Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My Broadway Show?

Stravinsky, my favorite orchestral composer, hated the use of music to underline non-musical points. He was particularly vehement in his belief that music should only appear in movies when someone in the movie was playing music.

Obviously the world of film paid little attention to old Igor, but I understand what he meant. In life, we don't get ominous music before we open dangerous doors, or love themes when our eyes meet across the room (though both would be very handy clues in making decisions). Movie music is appallingly artificial, but like a laugh-track on a television comedy, it's the kind of intrusive thing that becomes unnoticed with time. (Imagine how audiences would react to a laugh-track on a comedy released in the cinema...)

This nervous feeling about artificiality spills over for me into the area of musicals. I like musical comedies, because having people suddenly burst into song is inherently funny. That fact, however, tends to undermine musical drama for me; I can't take it as seriously as it would like. (I don't have that problem with opera, but in opera they don't burst into song--they never stop singing in the first place. And call me a barbarian, but I'd rather listen to opera than watch it anyhow.)

Okay, there's some sneaky exceptions to my dislike of musical drama, and they conform to Stravinsky's rule. Two of the best, Caberet and All That Jazz (both directed by Bob Fosse) have people singing and dancing only in situations where they'd really be singing and dancing. This is having your cake and eating it too--getting the power of musical staging without having it be an intrusion.

This is not a topic I usually dwell upon, but a post from the ever-stimulating Emma Darwin has had me stopping at odd moments (and most of my moments are odd) over the last month to think about the form of the musical. Why? Because Emma points out what ought to have been obvious to me, though I'd never considered it:

"...there's no denying that the basic simplicity of the novel-like elements of a musical (the time-frame of the experience so relatively short, the music/set/choreography doing much of the work that the novelist has to do for themself) can mean that the big bones of the storytelling can be seen and discussed amazingly clearly."

No kidding. The "big bones" of the story in a musical are "told" rather than shown, but they are told through song, and they are deployed unabashedly. Often the opening number gives the overall backstory of the setting as well as the theme (e.g. the song "Tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof, or "Skid Row" in Little Shop of Horrors).

Once this is done, the various characters jump in and tell you, without reservation, who they are, what their problems might be, and what they think they want. For example, in Avenue Q, the male lead puppet, Princeton, wanders onto the stage and sings:

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree...

I can't pay the bills yet, 'cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place--
But somehow I can't shake
The feeling I might make
A diference to the human race...!

Exit Princeton, and on comes the rest of the cast to tell you who they are and what their central problem is, in a long song called "It Sucks to be Me."

Wow. A single song, and we've already established all the characters in a thoroughly memorable way. Most novelists have faced the problem of introducing a whole corral of characters and their backstories and desires all in one go, and it usually turns into what I think of as The Party Scene Nightmare. Or consider the acidic backstory economy of "Aldonza's Song" in Man of La Mancha:

I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there
Naked and cold and too hungry to cry.
But I never blamed her, I knew she left hoping
That I'd have the good sense to die.

So economical, in fact, that we have more verses to spare for an assault on the theme of the story and an emotional crisis.

An odd thing about musicals is that once character, setting, and theme are established in song, real plot developments are often spoken; further songs are reserved for how people react to plot events. This puts plot into perspective: the precision of plot is so important in making a feasible story that it needs to be spelled out in speech...but the big moments of the story are the responses, refusals, and epiphanies. Such as Seymour Krelborn's moment of choice in Little Shop of Horrors's song "The Meek Shall Inherit:"

No, no! There's only so far you can bend!
No, no! This nightmare must come to an end!
No, no! No two ways about it, old Seymour my boy
Although you'll be broke again and unemployed
It's the only solution, it can't be avoided,
The Vegetable Must Be Destroyed!

As you can see from my rambling, I'm still mulling this over. I think Emma is right that novelists can learn a good deal about the "big bones" of story from musicals--and I believe that the spoken interactions are the sinews and tendons that knit those bones together. Unfortunately, we fictioneers are condemned to layer in character and backstory in a perhaps richer but certainly less economical way.

On the other hand, we don't have to write all those pesky scores, nor collaborate with someone who does.

n.b. The mug shot of Stravinsky is after his arrest in Boston for adding a rather nice but slightly unexpected seventh chord to his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The charge was "tampering with public property." The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays this version sometimes. I've never seen it result in an arrest, though.

At a performance of Stravinsky's "Octet for Wind Instruments" we attended a few years back, composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen answered some questions about Stravinsky, and responded with some heat to an audience member who argued that Stravinsky was a little intellectual and "dry." Salonen said, "If you listen to his music with your heart, you will find that Stravinsky was even more passionate than a 'wet' composer like Rachmaninoff."

I like Rachy, too. But I freely admit that he's a little wet.


Alis said...

Hi David - can't say I'm a huge Stravinsky fan (clearly not listening with enough of my heart..) but I'm with you in your response to that Emma Darwin post, fascinating!

Roger Morris said...

This is a very timely piece for me David, as, insanely, I am actually working on a libretto for an opera. At the advice of a brilliant and highly experience opera director, I am approaching it a little like writing a film script. That is to say, we've done a lot of work on the structure - on designing the action, and how one scene leads into the next. Nailing that down as much as possible before writing a single line to be sung.

I have written some words now - and it feels weird. I have yet to discover if my composer can work with what I've provided him.


David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Well, I'm afraid Igor isn't to everyone's taste (though I agree with Salonen that his music is passionate.) And he had some weird theories. In addition to his "no music in movies" dictum, he also insisted that music should be listened to with the eyes open so as to avoid the pictures and patterns that are liable to form in the mind's eye.

I confess that I often listen to Stravinsky with my eyes closed.

David Isaak said...


That's marvelous! When you get to the end of the process, please write something on how being a librettist works (might make a nice little magazine article). I assure you that a lot of us have wondered about the nature of the collaboration and some of the chicken-and-egg problems that must arise.

Will you be adopting an Italianate pen name for the project? This sounds like great fun!

Roger Morris said...

David, I'll be sticking to plain old 'Roger Morris' I think. We're working towards a workshop in the autumn - or fall, I should say!. If the workshop works out OK, it will be staged in 2009 at the Brighton Festival. Kind of scary, seeing as I've never written a libretto before. I don't know what I'm doing - but writing's always more fun when you don't know what your doing. At least I have the inspiration machine to help me now!