My Favorite Things: Counterpoint
“Counterpoint” is one of those fancy musical terms I was never sure I understood until I actually heard it in action. Once I did, I thought “witchcraft” might be a more accurate description. Essentially, counterpoint is when you have two completely different melodic lines happening at the same time. While this can be used to add depth to a piece of music or to make it more interesting to listen to, the technique has also been adopted by theatre composers for a variety of dramatic purposes.
“All For the Best” (Godspell) — Stephen Schwartz
One of my first experiences with counterpoint was while listening to Stephen Schwartz’s “All For the Best.” The song starts out innocently enough, in a similar pattern to other pieces from Godspell. In the first verse, Jesus tells his followers that everything will work out in the end. Life might seem difficult now, but if you work hard, the heavenly reward more than makes up for it. In the next verse, Judas counters with his own idea: life is difficult because only a few people are rich enough to get what they want. At this point in the song, you might be impressed at the wordplay around the phrase “all for the best.” The song really takes off, though, when you realize that the two seemingly incompatible voices are suddenly singing at the same time. When the rest of the company joins in, it’s hard to say who is saying what. The original contrast between Jesus and Judas’ views are lost as more and more people join in to repeat them.
“Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” (Next to Normal) — Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
In this piece, there are essentially two dramatic monologues to musicalize: Diana describes how she is trying to take care of her mental illness while her husband Dan is describing how he wants to take care of Diana. Choosing to use counterpoint here instead of two separate songs really emphasizes the state of Dan and Diana’s relationship. Their lives are so intertwined that they can’t even think about their own problems without considering how they are affecting the other person.
Counterpoint is used again during the middle of the song, when the company is going through all of the potential side effects of Diana’s various medications. The section sounds very clinical at first, with everyone rattling off symptoms together. Eventually, though, two groups split off and continue to make their lists at the same time. It’s difficult to distinguish what they’re even saying, and for a minute the audience is just as overwhelmed as Diana. (If you want to be overwhelmed for a totally different reason, take another listen to this section and pay attention to the totally groovetastic backing arrangements — Next to Normal didn’t win Best Orchestrations for nothing.)
“Prima Donna” (The Phantom of the Opera) — Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart
Sometimes, in the middle of a complicated drama with lots of storylines, the audience needs a minute to catch up with everybody. With a book or a movie, it is easy enough for a writer to focus on one character at a time. It’s perfectly fine to stop one storyline and say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” In theatre, though, there isn’t always time for that. In the middle of The Phantom of the Opera, the Opera Populaire is a very busy place, and every character we’ve seen so far is dealing with their own problems. This is where counterpoint can be handy: everyone gets to be on stage at once. During “Prima Donna,” Andre and Firmin are trying to stop their star performer from leaving (while simultaneously bad-mouthing her), Raoul is trying to stop a crazy guy from stalking his girlfriend, and Madame Giry is over in the corner trying not to look suspicious. With the use of counterpoint, all of these dramatic moments are achieved without wasting a minute.
“One Day More” (Les Miserables) — Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil
Speaking of complicated dramas — Les Miserables uses counterpoint all over the place, and the technique brings with it a number of dramatic and metaphorical implications. During “The Confrontation,” Valjean and Javert can sing over each other because they don’t actually care what the other is saying. The fact that they are singing over the same backing music serves another purpose too, by highlighting the underlying similarities between the two main characters. In “A Heart Full of Love,” Eponine adds her own layer to Marius and Cosette’s duet. As an audience, we hear her sing with the boy she loves and we imagine what it would be like if they were together.
The closing number of the first act of Les Miserables is one of the best-known examples of counterpoint. Traditionally, the act one finale is an important moment. Just before the curtain comes down, there has to be enough tension to pull the audience back in for the second act. Les Mis is not short on conflict — quite the opposite. Every one of the multitude of characters has something to deal with at the end of the act. With all major characters essentially reprising their own songs, the audience gets a little recap of everything that’s going on. Having everyone sing at the same time helps the audience to realize that all of the individual characters are connected, and all will be affected by whatever comes in the next act. (Plus it sounds really cool.)
What’s your favorite use of counterpoint in musical theater?