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
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.
A is the main melody, repeated twice in part, so
that it can be easily remembered.
B is the release or bridge, and should
contrast as much as possible with A.
Then A is repeated a third time, usually with a
melodic twist to give the final bars more interest.
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.
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
Transition - a moment of change or conversion.
Realization - reaching an insight or new level of
Decision - after long wrangling, a character
finally makes up his or her mind.
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
Ballads - usually love songs ("On the
Street Where You Live"), but they can also philosophize about any
strong emotion ("Accustomed to Her Face").
Charm Songs - let
a character beguile an audience ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly").
Comedy Numbers - aim for laughs
("A Little Bit of Luck").
Musical Scenes - seamlessly blend
dialogue and song, usually with two or more characters ("You Did It").
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
I Am songs Any song that explains a character,
a group of characters, or a situation. Examples: "The Jet
Song," and "Somewhere."
I Want songs These tell us what characters desire,
what motivates them. Most love songs fit into this category. "Something's
Coming" and "Tonight" are examples, with the ensemble reprise of
"Tonight" giving a rare (and dramatically powerful) opportunity for
every major character to simultaneously express what they want. In "A Boy
Like That," we see two "I Wants" clash, only to wind up in
harmonious agreement on the undeniable power of love.
New songs This includes any number that does not fit
the other two categories, usually because they serve special dramatic needs. For
example, "Gee, Officer Krupke" let the Jets express their frustrations and gives
audiences a breather from the tragic story line. "The Rumble" ballet
would also fit this category.
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.)
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 heights.
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
The Opening Number
sets the tone for the rest of the show. It is not unusual for this
song to be written after the rest of a show is in place. The bawdy
farce A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum originally
opened by proclaiming that "Love Is In the Air," a bouncy song
that left audiences expecting a sweet romantic comedy. Consequently, it
took half an act for them to get attuned to the zany farce that followed.
Director George Abbott asked for a replacement, and songwriter Stephen
Sondheim came up with the raucous "Comedy Tonight." From the
moment the new opening was introduced, the entire show got a better
reception. (Note shows that open with extended dialogue still
set the tone for the evening with their first songs, such as
My Fair Lady's "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to
The Main "I Want" Song comes early in the first act, with one or more of the main characters
singing about the key motivating desire that will propel everyone (including
the audience) through the remainder of the show. In many cases,
these songs literally include the words "I want," "I
wish" or "I've got to." Classic examples include
My Fair Lady's "Wouldn't It Be Loverly,"
Carnival's "Mira," The Sound of Music's
"I Have Confidence" and "King of Broadway" in
The Eleven O'clock Number
takes place about midway through Act Two. It can be a ballad ("This Nearly Was
Mine" in South Pacific, "Memory" in Cats), charm
song ("Hello, Dolly!") or comedy showpiece
("Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Kiss Me Kate,
"Betrayed" in The Producers). It does not necessarily have to
mark a climactic moment in the plot, but it must be strong enough to energize
the audience for the final scenes. (Note: since curtain times are
earlier than in years past, this number now takes place around 10:00 PM.)
should carry an emotional wallop, leaving audiences with a powerful last
impression. This is usually done by reprising one of score's most emotion-packed
numbers. Showboat closes with a family reunion as Joe sings another chorus
of "Old Man River," and Les Miserables brings on ghosts of the
past to sing an encore of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" The far less
frequently used alternative approach is to introduce a rousing new
song, like "You Can't Stop the Beat" in Hairspray.
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
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
Sondheim's "Chrysanthemum Tea" in Pacific Overtures
describes "an herb that’s superb for
disturbances at sea."
Cole Porter's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"
in Kiss Me Kate has such ingenious rhymes as heinous
with Coriolanus and fussing with
nussing ("nussing" is Porter's playful pseudo-Yiddish version
of the word "nothing.")
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, clichéd 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)