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After my last, ridiculously long comment on this blog, I am happy to say that this will be thankfully shorter.

I appreciate that you made this inquiry, because this very question has been in the back of my mind for years. I am in no position to judge the merits of musical play efforts made by UK writers. But, like you, I can clearly see a contrast between the work of US writers (even Rogers and Hammerstein) compared to UK ones. I have some informed opinion as to why this difference exists, but want to be sure to disclaim that I am not nearly informed enough on the infinite variety of UK musical play efforts, past or present, to support a scholarly examination. I can probably count on two hands the UK musicals known to me - from Bart’s OLIVER to Webber’s SUPERSTAR (a concept album) to Briccuse-Newley’s ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT to Minchin’s MATILDA to the Fringe classic SAUCY JACK AND THE SPACE VIXENS.

Even among my limited selection of known UK works there are exceptions to what I am about to say. And I have to very quickly add that the works of Idle and Duprez succeed very well in contradiction to my comments below. But, I also can explain why I think they do.

So, jumping directly into the fire, from my perspective as composer and author of many works, a student of (Lehman) Engel, and student of the craft for almost 50 years, the most profound and regular difference I see between the professional works of these two nations is the UK’s often lack of integrating song into the fabric of plot.

It’s okay to lambaste this opinion, if you have certain proof its hogwash. But, this is what I find most often different between projects across the pond. This has nothing to do with the quality of the dramaturgy or the subject and specificity of lyric and clearly not some subjective comment on music quality. The last is irrelevant and discussion on the approach to lyric subject and specificity is too complicated for a discussion here. Yes, I might place some blame on the dramaturgy, since the playwright (bookwriter) is likely burdened with developing the series of scenes and the steps of beats within each, which begin and complete the work. But, again, this is a complicated discussion and I really mean to keep this short. For that reason, I am going to focus on a key difference I see, when I have chance to see new works from the UK. (Or in my one trip to the West End.)

Integration of song within the context of the scene is crucial to keeping an audience connected to the unfolding story and the empathetic relationship between audience and characters. I really don’t see this practiced by UK creators nearly as much as I do in the US – of works by mature and practiced authors. Oh, I see it routinely missing from new works of amateurs in first drafts, etc. Make no mistake: US first time writers are largely clueless when it comes to this process. I could cite countless examples, even the oft-cliched ones, but I am, instead going to jump directly into process and need directly.

Okay, here’s where principles are key and if you want to ignore them, you do so knowing there may be unsatisfactory consequences. A good writer is prepared for that and plans to adjust to correct the problems as best they can (or remove the non-working material.)

Songs, whether soliloquy or sung dialog, must spring from the logical thoughts and emotions of a scene - in that moment that they are uttered. Music, being a language to convey emotion is best (but, not always) used to convey a character’s emotional moment in that scene context. When it cannot be used that way, then it must be used as a vehicle to carry plot information needed to push the plot forward.

No matter which way used, any deviation runs the risk of the play coming to a halt, while a disconnected (albeit pretty) song is performed. Tick, tock – three and half minutes go by before the plot resumes its course. Do that 2-3 times in an act and there goes the attention of many audience members. Give exposition in action or dialog and then repeat it in song? It's a clear way to add redundancy and bore an audience. This is done all the time by novices. Briccuse does it with the Oom-Pa-Loompa song (great musically, but pointless waste of time in play context.) We see Augustus’s greed end in being flushed down the pipes and then we have to hear a recap of what we just saw? And then, setting up that convention, we must prepare ourselves to be bored 3 more times – as we see each rotten kid gets their comeuppance and then have to hear about it in recap? What is the function of that? (Talk about moralizing!)

Okay, I gave it away. That’s what this is all about: “intention.” I think there is a giant dearth in musicals from the UK in determining what the intended function of the song is in the dramatic (tragic or comic, I don’t care) context of the scene. Is it to set time and place, because the program and sets and costumes don’t give us a clue? Is it to prepare the unsuspecting audience that they are going to see a farce as in Comedy Tonight? Is it to provide exposition (when needed) in the guise of an emotional, private thought? I am being somewhat facetious here, but the fact is any consideration of a song in the context of a scene must first be what the function of that song is to that scene and moving the play forward. You Must Meet My Wife, which is not really about the song subject, is the function of soliciting sympathy from a former lover in telling of the unintended celibacy of this (1 year) married husband.

Look how cleverly Sondheim masks that intention in lyrics that have nothing to do with it. But, without this song, the play does not move forward. If Desiree does not understand and take pity on his plight, she does not plot to win him back, etc. That is the level of integration of song and scene I speak of. And I just don';t see that being an integral part of the UK musical play scene. Not unlike Bart, the vast majority of shows I have seen remain stuck in the musical hall – vaudevillian era of clever songs placed between scenes or vignettes or French scenes. Good songs, sometimes great songs – with no function specific to the plot or scene. Or so ludicrously stretched for meaning to be worthless.

So when you watch Oklahoma and you wonder why the UK lacks that sophistication of writing, I would propose that you start by examining the placement, the function of songs in the context of the scenes you build towards a plot purpose. It’s not about music style, it can be rock, reggae or rap – but the song better have a very specific and needed function in the context of that scene, and related to the story arc, or the audience appreciation for that moment hinges solely on whether the song quality (devoid of integration) can stand on it’s own. And I am willing to bet that less than 3 of a score of 16 songs will do that in most musicals - US or UK created. The exceptions are those authors (Idle-DuPrez) who know how to write vastly clever, entertaining songs that can and do stand alone. These are Music Hall comedy songs that can be sung by almost anyone, almost anywhere, completely out of show context, and entertain an audience. Most integrated musicals (like Oklahoma) have only 1-2 songs that can do that.

If you want the next MY FAIR LADY or SWEENY TODD to be the creation of UK authors then, to begin, integrate the songs and be certain they have a function in context to scene and plot.

And I would end by making this note, which I found intriguing and maybe even a hint that things are changing. SHREK did very poorly in the US initially. It was completely retooled and improved on the West End and came back a much better piece of work. I have no idea what caused this. But, I would like to think that the collaboration of UK artists and the UK audience helped these authors to understand and solve the problems which plagued their earlier drafts. I hope this is a hint at a change taking place there.

Okay, pummel me with contempt. It’s very stupid of me to criticize something I could know very little about. I can only defend myself by saying that this is my personal experience, it comes from years of observation and practice and is intended to be helpful and not malicious. I am sure you can cite examples of brilliant integration and I probably can too. But, the over-arching difference I see is the lack of consistent and regular practice of that principle – and then the complete ignorance of the author not understanding why their project failed. This could be a clue of value as requested here.

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