The Mystery of Musical Theatre writing

I am bemused. Last night I was at a show which has been an immense hit in its lifetime and has been described as masterful by the press. I don’t want to dwell on the production because the professional cast were giving it their all to an audience of grey haired who seemed to be having a great time, plus a few of us who were bemused. I’d paid for my ticket as had my friend.  I stayed, they left as is allowed if you are not on a comp.

I wonder if I ever created another Musical Theatre writing course, whether I’d have the courage to invite students to use the show as a case study on exploring the accepted “tools not rules” which apply to most writers.

Lyric writing is so hard, and making recitative and arias sound as though they could have been spoken by real people, rather than emoted to an audience, is a massively challenging craft.  Legendary writers spend months finding the perfect rhymes and scansion. Here the stresses and the repeated repeated repeated phrases aria-al-ised to the audience felt so unreal. I guess some would call heightened reality.   No one in the team could ever have done the basic writers test of just asking the actors to read the script in a normal set of stresses and see whether it makes sense – which I’m surprised about.

There’s an oft stated belief that we should avoid rhyming “moon” and “June” – taking us into a lyric where we can see the obvious rhyme a mile away.  Here the audience often had the chance to reach the line and word way ahead of the singer/writer, taking away the beauty of a perfect rhyme and unexpected thought.

I’ve always thought there was a convention that if one character sings a song, and then another sings the same melody at another time, that there must be an inner dramatic logic as to why both people had that melodic emotion in their system. You can have a scene where a character challenged as to why they were singing a particular song and learn they both heard it in a place and another time.  But however good the tune is it feels odd for everyone to have a go of singing the hit tune. In this show they seem to obey and break the tool/rule in the same scene. Fascinating.

One of the challenges of any writer is to tackle tough subjects of love and lust and betrayal and all the other great stuff of Musical Theatre without getting deep belly laughs from the audience because of the unintended double entendre of the lines.  I guess some of us have dirty minds but things like ending a love affair by pulling out seem designed to kick me out of my poetic enjoyment.  It must be so difficult to perform with the audience laughing at the lines, when you are not in a comedy.

I suppose I am amazed that a major show which has been produced in many ways and been directed by some of the best, still has so much of the rule/tool breaking which would I suspect be criticised in the BML Workshops here in London or the BMI Lehman programme or Tisch School programmes in New York by the craft experts.

I understand that with Hamilton, Six, Club Mex and other contemporary pieces that the use of perfect rhyme, leitmotifs, inner monologue, rooms & corridor conventions may be ditched in favour of a more agile writing style.  But without knowing rap and hiphop as forms my understanding is that many of these conventions still apply in the storytelling.

It is always good to go to a piece of theatre which makes me question what I think, what others love and I question, what becomes award-winning and what doesn’t. The role of the formal theatre critic and blogger is to write about a show, the creative team, the choices made and the performances. I don’t enjoy that role myself but I do enjoy exploring what I feel about the artform that I’ve followed since seeing John Hanson in the Desert Song in 1968 at the Cambridge Theatre.

PS – And I am still learning.  In looking up the lyrics for the Desert Song just for fun, I have found that the book was co-written by Oscar Hammerstein – I love a theatre where I can keep being inspired (most of the time), excited, and stretched by the experience.   I don’t need to see last night’s musical ever again in English, or probably The Desert Song either, but it has given me time to reflect on the challenge the best lyric writers take on when they create a musical.  So thank you for that.





1 Comment

  1. A thought provoking piece, Chris. There is so much that I do not know about musical and lyric writing. As I am now in that area of joyful interest, I become more fascinated. I don’t know any rules or recommendations – its a great place to start! In my naively, I think
    “What would x say to y?” And then write a song around that.

    Loved this. Thank you x

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