8 Musical Theatre Songs to Inspire Song and Structure
Musical Theatre writing is tricky business, and as writers, we are always searching for inspiration in terms of song and structure. Structure. I had to say that one again, because quite frankly, in MT writing, it always wins.
Here are the songs I look to when I’m struggling with certain structural ideas that need more flushing out, or if I simply need help acknowledging what precisely makes a song original. I hope these numbers can help you as much as they continue to help me.
1. “Cell Block Tango” – Chicago: “Cell Block Tango” is the song that continues to solidify that a number comprised of mostly dialogue can be effective. The hook explodes after each woman dictates how she commits murder, and it ties everything together seamlessly. It’s a good model for an extended sequence in a lot of ways, even though I wouldn’t describe this number as such. Balancing book and music together during a song can be tough, but “Cell Block Tango” proves that it can certainly be accomplished.
2. “Blackout” – In the Heights: This is one of the best contemporary numbers I know that creates organized chaos in a musically gratifying way. We have phrases and hooks to latch onto, but the drama of the actual blackout is captured by the cacophony of diverse voices that are present, and essentially dramaturgy, moving the plot forward, and all that jazz remains at the forefront of the song.
3. “Ring of Keys” – Fun Home: The fact that this lyric was crafted for a child actor is plain amazing. I love when we allow kids to sound as smart as they are. Structurally, I like the song for the simplicity of it. It uses minimal yet incredibly powerful phrasing to convey the truth of an individual struggling to articulate something, which is just so darn human – not to mention particularly poignant when coming from a child.
4. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – Hairspray: For anyone looking to craft a hugely joyful finale with a large cast, look no further than this song. It’s a get on your feet, clap to the music, and love your life number that leaves everyone with a smile plastered on their faces.
5. “Being Alive” – Company: I mean, it’s one of the best 11 o’clock numbers of all time, particularly for men! Anyone who can sing the heck out of this song just destroys us all. The point of view, the dramatic “come to Jesus moment” that we’ve all been waiting for – it’s here for the taking, and it’s damn good.
6. “Don’t Do Sadness / Blue Wind” – Spring Awakening: This is an inspired and gorgeously melodic counterpoint duet. It’s not a traditional duet by any stretch, but not all duets should be traditional, so the structure of this song is really exceptional in the way the hooks layer together in an emotionally and musically exciting manner. Take note, all of you non-traditionalists!
7. “I’ll Cover You” – RENT: Okay, I’m not even going to front. This is one of my favorite love songs of all time because it is so beautifully optimistic. It’s not overwrought, and it’s also sung between two men. The groundbreaking quality of this love song when it was originally performed is quite powerful and something to consider when writing your own. How can you put a unique contemporary spin on a love song? How can you widen the audience perspective, and continue to prove that love is universal? These are only a few of the many questions that “I’ll Cover You” and its chosen structure and intent make me ask.
8. “Defying Gravity” – Wicked: I’m just going to leave this here. I mean, do I really have to elaborate? It’s a profound and electrifying example of how to end Act One.
So BAM. There you have it. Eight awesomely inspired songs that make our hearts tick thanks to sound structure and format and innovative content. Let’s all tip our little bowler hats to them.
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