Greetings friends! So the Tony Awards just wrapped up last Sunday evening, and my guess is that you were either watching that or the Heat/Mavericks game (my Facebook newsfeed was pretty evenly split between the two). Either way, I always get to thinking about theater around this time of year, and in particular about the direction(s) that musical theater is currently headed. I decided to come up with a list of ways that I believe musical theater writers can make a change for the better in this day and age. Now, before we get to the list, I just want to make clear two things:
1) I’m not suggesting that all contemporary musical theater is bad. Some of it is really quite good. But a
lot of it sucks. Basically, these are problems that I think are currently holding back a fair number of writers in the modern musical theater scene, and therefore worth mentioning.
2) I’m also not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that I am somehow an “expert” on the subject, and this list is not meant to convey a “holier than thou” attitude. I’m 24. I’ve written only one complete musical thus far, which premiered to mixed reviews (some of which bordered on death threats). I’m still very much a novice, I’m still learning new things every day, and I’m still trying to just get my foot in
the door in this business. This list applies to me as much as it applies to everyone else. These are just some observations I’ve made and opinions I’ve developed during my time as a musical theater writer.
So without any further chit-chat, I give you…
6 WAYS THAT MUSICAL THEATER WRITERS CAN IMPROVE CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL THEATER
#1. Stop Trying To Be Jason Robert Brown
I’m leading with this one because, let’s face it, it needs to be said. It’s getting to the point right now where a disproportionate number of shows feature scores that all sound approximately like this:
Now, just to be clear, I actually do like Jason Robert Brown, so I’m not disparaging the style itself, or even the fact that it’s a style that’s widely imitated at the moment. What’s problematic is the fact that nearly everyone who writes in this style still believes that they’re doing something wildly original. It’s a cliché that is not yet aware that it’s a cliché. So many times I can remember talking to people about a new show they’ve seen or heard, and when I ask them about the music they’ll shrug their shoulders and say “I dunno, it’s kinda Jason Robert Brown-y”. Some composers will even describe their own music this way, which I find kind of baffling since you’re essentially describing yourself as “I’m trying to be someone else”. The only advice I can really give is to just get outside of your musical comfort zone and explore some new things. Look to the entire history of musical theater for inspiration, and even beyond that into the worlds of pop music, art music, opera, global music trends, etc. You might not like everything you hear, in fact you probably won’t, but you’re expanding your musical worldview. To use a food metaphor (as is the favorite device of my composition teacher John Hilliard), don’t be one of those people who goes to visit a new city and skips out on all the local cuisine to eat at McDonalds because it’s familiar. Try the local cuisine, you just might find something you like. And getting back to non-metaphorical talk, just remember this: we already have a Jason Robert Brown. His name is Jason Robert Brown. And he’s better at being Jason Robert Brown than you are.
#2. Don’t Assume That Everyone Shares Your Depressing Life Experience
Not all of us are closeted homosexual schizophrenic ballet dancers who hate our parents and who were molested by our priest behind the toolshed at the church’s annual 5k Fun Run. Some of us are, sure, but not all of us. I’m not suggesting at all that we should only tell “happy stories” in the theater, or that every show should have a happy ending and view the world through rose-tinted glasses. Exploring dark subject matter is perfectly fine, and in many cases makes for great theater, but the problem comes when the author assumes that everyone in the audience is every bit as bitter and pessimistic as they are. I can remember seeing a fair number of workshops and new shows where just about the only thing that the characters do is complain, the author’s intent apparently being that the audience would think to themselves “Wow, I SO relate to that because I also hate everything and everyone!”. Ultimately, this just makes for a forgettable show stocked with vapid, aggravating characters. No matter what kind of subject matter your musical touches upon, it should address some aspect of the human condition that everyone can relate to, regardless of their unique life experience. Take for example a show like “La Cage Aux Folles” – how many of us can relate to having two gay dads who run a drag club on the French Reviera? Not too many. But all of us can relate to having a family, which is ultimately what the show is about. Or, to cite a more modern example and a drama instead of a comedy, take “Next To Normal” – most of us haven’t experienced the same kind of psychological burdens as the characters in that show, but we can all relate to lying to ourselves about how we feel in certain situations. Writing for musical theater is a particularly demanding endeavor, and there’s a fine line between personal and pretentious, but when push comes to shove it’s best to strive for a universal grain of truth. If the only driving idea behind your show is “Everything Sucks”, perhaps you should just consider starting a hipster band instead.
#3. Make Your Characters People Worth Caring About
This particular problem is not unique to contemporary musical theater, or even to musical theater at all, but it’s a problem worth mentioning because it remains rampant in many shows both large- and small-scale. In a poorly-written show, characters are vehicles for the plot; in a well-written show, the plot is a vehicle for the characters. Characters and their goals in musical theater should be larger-than-life, or at least be presented in a way that makes them appear as such. The problem nowadays seems to be that, in an attempt to create more “realistic” characters, writers are simply creating more “boring”characters. A character in a contemporary musical might spend the entire first act of the show with his only motivation being something as mundane as “Gee, I hope I can get that cute girl at the coffee shop to notice me”. Why? What’s at stake? What happens if she doesn’t notice you? Are you just going to go back your studio apartment and watch another episode of ‘True Blood’? What happens if she DOES notice you? You’ll have an awkward conversation and go on a date? WHY SHOULD WE CARE?!?! The stakes for the characters in a musical need to absolutely be life-or-death, or again, at least SEEM that way to the characters involved. And the situations don’t necessarily need to be over-the-top in order for the stakes to be high. Take for example Mama Rose in “Gypsy” – she reveals in the end that she “just wanted to be noticed”, at first glance a fairly common and certainly relatable goal, but her egomaniacal and larger-than-life personality made this common problem a matter of life and death, all or nothing, me against the world, and THAT’S what makes her an interesting character to watch. Characters should be memorable, someone who stays with us after the curtain is down; if your characters are mundane and forgettable, then odds are so is your show.
#4. Think Outside The “Belting” Box
Every time I see someone use the term “fierce belting”, a red flag goes up in my head. Nine times out of ten, this phrase is thinly-veiled code for “The song itself really isn’t very good but OH MY GOD LISTEN TO THOSE HIGH NOTES!!!”. Too often nowadays, “fierce belting” is used as a crutch to cover up poorly-composed material. If everyone in the cast is belting out amazing high notes all the time, nobody’s going to notice if the score isn’t very good on its own merit, right? Wrong (I hope). Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching against belting itself – if done well and utilized at the right moments, it can be wonderfully exciting and really punctuate the climactic points of the score. What I’m preaching against is it’s rampant and excessive overuse. In my opinion (to use another Hilliard food metaphor), composers should treat belting like a powerful spice on the spice rack – if used in just right amount in a well-prepared dish, it can make it go from good to great; if used in abundance to cover up a poorly-prepared dish, it’s pretty gross. By being frugal with the use of belting in your show, you not only prevent the score from sounding like a
monotonous belty mush, but you free yourself up to explore different voice types and vocal colors. What ever happened to the true musical theater baritone? What about the lyric soprano? Can we not make better use of them in contemporary musical theater? I feel that too many theater composers these days fall into the trap of writing for all of their characters in approximately the same vocal range (men as high pop tenors, women as chesty/belty mezzos), which I believe not only makes for an uninteresting score but also negatively effects how many singers perceive contemporary musical theater. I remember not too long ago playing a song of mine, a down-tempo ballad, at the piano for someone after a show. At several strategic she would interrupt with “So is this where it gets belty?”, to which I could only respond “Er… no”. Afterwards, she asked with a confused look on her face, “So wait, where DOES it get belty?”. The whole
concept of “this song does not get belty” seemed downright strange. Now, the point of this story is not to make this individual seem musically ignorant (as quite the opposite is true), but to illustrate how the overuse of belting is negatively shaping our perceptions of what modern musical theater can and should
be. Yes, belting is great if done properly, but composers should treat the use of belting as one of the many tools in their toolbox, not the only tool they have. Explore the many diverse facets of the human voice. You’ll make some baritones and sopranos very happy if you do.
#5. Put Some Actual Work Into The Composition
This one seems painfully obvious, and could be followed up with a simple “Well DUH”, but hear me out. I just recently finished watching the Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein, and one of the talks features a segment where, while examining Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, he discusses how he thinks most non-composers think that a composer works. Most people, he says, imagine the composer sitting at the piano, dreamily improvising in some sort of hypnotic trance while “The Muse” takes over to deliver divine inspiration. His point being, of course, that this is NOT how composers work at all, and that even a piece as lush and dreamy as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was created out of extremely careful planning and a great deal of technical skill on Debussy’s part. However (and I am willing to admit that I may well be COMPLETELY wrong on this one but this is all based on my own observations), I get the impression that many composers of musical theater nowadays are doing just that, working almost exclusively in “dreamy improvisation” mode. They sit down at the piano, play what “sounds good” and what feels good under their fingers, and the work is done. These “white key composers”, as I have come to (rather snarkily) call them, produce music that can be summed up as such: pleasant but forgettable. I can remember just recently seeing a few friends on Facebook rave about a workshop for a new musical that had been posted to YouTube; I was actually pretty excited after reading what they were saying, so I clicked on a link to watch the video… and was utterly disappointed. Again, pleasant but forgettable. Sure, there were a few nice vocal performances, but the music was just inoffensively bland. Not only that, but (I kid you not) for the duration of the near 10-minute clip that was posted, the music stayed in one key. ONE KEY. The entire time. What was even worse was seeing how much people were just raving about this show, not only what I had seen from my friends on Facebook but reading the numerous comments on the video page saying things like “omg SO beautiful” and “Genius!”
and “This is AMAZING!!!!!!!!”. We’re getting dangerously close to the point where “it sounds nice” is indistinguishable from/interchangeable with “it’s a brilliant work of art”. We can do better than that, people. What makes a great theatrical composer like Sondheim unique is NOT that they have access to some kind of divinely-ordained source of inspiration that us mere puny mortals are not privy to, but the amount of work they put into their compositions. Every note, every chord, every arpeggio is examined and analyzed with a fine tooth comb to ensure that the work is both compositionally sound and appropriately enhances the drama as it tells the stories of the characters. We should all treat our work with such care and attention to detail. Don’t settle for anything less than the absolute best you have to offer. Deliver to your performers and to your audience something that is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Or at the very least, change the key every now and again.
#6. At The End Of The Day, Tell Good Stories
Times change. People change. Tastes change. What does not change, however, is our inherent need as human beings to be told stories. The kinds of stories we tell may change, as does the way in which we tell those stories, but the need for storytelling remains constant. We go to the theater because we want
to be entertained. The very word “entertainment” has taken on somewhat of a negative connotation in the arts community (we might say, for example, that a busload of little old ladies from the Midwest that goes to Broadway only to see “Mama Mia!” was merely looking for “entertainment”), but the literal definition of the word “entertain” is “to hold the attention of”.We want something that will hold our attention and capture our imagination, and when all is said and done, we want to be told stories that are worth telling. I think some modern musicals have tendency to be come off as a bit tentative – we don’t want to get “too big” or “too over-the-top” in an attempt to keep the story “personal”. But I say, don’t be afraid to be big and be over-the-top if you’re passionate about the material. If it really is too much, well hey, that’s what workshops and rewrites and previews are for. But don’t restrain yourself from being massively, wildly, hugely passionate; that’s what memorable theater is all about. So tell us a story, eh?
Comments, criticisms, foreign swear words, and projectile rotten vegetables are all welcome. ;)
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.