From Pop into Theatre: An Introduction

Contemporary Musical Theatre is proud to have as our guest blogger our newest team member, intern Divya Maus. Divya is currently enrolled in the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program. Her songs and arrangements have been performed by vocal ensembles at jazz festivals around the country, by other solo artists, and by Divya herself. In this, her first blog post for us, Divya talks about her experience of transitioning from pop music to musical theatre.

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Divya Maus ©Kylie Nic Photography

When Chris Sampson, then-Chair of the Popular Music Department at the University of Southern California, handed me the pamphlet saying ‘NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program,’ I remember staring at it and silently thinking, absolutely not.

I was in my last year studying music at USC and was experiencing a full-blown quarter-life crisis. The only thing I was certain of at the time was that I had to get out of LA and its pop industry and take a year off to recover from studying music, a practice that had effectively broken my musical heart. Beyond that, my plans involved only vague ideas of Australia and/or joining my younger brother in his re-patriation of our motherland (Germany).

Going back to school for another degree in music seemed ludicrous and exhausting to me. When I say that earning my BA in Music (emph. Songwriting) at USC’s Thornton School of Music “broke my musical heart”, I don’t mean that this was due to a failing on Thornton’s part. In fact, it was because Thornton is such an excellent school that I broke. I had learned and immersed myself in too much music theory, business, and general academia. While my brain thrived and rejoiced, my heart slowly receded out of my hands until the chords I played on the piano just became a row of clever harmonizations without real purpose or emotion.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? Music school can be hard on the artist’s soul. You learn so much of the math and science and technique of music, that you forget what it means to you to be a composer, what compelled you to write music in the first place.

And so, through the NYU pamphlet handed to me at the end of that meeting in the winter of 2013, my future as a singer/songwriter completely changed.

Abandoning my path as a performing pop artist was easy. Performing didn’t satisfy me and as long as I was onstage performing my own music in the pop context, audiences did not see my songs; they saw Divya Maus doing a set with her band. When you’re a pop musician, your songs are merely a part of the package that you’re selling; a package comprised of your voice, your look, your stage presence, and finally, your songs.

But all I cared about were my songs. I didn’t care about selling myself or an image or my voice. I also didn’t want to sell anyone else’s image, which is another viable career path for a pop songwriter: writing songs for other pop artists.

I wanted to sell my craft as a songwriter, and for that, the pop music industry didn’t feel like the right place for me.

Three years before my fateful meeting with Chris Sampson, I had applied on a whim to the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project at Northwestern University in Chicago. I was 18 at the time and had no idea I would be surrounded by primarily musical theatre writers. (I’m told the workshop now accepts Pop and Musical Theatre writers in equal numbers, but when I was there, we pop writers were still in the minority).

I was absolutely delighted by the writers there and how different they were from my pop music peers. While they appreciated my singing, the compliments they paid me were primarily for my dramatic lyrics and the characters in my songs. They asked insightful and imaginative questions about the tone and stories behind my songs, questions that opened my eyes to a world of dramatic possibilities I had never considered. Where fellow songwriters in the past had not understood my instinct to rework a song three times, here it was not only normal but also encouraged to dedicate yourself to the tireless perfection of a song.*

(*There are many imaginative, insightful pop songwriters out there who do rework their songs many times and hold their lyrics to a high dramatic and logical standard. However, it is my impression that they are rare gems and that lyrical integrity and wit are not a commonly celebrated standard in the pop world anymore, at least not in the way they are in musical theatre. Exceptions apply, of course. Good country music, for instance, is known to prize good rhyming and witty hook-writing more than other pop genres.)

“Unconditionally,” the pop hit by Katy Perry (w. by Katy Perry, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Cirkut), is accepted in the pop world as a normal, moderately successful song (it peaked at #14 on the Billboard charts in 2013). In the professional musical theatre community, “Unconditionally” would not be permitted to be performed until someone had fixed the entire chorus to scan properly.

Which brings me to a hotly discussed topic in this industry: the difference between a pop song and a musical theatre song. In the limited time I have had to academically compare the two, I have concluded that there are exactly two answers to this question.

Technically speaking, the only difference between a pop song and a musical theatre song is its purpose. If you intend for the song to be sung by a character in a dramatic setting, it is a musical theatre song. (Whether you succeed or not is a different matter.)

Practically speaking, a very real gulf has formed between popular music and musical theatre, a gulf filled with differences that span vocal technique, usage of dominant-sus chords to resolve to a tonic chord (a practice accepted in MT, discouraged in Pop), rhyming conventions (existent in MT, almost non-existent in Pop), length, form, feel (/groove/pocket), and ultimately craft. When you refer to “Pop Music,” are you referring to generic Top 40s hits that blare out of your car radio, or the umbrella term that encompasses countless subgenres such as punk-rock, bluegrass, country, folk, indie-rock, Neosoul, alternative rock, R&B, funk, etc. etc. etc.?

If you’re comparing Pop and Musical Theatre on this practical level, they could not be more different. A lot of musical theatre composers I’ve met since entering this field don’t even know what most of the aforementioned pop subgenres are. Due to the selective filtration of mainstream distribution, the only pop songs they’re aware of are the few endlessly repeated megahits that are played over the radio. As a result, certain genres that have existed in pop for at least a decade now have never made it into the general musical theatre subconscious.

Which leads me to my mission statement: this is my first blog post in a series that will explore the differences in pop songs and musical theatre songs on a lyrical, musical, song-form, and philosophical level.

I am most pleased to make your acquaintances, ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com readers 🙂

Yours,
Divya Maus
The ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com Intern

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