Writing Actable Songs

I’ve got this duality to my career that has provided me with some pretty helpful insight.  I spend a big part of my professional time writing music and lyrics for songs and shows, but I also spend a big part of that time music directing, teaching, and coaching singers.  One of the most important things I’ve discovered as a vocal coach has deeply influenced the way I write, and I wanted to share it with you guys — writers and performers alike.

A lot of us composer and lyricist types became writers because we felt like we had so much to say and so much to express, and we loved putting words and music together to make great songs.  Don’t get me wrong; I believe there’s a place for anything that’s inside you that you need to express.  But not every great thought is a great piece of musical theater.  If a song waxes poetic about an emotion for three and a half minutes, and it requires the singer to belt really high and it has some really awesome chords and a great groove — it might be a blast to sing but I’m gonna have a really hard time coaching it.  Actors need something to DO, not just something to FEEL.  We contemporary writers are the worst about writing songs that just feel really good to sing and aren’t actually sustainable.

West Side Story

What if WEST SIDE STORY ended here?

Theater is made when people want different things.  Scenes require characters to be in conflict with each other.  Imagine the version of “West Side Story” where Maria tells her family she’s in love with Tony and they smile and give the young lovers their blessing.  Songs are nothing more than little scenes.  Characters want something, and if the thing they want comes too easily, you don’t have enough reason for there to be a song.

So the first question I ask actors is: What is it you want, and who are you asking to give it to you?  The songs with the most direct answers work every single time.

I want my father to give me money. (“Some People”, Gypsy)
I want my boyfriend to tell me not to leave. (“Everybody Loves Louie,” Sunday In The Park With George)
I want my father to give me his blessing.  (“Far From The Home I Love,” Fiddler On The Roof)
I want my mother to let me go with this boy. (“The Light In The Piazza,” The Light In The Piazza)
I want this producer to give me a job. (“I’m The Greatest Star,” Funny Girl)

Sometimes the character’s “want” is less clear, and sometimes the person the character is talking to is less clear, and it becomes the actor’s job to make sure the person and the want do actually exist and can be sustained through the whole song.  Imagine how different “My Romance” would be if you’re singing it to your deliriously happy fiancée (who belongs to you) or if you’re singing it to your best friend’s wife (who doesn’t).

“Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true.
My romance doesn’t need a thing but you.”

Actors will pick the more dangerous scenario; it’s richer, it gives them more to play, and it’s less likely to leave them standing alone on stage with egg on their face.

The songs that are hardest to activate are the ones that require the most work to track the conversation.  If a character is talking to an agreeable person, it’s harder to sustain the drama, the stakes, the risk.  If a character is talking to one person for one part of the song and then another person for another part of the song, it’s hard to track the emotional logic.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked, “Who are you talking to?” and the actor says, “Well, I’m sort of talking to myself.”  That’s not a scene.  That’s not a conflict.  Even if you can defend that you might be fighting with yourself, it’s still not active.  If you have to say your innermost thoughts out loud, they change.  Speaking them aloud gives them power.  Speaking them to someone who doesn’t want to hear them gives them even more power.

So, writers — are your songs little miniature scenes?  Do you give your characters something to want and someone in the way?  If not, what exactly is it you’re asking the performer to do?  Singing pretty will not be enough.  Lots of people sing pretty, but it’s the ones who make you laugh, break your heart, and manipulate the hell out of you that make you keep coming back to the theater.

Write for them.

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