Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Eyes

Now and again I'll encounter some music that I find teaches me something about music for impro.

Joss Whedon produced a fantastic internet-only musical this year, Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. A musical in three parts, it told the tale of a hero (er, villain) (er, anti-villain) Dr Horrible, his nemesis Captain Hammer, and the femme fatale Penny. The production took place during the 2008 writers' strike, and the whole thing was made on a shoestring budget. It was available on the internet for only a couple of days; copies have sprung up on YouTube and other video sharing sites, and the DVD is expected by Christmas.

Neil Patrick Harris (aka Doogie Howser, aka Barney from How I Met Your Mother) played Dr Horrible.  I thought his performance was amazing. I'll admit it took a little while to see him as other than "Barney in a weird supervillain suit", but once he started singing the character took on a life of its own. The other major actors were great, but to me didn't shine quite as brightly.

(Theory and Minor Spoiler alert: Don't read this paragraph if you haven't seen it yet. Mind you, if you're a Joss Whedon fan you'll pick the ending anyway. Highlight it with your mouse if you want to have a read. The character that dies in the end? I reckon they'll be back in a sequel, but somehow transformed in to a very evil, very powerful character. I thought their singing was unusually weak and mousey compared to the others, and the casting was so good generally that the one weak voice seems out of place to me... So I think that singer *actually* has a really strong voice, and Joss knows it, and they'll bring that powerful voice when they come back as a new character, and everyone will go "Wow, that's some good casting!")

The song that opens the second act, "My Eyes", is just wonderful. It comes at a point in the story where both Dr Horrible and Penny just starting to undergo major changes in their life and outlook.

Dr Horrible's character started as intrinsically good (if sarcastically optimistic), with the character itself somewhat playing the character of a not-very-seriously-bad bad guy. At the beginning of act 2, his anger is starting to eat away at the character's goodness, and he starts to justify to himself why the world (and I suppose by extension himself) is a Horrible place that doesn't deserve love.

Penny's character is also intrinsically good; she tries to contribute to society and do the right thing. Society hasn't given her the love and validation she craves, so her optimism is tinged with melancholy. At the start of act 2, she's discovering love and acceptance; her sadness starts to give way to real optimism and happiness.

The melody of their choruses are basically identical, but the structures underneath the melodies are quite different. Dr Horrible's "I cannot believe my eyes / How the world's full of filth and lies" is sung in shadow on grimy streets and back alleys; set to a minor chord progression, it features sparse low brooding piano. Penny's "I cannot believe my eyes / Is the world finally growing wise" is sung in bright light in a soup kitchen for homeless folks; set to a major chord progression, it's built on a higher piano with a happy groovy drum part. (The song is in D; Dr Horrible's chorus chord progression is based on B minor and E minor; Penny's is based on D major and G major. Both progressions share a wonderful fresh break down to E major on A flat that provides commonality. I'm not doing it justice. Go find it and watch/listen to it. And buy the DVD.)

I thought this was a great example of setting a recognisable musical pattern, and modifying it to suit the emotion of the moment. We like to do this in impro musicals and songs; when we pull it off, it's pretty special.


Dan said...

It's funny you've picked that song of them all. That's the one I desperately want to figure out how to recreate in an Impro show.

In Brisbane we rarely seem to create music to a strict format. It's great to be able to make up anything on the spur of the moment but it would also be nice to not have to worry about the form and concentrate on the story and lyrics.

Kris said...

Me too - have talked with Andy F about this song, the structure, the style of singing (almost talky-conversational) and how hard that would be to pull off at a live impro show.

I hadn't thought about pre-setting the music; other groups (eg Second City) do that a lot, and practice harmonies so they can NAIL the form with whatever lyrics come up.

It's by far my favourite song in the musical. When Dr Horrible was brand new, I think I ripped it off several times during youth shows, using it as filler music. I got busted for it by one of the kids, too. :)

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