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Pencil (Yes, Pencil) at the Ready….

After spending much of the summer on things other than composing I’m working my way back into the swing of things. On my plate at the moment:

  • Editing a collection of “easy” works for violin and guitar by Mauro Giuliani. The “easy” term is Giuliani’s and refers almost entirely to the guitar parts. The violin parts will need some work though. What I’m finding is the combination of violin and guitar is a lovely one, and that I can still play classical guitar. That last part has come in very handy too because….
  • I just finished composing two easy and short waltzes for guitar duet. More on the where, whom, and when of the first performance (sometime in September I think). Writing this was weird for me. I’ve played guitar since just after my bar mitzvah. I’ve written so many guitar arrangements of popular and classical music over the years (thank you, Warner Bros., and Hal Leonard, for the work) that I gave up counting after 200 tunes. (Many of those tunes are in books, and I know I did over two dozen books, etc.) I have even written a concerto for Baroque lute (a forerunner of the guitar). But except for the introduction to my song You’re Still Mine, this is the very first time I have written anything original for guitar, let alone two of them. I suppose it was a psychological issue, the usual fears that I wouldn’t be able to play what I’ve written, that prevented me from writing for the instrument for so long. Stupid, stupid me.
  • The JFK piece is “in progress.” I’ve collected what I think are the most useful speeches and other writings by John F. Kennedy. Now I’m in phase 2, in which I organize and edit down the most useful parts of those. I expect to be composing actual music by October, and orchestrating by December.
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Writing Musical Theater: Short(ish) Thoughts About Story Sources

Musicals are usually based on one of three things: A pre-existing story or other source (such as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera), an original story or idea (Company or The Music Man), or a collection of songs intended as some sort of revue or “jukebox” musical. As with all things there aren’t always clear lines of demarcation between them, but that’s not an issue, really. One question I often get when in discussions about writing for the stage is “What makes a good pre-existing story for a musical?” There is no single answer to that, though; in fact it’s a darn-difficult question to even begin answering. But I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to get some of my thoughts about the topic here, in no particular order:

  • The most difficult shows to write are about real people who create/perform music. Some time ago my wife and I saw a show about Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine (his wife). It had a solid storyline, telling how they met and how she became his specialty-number composer. Except for “Tchaikovsky” by Kurt Weill and Oscar Hammerstein II and “Ballin’ the Jack,” which was an old song when DK started singing it, all of the songs Kaye is known for were pretty much written by Fine. Therein lies the problem. To write a show about Kaye and Fine you have to have the music she wrote for him to perform. To write a musical about, well, anybody, has to have new music written to suit the needs of the characters and the story. Combining the two approaches is dangerous, because as soon as you use existing, already-known material the audience (subconsciously at least) compares that with the new music — and the new music always loses. Heard on its own the new material might be wonderful, but taken in context with other, better-known music it will always seem to have been “stuck on” and, therefore, as inferior. The show about Kaye and Fine ultimately didn’t work for that reason. If they left out the new material and just kept the music Kaye was already known for, in other words, as a jukebox musical, it would have been, well, fine. That said….
  • The second most difficult shows to write are jukebox musicals. The tunes are already written, so that hard part is done, right? But integrating those songs into a coherent story and having those songs come up in a natural way is tricky at best. Some shows, like Jersey Boys, does this very well indeed, and mostly because the show uses the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in the context of the story. Sometimes show creators will have a musical that uses songs from a wide variety of sources (like shows about 1980s “hair bands”) and while that can work care must be taken to make it seem seamless and natural.
  • Surprise: Revues are also difficult to write. You’d think this type of show would be one of the easier ones, but it’s not. Why? After all, there are no specific characters to deal with and no specific plot to unfold. The answer is, that’s why. Since there are no actual story to tell about specific characters, how to get an audience’s attention and keep it for a couple of hours? What that revue-type show needs is a premise, a single idea that carries us through from beginning to end and demonstrates what I call a logical progression of thought. Even if — or especially if — there is no storyline, the creator of a revue has to ask “What is this show about?”

All of the above is about pre-existing stories in one form or another: straight plays, films, short stories, and novels. A discussion of sources like poems is for another day.

Something Rotten Mostly Isn’t

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I got to see Something Rotten which has been playing on Broadway for a good amount of time (and is doing well). Despite my professional connections to theater, maybe because of them, I love going to see shows and appreciating them on their own terms. I do not go with a clipboard (literally or metaphorically) to keep track of what is wrong with a show. Even going to see a musical with a name like Something Rotten, which of course invites all sorts of critical hijinks, I do my best to watch with an open mind. I just try to be audience. Here’s what I thought of the show:

  • The premise is silly and brilliant, in a Spamalot meets The Producers sort of way. Essentially a play writing team of brothers living during the English Renaissance try to out do none other than William Shakespeare. (It plays better than I can describe it.)
  • The dialogue, with its constant Shakespeare references and in jokes about Shakespeare AND modern musicals, AND it’s winking acknowledgement of modern times (“Who talks like that?,” asks one character after reading some typical ‘older English’ verbiage) is wonderful. And I do not use that term lightly.
  • The song lyrics are consistently witty (often laugh out loud funny, which is a much more difficult reaction to get from an audience than by straight out telling jokes as dialogue).
  • The actors (among them, Brian D’Arcy James) are superb. (One quibble; see below.)
  • The orchestrations were top notch, as was the orchestra.
  • The scenery was extremely well done, as were the costumes.
  • It turns out that the show was written by a team of brothers (one of them a well-known Nashville songwriter to the country stars including Garth Brooks) and an also well-known English writer of things humorous.

So why was I slightly disappointed?

Afterward my wife and I talked about it. She felt as I did, and her explanation as to why hit the nail on the head. The music is serviceable, she said. There is nothing wrong with the score per se. Every song is logically and emotionally where it should be (no song felt out of place in any way, no spot seemed to be missing a song, and so on). All of the actors sang with gusto, passion, whatever the song and the moment called for. But except for one number that came back a couple of times, both as “Welcome to the Renaissance” and, the last time, as “Welcome to America,” there was no tune that either of us could remember after an hour past the final curtain. (Disclosure: I had a couple of song fragments in my head for that time, but those too fell out of my memory within 2 hours.) The tunes were professional; they did what they were supposed to do. The lyrics for the songs, as I said, were consistently witty — better than the tunes, frankly. But the music didn’t, couldn’t, raise the level of the score from “okay” to even “interesting,” let alone “wonderful.”

The music was indeed serviceable, or as some of my students might say, it was meh. (Is that even still a thing?)

One casting disappointment: The female ingenue was played by someone with one of those extremely reedy, nasal, piercing voices that seem to plague Broadway these days thanks, methinks, to pop music where it lives in infamy. Pity. Once in a while she “slipped” and sang with a rounder tone that would have made it a real pleasure to hear her if she continued that way, but then she didn’t.

Disappointments aside, it really is a good, funny show, especially if you’re a fan of The Bard and also of musical theater. It’s worth seeing. Who knows maybe you’ll remember more of the score than I could.

The Business of Being a Composer

My not-so-funny joke is that I have some 17 jobs; the reality is that sometimes I indeed have at least that many, and sometimes just a few. In addition to being a composer, I am a lyricist, arranger, conductor, educator, author, music publisher consultant, “show doctor” for musicals, clinician, performer, music editor, engraver, and proofreader. I’m sure I left some things out, but you get the point. This is not bragging. In fact I would love to be able to say I only have four jobs — composer, lyricist, arranger, and conductor — and leave it at that. Okay, maybe five jobs; I enjoy teaching too.

One of the things I feel my composition students need to know besides the compositional basics is the business of being a composer, and that it should be a required course for undergrad composition majors, maybe even going for two semesters. A one-semester overview wouldn’t cover everything, but even one semester would be better than what young composers get now. Off the top of my head, here are topics that should be covered:

  1. Copyright. What it is, how/why/when to use it.
  2. Performing Rights Organizations. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, what they are and do for you.
  3. Income Streams. How do you actually earn money composing. Topics would include: Commissions, Competitions, Grants, Publication, Subsequent Performances, Audio Recordings (Mechanical Licenses), Audio/Visual Media (Synchronization Licenses), performance royalties, grand rights, and non-performance licenses (tee shirts, mugs, and other “merch”).
  4. Networking. Topics would include: Presenting Yourself as a Composer; Press Kits and Business Cards; Internet Presence; Researching and Knowing Your Market; Effective Conversation; and Following Up.
  5. Presenting Your Music. Music Notation Do’s and Don’ts; Recordings (on physical media and online). MIDI versus “live” recordings.
  6. Finances. Musicians are, in the eyes of the IRS, low-hanging fruit just ripe for picking. This is mostly because (1) we musicians have a reputation for being not-too-bright business-wise (which, I should point out, is inaccurate), and (2) we are in the public eye. The best defense is honesty and accuracy in maintaining your finances. Topics would include: Bank Accounts and Checkbooks, and How and Why You Should Balance the Latter; Keeping Basic, Documented, and Accurate Contemporaneous Records for Tax Purposes; and Doing Your Own Taxes versus Hiring a CPA.
  7. Contract Basics. Topics would include: When Do You Need an Agreement (Contract)?; Lawyer or No Lawyer?; Negotiating Terms; How to Read a Contract; Composer-Specific Agreement Items.
  8. Agents. What Do Agents Do and Does a Composer Need One?

Based on conversations with students and colleagues, as well as my own experiences, I would say that the most time would be spent on items 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Number 4, in particular, would probably need the most of all — especially the last 3 items.

© 2015 Steven L. Rosenhaus

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DO NOT REPRINT OR PUBLISH WITHOUT PERMISSION.

Does New Music Have to Be Difficult? And other thoughts.

Ruminations:

  • I have never been a fan of complexity for its own sake, and every so often I’m reminded why. Sometimes it’s because I hear something so interesting and simple, and I find myself enjoying it thoroughly. Other times I hear something new that is so complicated, so obscure in intent, that it drives me barmy. Last evening I heard two works new to me, Tribute for Orchestra by James Grant and Suite from ‘Corbeau’ by Michael Gagliardo. I was impressed by both, for similar reasons. For one thing, each had interesting things to say, what those things were had been rooted in emotions and/or story telling, and the writing in terms of pure composition and orchestration was in each case clear. Even when things did become complex one could follow it or at least let it wash over and evoke a response. Of course being too simple can be a defect as well. Case in point was another work I heard yesterday, The Red Detachment of Women co-written by Wu Zuqiang and Du Ming Xin. Very simple and lovely tunes, dressed up in pretty orchestral colors and, unfortunately, ultimately forgettable. It would make a good score for a travelogue on PBS. About 1:00 AM. On a Sunday. I should note that I enjoy — really! — the music of Milton Babbitt, and of course my mentor, George Perle. But neither was ever into being convoluted or unnecessarily complex in their music. Sometimes their works swing (after a fashion).
  • Who is the first (only?) composer you think of when you think of ragtime? If you said “Scott Joplin” I would have to agree. But ragtime was more than “just” SJ, and at least several other composers should be mentioned in the same metaphorical breath as the acknowledged ragtime master. I’m thinking mainly of Joseph Lamb, whose Patricia Rag I just finished arranging for orchestra. At first it seems simpler than Joplin’s work — a little repetitive, with harmonies that don’t seem more than basic. Then you get to know it and discover all sorts of things, like the frequent use of dissonances on the downbeat (usually accented chromatic passing tones, for you theory geeks) or harmonic resolutions in one hand but delayed resolutions in the other. Fascinating.
  • I was a newbie composer; then an emerging composer. In about a decade you could rightfully refer to me as a venerable composer. But right now I am not well known among my musician peers, let alone the general public, but I get more commissions and performances than ever. (To paraphrase Groucho Marx, now I get turned down by a better class of people.) So am I an “emerged” composer? I think I’ll just leave it at “working composer.”

Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 3 (Ballads)

Ballads in musical theater are quite often the songs that stand a chance of being heard outside of the shows for which they are written. The reasons have to do with their purpose(s). In addition to the usual reasons for having a song in a musical in the first place (giving insight to a character, moving the plot forward, setting a scene, etc.), ballads are the musical moments of psychological or emotional self-reflection, or both, or a moment of decision making. This is a musical moment in which we are let into the hearts and minds of the persons singing; often enough these are “everyman” (or “everywoman”) thoughts and feelings that can transcend the scene, even the show.

Way back when I worked with Jay Michaels on Critic I wrote a couple of ballads of which I am still proud, So Many Roads, and I Could Love You. The former’s verse lyrics are somewhat flawed (and tied closely to the story line, making it unusable outside of the show), but the chorus works:

WITH SO MANY ROADS, AND SO MANY CHANCES,
HOW DO I CHOOSE AND NOT HURT ANYONE?
WILL SOMEONE SHOW ME, PLEASE TELL ME THE ANSWER,
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
(©1988 Steven L. Rosenhaus)

Note, first off, that nothing rhymes at all — this was intentional. The moment was too emotional and if it rhymed I don’t think folks would have taken it as seriously, as honest, as it was meant to be. In far better-known ballads the emotional honesty is what counts as well. For example:

I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, from My Fair Lady, in which Professor Henry Higgins comes as close as he can possibly come to admitting his love for Eliza Doolittle.
Maria, from West Side Story, where Tony has met — and immediately been captivated by — the woman of whom he sings.
Maybe This Time, originally written for the film version but added back into the staged Cabaret, is sung by Sally Bowles.

You get the idea.

Of course not all ballads are pure sentiment. Songs like Pity the Child (from Chess), The Impossible Dream (from The Man of La Mancha), Memory (from Cats), and Not While I’m Around (from Sweeney Todd) are all examples of ballads that exhibit power and/or emotion but are not overridingly romantic or sentimental.

Ballads, when they work, do so because they take time. These are slow to medium tempo songs, which allow us to really let the words sink in, to affect us deeply on some level. These songs also work because of the attention to melody and harmony are even more important than usual. These are the tunes written with “the long line” in mind, with the chord progressions that are not always so simple or predictable.

The premise of Critic is similar to that of Mark Twain’s book The Prince and the Pauper, only here we’re in the 20th Century and in the theater world. A drama critic and a struggling actor look surprisingly alike, and the critic decides to play a joke by having the two of them switch life roles for a few hours — only to have the joke backfire and have the two of them stuck in their new roles for a time. In the song I Could Love You the critic has discovered some disconcerting feelings (on several levels) for the actor’s live-in girl friend.

IN ANOTHER TIME, IN ANOTHER PLACE,
WITH ANOTHER NAME, OR WITH ANOTHER FACE
I COULD LOVE YOU. I COULD LOVE YOU
(©1988 Steven L. Rosenhaus)

The critic is not singing to the object of his feelings (she is, in fact, sleeping as he sings his thoughts aloud), and she is convinced that he is her boy friend, who is albeit acting a little stranger than usual. At the word “name” below there is a chord that is ever-so-slightly dissonant; coupled with what the audience knows (and she doesn’t), it makes for all sorts of emotional response within us, and gives us a sense of what the singer is going through. (Did I know all of this when I wrote it? Definitely on an intuitive level.)

By the way: When is a ballad not a ballad? When it’s a true ballad in the old-folk-music sense. Huh? I refer to The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, which like its folk ancestors, is not so much about emotion as it is in telling a tale in short form.

Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 2 (Comedy Songs)

Comedy songs can serve any of the usual functions in musical theater: helping to give insight into a character; giving insight into the way the character thinks; moving the plot forward; and so on. They do so in a straight forward way, by making us laugh. But as the old actors’ saying goes, “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” How do you make a song funny?

Comedy is even more ephemeral than music. What is funny to some will not be to others, and what is funny at one point in time may not hold up over the years (or even less depending on the topicality of the jokes). Layer that over the idea of song structure and you have a potential mess on your hands. That said, writing a good comedic song can be done. Here are some of the basics first:

  • Tempo: Comedy songs can be any tempo, from a slow ballad to a fast rhythm number. The music itself is not the defining element.
  • Character versus Situation versus Jokes: As Allen Cohen and I write in Writing Musical Theater, the good comedy songs tend to be “based usually on character, occasionally on situation, but almost never on jokes.” Which isn’t to say there can’t be jokes, but that focus shouldn’t be on them.
  • Comedic structure: One thing Allen and I never covered in the book is how the comedy in a comedic song can be structured. I’ve found that comedic songs tend to fall into two types: (1) songs that use multiple jokes, each with a bigger punchline, and (2) songs with one joke, with the punchline at the end. Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls is an example of the former, while Chrysanthemum Tea from Pacific Overtures is a clear example of the latter.
  • Principle of Opposition: Allen and I talk about the principle of opposition, in this case the idea that something can funny because the character is in an unpleasant situation or sad moods (Adelaide’s Lament again). It can take other forms too, such as a character who is in denial about his or her situation (The Company Way from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, or I’m Not at all in Love from The Pajama Game).

One of my favorite comedic moments — well, favorite TWO comedic moments — occurs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The male and female ingenues, Philia and Hero, sing the duet Lovely. The song is not hah-hah funny but “kinda cute” funny. Hero tells Philia that she’s lovely, and she freely admits that she may be near-stupid and talented but “lovely is what I do.” Okay then, a nice, cute, whimsical moment. But then…. In Act 2 there is a (rare for Sondheim) reprise of the song, this time sung by…Pseudolus and Hysterium, with the latter singing Philia’s lines. From what I recall no lyrics have been changed, only who sings them and the immediate context, and the results are pretty much fall-down laughing in the audience. If nothing else the reprise is an epitome of the principle of opposition at work.

I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Songs don’t have to be one type or another; there can be overlaps. Do You Love Me? from A Fiddler on the Roof is a case in point. The song is funny to be sure, but it also functions as a charm song, and it’s a ballad to boot.

By the way, sometimes an otherwise non-comedic songs becomes funny in a new context: Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (originally from Naughty Marietta) takes on a whole new meaning in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (both in the original non-musical film and the later musical theater version). Ditto the use of Irving Berlin’s  Puttin’ on the Ritz in the same new context.

So, just how do you write a comedy song? First and foremost, find the funny — especially in the character(s), in the situation he or she is in, and in the character’s reaction to it. Don’t go for “joke” jokes if you can help it, and if you can’t help it, try to save it for the big finish.

Last comment: In our book Allen and I consider Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Kiss Me, Kate to be a comedy. Nowadays I’m not so sure. I think it’s far more of a charm song, albeit one that comes extremely late in the show AND for relatively minor characters at that. And yes, it has jokes, but they’re of the bad-vaudeville type with words purposefullly mangled to make rhymes for the most part. I find the song to be cute but not much more, and I question the need for it in the show, but whom am I to argue with Cole Porter?