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

May 7, 2015

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.

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