Elements of a Musical

The Score

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)


The glorious fantasies of MGM's golden age were so potent that they have become part of our culture's ongoing mythology. For example –

Scene: a sad group of teenagers sits around wondering how to get their parents, town or school out of serious financial trouble. Suddenly, Mickey Rooney looks up with wide eyes and says, "Hey, why don't we put on a show!?!" Judy Garland gushes with pride and shouts, "Oh, Mickey!," the kids roar their approval, and after a few weeks of writing, rehearsals, and assorted romantic misunderstandings, the show triumphs in their barn, high school gym, or local corral. The Shuberts are in the audience, and they promptly move the show to Broadway and make the kids overnight stars.

Would that it were that easy! Nowadays, every musical play or film – including the bad ones – came into being through tremendous craft, ruthless determination, and years of unrelenting effort. In the 1800s, producers could throw a show together in a matter of weeks, beef it up with songs by any number of different composers, and raise the few thousand bucks needed to stage it all. But musicals now cost millions to produce, and raising the funds can take several years. Composing the score can take months – even years – of painstaking effort and revision. To give a show a sense of audible cohesion, it is now standard procedure for the songs to be written by one songwriter or songwriting team, working in close collaboration with the book writer. All these people have a say in such issues as song structure, song type, and song placement. Each of these is explained below, as is the importance of rhyme.

Showtune Structure: AABA

Most showtunes have a verse and a chorus (or "refrain"). The verse sets up the premise of a song and can be of most any length, while the chorus states the main point of the lyric. For example, consider the title song to Oklahoma!. The verse begins "They couldn't pick a better time to start in life," and says how happy the leads will be living in a "brand new state." The chorus starts with a joyous shout of "Ooooo-klahoma," and then sings the praises of that territory. While most composers concentrate their best efforts on the melody for the chorus, there are exceptions. For instance, Jerome Kern's opening verses to "You Are Love" or "All The Things You Are" are ravishing.

Since the early 1900s, the choruses of American popular songs have traditionally been thirty-two bars long, usually divided into four sections of eight bars apiece – the AABA form. This format forces composers and lyricists to make their points efficiently acting more as a discipline than a limitation.

If you examine your favorite showtunes, you will find this format used time after time. From Cohan to Jonathan Larson, all modern Broadway composers have worked within this structure. In fact, AABA remained the standard for all popular music until hard rock threw many conventions out the window in the 1960s. Those showtunes that do not use AABA tend to use a slight variation of the form. A song may double the number of bars (four sections of sixteen apiece), or simplify the form to something like ABA. Some numbers introduce a third melody line at the end (AABC) – but the AABA structure and proportions remain the norm.

Song Types

Some people think that it is enough for a showtune to be melodic and generally entertaining. That may have been true in the days of Ziegfeld revues and screwball musical comedies, when any song could be inserted into most any show regardless of its connection to the action. Ever since Oklahoma, expectations have changed. Now, each showtune must serve as a dramatic element in a play or film by helping to develop character and/or move the story forward. As much as everyone loves a showstopper, it has to work as a cohesive part of the storytelling process – otherwise the only thing it really stops is audience interest. The most memorable show songs tend to gel around three kinds of character experiences –

Traditional musicals carefully varied the placement of song types, while musicals of the late 20th Century showed an increasing reliance on placing ballad after ballad after ballad  . . . yaaaawn! If you are writing a musical, give your audiences a break and vary their melodic diets. The types of songs commonly required in modern musicals can be illustrated with these examples from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady

If you prefer an even simpler approach, the great Bob Fosse said that from a director's point of view there were only three types of show songs. To illustrate, let's take examples from Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story

From the 1800s on, traditional musicals tried to include at least one or two songs that might find popular success outside the show. Many a musical did better business when one of its songs became a hit, but the rise of rock pushed showtunes out of pop contention by the mid-1960s. While this made showtunes less profitable, it also took a burden off composers and lyricists. Now they can concentrate on the dramatic needs of their shows, rather than trying to artificially squeeze hits into a score. (Of course, more than a few songwriters would still love the millions a few song hots would bring them – they just realize they are not going to get that kind of song hit out of a Broadway score today.)

Song Placement

Songs in a musical libretto must be strategically placed at emotional highpoints, those key moments where dialogue is no longer enough. In Hello Dolly, when Dolly Levi comes down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, it would certainly be more realistic if the head waiter just looked at her fondly and said "It's good to have you back, Madam" but what fun would that be? Instead, Dolly and the waiters express the overwhelming joy of their reunion by singing "Hello, Dolly!" Where words are not sufficient, the music and dance take over, bringing the show and its audiences to greater.

For a far different example, consider Kander and Ebb's "Pineapple Song" in Cabaret. Turning this particular moment into song was a stroke of genius – one that many fine songwriters might have missed. For most of us, there is nothing particularly exciting about getting a pineapple as a gift. But when it is the first token of affection exchanged between two shy middle aged people in the midst of a severe economic depression, it becomes tremendously important. The courtly manners of the grocer and the landlady, set to a romantic tune, makes for one of the most enchanting moments in all of musical theater. The music says what their restrained words cannot, showing just how much each is attracted to the other.

Because song placement is of vital importance in the development of a musical, the composer and lyricist usually work closely with the librettist (the script or "book" writer) to plan each number. Once a show goes into production, the director and producers also have a say in this process. Three song choices are of particular importance –

A reprise is when all or part of a song is repeated to make a dramatic point and (usually) to energize the end of a scene. In the stage version of Funny Girl, Nick Arnstein sings a reprise of Fanny's "Don't Rain on My Parade" to signify his need for independence and end a crucial scene. Fanny later reprises the same song at the end of the show to declare that life will go on without Nick and to finish the final scene with an emotional flourish.

From the 1800s through the 1940s, some musicals were so loosely constructed that you could easily insert additional numbers by most any composer. Al Jolson's best remembered songs (including "Swanee") were interpolated into existing scores, and no one cared that they had no connection to the story. All that mattered was coming up with a hit that could stop the show.

To either develop the characters or push along the plot, songs must be clear enough for an audience to grasp on first hearing. Anything that confuses an audience damages the dramatic action of the play, so lyricists must make their points in a precise, fresh manner, while composers (and arrangers) must not drown out the words. In August 2002, The New York Times chided the producers of the long running Rent for allowing the high volume music to drown out Jonathan Larson's all-important lyrics.

It remains a real mark of craftsmanship to write showstoppers that are fully integrated into the rest of a show. Even mediocre musicals are still expected to have a musical moment that makes the audience roar with approval. While some weaker musicals like The Lion King rely on clever staging to get people cheering, a powerhouse song remains the most desirable way to stop a show.

Lyrics: To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?

Creative and entertaining use of rhyme has been a hallmark of musical theatre since William S. Gilbert's elevated lyric writing to an art form in the 1880s. Rhyme is one of a lyricist's most potent tools, giving a song much of its comic or dramatic impact. It is easy enough to find words that rhyme – the trick is in how a lyricist gets from one of these words to another. Fresh use of language and surprising word arrangements are the hallmarks of great songwriting, and these revolve around the careful placement of rhymes within a song. For example, placing rhymes at the end of lines and within them ("internal rhyme") can add comic impact –

Creative rhyme can make a difference in any type of showtune, setting classics apart from pedestrian efforts. Porter's ballad "I Get a Kick Out of You" has a famous five part rhyme ("fly-high-guy-sky-I") that audiences have loved since Ethel Merman first sang it in Anything Goes (1934).

Obvious, tired rhymes, clich'd phrases, or forced non-rhymes (like those found in many rap songs) are distractions that can ruin the effect of a show song. Theatergoers have the right to expect a smooth, professional effort. Of course, the witless scores of Footloose and Saturday Night Fever prove that some audiences will tolerate anything if the volume is deafening enough. If you want to write a musical, please take the approach that your audience deserves something better. Every lyric in a musical must help tell a story. The great lyricist Dorothy Fields, who's work spanned five decades and involved such composers as Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh and Cy Coleman explained it this way –

"Sounds and rhyming can be beguiling only when they state exactly what you should say. Don't fall in love with what you believe is a clever rhyme – it can throw you. Think about what you want to say and then look for the most amusing or graceful way you can say it."

That covers the bare-bone basics of what goes into a score. But many promising scores sank into oblivion due to badly written librettos. And so it is, justly or not, that most failures are blamed on "the schnook who wrote the book."

On to: The Book (Libretto)