Feb 3, 2022Liked by Adam Lenson

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.

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