Wednesday, December 24, 2008


One of the standard Impro favourites is Musical. Just like a stage musical, the actors are acting out the story, and every now and again they'll break in to song.

Musicals usually have a few well defined songs in the scene, songs with a beginning, middle, and end, and an overall point. (Contrast this to an Opera, where often it's stream-of-consciousness singing and does not always resolve itself in to distinct pieces.)

It's often played as one of the longer short-form games, for say four minutes. You might only get a handful of songs, and realistically they're only going to be 30 seconds each, tops - so you're limited in how you can structure them. Musicals make fantastic long-form scenes as well; a long-form musical supports longer songs. A 40-minute musical when done right is just amazing.

The best advice I can give about learning to improvise music for a Musical is this - go rent some Disney animated musicals and watch them! Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, they all have fantastic structure, and the musical pieces really work.

To me, the songs in a musical work best when they're treated a bit like aside to the audience, maybe involving one person, maybe two, maybe everyone. They extend on a theme or an emotion rather than moving the story forward or introducing new story elements. Again with the Disney movies, quite often you could just slice a song out of the story and it would still stand up. Well, very nearly stand up anyway; the song explores the character and emotion, and that's important. You might find out why the villain is so dastardly in his song, as he explains that his brother got all the love as a kid but he got nothing. That doesn't move the story forward so much, but it's still important for the audience to understand how the pieces fit together.

One thing to definitely try and avoid in a Musical is Opera-itis, where one song morphs in to another which morphs in to another... In a Musical, a song about two people discovering their love for each other (think A Whole New World from Aladdin) might be strong, but it would lose its impact if the bad guy showed up during the song to kidnap one of them, changing the tone of the song (and advancing the narrative).

I give myself big bonus points if I can find some theme or refrain to repeat throughout the musical. If the opening piece featured, say, a character arriving in Hollywood, all keen for acting work and starry-eyed, it works a treat if you can revisit the underlying chord structure again in a sad way for later in the scene when they've gotten bad work for no pay and are disappointed and disillusioned. John Williams' music in the Star Wars movies do a fantastic job of associating characters with their own themes, and interpeting those themes differently as the emotion changes.

I like to begin a musical with a song. Aside from the audience gimme, the muso can provide the opening offer, and the actors take it from there.

In a season of long-form musicals we did a while back at the old Hub cafe in Brisbane, we started the musical with two offers from the audience; they selected a player to sing the opening solo song, and they provided a simple title for that opening solo. That player has a bit of work to do, they lay the groundwork for the whole musical in that song.

One of the best aspects of a Musical is that it's nearly always a crowd favourite. Structuring your show to put a Musical (or other big buck musical game) towards the end will have your audience leaving on a high.


Michael Pollock said...

I like the points Kris makes in this post. To focus on one of them in particular: It really is cool when an improvised song within a musical (long or short form) sounds as if it could stand apart, remaining meaningful or appealing on its very own. This is a great goal to pursue in rehearsal or class - let a scene lead to a song, and purposely try to create this "stand alone" kind of product. Kris recommends Disney movies for their good examples, and I further suggest the Broadway show, "Avenue Q." It contains a number of songs that fill this bill. My favorite is "There's A Fine, Fine Line." Follow this link to the lyrics:

David Lovell said...

...and of course Avenue Q's iconic (and touching) ballad “The Internet is for Porn” deserves consideration also.

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