In previous posts, we’ve talked about how important it is for composers to clearly notate their scores. Why? Because this provides essential information to the performer about the song and the character.
And yet, in my lessons and coachings with young performers, I’m often surprised by what I would call an illiteracy when it comes to reading a piano/vocal score. I thought it might be helpful to get specific about what I mean about studying a score and how to translate the given information into a meaningful portrayal of a character. We’re going to start this series off with the verse.
In musical theatre, verses are the equivalent to a recitative in opera – they often provide the set-up of the song (or aria).
Here’s one of my favorite recitatives from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. In it, we discover that Tom has not corresponded with his love Anne since embarking on a trip to the “wicked city.” You’ll hear the recitative segue into an aria (“Quietly Night”) and then back into recitative (“My Father Can I Desert Him?”) before the final explosive cabaletta (“I Go, I Go to Him!”). Listen to the whole aria – it’s ridiculously spectacular!
Now, here’s the verse of “Lucky to Be Me” from On the Town.
Notice that we similarly get information about Gaby’s state of affairs before he sings about how lucky he is. Truly, the musical theatre verse is the hip grandchild of opera’s recitative.
Did you notice that both of these are much more spoken than sung?
Here’s the verse of “Lucky to Be Me” written out.
Notice it’s notated with even eighth notes even though you shouldn’t sing it like that. Why? Because it would sound something like this.
Horrible, right? But let’s be honest: you’ve probably heard someone sing a verse exactly like that (and hopefully the culprit wasn’t you). Note accurate, yes. Exciting, no.
So, how should you know not to sing it like that? Look at the marking: “Freely.”
As a composer, I feel can say that we use that term to lob the responsibility into your court as the singer. We’ve decided not to micromanage, but instead let you find your own way. A musical score is, after all, just notes on a page, a language waiting to be translated by a knowledgeable music linguist. Be that person.
Also, look at the sparse accompaniment. Most anytime you see this in a verse or elsewhere in a song, you can bet you have some freedom in how you shape the phrase.
Now look at how similar this recitative looks from Handel’s Apollo e Dafne. There’s no doubt: we’re descendants of opera, folks. Embrace your heritage.
You can listen to the above here.
Just an FYI: sometimes the verse is also called the introduction to avoid confusion with the verse/chorus song form. But that’s a subject for a different day.
Next up, what the accompaniment can tell you about your character’s inner emotional life. Stay tuned!
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