Baby, Bathwater or Both?
If you’re a hardcore musical theatre fan – and let’s be honest, you probably are if you’re on this site – you’re familiar with the term “trunk song.” On the off-chance that you stumbled onto this blog thinking I’m one of the writers and producers of Sex and the City – I’m not, by the way – I’ll help you out. A “trunk song” usually refers to a song that was originally written for a musical but was cut before the show opened. When a composer cuts a song, it is put “in their trunk” – which is sort of like a hope chest except that it’s metaphorical and rarely contains much hope.
You see, once a song goes into the trunk, it usually stays there for a long time – often, forever. Oh sure, if you have a long, illustrious career as a composer, eventually somebody will put together a revue of your work and want to include some of those rarely-heard trunk songs to make the fan boys squeal with delight. But until and unless that happens, the trunk tends to be a relatively final resting place.
That might make you think that all songs relegated to trunk-dom are horrible, terrible, crappy affronts to musical theatre. Not so, dear reader, not so! In fact, many trunk songs are quite good as songs…and yet they got cut anyway. If you’re still with me by now, you’d probably wondering why. Well, the fact is, writing a musical is a lot like the criminal justice system – it’s half trial, half error.
The reality is, sometimes you get lucky and the first song you write for a character and a moment ends up in the opening night version of the show. You tell the story of that sainted song over and over until people wanna hit you in the head with a meat tenderizer. But sometimes, the show changes after you write a song. And the song that seemed so perfect when you wrote it now seems so wrong, so “good but bad” that it sticks out like a bowl of tortilla chips at a sushi bar.
So, with a simple flick of your proverbial wrist, you cut it, put it in your trunk and move on. Or do you…?
Because here’s the thing – deciding whether to cut a song or not can be really difficult. Are you cutting it because it really should be cut, or because it would be hard but worthwhile work to adjust it and keep it? On the flipside, are you keeping it because the actress singing it sounds amazing and everybody just loves the song or because it really fits the moment in the show? It may not rise to the level of Sophie’s Choice, but in the heat of the moment, you can feel pretty Streep-like.
Add to that the pressure you get from your co-writers, the director, the producers, the actors, your agent, the guy in the corner deli and every other random person who suddenly has the definitive opinion on the matter. Sure, technically, the only person(s) who can make the decision to cut a song are the writers, but, as a practical matter there are always those who push pretty hard one way or the other – but that is another blog for another time.
So, eventually you’ll decide whether to cut it or not. And that means, during your writing career, you will add songs to your trunk. Sometimes at an alarming rate! In the end, you go with your creative best judgment at the time and hope songs end up where they belong and that your decision made each show better. Whether it did or not…that’s sometimes hard to tell.
But fear not, trunk songs, there are times when one of you rises from the depths and gets a life after all – be it in another show or as a stand-alone song. One of my favorite songs – and hardest cuts – is the song Moonflower which I was able to include on my CD, Out of Context. It took several years for me to rescue Moonflower, but when I did, it was rewarded by being beautifully sung by the incomparable Kelli O’Hara! So don’t lose hope trunk songs! For just like Annie being adopted by Daddy Warbucks, sometimes, against all odds one of you will get a happy ending.
Of course, it should be remembered that, for every Annie living it up year-round in the Warbucks Mansion, there’s a Molly, a Pepper and 4 other orphans who only get to visit at Christmas…