Emotion: The Theatremaker’s Trap

Recently, I sat in a room full of young theatre students. Many of the budding thespians were discussing the songs they had been assigned in a musical theatre class, and the students began to sing the praises of a certain composer whose work I have never admired. They asked me what I thought and were appalled to learn that I wasn’t a fan. The student who was leading the conversation asked me why, and rather than pontificating at length about the musical and lyrical merits of this composer, I instead pulled out my phone and began to play a few musical examples. As the songs played the student began to gush and said, “How can you not love this? It’s so emotional.” Bingo. The kid hit the nail on the head. I turned to him and said, “That’s all it is.”

Emotion may be one of the biggest traps in the theatre, especially in musical theatre. Of course, the emotional effect that theatre can have on us is certainly one of the reasons we are drawn to it in the first place. We do what we do because at one point or another the theatre impacted us in a way that we never forgot. But we as composers, playwrights, lyricists, and performers have so much more to offer than “emotion.”

During my second year of college, an acting teacher told our class time and time again that theatre at its purest essence is action. He said that this is a fact that many theatre students are not aware of at first. Oftentimes, when young performers are asked what their characters are doing, they answer with “he’s sad” or “she’s excited.” It takes time and training until a skilled actor begins to think in terms of wants and actions. Action is the driving force of every part of stage work. Everything else comes second; emotion is a byproduct of action.

This is a lesson that takes time for many songwriters to learn as well – myself included. I often struggle as I write, forcing myself to dig deeper than the initial emotion the scene suggests. But as writers, we are responsible for more than just feelings. We don’t just write songs. We write moments, and those moments have to add up to tell a much larger story. If the moment only exists to try and make the audience feel something or to express an emotion, then it is only scraping the surface of what a well-written song in a musical can do. A well-written musical theatre song uses character and action in specific ways to paint a clear picture and to serve the story. If all of the pieces fall into place, then the audience will be moved in one way or another. If all that is written and performed is the emotion of the moment, then the song will run the risk of being ineffective.

This isn’t to say that “emotional” songs are bad. There are plenty of beautiful songs written for the theatre that do not serve their stories, but they could be cut from the show without the audience ever knowing. As writers, we must trust that the story, characters, and conventions we use are enough. We do not need to embellish our pieces with superfluous feelings. If we’ve done our job correctly, then the audience will feel the emotion alongside the characters. If it isn’t working, then we keep trying by being even more specific in our writing.

For the record, the composer I mentioned above is one who I have the utmost respect for, and as I’ve watched his work over the years, I find that the songs in his shows have grown more specific. This is something we should all strive for: to improve each time we put our pen to paper or step out on a stage. When we trust our material and our skills, then we never need to rely on emotion alone.


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