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Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 1 (Charm Songs)

October 14, 2014

Balance is ultimately what can make or break a musical. There is the balance of comedy and drama, the balance of action and inaction, the balance of moving a plot forward and lingering on a moment, the balance between giving the audience too much information and not enough, and more. There should be balance in the music too. A show consisting of just ballads, or just songs for one type of voice is possible but one of the most difficult things to pull off successfully. Even when a limitation is imposed intentionally, such as Sondheim’s use of triple meter throughout A Little Night Music, there is a substantial amount of variety of styles and uses within triple meters. In general though musical theater composers rely on certain types of songs to help tell the story, clue us in about a character, set the time/place/tone of the show, or just plain entertain us. Below are some song types. Keep in mind that there are no lines of demarcation among them, and that a song can be a combination of them.

The most prevalent type of song in a musical is the ballad. Ballads use slow to medium tempos, and usually focus on an emotional point (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady, for example). The second most prevalent type of song is the ballad’s musical opposite in many ways, the rhythm number. Rhythm numbers are what their name suggest, songs that move, that have a quicker pulse than ballads. They range in tempo from medium to fast (the title song from Oklahoma! is a rhythm number). A comedy song is another self-explanatory song; it’s supposed to be funny. Comedy songs can be at any tempo. (“Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls is a standard example.) A list song is, as you can guess, made up of a list; it can be done at any tempo and in any style. (“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music is a list song.) A musical scene is not a whole song, but a sort of stream-of-consciousness that musically follows the action or a character’s thought processes; “Soliloquy” from Carousel is a musical scene.

Another type of song, the name of which was coined by Lehman Engel, is the charm song. In Writing Musical Theater, Allen Cohen and I wrote that a charm song “makes the character singing come across as charming.” More on that in a moment. We also wrote that a charm song is almost always in medium tempo, and while that is generally true I’ve come to think that it can be created on either side of moderate tempo and still be quite effective. Most often a charm song is sung by one person, but it can be done by two.

What does it mean, to have a character come across as “charming”? In the usual way it means that the character gives us some insight into his or her basic character. A charm song allows us to find something in the character to which we find a connection, even if we have absolutely nothing in common. “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story and, especially, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady are all charm songs. Who hasn’t ever felt like they could conquer the world (not literally of course) “if only” they had something they think they lack? Or wished for some simple creature comforts to make life more bearable?

Over the years I’ve come to realize that there seems to be another type of charm song possible, in which the singer charms another character while we the audience remain aware that he or she is not at all charming. The thing is, to date I have not found any songs in a show that would qualify as such. (Please: If you know of one, post it here.)

Who usually gets a charm song? Most of the time it’s the lead character or at least an important secondary character. Eliza Doolittle gets one, because we need to be charmed by her, but Higgins does not get a charm song. We are not supposed to find him charming, and we don’t — even when he finally sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Where/when do charm songs come up in a show? Theoretically at any point in the show, but usually not too long after we are introduced to the character. That’s why a lot of charm songs can be found in the first act of a show (or the first part of a one-act).

Earlier I said that there are no lines of demarcation when it comes to types of songs. One great example of that is “Do You Love Me?” from A Fiddler on the Roof. This is a ballad (it has a slow tempo, and it is very emotional), but it’s also a comedy song (“Do you love me?” “Do I WHAT?”) and it is charm song. The song also functions to charm us about Tevye, but also about Golde, and Tevye and Golde as a couple.

More about song types in a later posting.

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