FINISHING THE HAT: “Vietnam” – A Conversation with Alexander Sage Oyen
Of all the discussion about the writing of musicals – the “to-do”s and “to-don’t”s, what IS and what ISN’T musical theatre, what rhymes and what doesn’t – it’s good to get back to basics: musical theatre is first and foremost about storytelling. A great musical has a story ARC, but each individual song should reveal its own pocket story. Alexander Sage Oyen has a unique and brilliant mastery of the story song. His pieces cover a layered character arc without once losing melodic integrity or lyrical honesty. Here, he discusses one of his best: “Vietnam.”
THE STORY: “Vietnam” is a powerful stand-alone piece from Oyen’s song cycle Moment by Moment.
THE SET-UP: A son remembers lessons he learned from his veteran father.
WAY BACK IN THE DAY,
MY PA WOULD SAY,
“WHAT DID YOU LEARN TODAY AT SCHOOL?
STICK WITH IT AND YOU’LL BE OKAY,
AND WELL, HEY,
WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE WE ALREADY KNEW,
WHAT WE WERE BORN TO DO,
THERE WAS NO TIME FOR PLAY,”
HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO HOLD A TOY GUN,
I POINTED IT AT EVERYONE,
HE’D TELL ME OF HIS FORMER GLORY,
EVERY DAY THE SAME OLD STORY,
LET’S PLAY VIETNAM BEFORE YOUR MOM COMES OUT HERE AND SEES,
HER TWO MEN AT IT AGAIN,
YOU’LL UNDERSTAND ONE DAY,
‘CAUSE SHE DON’T LIKE WAR AND SHE DON’T LIKE GUNS,
SHE EXPECTS MUCH MORE FROM YOU MY SON,
SO DON’T EVER LET HER CATCH YOU WITH THESE,
EVEN IF IT’S ONLY PLAY,
DAD WOULD ALWAYS SAY,
“THOSE WERE THE DAYS KEEPING THE BAD GUYS AT BAY,
I WAS JUST A KID,
AND I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANT TO BE,
PART OF THE MARINE CORPS,
HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO SHOOT A REAL GUN,
I REMEMBER THINKING, “THIS THING WEIGHS A TON,”
AND WE’D TAKE A HUNTING TRIP EVERY YEAR,
AND DAD WOULD SAY, “LET’S PLAY THE GAME WITH THE DEER,”
LET’S PLAY VIETNAM AND BRING YOUR MOM SOME GRADE A GAME,
FIND THE WEAKEST SPOT THEN TAKE YOUR SHOT,
YOU’LL UNDERSTAND ONE DAY,
BECAUSE LIFE’S A WAR AND WE’VE GOT OUR GUNS,
AND THERE WILL BE MORE FOR YOU MY SON,
AND AFTER YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SAME,
EVEN IF IT FEELS LIKE PLAY.”
IN THE HISTORY BOOKS THEY DON’T TELL THE STORIES LIKE DAD DID,
THEY DIDN’T GET A THING WHEN THEY RETURNED,
BUT I STILL LISTENED TO THE STORIES DAD WOULD TELL,
I GAVE HIM THE HONOR HE HAD EARNED,
I DON’T THINK HE EVER FORGOT THOSE THINGS HE DID,
WHICH IS WHY HE WAS SO SCARED TO SEND HIS KID,
LET’S PLAY VIETNAM BUT DON’T TELL YOUR MOM,
AND MAKE SURE SHE DOESN’T SEE,
I’LL TEACH YOU HOW TO FIGHT AND YOU’LL BE ALL RIGHT,
YOU’LL UNDERSTAND ONE DAY,
‘CAUSE I DON’T LIKE WAR AND I DON’T LIKE GUNS,
AND I WANT MUCH MORE FOR YOU MY SON,
BUT YOU NEED TO BE AS PREPARED AS YOU CAN BE,
EVEN THOUGH NOW,
IT’S ONLY PLAY.
DB: Tell me a little about the creation of the lyric generally.
ASO: It was 2012 in the middle of summer – I had just moved to the city in June and was eager to start writing new tunes and find new inspirations. It was also the middle of a pretty intense election – President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in the thick of it. I was in the Duane Reade at 106th and Broadway when I saw a magazine that had “President Mitt Romney” in bold font on the front. It terrified me (not as much as just the thought of “President Donald Trump” or “President Ben Carson,” but that’s a whole different discussion).
When I went home I began researching some of the weirdest moments in U.S. History. I am so very proud to call this country home but I also recognize that we are still a toddler nation and are still growing and making mistakes and testing boundaries. The Vietnam War has always astonished me. And then this song happened.
DB: Was there a rhythm pattern you were looking to achieve in this song? What was the goal of the flow of the text?
ASO: I was trying to create a complicated thought so I decided to take a look at putting rhymes in odd places. I’ll give two examples from the tune. I’ll color-code the rhymes.
Way back in the day,
My pa would say,
“What did you learn today at school?
Stick with it and you’ll be okay,
And well, hey, when I was your age
We already knew,
What we were born to do,
There was no time for play,”
There are three sets of rhymes in there, orange being the most utilized, pink and blue being more like internals than anything else. But the thing that’s kinda cool about this lyric in particular is that the orange comes at you almost randomly and sometimes in the middle of a line. I liked the concept of a thought that might be too jagged to rhyme where we suspect it may.
Let’s play Vietnam and bring your Mom some grade “A” game,
Find the weakest spot then take your shot,
You’ll understand one day,
Because life’s a war and we’ve got our guns,
And there will be more for you my son,
And after you will never be the same,
Even if it feels like play,
Another example is the chorus, which is a bit more structured of an idea. The rhymes always land in the spot where you suspect they will (internals be damned, most of the rhymes are at the ends of the lines). However, while something is always rhyming, it’s not always the thing that you may suspect it will be.
DB: Thematically, where does the lyric reach its "moment" – meaning, is there a particular line that serves as the heartbeat of the song?
ASO: Probably the climax of the song is “Which is why he was so scared to send his kid.” I like that line.
DB: If you had the chance to re-write this lyric knowing what you know now, what, if anything, would you do differently?
ASO: I am so damn bugged by 3 particular moments in the chorus of this song. The “son/guns” rhyme is one of those writer-y things with me – it’s going to bug me until the day that I die, most likely. Here’s the thing: If I try to pluralize “son” to “sons,” it makes the moment with the character’s father a very general moment, as if to say “He does this with all of his sons.” It takes away the individuality of this memory with his father. And I can’t make “guns” singular because English. And I can’t go to sleep at night because “son/guns” doesn’t rhyme. Somebody help me.
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