Book Review: “Writing Musical Theater”

It’s a strange thing when you decide all of a sudden to do something with little prior knowledge. People don’t declare that they’re going to try out for a professional sports team without having, at the very least, knowledge of the fundamentals of that sport. People don’t decide to pursue an interest in painting without at least knowing a little bit about art and what someone can do with it.

Yet here I am, deciding that I’m going to write a full-fledged musical, without really knowing anything about musicals other than “It’s like a play but there’s a lot of singing.” The first step of the journey, then, is to have a better understanding of what a musical is, including structures and rules, so that I can have a general idea of what exactly I’m getting into.

I’m very lucky to live in an area that has a public library with access to a variety of resources (and you might be, too. Please check out your local public library, because there’s some pretty cool stuff going on in there), and was able to get my hands on a book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus.

In general, I’m a fan of “insider”-type knowledge. The podcasts I listen to are usually ones that provide insight into the creation of some of my favorite things, and any time I can read or consume something that provides more history and context to things I enjoy (such as reading the oral history of Saturday Night Live), I come away awed and inspired.

The first half of the book is “nuts-and-bolts,” going over all of the minutiae of the different elements of musicals, from what goes into the libretto or book of the show, down to the nitty-gritty of the different musical elements. Even if you’re a Broadway Superfan, I’m sure that you would enjoy learning more about what goes into the show, as well as tips and tricks for making sure that nothing in a musical goes to waste.

The first half of the book is where I learned the most about what exactly a musical is. It’s where I learned, for example, that songs and music are not simply shoehorned into an existing play, but they, in fact, serve a dramatic function in the whole story, whether it’s to move the story forward or to make a character more likable and appealing.

(If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s just common knowledge,” keep in mind that I didn’t realize there were Nazis in The Sound of Music until years after I first saw the movie. I always assumed the story ended at what is actually the halfway point.)

The second half of the book is all about actually writing a show, and, for someone about to wade into those waters for the first time, the information they provided was extremely helpful. The authors “write” two shows at the same time, illustrating the differences between adapting an existing work into a musical compared to conjuring up a new, original idea. They go through writing character sketches, scene summaries, and go through the process of “song spotting,” or identifying the optimal places for music and song to be introduced. The authors also go through the process of writing some of the songs from both of the shows, providing insight into deciding not only what character is singing, but also what they are singing and how they are singing it.

In summary, I gleaned a lot of knowledge from this book, and I took a copious amount of notes. While reading this book may not guarantee that I’m going to write a smash Broadway hit, it has given me the knowledge and the confidence to go forth and see what I can create.

And who knows, maybe if this musical does become the smash hit I hope it becomes, maybe I’ll save a couple of tickets for Allen and Steven. After all, they’ve been tremendous teachers for the last month or so.

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Analysis: “Wait For It” (from Hamilton)

At this point in my journey of writing a musical, I’m finishing an excellent book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus. This is a really great book that provides a lot of insight and information into exactly what a musical is and how to write one (I’ll post a full review of the book when I’m finished).

Currently, I’m finishing a section of the book about songs; specifically, the dramatic function of songs in musicals. Because the best way to synthesize information is to teach it, I’d like to take a moment and do a song analysis on one of my favorite songs from the musical Hamilton, “Wait For It.”

Before we get into the actual song, we should first have an understanding of the context in which it appears:

“Wait For It” comes near the middle of Act I: shortly after Alexander Hamilton meets and marries Eliza Schuyler, Aaron Burr enters to congratulate Hamilton on his marriage. Hamilton and Burr have met earlier in Act I, when Hamilton first arrives to New York, and we have already seen that these two are polar opposite people. Hamilton is all about taking immediate action, while Burr prefers to wait out his adversaries until the most opportune time; as an example of this characterization, when Burr gives Hamilton the advice of “Talk less; smile more,” Hamilton rebuffs him and turns to join up with three revolutionaries he finds in a pub, which leads to Hamilton declaring, “I’m not throwing away my shot!”

After congratulating Hamilton on his marriage, Burr confesses to him that he is having an affair with the wife of a British officer. Why does Burr tell Hamilton this, especially after Hamilton just got married? My guess is that it’s because Burr is pretty proud of how subversive he is in this action. Burr and Hamilton are on the same side of the Revolution, they just have two different approaches to it. Hamilton doesn’t see it that way, however; he tells Burr that he should take a chance: “I will never understand you. If you love this woman, go get her! What are you waiting for?” Hamilton departs, and Burr sings.

Of the different types of songs outlined in the Cohen and Rosenhaus book (ballad, comedy song, rhythm song, list song, charm song), I believe “Wait For It” is a charm song. Charm songs are meant to humanize characters and make them likable to the audience, and Burr definitely needs some likability. Burr is established as the villain in the beginning of the musical, singing the line “I’m the damn fool that shot him” in the opening number. But in the several reviews I’ve seen or heard regarding Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been praised for how “human” he makes these historical figures; no one is a saint, and things don’t just “work out” in the end. Even Hamilton is a flawed figure, and he’s the star of the show!

How does this song work to humanize Aaron Burr? I’ll start with a brief quote from Miranda in an interview with the New Yorker:

Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward…. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’

The lyrics to “Wait For It” begin with Aaron Burr discussing his current affair with the British officer’s wife, and it’s obvious that he would love to take Hamilton’s advice (“He can keep all of Georgia; Theodosia, she’s mine.”), but he prefers to hold back. The second verse, Burr speaks about his upbringing (“My grandfather was fire and brimstone preacher…, my mother was genius, my father commanded respect”) but also recognizes that there is no “right way” to go about protecting and honoring their legacy.

The choruses in this song more directly speak to the emotion that Miranda spoke about in his New Yorker interview: the feeling of being left behind, of watching all of your friends find success while you feel stuck in a rut…

Sidebar: maybe this is why I relate to this song so much? My friends are all getting married and earning graduate degrees, and I’m kind of “stuck” as a single guy, wishing, even though I love my job, that I could do more with my life?

… as Aaron Burr philosophizes about life, love, and death. In each of these cases, Burr says that they “don’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and it takes and it takes,” but also sees that “if there’s a reason” things seem to be working out how they have for him so far — with Theodosia, “if there’s a reason I’m by her side/while so many have tried;” with life and death, “if there’s a reason I’m still alive/when everyone who loves me has died” — then something bigger must be on the horizon, and he’s willing to wait for it.

The song takes an interesting turn when Burr starts speaking about Hamilton. Burr begins this section by identifying his life philosophy (“I’m not standing still, I’m lying in wait” — which might also be a reminder to himself as he watches Hamilton get all these accolades and promotions), and then starts speaking about Hamilton, and how he must have “something to prove” with “nothing to lose.” At first, Burr seems to be frustrated or angry about Hamilton’s quick rise to power, but as the music comes to a crescendo, Burr all of a sudden reins it in and asks, “What is it like in his shoes?”

That line tells us that, however Burr might be feeling that Hamilton has all of this success, he still very much admires the man and wonders what makes him tick. Is it because Burr is hoping to glean any sort of information to apply to his own rise to power? Or is it simply curiosity?

Burr finishes his song by discussing his disbelief at Hamilton: “… he exhibits no restraint/he takes and he takes and he takes/and he keeps winning anyway/he changes the game/he plays and he raises the stakes.” In Aaron Burr’s worldview, this sort of reckless abandon should have failed Hamilton years ago. It should have prevented him from achieving any sort of success in New York, much less being named Gen. Washington’s right hand man and marrying the daughter of a successful businessman.

The final line of this chorus, however, is curious to me: “And if there’s a reason he seems to thrive/when so few survive then goddammit/I’m willing to wait for it.” It’s curious to me because, while I think I know what he’s saying, I’m not exactly certain.

What I think Burr is saying is that Hamilton must be a fluke. Hamilton is having all of this success, despite being an impulsive brute with no foresight. He’s not doing it the way it should be done. And if he’s having all of this success by doing things that are against conventional wisdom, then by following conventional wisdom, Burr should be able to find much greater and more meaningful success.

By the end of the song, there is no doubt that Aaron Burr is still the antagonist of Hamilton. But we also get a glimpse inside his head, and we can see that Burr still wants the best for this fledgling country called America; he just disagrees with Alexander Hamilton about how it should be done.

Analysis: “Little Shop of Horrors”

See A Note on Analyses for more information about this type of post.

Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Music by Alan Menken
First produced Off-Off-Broadway in 1982
I ended up watching the movie version from 1986, starring Rick Moranis as Seymour

THEME/STORY: Little Shop of Horrors is a love story, but also a warning of what happens if you do anything to get what you want. Seymour discovers a plant from outer space, and discovers that when this plant is fed human blood, things suddenly go right for him. This eventually backfires on him, as his new-found fame overwhelms him, and he must destroy the very thing that gave him that fame.

IMPORTANT SONGS:
“Skid Row” (beginning of Act I) — Establishes setting and mood, but also introduces us to Seymour. Seymour’s section of the song is simultaneously an “I am” and “I want” song: we learn that Seymour is an orphan, that he’s a sweet guy, hardworking, and a bit of a pushover. We also learn that he doesn’t want to live on Skid Row, and is looking for any way to leave.

“Feed Me (Git It)” (end of Act I) — Sets up the events of Act II. Audrey II reveals that it’s a supernatural entity (“If I can talk, and I can move, who’s to say I can’t do anything I want?”), and in order to continue Seymour’s success, it needs blood. Seymour is resistant at first (“I have so, so many strong reservations”), but when Audrey II pushes Seymour to think of someone who deserves to be “plant food,” Seymour thinks of Orin Scrivello, the abusive dentist boyfriend of the love interest Audrey I. Now we have motivation: Seymour is to kill Orin and feed him to Audrey II, who will, in turn, give Seymour anything he wants.

“Finale (Don’t Feed The Plants)” (end of Act II) — Sums up the rest of the events. While it can be argued that the emotional climax of the entire show is when Audrey II kills and eats Audrey I and Seymour, this song wraps up the events of the show and, in a way, reiterates the point of the show: don’t let your emotions get the better of you, or else alien plants will take over America. Or something like that.

WHAT I LIKE:

  • The doo-wop trio of Chiffon, Ronette, and Crystal is a great story-telling device, reminiscent of the Greek Chorus of ancient plays.
  • This show is hilarious. The premise is just so absurd, and the film has many visual gags that can be easily missed if you don’t look out for them.
  • Doo-wop is, like, the best type of music for cheesy musicals like this. The show never gets dark enough to warrant a “legit” ballad, so the overall mood of the show matches the style of music presented.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

  • There’s so much to like about this show, that it’s tough to find something not to like. If I had to find something to critique, it would be that the characters are kind of dim. Like, almost too dim. It’s a little unbelievable that Seymour immediately jumps to the thought of “If blood makes it grow, it has to be my/human blood.” I mean, even in Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett mentions using cats as meat in her pies. I don’t know, if I was Seymour, I probably would have tried stray animals in the streets before jumping to killing someone to feed my alien plant.

Analysis: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

See “A Note on Analyses” for more information on this type of post.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
First produced on Broadway in 1979
DVD version stars Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney Todd

THEME/STORY: Sweeney Todd is a story of revenge. Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Baker) was exiled to Australia on a trumped-up charge, and returns to London to learn that his wife has poisoned herself and the judge that sentenced him to exile has taken his child. He vows to exact (sweet, sweet) revenge on everyone who has wronged or slighted him by giving them “the closest shave” they’ve ever had.

IMPORTANT SONGS:
“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (Prologue) — introduces the character and mood of the show. We learn that Sweeney Todd is a barber and a murderer (“they went to their maker impeccably shaved”). The mood of the show is clearly macabre and very dark.

“Ephiphany” (end of Act I) — a strong emotional number sung by Sweeney Todd. He was so close to exacting this revenge on the judge, only to have him slip away with Anthony’s sudden arrival. Todd expresses a variety of emotions in this song: anger, at missing his shot; grief, for his late wife; revulsion, at the hypocrites and liars that surround him in London. So much is going on in this song; I’ll readily admit that this may not be “the most important” song as far as story telling goes, but it’s very powerful.

“A Little Priest” (finale of Act I) — This song sets up the events of Act II. Sweeney Todd has killed Pirelli (who turned out to be an ex-employee of Todd who tried to blackmail him), and Todd and Mrs. Lovett are trying to figure out what to do with his body. Though a comic song at it’s core (complete with terrible, awful, not-very-good-but-still-made-me-laugh-out-loud puns), it further solidifies the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: Todd will exact his revenge against those who wronged him, while simultaneously playing “butcher” for Mrs. Lovett, who believes using human meat in her meat pies will improve their quality. I mean, it’s working for that other woman who is (allegedly) using cats in her recipe.

“Final Sequence” (finale of Act II) — It can be argued that the emotional climax of the show is when Tobias sees the corpse of Beadle Bamford fall down the chute, but even then, the emotions continue to rise and progress throughout the show. Ultimately, the highest climax of the show is when Sweeney Todd, high off of finally exacting his revenge against Judge Turpin, realizes that the old beggar woman he killed was actually his wife, who he assumed was dead. There’s so much going on in this final sequence of music and drama that you’re not quite sure how to feel about it all. On one hand, hooray for Sweeney Todd for finally finding justice for being so wronged; on the other hand, his thirst for blood ultimately drove him mad and turned him into something much worse than he could have possibly imagined.

WHAT I LIKE:

  • Angela Lansbury is a treat!
  • Despite the gruesome subject matter of the show, it is surprisingly light. Mrs. Lovett is a well-meaning and somewhat innocent character, while Sweeney Todd, though jaded and cynical, still acts out of a misguided expression of love.
  • The puns! (“Try the priest.” “Heavenly!”)
  • “Epiphany” is easily one of my favorite songs of Act I, and demonstrates the wide range of emotions one person can feel at any given moment.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of like stories that don’t have happy endings, where things aren’t tied up in a nice, neat bow. No one is happy at the end of this show. Everyone is tortured and traumatized. It would seem like a cheap cop-out, and ultimately ruin the show, if Sweeney Todd felt relief after all of that murder he did (we know for sure that he killed five people during the course of the show — Pirelli, Judge Turpin, Beadle Bamford, the Beggar Woman, and Mrs. Lovett — but that number is obviously exponentially higher, given the success of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies at the start of Act II).

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

  • The relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Maybe it’s because I’m being influenced by the present-day success of Suicide Squad, but the way Mrs. Lovett says “Mr. T” makes me think of how Harley Quinn refers to The Joker as “Mr. J,” and it makes me think of how abusive and manipulative the Harley Quinn-Joker relationship is. Todd-Lovett doesn’t seem to have that same level of manipulation (unless I’m completely missing something), but it still gives me the creeps. I realize this isn’t anything specifically against the show, but it still kind of takes me out of the show.