When Musical Theatre and Pop Collide
I’ve recently found my new favorite musical theatre song. And by recently, I really mean that I first listened to this song about four weeks ago, and I’ve had it on repeat ever since. What could this fabulous piece of music possibly be? Why, it is “Waving Through a Window” from the new musical Dear Evan Hansen by New Musical Theatre writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul:
I. Am. Obsessed. So naturally, I started breaking down what makes this song such an earworm.
The most interesting thing I find in this song is how it mixes the catchy-factor found in pop music with the musical and lyrical complexity found in musical theatre; Pasek & Paul know how to take the best of both worlds and apply them to their music. “Waving Through a Window” begins with and maintains a syncopated beat that drives the song forward. It never stops to reconsider itself; there aren’t any breaks in tempo, no slower contemplative bridges. If anything, the song picks up as it moves ahead. I found this pleasing enough until a friend of mine pointed out its similarity to Sara Bareilles and I began to see the elements the artists had in common––they both rely on upbeat piano and a steady (often syncopated) beat to make their songs wriggle their way into your brain and NEVER LEAVE. (Try listening to “Gonna Get Over You” just once. I dare you.) This isn’t the first time Pasek & Paul have written a song like this. Since I heard it for the first time on Season Two of Smash, I’ve spent hours listening to “Original.” By emulating a pop sound, Pasek & Paul write a song that is familiar enough to a listener that they want to hear it over and over again.
But while “Waving Through a Window” may bear some resemblance to popular artists like Sara Bareilles, its music is slightly more complex. A catchy melody and bass line are only so much without some snazzy strings and backup vocals (courtesy of Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations.) The strings really pull the song together and make my stomach flip every time I hear them! And the suspended chords at the end in the vocals are absolutely beautiful. It’s these touches that make the song sound like it belongs in a musical. It builds, it matures––the complexity of the arrangements corresponds to the lyrics beautifully.
I was recently exposed to an analogy that I feel applies nicely here–– pop songs are to adjectives what musical theatre songs are to verbs.
OK, now don’t give up on me yet if this idea doesn’t really jive in your brain. It took me some fiddling to see how it applies to what I believe about musical theatre. First things first, musical theatre songs are verbs? I totally agree with that. If there’s anything my past acting experience has taught me, it’s that your character should always finish a song in a different place than they began it in, otherwise why sing the song in the first place? Musicals are about doing and accomplishing. Songs develop with an idea and move the plot forward, so the song must build appropriately. On the other hand, pop songs generally describe an idea. You can have a love song, a hate song, a sexy song, even an insomniac song (remember “Fireflies” by Owl City?). Pop songs can follow a feeling well, but they don’t have the pressure of a plot and story hanging over them. They don’t need to progress like songs in musical theatre, they just need to be catchy enough to be played at parties and on the radio. “Waving Through a Window” is more complex than a pop song. At the beginning of the song, the singer (presumably Evan Hansen) begins minimally:
I learned to slam on the breaks
Before I even turn the key
Before I made the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
The music is based off small chords and the bass line, and the singer doesn’t push anything vocally. But by the time he reaches the climax, the character has reached a new place in his story with the song. Such a new place, in fact, that he has to change what he is singing. Partway through the song, the character breaks from the “waving through a window” chorus to sing,
When you’ve fallen in the forest
And there’s nobody around
Do you ever really crash?
Or even make a sound?
These words are repeated over and over as the music builds with drums and backup vocals, until the character reaches his ultimate question:
Did I even make a sound
Did I even make a sound
It’s like I never made a sound
Do I even make a sound?
He’s grown from the beginning of the song, where he only vaguely acknowledged his fear of being separate from the rest of the world (“Waving through a window”) to directly asking whether or not he really exists. “Waving Through a Window” asks a poignant question about human interaction and self-confidence, and manages to do so in a way that makes you want to ask that question again and again and again…
Now, speaking of existing or not, I’m going to pretend my thesis does not exist and jam out in the library now to the Smash soundtrack. I welcome you to do the same.