So after Wedneday’s class about Music, Thursday’s class was about lyrics.
Robert began the class with the interesting notion that all musical theatre is written music first (even when the lyrics are written first!). His reasoning for this is that even when you are starting with lyrics, you are writing with the understanding of what music can do and what it needs to do. If the lyricist doesn’t understand that, then they leave the composer in trouble. We know that music has a visceral power and that lyrics need to work with the music.
However, his main thesis of the class was that we had to consider the idea of tension. That there can and will be tension between the music and the lyrics. He said we had to question the idea of integration, of music and lyrics always going hand in hand. Since the tension between music and lyrics can be what gets people to pay attention.
Lyrics require a lot of attention, so they are often the first thing that an audience give up on. There is so much in a musical to see and hear; lighting, costume, sound and movement. Also, unlike pop songs, we only get to hear them once, so it’s important that on the one hand lyrics for musicals are underwritten but also that they demand attention. This balance makes them different from pop songs or poetic songs which can be listened to many times or have their lyrics studied. In their natural habitat, theatre songs will get one chance to be experienced. So they have to be carefully crafted to convey only what they need to, and to do so in an engaging way.
We then went on to study some songs. Interestingly Robert said that he often had to go back to older songs and musicals for teaching. Not because they necessarily were stylistically or dramatically what was going to be needed for a contemporary musical, but rather because they are extremely well crafted. He advised us to get past the barrier of the style and look and what older shows accomplished and how well they did it.
We were told a bit about various song forms.
- AABA songs are where an idea is repeated, then deviated from, then returned to. The most stable part of the song is the A section.
- Verse/Chorus songs (ABABCAB for example) are where the chorus is the most stable or catchy part of the song.
Then some specific songs:
You Can’t Take That Away From Me by George and Ira Gershwin (From Shall We Dance)
- An AABA Song
- It progresses from ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat’ to ‘The Way You Changed My Life’ by the end. Progression is important in musical theatre songs.
- It feels as if the singer hasn’t planned what they are going to say by the end when they start the song.
- As a pop song (sung by many including Ella Fitzgerald) it feels general, as if it is about everyone. But in the context of the movie Shall We Dance, it feels incredibly specific. This is because it is sang by one character to another. Someone is there to hear it. Each line is about a human being with their own traits, strengths, weaknesses and opinions.
- In context, you are aware of the listener, who the song is for. You can also feel the choices that the person singing it is making as they sing it.
- In musical theatre, you have to write something that satisfies as a song and also satisfies in the very specific context of the show. There is a tension that balances both of these objectives.
The Eagle and Me by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (From Bloomer Girl)
- Just a verse and a chorus
- From a suffragette show called Bloomer Girl (1944)
- Sung by a slave wishing to be free
- The style of the song is quite casual but beneath it holds a message of breaking chains, of deserving to be free. There is tension between the message and the way it is delivered.
- It is sung by a black character to white listeners and observers. The sense of the tension is that the message has to be impassioned but contained.
- We then watched a 1965 video of Lena Horne singing the same song at the peak of the American Civil Rights movement. The arrangement is more strident and impassioned. She sings it with anger, resilience, passion and strength. It shows that a song can be newly relevant after 20 years. That the tension at its core can be renegotiated and reinvigorated by new situations.
Some People by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (From Gypsy)
- A song that is introduced after a scene with sharp musical stabs. It doesn’t sneak in. This character is bold, brassy and isn’t going to be pushed around.
- It is two songs in one. Two AABA songs with a loose connected middle section.
- In the first half of the song Rose asks her dad for 88 bucks. After he refuses and leaves the room she moves into the second half of the song where she builds herself up to the moment where she steals her father’s gold plaque which she intends to sell for the money.
- Throughout the song there is the tension of how she is going to get the money. Either the tension is with her father, or with herself.
- We looked at an early draft of the song. It has two major changes, firstly the song moves in from an underscore and is much less bold. This potentially is wrong for the character. Secondly, in the middle of the song her father gives her the money. This means that the second half of the song is a triumphant rant about how she needed the money and now doesn’t have to be like ‘some people’. The issue with this, is the tension of the song vanishes once she has got what she wants.
The tension is why we sing. And the tension between the music and the lyrics as well as between characters, as well as in the story, is why we make musicals.
In a musical we can convey multiple things at the same time. So things don’t have to work together hand in hand, they can work together by achieving different things at the same time.
In Wasted, we are hoping to convey multiple time periods, perspectives and show the opinions and beliefs of siblings who lived together, wrote together, but believed very different things. They loved each other but there were many many tensions. And there were tensions between them and the world too.