My Favorite Things: Demos
Songwriters make demos for lots of reasons: to share with collaborators, show producers, or simply to have for their own records. I love a beautifully complicated arrangement as much as anyone, but there’s something special about songs being performed by the people who wrote them. Without influence from orchestrations or staging or an actor’s interpretation, these raw recordings give us a sense of what it was like to imagine these songs from the very beginning.
Demos are like little pieces of history. They preserve not just the composers’ work, but their voices as well. “Boho Days,” from Jonathan Larson’s rock autobiography that later became tick, tick… BOOM!, is one of the few existing recordings of the composer himself singing. If you’re familiar with Rent (and I’m betting you are) then you’ve gotten a glimpse of what this song is about. Larson’s own a capella love letter to Bohemia previews the setting for his hit musical and captures the essence of his life as an artist better than any biography.
This next song comes from one of my favorite songwriting teams of all time, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Without an official cast recording, these demos are the only way to get a sense of the Disney duo’s first collaboration, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. The songwriting team’s early camaraderie is evident in this recording, with the two effortlessly switching parts and adding harmonies. Here’s “The Rosewater Foundation“:
In the process of writing and rewriting a show, some songs don’t make the cut. “I Found A Hobby,” the original theme for Little Shop of Horrors’s sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, was eventually replaced by the aptly titled, “Dentist!” This version showcases Howard Ashman’s commitment to selling the character, as he gleefully sets up the villain’s punchline:
At 22, the time came due
to choose a life’s profession
I struggled hard to think of one
in line with… mein obsession*
I could’ve been a boxer or a lawyer, yeah I guess
but no one causes suffering
like a licensed DDS
*Internal, multilingual rhyme? Yeah.
Bonus: even though the song didn’t make it in the show, this theme was still used in the orchestrations during the scene at Orin’s office, and can be heard in the vamp just before “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” around :48.
Today, demos can be a way to spark interest in a show before they even open. The availability of online video means that songwriters can share their songs with a worldwide audience, easier and more quickly than ever before. When his new musical A Little More Alive opened, NMT writer and all-around musical talent Nick Blaemire released videos like this one of “Trees” to give people an idea of what the show would sound like.
Whether they’re the last remaining record of a song that never was, or simply the first look at a new musical’s next hit, demos are a way for fans to interact with a piece of music on a personal level. We get to hear it in its earliest incarnation and we’re given a sense of the songwriter’s original vision. Whatever their purpose, demo versions of songs are always bursting with the earnest excitement that can only come from the songwriters themselves. This last song (starting at 1:18) is a great example of that feeling: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul sing “Some Kinda Time” from Dogfight (UK readers, go see it!).