What Makes a Song Cycle Tick?

A book is overrated in a musical…

Now anyone who knows me (Nick Luckenbaugh, one of your new NMT bloggers) knows that I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I don’t think enough emphasis is put on a musical’s book these days. But… today I want to talk about something for which no book exists: the song cycle.

It seems like every new composer or writing team has one of these. Even I’m guilty of it. But I get why writers are drawn to them. You’re composing new tunes that let you experiment with interesting topics or styles of music. You might have the chance to dip into your trunk of homeless songs and find a place for them. And – most importantly – at the end of the day, you have a completely original piece with an endless array of production and concert possibilities.

But what makes a song cycle tick? Is it just good music? Well, that’s obviously part of it. But what it really amounts to is a sense of unity. If I’m just hearing music – even great music – without something to connect it all, it’s just a revue. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not a song cycle. The audience has to walk away with new understanding of something bigger. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s fairy tales. Maybe it’s vampires… But whatever it is, it’s there.

So what unites some of the great song cycles out there?

For some, it’s the character that’s singing. One of the best examples I can think of is December Songs by Maury Yeston. Based on Schubert’s Winterreise, December Songs is a sequence of reflections by a lonely singer as she wanders Central Park and thinks on her lost love. And as each song passes, you learn more and more about this haunted character.

Now, be a good music theatre historian and treat yourself to a segment from If It Only Even Runs a Minute and Katie Schorr singing “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

Then, there’s setting. Songs all about one place and the crazy, wonderful things that happen there. To be honest, I’m hard-pressed to think of cycles like this that aren’t set in NYC. There’s Island Song, the new piece by Carner and Gregor that’s got a slew of MAC Award nominations under its belt. And there’s The Taxi Cabaret by Pete Mills, where “six young New Yorkers learn to play the game of life.” Check out Blair Goldberg singing “16 Bars” from The Taxi Cabaret. She’s brilliant.

Watch this video on YouTube.

These are great shows. But if you’re thinking about writing a song cycle about NYC, please don’t. I’m begging you. There are so many cycles and stand-alone songs about NYC, and she needs a break. Let’s give Des Moines some love.

I love a good theme party. I’ll be the first to show up to your 40s shindig in the fancy fedora I keep on the top shelf of my closet for special occasions. So it only makes sense that themed song cycles would be my favorites. Things like Myths and Hymns, Adam Guettel’s brilliant exploration of (you guessed it) myths and hymns. But if you’re looking for something more recent, check out Rob Rokicki’s Monstersongs, a half song cycle/half graphic novel that takes an awesome new take on monsters like Medusa, as in “Say Goodbye” – sung here by Katrina Rose Dideriksen.

Watch this video on YouTube.

(And if you want further proof that themed song cycles are my favorite, take a look at Royal Fables – my new song and dance cycle that explores classic and not-so-classic fairy tale princesses.)

Similar to themes, we’ve got “ideas.” I’ll admit it’s kind of an arbitrary differentiation. But for my purposes, I’m thinking of “ideas” as things that are more nebulous than “monsters” or “myths.” And nebulous is fine… as long as you commit to your idea. Look at Edges, which “confronts the trials and tribulations of moving into adulthood and examines the search for love, commitment and meaning…” Man, that’s a mouthful. And it’s broad, but it’s still an idea – and Pasek and Paul stick to it. Check out Emma Davis singing “Perfect”:

Watch this video on YouTube.

For something more under-the-radar, there’s Joshua H. Cohen’s The Entropy Songs, which looks at “relationships in various stages of decay and the valiant (and sometimes not-so-valiant efforts) of [people] trying to start a fire up or keep one burning.” Again, it’s broad. But it works. It also has one of my favorite contemporary musical theatre songs – also called “Perfect” and sung here by Jessica Grové.

Watch this video on YouTube.

(I’d also like to point out how awesome it is that these two songs have the same title and hinge on the line “I could be perfect for you”… but they couldn’t be more different.)

Finally, there’s Songs for a New World. Despite JRB’s great music, it really is the biggest stretch of an idea: every tune is about a “moment of decision.” Considering most music theatre songs from recent years showcase a character making a decision and changing in some way, I’d be the first to call B.S. on this show having a unifying theme. But no matter how much of a stretch it might be, even I have to admit that JRB commits to it. Look at the opening:

It’s about one moment,
That moment you think you know where you stand.
And in that one moment,
The things that you’re sure of slip from your hand…
And you’re suddenly a stranger…

And, as I’m sure every good music theatre enthusiast knows, JRB keeps bringing that back over and over in the opening. And so, we have our idea. And even if it’s super broad, it still works.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what makes a good song cycle tick. But I’m hoping that next time you see one or even sit down to write one, you’ll think about how all the songs connect to each other… and fall even more in love with how good a song cycle can be when it’s structured well.

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