Posts Tagged ‘musicals’

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art: how art can be defined, what its possible purposes are, what I am trying to accomplish personally as an artist. This exploration began many years ago when I was a student musician: a singer, a songwriter, and a composer.

In my music program, we spent a year on music theory that looks beyond the standard Western tonal palette. Our curriculum began with late 19th century composers like Wagner and Debussy, which I very much enjoyed studying, and then progressed to atonalism, serialism, and other 20th century classical music (including John Cage, Philip Glass, etc.). We also spent a quarter studying 20th century music history.

After I finished this course of study, I went on to take a few composition classes and seminars and began to consider more seriously the question of why. Why do so many cultures include music as an integral component? Why do so many of us like to listen to and/or produce music? What was I trying to achieve with the music I was writing?

The answer, I decided at the time (and it still holds true for me), is communication. Music is a way of communicating to others; of evoking a response, often emotional; of taking something we’re familiar with and translating it into something new, or of exposing us to something new that is outside our own frame of reference. Music can tell a story, something that happens especially frequently in vocal music (my other focus at school) but can also happen in purely instrumental music (listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for an excellent example of programme music). Music can make us feel a certain way: when I’m watching a suspenseful TV show, it’s often the music that makes me jumpy before anything has even happened on-screen. Music can share universal experiences or distill unique experiences in a way that are more relatable. One of the reasons I adore musical theater as much as I do is because it combines the dramatic potentials of theater with the emotional resonance of music, while remaining accessible to a more general audience than opera often does.

Unfortunately a lot of the music composed in academia, the new Classical music of the 20th century, didn’t seem to me to be very accessible at all. In fact, at the time it baffled me because the goal of communication often seemed very absent from it. Indeed, serialism in particular seemed like a game played with numbers that had very little to do with actual sounds at all. I realize now that I wasn’t seeing the complete picture; I believe even the most experimental pieces were trying to communicate. The problem, for me, was that they were communicating with only a select group of people who were educated enough in music to be able to understand them. I was in that group, yes, but what about everyone else? Imagine the equivalent of throwing out an old common language and writing in a new language; you will only be able to communicate with the select group also versed in the new language. So what we are talking about then is the question of audience. If art is communication, then considering a given piece of art’s intended audience becomes very important.

I also approach writing as art, and therefore as an act of communication. But in pursuing that line of thinking, I realized there are many forms that written art can take. We have the obvious: novels, short stories, plays, poems. But we also have the slightly less obvious (at least to me): letters, blogs, Google+/Twitter/Facebook. Am I saying everyone’s Facebook account is art? I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far (although feel free to make a case for it in the comments). I’m saying it can be art; it has the potential to be art. I’ve certainly created art through letters/emails, in which I create an idea, a vision of who I am and what my life story is. And then on the flip side there are the banal and mundane emails that are just a recital of facts or a quick way to make plans.

I’m in love with this great art project, in which a photographer traveled around the country taking photos of people’s refrigerators. I think about this project all the time because I am just blown away by the coolness of it, showing the stories of these random people through one photo. To me, this is art—it turns my assumptions around, it evokes emotion in me, it causes me to see the world around me in a different way.

So then is this blog art? It certainly tries to do those same things. Some of you will think I’m being pretentious by labeling my blog as art, but isn’t it interesting to think about? I like to think of each essay being a small piece of a greater mosaic—I wonder what it will look like when it is complete. I wonder what picture I will have created. I get excited just thinking about it.

What is art? Is it in the eye of the beholder, the creator, or both? Is it about intention or execution? What does art mean to you?

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I have saved Passion for last not only because it is the most recent addition to my list of favorites, but also because it is a difficult musical to explain. It is a difficult musical, period. It challenges its audience to the extent that for some, it is an alienating experience. I know this firsthand because the first time I saw Passion was on DVD many years ago, and my husband hated it. It really pushed his buttons, he hated the characters, he didn’t care one way or another about the music. In fact, it’s the only musical I introduced to him to which I remember him having such a violently negative reaction. 

We went together to see a production of Passion during our recent trip to London – yes, my husband loves me – and it was seeing it live that made me realize what a masterwork it is. My husband didn’t hate it this time around either, although we did have a lively discussion afterwards. The thing with Passion is, it grows on you over time, over multiple listenings/viewings, and through your own life experiences. That first time I saw it, I don’t think I had the necessary insights to understand it in the same way that I understood it this past November. And if I see it again in five or ten years, I fully expect it to be a different experience yet again.

Stephen Sondheim is an amazing composer and an equally dazzling lyricist (in fact, he got his professional start as a lyricist), and those skills are clearly in display in this, one of his latest shows. The score is romantic and lush, the melodies much more memorable than in many of his shows, and the inclusion of martial drum rolls ties nicely into both the show’s themes and even some of its lyrics (“They Hear Drums”). The show features a chorus of male soldiers who comment on the action (and spread gossip), and some of the music overlaps on itself (two people singing at once, for example, but not in a traditional duet) in a way that is almost dream-like … or perhaps crazy (the craziness of romantic love or the craziness of solitude, loneliness, and disappointment, depending, and sometimes a bit of both).

The story centers around a love triangle of sorts. At the apex of the triangle is the Italian soldier Georgio, who is having a passionate love affair with the married Clara. When he is transferred to a provincial outpost (and one at which he is very miserable), they swear to continue their love affair through letters. At his new post, he meets his commanding officer’s sickly cousin Fosca, who is ill, obsessive, depressed, and manipulative. Do you see where the difficulty of this show starts to come in? Especially when I tell you that by the end, Georgio has fallen in love with Fosca and thinks his love affair with Clara meant nothing.

Here is where I see the brilliance in this show. However much we’d like to believe otherwise with our happily-ever-afters and our formula romances, love is messy. It’s unreasonable, it doesn’t play by predictable rules, and it comes at unexpected times and in unexpected forms. And love is shown in high relief as being messy in this show. Through the course of events, Fosca gradually learns how to love unconditionally instead of being trapped in the grasping, needy obsession that she begins with. Georgio as well learns what it means to love unselfishly and to love above all else. He asks Clara to run away with him, and she refuses; while she insists he holds her heart, she is held back by her motherly love for her child. She asks him to wait until her child is older, but ultimately he decides he no longer wants such a carefully arranged, rational relationship. What he wants instead is the no-hold’s-barred passion, both the beauty and the ugliness, that Fosca offers him.  So while this show is something of a tragedy, it’s a happy tragedy because the characters have gotten somewhere and they have learned a deep abiding truth, which perhaps matters more than continuing on indefinitely in their old, miserable ways.

The difficulty is that Fosca is so truly unpleasant and unsympathetic, particularly at the beginning of the show. It subverts our narrative expectations to have Georgio choose her over the beautiful and romantically appropriate Clara. Watching Fosca play her manipulative little games with Georgio fills us with aversion. Personally I believe this makes the ultimate transformation of the characters that much more powerful. And it takes me back to the main point of this essay, which is this: love is messy. And yet even out of a dysfunctional and terrible love can come something beautiful. Relentlessness can show itself as either obsession or an unconditional love that is without price.

The first meeting of Fosca and Georgio:


An example of the manipulation games of Fosca:


A short example of the Soldier’s Chorus:


The end of Georgio and Clara’s relationship:


Georgio revealing he loves Fosca:


And with this post, I finish my series on my favorite musicals. Hope you enjoyed!

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Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Songwriters’ Showcase at Theatreworks, a theater company in Mountain View. One of the reasons I adore Theatreworks is because of their dedicated commitment to supporting new works in both straight plays and musical theater. They put on a New Works Festival every spring and often stage world and regional premieres for theater in development. And every winter they host a writers’ retreat (for those working on musicals) that concludes with a performance showcasing what the writers have been working on – the Songwriters’ Showcase I previously mentioned.

I noticed certain trends in the material presented at the showcase that I’d like to discuss. Now, the retreat program is fairly small at this time and only four works-in-progress were showcased; the limited sample makes it dangerous to extrapolate out beyond this program with much confidence. Indeed, these trends may not even be indicative of an overall pattern in the retreat program. But nonetheless, they provide food for thought.

First off, of the four works presented, all four were being worked on by teams of two, and each team consisted of one man and one woman. Every team was made up of a composer/lyricist and the playwright or book writer (the one who writes the script and develops the story). This mirrors the trend in the wider world of combining the work of composer and lyricist into one crucial role, instead of dividing it into two integral jobs as was done earlier in musical theater’s history (think Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, Lerner & Loewe, Schonberg & Boublil, to name just a few). Examples of more recent composers who are also lyricists (sometimes very excellent ones) include: Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, etc.

Another interesting fact about these teams was that in three out of four cases, the man was the composer/lyricist and the woman was the playwright. See all those names above? Also all men. So this might be reflecting a wider trend as well. (An interesting side note: when I took my required 20th century music history course, we studied pretty much no women composers. When the prof was asked about it, he said that no women had produced work that stood out enough to be included in a survey course. Ouch.)

One of the works was a fairy tale-like story directed at a children’s theater audience. Fairy tales are a perennial hit, not just for Disney but also for children’s musical theater, so this is a smart financial choice (although the piece needed some work to have the correct children’s theater “feel”, which in its present state is a bit uneven). The songs were for the most part derivative, easily recognizable as being a certain “style” and indeed sounded Disney-esque, which in a show like this is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The other three musicals, all of which were directed primarily at an adult audience, were concerned with issues of race. One show revolved around  the Weathermen of the 60s and 70s, one was about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur and philanthropist who was also the first woman to become a self-made millionaire (she specialized in hair products for black women). The last one was partly based on the Scheherazade framing story in the Arabian Nights, but with a modern component featuring a romance between a Jew and a Palestinian. While race was a main issue addressed in the shows, only one person in the eight on the creative teams was a person of color (I can’t speak to religious affiliations, of course).

Which musical do I most want to see in its completed form? Without a doubt I’m most excited to watch the one about Madam C.J. Walker. Both the script writing and the music crackled with vitality, and it has the potential to be a fascinating show exploring both Madam C.J. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and her troubled relationship with her daughter.

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I was lucky enough to see Next to Normal on Broadway when I was attending the SCBWI Winter Conference last year, and it completely blew me away. Not only did this show win the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2009, but it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the first musical to win this award since Rent in 1996).

Next to Normal can be easily compared to Rent in many ways. In watching it, I felt I was seeing the promise to American musical theater made by Rent a decade and a half before finally coming to fruition. We saw a profound movement in this direction with the success of the award-winning Spring Awakening in 2007, but Next to Normal took this progression still further. It combines the rock-inspired score with a book scored with deep contemporary issues. The lyrics are also a stand-out here; not since Jonathan Larson have I seen such clever and facile lyrics being used for dramatic (as opposed to comedic) effect.

An article about the Pulitzer prize win says, “The Pulitzer jury recognized the work for its subject matter and stated that it “expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.”” You might be noticing a trend by now in my favorite musicals. They all expand the scope of subject matter for musicals. They talk about things that matter; they have something to say. Just as I mentioned last week that this is a major quality I look for in the short fiction I read, so is it also an important criteria for the theater I love best.

In the case of Next to Normal, the subject matter is mental illness, grief, and a family in crisis. And I have to say that, while the score is excellent, it’s the emotional subject matter that makes this show so memorable for me. The show follows the journey of Diana Goodman, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder and hallucinations, along with the struggles of her family, including her husband who is suffering from depression himself and her teenage daughter Natalie, who feels ignored and isolated. It is often quite dark, and the emotional notes ring very realistically. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about dysfunctional families, and many of those dynamics were shown — indeed, played out to their messy conclusions — during the course of the play.

I can’t talk about Next to Normal without mentioning how important I find it that this show introduces an open discussion about mental illness, a subject that is often marginalized in American society. Diana Goodman is without question the main character of the musical, and we are taken on a tour of her highs and lows, her moments of lucidity and complete mental breakdown, her pain and regrets, and the tough questions she is forced to answer. But for me, it was the character of her daughter Natalie who tugged on my heart-strings the most, just wishing for as “normal” a family as possible and trying to survive in a turmoil she can’t change or leave behind her.

Here are a few of my favorite musical moments:

Natalie’s song “Everything Else”, which is sung to a Mozartian piano accompaniment. I should note that Natalie’s song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is possibly the more popular of the two, and also excellent.

“Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I”: this song is all about the lyrics.

“Maybe (Next to Normal)”: the song that gave the show its title, coming towards the end of the second act.

Happily for me, Next to Normal is currently on a national tour so I’ll have the opportunity to see it again in a few weeks. And as I said about Adam Guettel, I’m very eager to see what comes next from the talented Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.

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Not enough people have heard of this little gem, even though it won the Tony Award for best original score in 2005 (Spamalot won the Tony for best musical that year, but let’s not even go there).  The music is so beautiful, it makes me feel like there’s something inside me stretching towards the sky, and that’s really the top attraction for this show. The story line is interesting enough, the character development for the main mother character is well done, and the lyrics are passable although on the whole nothing special.  And given the music they accompany, they almost feel beside the point (which is particularly telling since I am usually all about the lyrics). 

The Light in the Piazza is not a “belty” show, as are most of the new shows we’ve been seeing on Broadway.  No, Adam Guettel draws less on rock and pop music and more on opera and classical music to create his romantic score, filled with soaring violins and Classically trained voices.  It’s possible that this choice is partly why the show isn’t more widely known, but I’m glad he made it just the same. The lush music suits the story and the setting (Florence , Italy).

My local theater company put this show on last fall, and after one of the performances I heard an audience member mention that the story was “creepy”.  Or maybe she said “strange”.  This reaction might also factor into the relative obscurity of the show.  I actually really like the story, although I will admit it’s challenging in that it takes a lot of thought, and it also depends a lot upon the interpretation of the role of Clara.  The general idea is that Clara, now 26, was in an accident when she was eleven or twelve that froze her mental and emotional development, so ever since she has led a very sheltered existence.  But now she and her mother are on holiday in Italy, and suddenly love strikes from the sky like lightning.  One of the questions the show pivots around is, exactly how impaired is Clara?  This is a question that is never answered explicitly, so one just has to guess.  Is she, as her mother finally comes to believe, capable of more than they’d assumed?  Can she aspire to a “normal” life with a husband and possibly even children?  Is she mature enough to truly love?  Or, is this all wishful thinking doomed to dreadful disappointment?  Plus we explore the obligations of disclosure (how much does the mother have to tell Clara’s lover? What about his family?) and we watch events shape and change Clara’s mother, whose worldview has been turned on its head by the end of the show. An ironic twist that happens mid-way through Act 2 highlights the differing values of the two families in question.

The fact is, a lot of these issues and questions are uncomfortable, so I can understand why audience members might be uneasy afterwards.  But for me, this is the best kind of theater: theater that makes me re-evaluate myself and how I see the world, and that leaves an open question.

A few favorite moments, both from the Second Act:

“The Light in the Piazza”, sung by Clara in Rome, when she wishes to return to Florence (and the man she’s fallen in love with).  One of my personal favorites to sing.


“Fable”, sung by Clara’s mother Margaret at the end of the show.  This song is truly epic.


Ah, so beautiful!  If you like what you’ve heard, “Dividing Day,” “The Beauty Is,” and “Let’s Walk” are also songs worthy of attention. I’ll definitely be on the look-out for any new work by this promising composer.

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Rent has been on my current list of favorite musicals for the longest amount of time.  It came bursting on the scene both off and on Broadway in 1996, and I discovered it by late 1997.  In fact, it is possibly the first CD I ever bought after I received my first CD player in 1998. 

Rent is very much a product of its time.  It shows the HIV/AIDs epidemic when it was at its peak and is set before cell phones became popular, featuring an answering machine used for screening calls.  And yet, its music has a very modern feel and it was always a very popular show with my students, many of whom were born the year the show came out.

From a musical perspective, Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist of Rent, was trying to modernize the American musical, and in many ways he succeeded, although it took many years for other composers to successfully build on his innovations.  While the “rock opera” had been quite popular in the 1980s, as showcased by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Schonberg and Boublil’s Les Miserables, among others, Larson was going for a different sound, more influenced by modern rock and rap.  Combined with his genius for clever lyrics, Larson wrote a score that popped with originality and vitality.  The sheer energy that crackles from a live production of Rent can be spellbinding.

The story of Rent is a modern adaptation of Pucchini’s opera La Boheme, set in New York and featuring several starving (and in many cases HIV-positive) artists.  For me, the first act has always been the stronger of the two, focusing on the action of one night, whereas the second act is more diffuse and covers many months.  Our protagonists struggle with poverty, sacrificing and striving for their art, living with terminal illness, death, violence, homelessness, mainstream disapproval, and heartbreak/lack of trust/relationship drama.  I heard this musical and realized, more deeply than I had before, that musical theater can have just as much depth and as much to say as other art forms.

The show is not without weaknesses.  As previously stated, I feel it loses some of its focus in the second act, and some of the sung dialogue passes by so quickly it can be missed by newcomers to the show.  What always drives me nuts, however, is that the musician Roger’s song “One Song Glory” in the first act, in which he sings about trying to write the perfect song, is infinitely stronger and more moving than his song in the second act “In Your Eyes”, which is supposed to be the one perfect song but is, in my opinion, much more clichéd and not as musically or vocally interesting.  And the end feels rushed and doesn’t quite match with the rest of the piece.

For me, Rent is inextricably tied to the time in my life when it was introduced to me.  It deals with artists struggling to make a mark on the world, while I was a music student struggling to improve my singing.  It shows main characters with terminal illness, and delves into the realities of living with illness and with death.  At this same time, my mother had a terminal illness and later died from it.  This musical spoke to the nineteen-year-old me in a way for which I’ll always be grateful.

Here are a few, out of many, of my favorite songs from the show:

– Seasons of Love: possibly the most well-known song from the show.  It raises the question of how to measure a life: what is it in life that we value most?

– Will I: a moving testimonial to the fears relating to terminal illness
– One Song Glory: one of my very favorite songs of all time.  This song alone makes me wish I was a male tenor.  Every time I listen to it, I get tears in my eyes.  It’s about the desire to create lasting art in the face of mortality.
What is your opinion of Rent?  Do you have favorite songs or moments, or see different strengths and weaknesses than the ones I picked out?  Let me know!

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I have loved musical theater since I was a little girl obsessed with watching movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and Annie over and over.  I watched those movies so often that I memorized the accompanying commercials.  I’ve studied musicals seriously over the intervening years, as a vocalist and performer, as a composer, as a critical audience member, and as a musical director.

I’ve noticed that my associations with musical theater are very different from those of many people I encounter.  I often don’t mention my interest, and when I do, it’s even odds whether my companion’s eyes will glaze over, or he’ll try to change the subject, or worst of all, she’ll make a derisive comment.  About musical theater.  To ME.  Musical theater has gotten a bad rap, and ignorance is rampant about much that moves and interests me about musicals.

Not every musical is an Oklahoma!, with energetic grinning and almost insanely enthusiastic dance numbers that consist of singing about the weather (and once you’re aware of the historic connotations of Oklahoma!, it’s a lot easier to take the aggressive cheerfulness).  Not every musical is a puff piece of finely spun sugar that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing of meaning behind.  Not every musical is overwrought rock opera from the 80s.  Not that I have anything against any of these types of musicals.  I enjoy and am interested in musical theater of all shades.  But.

Not all musical theater is created equal.

My very favorite type of musical theater may or may not feature any dancing.  It often consists of a fairly small cast.  There may or may not be fancy lighting or other technical derring-do; in my musicals of choice, the spectacle of the experience is not the point of focus.  I tend to adore musicals that have something to say and say it with passion.  I look for deep characterization and a satisfying narrative arc.  I want lyrics that are both clever and true, and music that drives home the themes of the piece.  My goal is to take something away after the show that has nothing to do with a snatch of a tune to hum for the next month.

Musicals are a form of performance art, and like the best theater, are capable of teaching us about ourselves and the world around us.  They make us feel, they make us question, and they make us wonder.  My favorite musicals will linger with me for months, or in many cases, my entire life.  Yes, musicals do feature characters who spontaneously burst into song (unless it’s through-sung like opera), but if done well, the music can harness the emotions of the character and present them in a visceral and memorable fashion.  If done by a master, the music can actually both cause and illustrate character development.

This post is the beginning of a series I plan to write and publish every Tuesday for the next month or so, discussing each of my favorite modern musicals (I currently have four), all of which were written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s.  I’ll be talking a small amount about the music and lyrics, but my main focus is going to be on the narrative and thematic ambitions of each piece.

For now, if you’re a musical theater buff, what shows are your favorites?  And if you’re not, what is your general impression of musicals?  Do you like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”, or are all musicals equally anathema to you?  Weigh in and let me know!

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