SONG SPOTLIGHT: Let Me Fall
A few weeks ago, we discussed the disconnect between the actual state of contemporary musical theatre, and what “Golden Age” die-hards perceive it to be. Reality: a thriving group of creative people humming along and tapping away (mmhmmm). Perception: a cacophony of “blecch.”
Cacophonous because contemporary musical theatre reflects rap, rock, and all the wacky stuff kids are hip to these days. And that music is just not properly theatrical, right?
I’ll play Devil’s Advocate for a second. Once upon a time, musical theatre and pop radio were pretty synonymous. Just ask the Gershwins. However, beginning in the 1960s, the big Broadway standards and the stuff the kids were listening to were miles apart. Suddenly with Hair, the rock musical was embraced. And in an effort to bridge the gap between theatre and mainstream music, we have abandoned that old standard sound.
I’ll save the debates about rock n roll’s place in musical theatre and whether Irving Berlin’s pop song format was actually abandoned for another time, but the party poopers do have one point. Back in the day, Joy Son’s “Let Me Fall” would’ve been making its rounds on the pop charts. In today’s climate? Not so much. Let’s talk about why it still should be!
The song, with lyrics by Steve Routman, was originally conceived for an unfinished musical based on William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. This play also provided the basis for The Boys from Syracuse, written by some guys you may have heard of.
“Let Me Fall” was a song for the character Adriana. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Bard or Rodgers and Hart (what are you even doing here??), Adriana is married to Antipholous, whose heretofore-unknown identical twin brother shows up in town, causing Adriana to believe Antipholous is unfaithful to her. In its original context, “Let Me Fall” is a bittersweet ballad about how Adriana wishes she could turn off her love for Antipholous, given what she thinks he’s done; but she’s head over heels regardless. As a stand-alone song, it’s the same thing for whoever decides to sing it.
The Boys from Syracuse also gave Adriana a song about love, with a much more cynical edge: “Falling In Love With Love.” Perhaps you’re familiar with Sinatra’s version? Or Andy Williams’? Point is, this was a breakaway pop hit, like many Rodgers and Hart songs were, living long lives outside the shows they were written for.
Why did this happen so successfully, so often? Well, the truth is, Lorenz Hart’s lyrics were not nearly so character based as his successor’s. Hart made no attempt to integrate his songs into the shows they were supposed to be narrating. As Son herself states, stand-alone musical theatre pieces provide performers “more freedom in terms of characterization.” There’s vast applicability in a verse like “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe/Falling in love with love is playing the fool.”
So applicable it can be dropped into a completely different show!
And yet, the maxim goes, the more specific a writer gets, the more universal their work becomes. Hart’s generalities resonated with people back in the day, but just because contemporary musical theatre composers have evolved to be as specific as possible with their songs in a post-Hammerstein and Sondheim world, doesn’t mean those songs can’t be relatable and on the radio. The song does have to work as a stand-alone though, and not need the original musical’s context to give it power.
“Let Me Fall” contains concrete and familiar images, both lyrically and musically. Aside lines like “the sight of his hazel eyes that hypnotize”, the music supports the incredibly relatable and real situation the lyrics describe. The opening image is the narrator waiting for her husband to return. Before we even hear the first words, Son sets the listener up with accompaniment described as a “soft clock ticking”, consisting of two piano chords played back to back to back—sounding just like a monotonous clock tick. During the second verse, the accompaniment breaks up into long legato eighth note measures, adding a feeling of movement, indicating a more active declaration on the narrator’s part.
Another brilliant musical moment is during the bridge. The expression assigned to this section is “pop ballad,” and the music is used to illustrate the narrator’s naïve acceptance of certain romantic clichés as fact: a dozen red roses, a kiss on New Year’s Eve, etc. Son’s music references songs that contain such naïve romantic imagery, and reinforces what a typical situation the narrator is in.
“Let Me Fall” was one of the first songs Son wrote for the Comedy of Errors project, so it’s not restricted by the many elements of putting a cohesive musical theatre score together—integration, motifs, song placement, etc. This is the same reason why we get cut songs that arguably make better performance solos than the songs they replaced— “Bang!” versus “In Praise of Women,” “Touch My Soul” versus “Kiss Your Broken Heart” (your mileage, as always, may vary). “In Praise of Women” and “Kiss Your Broken Heart” are more concerned with moving A Little Night Music and bare’s plots forward than with being than these earlier, somewhat showier were. No one knows if “Let Me Fall” would have had to be rewritten somewhere along the line, but since the show was never completed, it works perfectly as a self-contained story with pop crossover potential.
Despite the relative freedom in interpretation “Let Me Fall” offers performers and listeners alike, you don’t see Kelly Clarkson or Bruno Mars cutting a version for their latest album. So what’s the lesson here? Integrated musicals aren’t listener friendly (unless it’s written by the guys from ABBA)? Are Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim actually the reason rock rules the radio? Should the musical theatre community just accept defeat and sit in the corner listening to Fiddler on repeat (No! Says Drew Fornarola)? I myself don’t really know the answer to those questions. But I’ll keep belting NMT.com songs in front of DJs until someone pays attention.