Get it Write: Or Why to (Properly) Notate Your Songs

This summer I was working with a young professional actor who was cast in a workshop of a new musical by a well-known Broadway composer. He hadn’t sung since college and wanted to brush up on his skills until he got some of the music from the show.

I received a panic-stricken e-mail a few days before he left for the workshop. He received a song and was expected to know by the first rehearsal. No problem. He sent me the MP3 of the song (with the composer in question singing it). I wrote back, requesting the score. He e-mailed me back to say there wasn’t a score, just the recording. Problem.

Allow me to get up in my high horse for a second…

There is nothing about this scenario that is professionally acceptable. Shame on the composer and, for that matter, the musical director for letting it happen. It shows a breathtaking lack of respect for the actor’s process.

Why am I getting so upset over a simple song? I’ll tell you why.

Each summer I have the pleasure of teaching at Wagner College’s Summer Musical Theater Institute (it’s a fantastic two-week intensive for high school students. Find out more about it here). One of the things we talk about is that almost everything the actor needs to know can be deduced from the script or the score. In musical theatre, it’s the word choice, the rhyme scheme (perfect rhymes vs. half-rhymes) the harmonic language and (expressive leaps in) the vocal line that are are valuable clues to the actor about the character they’re playing. If the material is good, one can discover much about the character without even knowing the whole story (which, of course, they should also know). And if the writer is REALLY good (read: Sondheim, etc….), you will not only get character information, you’ll be handed their emotional underbelly on a silver platter.

No score, no story. 

That aside (and trust me, it’s a huge aside…), if an actor has to (or chooses to) learn a song from a recording, it is virtually impossible not to take on the recorded performer’s vocal mannerisms along with the melody and rhythm (which, by the way, are almost never the same on the recording as the written page, which boggles my mind…). How many tenors have I had come into my studio singing Aaron Tveit’s rendition of “I’m Alive” from NEXT TO NORMAL? Dozens. I’m not knocking Aaron Teveit – he sounds great on the cast recording – but the problem is none of the guys who have sung that song in my studio were actually Aaron Tveit. They were subconsciously manipulating their voice to sound like him rather than doing their own work of taking the song apart (read this blog about how to properly learn a song). But imagine the performer doesn’t have a score from which to operate. They will simply regurgitate what they have heard, often times unbeknownst to them.

No score, no individuality.

But here’s the real scoop. Simply writing out some notes on the page isn’t enough. There’s a reason only accepts songs with fully notated scores. Lead sheets only provide chords, but leave voice leading up to the individual pianist. I can easily alter the feeling (and, ergo, the meaning) of a song by creating different accompaniments with the same chord structure. I do this all the time as I try to find a specific sound for songs I write with my collaborator Tom Gualtieri.

Want to hear an example of this? Here’s an early version of “I Saw You in the Stone” from our show, FALLING TO EARTH. And here’s a rewrite with a different meter and different chords, but with much of the same melody. Completely different, right?

No accompaniment, no character specificity.

And since I’m still up on this high horse (I call her Soap Box. See what I did there…?), let’s talk about expressive makings, like dynamics. I am forever flummoxed by published contemporary scores that don’t have these. They’re vitally important emotional information for the actor. If something is marked piano, there’s probably a good reason for it. Either the character is timid or is letting something bubble up from a deep place, etc… Dynamics can tell us a lot about a character’s emotional state.

You know who’s really good at making sure his scores are well-marked? Andrew Lippa. Take a good look at his scores and you’ll know EXACTLY he wants. And good on him. He’s a specific guy with a clear vision. Why would we not want to honor that vision as performing artists?

Of course, there is such a thing as over-marking one’s score, but I haven’t seen this happen too often, especially not in musical theatre.

No markings, no emotional color.

So, composers, it is vital you give as much information to the actor through your scores as possible. Start with a fully notated score. Then place thoughtful markings in it. Those are detailed road maps to the performer.

Are there musical theatre composers who don’t read music? Yes, there are. But I have to say the ones I know either “play in” their scores via midi and have someone help edit them or have someone transcribe the songs for them. They respect their actors and know the value of a well-notated score.

Excuse me while I take Soap Box back to the stable.


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