SONG SPOTLIGHT: Blue Hair
Welcome back to Song Spotlights! Before we dive in, I wanted to give a little background about the inspiration behind this series. Once upon a time, in a class on the American Musical, my professor declared his unofficial death date for the Golden Age as 1981 (Merrily We Roll Along and its original flop production—clearly an omen). As you know, the kids killed musical theatre with their rock-n-roll and their nasal belts and their Disneyfication.
[/sarcasm] Now, I’m not bashing this class; on the contrary, I learned a lot about American musical theatre history and why the greats are great. And it gave me the tools to articulate my case for why the American Musical is NOT dead. Duh!
I learned about different song types, genre-wise (comic waltz, romantic ballad) and plot-wise (I Am Song, the Eleven O’clock Breakdown—the latter may or may not be particular to Stephen Sondheim). Most dynamic musical theatre songs combine one or more of these song types with a musical genre that makes the most sense. For example, “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat works as both an I Am and an I Want Song for the character Joe because he describes his current social position—a black man in the Reconstruction-Era South—in contrast to his ideal—the freewheeling Mississippi River. Musically and lyrically, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein evoke the spiritual, in keeping with Joe’s character.
“Blue Hair,” from Joe Iconis’ The Black Suits, is one such number. At its core it’s a classic I Want Song, but it also has shades of what we call the Conditional Love Song, and stylistically it’s part patter song. I’m going to look at this song through the lens of these three song categories.
As suggested by Iconis’ official synopsis, The Black Suits is about teenagers and “the undying transformative coolness of rock and roll music.” Writing young characters can be challenging; they sometimes quest for rather generic things. Like, coolness, or that nebulous concept known as “purpose.” Specificity is the key to any successful musical theatre song. So what Iconis does with “Blue Hair” is take the character Lisa’s broad teenage desire to be cool and concentrates that into a specific action.
And Lisa’s search for “wonderful super fantastic coolness remarkable” via blue hair is made more specific as it relates to her romantic hang-ups. She wants to either get ANY reaction out of her inattentive boyfriend Chris or to engage a potential and unquestionably “cool” lover, John, who “used to have blue hair back in the day.”
The romantic angle is what makes this a Conditional Love Song. Generally considered to have been invented by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Conditional Love Song was a way to get a showstopping duet into Act One without losing the love story’s tension. Instead of a song where the couple declares their love for one another, the Conditional Love Song is always about the couple imagining what being in love with each other would be like. That way we still have somewhere to go in Act Two. “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “If I Loved You” and other non R&H songs such as Guys and Dolls’ “I’ll Know” fit the criteria.
In many ways, “Blue Hair” is not a typical Conditional Love Song. It’s not a duet, for starters, but it still operates on similar logic. Lisa is not in love with John. She’s not dyeing her hair out of love. But she fantasizes about what it would be like if he responded positively to her hair, and to her, all while downplaying how she feels about that: “It’s like whatever. You know, it’s like…cool.” (There’s that word again). But then also unlike the typical Conditional Love Song, Lisa does admit to having strong feelings for John at the end (“He makes me feel wonderful super fantastic…” etc).
Ultimately, “Blue Hair” is not really a Conditional Love Song because it’s not serving the same purpose as those older songs. In a show with a Conditional Love Song, the romance is usually the story’s focal point. The Black Suits and its characters are not primarily focused on romance. Lisa’s motivation in this song is not the hypothetical relationship with John or even the real relationship with Chris. She sings “I’m not one of those girls who does things for guys,” and I believe her. Lisa’s main angst is articulated near the song’s end: “I blend in, everyone always forgets my name.” She hates that Chris ignores her because she hates when anyone ignores her.
This leads us to the song’s style, as it relates to the song’s thematic content. The patter song, as originally popularized by Gilbert and Sullivan, was a purely witty exercise. Full of clever tongue-twisters and wordplay, patter songs allowed both the lyricist and the actor performing the song to show off. Musically, the patter song usually has a fast tempo and is characterized by its lack of melismatic phrases. Each syllable in the lyric gets its own note.
While often still comedic in nature, the patter song has evolved beyond just a show-off number. Stephen Sondheim repeatedly used patter songs as character pieces, overlapping a lot with that aforementioned Eleven O’clock Breakdown number—“Getting Married Today”, “Buddy’s Blues”, “Franklin Shepard Inc.”
As the master likes to say, Content Dictates Form. Sondheim wrote patter songs for characters that were nervous, neurotic and fast-talking to begin with. I believe it’s a natural choice for Iconis to use patter sections in “Blue Hair” because it evokes today’s fast-talking teens, as well as Lisa’s nervous teen rebellion. In Sondheim fashion, the “Blue Hair” patter is more about character than showing off, but in a reverse-Sondheim move, Lisa’s rambling leads to a hopeful epiphany rather than a nervous breakdown.
So next time someone says that musical theatre has gone to the dogs, kindly (or not-so-kindly) point out the Golden-Age influence in a—gasp!—modern—shock!—rock n roll—eek!—musical.
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