sung by more than one character, but it couldn't be sung by every character.

So one of the important stories of the musical is the growing connection of song to character and situation, with the result that increasingly as the years go on, a song from a musical is almost always more structured, sophisticated, and emotionally complex than its typical pop song counterpart. (This trend has continued to the point where it's difficult for a song from a musical to become a popular standard, assuming there is such a thing anymore.)

Here are just a few examples of what a number in a musical may do, illustrated with songs from My Fair Lady:

  • Establish a locale, an historical period, or a cultural identity – "Why Can't the English?"
  • Express a character's aspirations – "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"
  • Move forward a situation, story, or plot – "The Rain In Spain"
  • Express the feelings of one character about another – "Just You Wait"
  • Express elements of a scene too intense to be put into conventional dialogue – "I Could Have Danced All Night"
  • Provide a comic view of a situation – "Get Me to the Church on Time"
  • Dramatize a character's internal debate – "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"
It will be seen that all the purposes of a song in this partial list are linked to either a character or characters, or to a situation, or both. In My Fair Lady, for example, “Why Can’t the English?” obviously relates to a particular country. It is Eliza Doolittle, not just anyone, whose songs express her aspirations, her anger at Higgins, and her elation when she finally passes a difficult social test. It is Alfred Doolittle who sings a music hall song, just the kind of song he’d reach for. It is Henry Higgins who has the internal debate with himself about a particular person. Each of the songs relates either to a particular element of the environment, or to a particular character of a person or persons, or to a particular event.

Of course in the course of a musical the same song may be sung more than once and by more than one character. The reasons for doing this may vary – the repetition may be ironic, it may demonstrate similarities between two people, or there may be other reasons. Nevertheless, the principle applies – songs written for the theater tend to be character- and situation-oriented. We might say they are more ambitious than popular songs – they have more work to do.

The opposite of character-based songwriting is lyric songwriting, in which the song reflects a strictly inward sensibility. I want to illustrate the difference between lyric and theatrical songwriting using two songs, “Misty” (1954, music by Erroll Garner, words by Johnny Burke) and “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” from the musical South Pacific (1949, music by Richard Rodgers, words by Oscar Hammerstein II).

It may be objected that these are two different kinds of song – one is a ballad, one an up-tempo number. Still, one could fairly imagine both songs being sung by a character who has just fallen in love, and "Misty" is arguably the greater song. The differences in approach between the two numbers point up the difference between popular and theatrical compositions.

I have always loved “Misty,” which has, I think, one of the most graceful tunes ever written, making remarkable use of jazz phrasings in a popular song melody. Without at all disparaging the song, we may notice, though, that its melody suggests no context other than itself; it doesn’t suggest one situation or setting more than another. It is, simply, a very pretty song. Its lyric, too, is what we might call, not at all negatively, generic in the feelings it expresses:

Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree,
And I feel like I’m clinging to a cloud,
I can’t understand, I get misty just holding your hand.

One also notices that the lyric is full of clichés:

Walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play. . . .

Would I wander through this wonderland alone. . .

Clichés are clichés because they reflect general experience, and no writer avoids them altogether. Look, however, at what Rodgers and Hammerstein accomplish with “A Wonderful Guy,” in a song that certainly can stand on its own without reference to the show it came from, but that nevertheless takes its details from its theatrical context.

The music, I would say, suggests that the singer is singing at a particular time in her life (and the singer specifically is a she) – it’s not just a pretty tune, it’s the music of a person who feels compelled, at this particular moment, to dance for joy (a fast waltz). It’s extroverted music, indicating that the singer seems eager to tell her story to others.

The details in the words associate the singer with a particular part of the country:

I’m as corny as Kansas in August,
High as a flag on the Fourth of July.

Clichés are labeled as such:

I’m as trite and as gay as a daisy in May,
A cliché coming true!

And Hammerstein, not often cited nowadays as an incisive lyricist, characterizes the singer’s individual personality in a quick, brilliant stroke:

No more a smart
Little girl with no heart

I am not claiming that Hammerstein is a greater lyricist than Johnny Burke, who co-wrote many fine songs. I am claiming that writing for a musical, with its demands of situation and character, challenges a writer to reach a level of complexity that a stand-alone popular song may not require.

A few personal experiences may illustrate my point about theatrical and lyric songwriting.

Some years ago I saw a one-woman show featuring Betty Comden, part of the famous songwriting team of Comden and (Adolph) Green. A number of the songs had been written specifically for the show, and I found them all unremarkable until one number made me sit up in my seat. I looked in my program and saw that it was written by Stephen Sondheim, the master of the character-based musical score, for a theatrical production.

I had a similar experience at an uneven Music Hall imitation when its first act ended, again, with a song so well put together that I had to ask to find out who had written it (the composers were somehow not listed in the program). The answer was Noel Coward, whose sensibility, whether he wrote for the popular audience or the theater, was thoroughly theatrical.

However – and this is where the discussion becomes more complex – “theatrical” does not necessarily mean that a song has actually been written for the stage. A song can be full of situation and character and still be what I'm calling a popular song. It frequently happens. Some years ago, for example, my wife and I saw Elton John and Billy Joel in concert. John, of course, doesn't write his own lyrics (primarily they are written by Bernie Taupin, who is also a lyric poet), and he's had considerable success writing music for the theater in the last few years, but his "greatest hits" are standalone, popular songs.

Billy Joel's songs offered a strong contrast at the concert we saw. It was clear practically from his first note that they were written from a different – a character-based – sensibility. They were about varied people in particular situations. I wasn't at all surprised when Movin' Out, based on Joel's songs, did so well. Of course it would – his nature is that of a show composer, even though he works in a pop market. The song “Movin’ Out” begins,

Anthony works in the grocery store
Savin’ his pennies for some day

In only twelve words the song establishes a character, a location, and a conflict – will that “some day” ever come?

The same is true of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the composers behind ABBA whose songs are showcased so successfully in the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! Even a cursory survey of their hits demonstrates their affinity for the musical theater approach to songwriting – often one can identify the theatrical models for their songs, for example, Kurt Weill in "Money, Money, Money." Their score for the musical Chess, although the show was not a financial success, is a major piece of theater writing. The title song for Mamma Mia! sketches character and scene so deftly that one may not notice it:

I've been angry and sad about the things that you do,
I can't count all the times that I've told you we're through.
And when you go, when you slam the door,
I think you know that you won't be away too long –
You know that I'm not that strong.

On the other hand, I was able to predict the failure of Capeman, with an original score by Paul Simon, by inclination a writer of lyrical rather than theatrical songs, a problem that the show’s book was not able to overcome. Simon’s lyrics tend to be more concerned with imagery than with character and situation.

A song’s words by themselves give only an incomplete impression of the song, but I hope that these examples help demonstrate the distinction I’m trying to make between character-based songwriting, which one tends to find in the theater, and lyric songwriting, which one tends to find more in popular song. I must acknowledge nevertheless that the lines between the two kinds of song continually blur. Some important songwriters, like Irving Berlin, have moved between writing popular and theatrical songs without noticeable effort. (Others, like Stephen Sondheim, have shown little interest in writing songs outside of dramatic contexts.) Many of the distinctions I am making are, fundamentally, a matter of opinion.

And I am by no means saying that character-based songwriting is “better” than lyric songwriting. But I definitely believe that songwriting as we know it today would be diminished without the specificity and grounding that the theatrical form demands, and that the theatrical song provides.

[Please come back to ROT in a few days to read what Kirk has to say about “The Jukebox Musical.” I think you’ll find it revealing.

A milestone note: "Theatrical and Popular Songs" marks the 200th post on ROT.]

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