I’ve probably written 100 songs that will absolutely never see the light of day again. I’m talking not just cut songs, but songs that made it to the stage too. I was that jerk who wrote musicals in college, put them up, felt super smug, and then stashed them in a trunk to hide them from the real world. Were they flawed shows? Totally. Am I still proud of them? You bet. Do I enjoy answering my own questions? Sadly, yes.
I hide each song for different reasons. Sometimes, it’s not my most sophisticated work. Sometimes, the jokes aren’t as funny as I thought. But often, the setup would take longer than the song itself.
“So in this song, King Epops–oh, yeah, he was a king as a human, but he was turned into a half-man, half-bird by the gods, and now he’s king of the birds, but he still wants to be king of humans, too–” (By the way, that song was cleverly titled “To Be King.” Master of subtext over here. Also, my college cred in this picture is secured by the presence of the Cup Of Noodles.)
I have songs I could never present in concert because they were reprises of leitmotifs back when I thought I was Sondheim (and inadvertently stole from him, too. That’s the highest form of flattery, right?). A musical moment could be too short at twenty seconds, and a musical scene could be too long at fourteen minutes. I have songs that were only funny if backed by a zombie chorus.
I thought what made a musical theater song valuable was specificity to the situation. And yet, all those songs are pretty useless to me now. They’re just drops in the old “10,000 hours” bucket. Their audience size is harshly limited by their ultra-specificity. And I’m not the only one with this problem.
Remember when songs from Broadway shows were the hit singles on the pop charts? Neither do I. Can you think of one song from a non-Disney musical in the last twenty years that was a legitimate pop hit? What happened? Sure, the Beatles came in the ‘60s and ruined everything for everyone (and I do worship them), but there’s something else that may have contributed. Songs in musicals stopped being extractable. Or at least, that was no longer the aim.
Extracting a song is pulling it out of the context of a story and having it still make sense.
In a way, the very concept of extractability is the opposite of how musicals were first created. Originally, they were revues, collections of songs, at times strung together by something resembling a script. Even the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning operetta “Of Thee I Sing,” which I dig, contains some suspiciously generic love songs (I’m looking at you, “Who Cares”) as if the script had a blank page marked “INSERT GERSHWIN LOVE SONG #47.”
And then Mr. Hammerstein came in and blew everyone’s minds. Suddenly, songs came out of character and situation as if the whole show were created with a singular purpose in mind. Drama drove through scenes into songs like planes taking off of runways. A character could finally claim a song entirely for herself without any doubt of ownership. Who else but Ado Annie in Oklahoma! would sing “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no?” And where else but in the islands of the South Pacific could you find a song with such majesty, longing, and mystery as “Bali Hai?” And what song could set up that story about love versus prejudice more succinctly and simply than “Dites Moi,” a children’s song sung by two biracial children? Finally concrete, dramatic motion and abstract, musical repetition had met in the middle.
And this is where I think the great divide with pop songs happened. Songs became about the story, which was great for story, but rough on songs. Musical theater songs not only needed strong music and lyrics but an even stronger story as well. And now the question of balance becomes, “How much is too much?” Even Sondheim’s favorite song from his own oeuvre, “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures, would barely make any sense out of context.
“So in this song, it’s Japan in the 1850s and simultaneously sometime later, and an old man comes forth to recall a memory until his younger self shows up to fill in the blanks, but then the samurai–oh, right, see, there was a samurai waiting under the floorboards where these diplomats…”
And on the other side of it, we have the standalone cabaret songs and song cycles. They’re songs that give the entire journey of a character without the need for a larger story, like Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon.” With YouTube the dominant accessway to new works, single songs are the way to reach bigger audiences more immediately. But there is absolutely no way to achieve the same sense of grandeur and life-changing catharsis as with a longer work. No single song can leave an audience as blissfully drained as a great musical. For most of us writers, we’re in it for that big dream: to write that big, beautiful, life-changing musical.
So this became a game for me: How can I write a song that is both part of a larger story and can be extracted without much harm done? How can a song be specific and universal? In essence, how do I get my music out there while still telling a story?
This is a game I like to play [SHAMELESS PLUG WARNING:] on my podcast, TAKE A TEN, a free monthly audio podcast that presents brand-new, original ten-minute musicals. It’s an ideal medium for my tiny, Millenial-length attention-span. I try to have at least one song on each episode that can be fully extracted. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
A song like “Steve” (from #1: “Finding the Words”) could really work out of context. It’s a love song to a sound guy. Plain and simple. The context of it being an emotional outpouring from a shy, handsome actor helps, but isn’t necessary. “That’s You” (lyrics co-written with Chris Critelli) from #2: “Waiting for the Devil” is also a sincere love song. The context, however, is more unsettling as the character singing it may or may not be the devil (all the more reason for it be delivered with unironic sincerity).
And, hey, I admit to writing extractable songs that shouldn’t always be extracted. In #9: “Mon Petit Bijou”, the title song is very simply a source song (a song that would exist in the real world of the story). It could be sung in a concert without any context at all. It’s my love letter to the great American songbook–which is its very problem. Though it might be a pleasant tune, no one would ever bring it into an audition unless the role was a jazz singer from the ‘40s or ‘50s. And even, then, why not just bring in an authentic song of the time, like the Gershwin classic, “Who Cares?” That said, if you would like to sing “Mon Petit Bijou,” I would absolutely love to hear you do it.
Podcast aside, this is a time of transitions for everyone writing musical theater. With the internet expecting us to throw our nets wide but shallow, do we go for the YouTube cabaret hit? And how does that connect to the traditional process of readings and workshops in hopes of bigger productions? How do we make our songs accessible yet individual? How do we reach people with our music? Then again, isn’t that always the artistic question: “How do I share my passion with other people?”
To purchase any songs from the podcast TAKE A TEN, visit www.TakeATenMusicals.com.
Andy Roninson is a music director and composer currently living in New York City. He is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Advanced Musical Theater Workshop, where he was awarded the Harrington Musical Theater Award in 2011 and the Robert B. Sherman Scholarship in 2010. Among other works, he has written music and lyrics for two full-length musical comedies, For The Birds (2010) and Exorcism on Aisle Five (2009). He is the creator and host of TAKE A TEN, a free monthly podcast of all original ten-minute musicals performed by Broadway and other NYC actors. For free downloads of every episode, visit www.TakeATenMusicals.com.
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