There’s an old theater adage that “no one leaves humming the set.” I contend it’s equally true that “no one leaves humming the syncopated, accidental-filled, sixteenth-note-y vamp.” As more new musical theater is being written by amazingly talented, expert pianists (who are often non-singers), increasing attention is being paid to the accompaniment figure, which is being written first, at the expense of the vocal line, which is perched precariously on top of it at the end. This seems to me to be a case of the tail wagging the dog, and I worry it leads to theater music that is less accessible to general audiences, and less emotionally resonant for all of us.
Instruction and feedback for composers in musical theater workshops and classes tends to focus on “evoking the setting and the character” through “the music,” but for some reason “the music” has come essentially to mean “the piano arrangement,” and this is leading to a style of writing in which the piano, and not the voice, drives the construction of the song. Vocal writing in general, and melody in particular, is for some reason an afterthought in the discussion, despite the fact that the voice is carrying the lyrics, and is the emotional engine of the song.
Why do we neglect melody in the workshop setting? It could be that taste in this area is just too subjective to make discussion useful. But it may just as likely be a misguided nod to Sondheim and his intricate accompaniment figures, and, for the younger generation, to Jason Robert Brown and his virtuosic piano parts. While both write beautifully for piano, we cannot forget that Sondheim’s vocal writing is at least as detailed as his accompaniment, and Brown’s maniacally challenging piano parts still usually serve, and very rarely overpower, high profile, beautiful melodies. Among the older generation there also seems still to be a backlash against, and resentment of, the uber-melodic European musicals that dominated the 80s. I would love to see these pretensions disappear among our generation of writers.
At the risk of sounding like Joe Josephson, the crotchety producer in Merrily We Roll Along, I offer for discussion two pieces of new musical theater heresy: first, most of or much of the important melodic material in a musical should be “hummable,” and second, this material needs to be repeated much more often than feels natural to most of us. The number of times “Some Enchanted Evening” is played in South Pacific is astounding. How can you not leave singing it? I’m not saying every show should be an iPod shuffle of twelve “I Dreamed a Dream”s, but memorable melody is important, and if we continue to relegate it to a tertiary compositional concern, we run the risk of alienating the most important people in the theatrical process: the audience.
There are certainly dramatic situations that call for the piano (orchestra) to take the lead, but I feel generally that a piano first / vocal second mentality has it the wrong way around. If we can build down from the vocal line (leadsheet), rather than up from the piano part (vamp), I suspect we will create better audience experiences, and we’ll stop getting, as a group, so many of those depressing “the score was professional but unmemorable” reviews.
But what do you think? I’d be thrilled to hear some alternate perspectives!