For the last few weeks I have been spending my time listening to music rather than musical theatre and it got me thinking about why musical theatre doesn’t always sound entirely like a lot of the rest of the music that is out there. I sometimes wonder if this is a big reason why musical theatre can be ghettoised and undermined.
I love and spend most of my time with musical theatre writers but I do wonder if sometimes there are some (even famous or successful ones) who make work with too much awareness of the stylistic and aesthetic choices of those that came before in the form.
There seem to be musical theatre song idioms that mean that that time and again a musical sounds a certain way. I can’t quite get my head around why this seems to be the case but I have come to a couple of thoughts:
Firstly what I call photocopying: People who are writing musicals often tend to listen to musicals a lot and thus their work tends to in some ways photocopy or dilute the musical influences in those works rather than find its own palate of influences and styles. After all if you try and sound like Sondheim and only listen to Sondheim then you are probably going to sound like a budget Sondheim with only small fragments of the wealth of context and source material that makes his work so adept and varied.
I have often noted that if you really want to sound like Sondheim you should listen to Ravel or Stravinsky or Debussy or Copeland. If you want to sound like Jason Robert Brown then you should probably listen to Elton John or Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell.
Secondly is what I call the fallacy of idolising the statement that content dictates form. There is a sense that firstly you find the story and that then the genre of music and idioms being used should entirely spring from that story. That there is no room for the writers own individual quirks, choices and voice. But I think this can lead to musical theatre writers lacking their own sense of aesthetic and idiomatic agency. It can lead to them writing musicals that sound like musicals rather than music.
So perhaps what happens is a combination of these two: A profound deference to the sound of musicals from the past added to a belief that a musical should in some way obscure the songwriters voice and instead only care about the narrative or topic that has been chosen.
The issue is that not every writer can be expert at imitating every formal requirement based on any content and in trying to do so it often seems like they forget to just sound like themselves and craft a sound or interest in music itself.
I noticed that a lot of theatres and producers in the UK are seemingly more intrigued by recording artists writing musicals. I have heard it said that this is because recording artists already have a sound, an aesthetic, a tone, a voice. This doesn’t mean they don’t speak to different topics, times and themes, but they already sound like something. They have influences from a range and landscape of musical backdrops and locations. Their work doesn’t have to try and sound like music, it is music.
But here’s an even more startling thing. Sometimes when brilliant recording artists write musicals, they often end up sounding like they are giving up on their voice and aesthetic because they think their musical should sound like a musical if it is to truly be a musical. They hide their voice, camouflage it. Perhaps they listen to too many musicals when writing a musical.
Now at this point I will say, that I think musical theatre is a dense and complex craft that requires a great deal of skill and understanding of how to tell stories and convey information through song. It is not the same as writing a hooky or vibey pop song. But I don’t think that understanding and utilising the craft and history of musical theatre means that you can’t make work that sounds like music. I love musical theatre writers but I just sometimes wish they would take greater effort to explore the world of music more. I wish they would find out and identify their aesthetic and voice and figure out how to combine that with storytelling mechanisms and craft that they have in spades.
The two big paradigm shifts in contemporary musical theatre were 1994’s Rent and 2015’s Hamilton. Both took a great deference to musical theatre history and craft but collided it with a true appreciation of forms of music seen all too rarely onstage. Both shows and their writers clearly cared deeply about genres of music and of recording artists who made work in those genres. The merging of deep care and storytelling and dramaturgical craft with a varied and authentic sound born of an array of influences from the world of music led to shows that worked brilliantly as musicals but also reached new mainstream awareness and popularity.
The same goes for say Hair which took its idiom far more from rock music than from anything that had come before. Or Hadestown which managed to take the true voice of a recording artist and singer songwriter and bring to it a dramaturgical and narrative rigour of musical theatre. Same for Here Lies Love. I’ve become a huge fan of Andrew R. Butler’s Rags Parkland which sounds like a sort of folk, rock fusion that feels entirely grounded in music genres rarely so clearly displayed in musical theatre. I’m also a huge fan of Yve Blake whose show Fangirls wraps a truthful and deeply considered pop aesthetic and sound around a story of youthful obsession and search for understanding and visibility. It is a show that cares about story and music in equal amounts.
In my now defunct podcast series Dischord I made an episode called ‘Danger High Voltage’ which spoke about how for songs to work in musicals and to tell story they often have to have a high amount of information that speaks to character, narrative and tone. Now pop songs are often not useful at telling story because they often don’t tell stories or contain enough information. They often don’t speak to character or narrative. They often contain a strong sense of tone and repetitive low information lyrics. They are accompaniment to life and activity rather than enough to be part of an onstage fusion of story and music.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t songs written just to be songs that don’t contain a lot of information but sound entirely unlike most musical theatre.
This also doesn’t mean that just because musical theatre songs usually need to contain a lot of information that they can’t sound like music.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Here are some examples of high information songs that I believe could work really well in musical theatre stories. None of them sound much like what most musicals sound like. But they are full of information and relatability and imagery. Full of character and situation and emotion.
The musical theatre composer-lyricist David Yazbek has a parallel life as a singer songwriter and speaks regularly about how he is obsessed with music of all genres and lets them influence him whenever he is writing a musical. When asked what influences him he says:
“The answer is, great music in almost any genre excites me: a great song, a great piece of music. And this is the truth since before I could speak probably, so my ears have always been thirsty for anything and that can’t help but filter through and then come back out when I’m writing.”
When asked his influences he says
“I have so many and at any given time I could give you like 10, and they would be different each time. I’ll always give you The Beatles. I’ll always give you Frank Loesser. I’ll always give you Captain Beefheart; he’s a big one. No one’s ever busted open American blues and rock like he did. There’s a lot to be learned from his stuff and I love his surreal lyrics. Usually the band XTC is in there for me. There’s Beethoven, there’s Sondheim, there’s Varèse. I’ll get really deep into somebody for a while, like Thelonious Monk, he’s a giant one. There’s a lot [laughs]. Oh, Antonio Carlos Jobim is a really big one for me.”
In another interview he also admits to not loving musical theatre that sounds like musical theatre
One style I don’t like is musical theatre-sounding music. I just don’t like it. I’ll try things, and my corny meter will go off whenever there’s a juxtaposition of a base note and chords that sounds too musical theatre for me. I’ll do it sometimes as a gag, but usually it just makes my skin crawl. And because I’m sensitive to that, I’ll bounce off of those walls. A lot of it is which walls you bounce off and which doors you go through. I know a lot of very talented people who somehow see their shows as “the next John Doe show,” and I can’t see how that ever helps you, to have your name in your head while you’re trying to create. It seems like a very obvious blockade to doing your work with joy and ease.
“I think musical theater doesn’t demand enough of music. Broadway is able to take any genre and ruin it. It can round the edges off soul music, it can take punk, rock, jazz, Afro-Cuban or anything and put it through the grinder of Broadway till it’s not interesting anymore.
I wonder how more musical theatre can be influenced by eclectic and authentic genres of music without rounding the edges off. I also wonder how more new writing can exist in dialogue with music as well as the craft, dramaturgy, necessities and history of musical theatre. Achieving both sort of feels essential to making work that really feels individual, authentic, unique but also relatable.
I suppose what I’m saying is. I think all musical theatre writers should listen to varied music a lot more and really and truly interact with the way it sounds, the way it’s produced, the way it is arranged and the way it is sung.
A lot of the music I love is full of stories. But a lot of the musical theatre I hear doesn’t always sound like music. And I wonder how we find a way to change that.
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Thank you for writing this. So much to talk about here.
Of course, you’re right that writers need to listen broadly. If you only ever learnt music from musical theatre, you'd be significantly missing out. I drifted away from musicals for a good few years and stopped listening to cast recordings. The odd thing was that I started listening to everything else through the filter of musical theatre. And, like your list of songs, I found plenty of story, character and drama contained in all kinds of different music. I feel that there’s a lot of fertile ground to explore.
And yes, the music of musical theatre can sometimes lack a distinctive sound. Or, if composers are using a non-musical theatre sound, then it can become a very watered-down version of that sound. However, I do think that is, in part, a limitation of the form. The music of musical theatre is usually attached to words and those words usually need to be clearly heard. I think that does limit things like the melodic range and the heaviness of the backbeat and maybe accounts for some of these indistinct, watered-down musical styles. The key for writers is how to find their musical voice within those limitations.
One way to get writers to explore new sounds would be for composers to get away from composing (and then performing) primarily on piano or guitar. I’m sure that composing on these instruments produces a certain kind of sound as your hands fall into familiar patterns on the keys and strings. Although, I would guess that many are using computers to compose nowadays, so perhaps that’s something that is already changing.
Another way to help change the sound of musicals lies, not just with writers, but arrangers and performers. I’m a fan of the songwriter Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) so was very interested when he wrote a musical of Swallows and Amazons. But, when I saw it, I was surprised by how ‘musical theatre’ it sounded rather than, well, like Neil Hannon. I don’t think that’s because he adapted his songwriting style. I think it was more to do with the arrangements and singing style which were very ‘musical theatre’.
So it may not just be an issue for writers. Although, if there is to be a new kind of music for musicals, it would certainly start with them.