What The Hell Are You Singing?! No…Seriously.
Adding new songs to your repertoire can be a challenge. On the upside, there’s a great site like NewMusicalTheatre.com to help you find new material! But, once you do, you have to learn the song and develop a performance, and that can be like solving a mystery. And the only help the composer and lyricist have given you to help unravel this mystery are clues in the form of the notes and the lyrics on the page. It might sound obvious but make the most of those clues! Far too often, like Velma without her glasses (Scooby-Doo, not Chicago), these clues go unnoticed.
For example, what about those words on the page? If I could give every singer only one piece of advice, it would be, simply, know your lyrics! Now, before you get all “give the poor woman a break!”, this isn’t about bashing Leslie Uggams! Lord knows we all forget things – and going up on lyrics is going to happen. But I’m not talking about remembering your lyrics – I’m talking about knowing them.
I’ve seen it happen far too many times – a song begins, the actor opens his or her mouth and sound starts coming out. The notes are there. The lyrics are there. Everything seems reasonable – no off-kilter acting choices, no notes that don’t fit the voice, good (but not too good) diction… and yet… something’s missing. Nine times out of ten – and it’s only not ten times out of ten because, technically, anything’s possible – it’s because the singer has no idea what he or she is singing about!
I know that sounds hard to believe, but it happens. And it happens all the time! I’d give you an example involving one of my songs, but I don’t want to inadvertently call out any actors who have been good enough to sing one of mine! So, instead, I’ll use an example involving the Jerry Herman song “We Need A Little Christmas” – and, for the record, this is a true story.
When I was younger and just starting out, I found myself working as a rehearsal pianist on a Christmas revue. This revue included many rollicking holidays songs, including the aforementioned Herman tune, a good old-fashioned show tune if ever there was one and a jaunty song at that – but not a song you’d classify as particularly “difficult” to learn or sing. So there I was, sitting at the piano, plunking out the notes as the music director stood next to the piano conducting the cast as they sang.
We were moving at a brisk pace – it was a talented group – and we had gone through the song a few times with the cast sounding musically lovely. I was just starting to entertain the notion that we might finish rehearsal early when the music director stopped and asked the cast a question. “Okay, pretty good,” he said. “Now, when you sing the lyric ‘We need a little Christmas / right this very minute / candles in the window / carols at the spinet,’ what does that mean, ‘carols at the spinet’?” I mentally rolled my eyes – try it, it can be done – at such a silly question, and then… it happened. Or more precisely, it didn’t happen. No hands shot into the air. Nobody offered an answer. Nothing was said at all for at least 10 seconds.
The music director waited with his eyebrows raised expectantly. I peeked over the piano, Kilroy-style. Actors looked at their sheet music with furrowed brows, searching for the answer literally between the lines as 10 more seconds ticked by. Finally the music director said – and it’s important to note that he said this with no anger, no sarcasm, not even a hint of an accusatory tone – he said “Then why were you singing it?”
What followed in that rehearsal – which ended decidedly NOT early – was a multi-faceted discussion about how important it was to understand every lyric you sing. And how your performance of any song would be lacking if you were just, in essence, singing sounds with no meaning. And how a ‘spinet’ is a type of piano that first became popular in the 1930s because of its smaller size and lower price.
Believe me when I say that all of those things are just as true today as they were in that rehearsal years ago. If you don’t know exactly what a lyric means, find out. It might not change your entire take on the song – but it also might and there’s only one way to find out! So as you attempt to solve the mystery of a brand new song, remember that Velma always did much better with her glasses on.
Post-Script: By the way, the rehearsal only ended late because, after the meaning of spinet had been made clear and just as we were about to move forward a tenor raised his hand and quite seriously asked “Okay, so a spinet’s a piano…but who is this Carol person sitting at it?”