Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Starting a Song in a Musical

Photos by n0nick
The 'rules' for starting a standalone song are a little different from leading in to a song in an otherwise spoken scene. In a standalone song, the scene starts from nothing, focus moves first on the element that starts, and then the other supporting elements come in. In something like a musical, the dynamic is very different - a story is taking place, and suddenly, there's music! How do you start a song there?

When to start

There are times when the performers can feel a song coming on. Perhaps one of the characters is approaching a crisis or decision point, or has learned something significant, or the relationship between characters is on the cusp of some new development. These are times like that where the emotion of the scene swells to become as significant as the narrative. These are the most obvious entry points to songs for me. (My iconic example is A Whole New World from Aladdin - where the two characters really open up and connect with one another.)

There are other times when a character might be obviously about to extend the detail of the story rather than advancing the story. "So, Doctor Crankypants, how did you become so evil?" "Well, Igor, it's like this..." Dr Cranky is about to sing a song that would stand alone, or could even be taken out of the performance without punching a hole in the story. (When we talk about extending the detail in song, one of my favourite examples is Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid. See a pattern? Love those Disney musicals.)

Musician starts

In musicals (or other long-form involving occasional singing), I'm quite used to playing mood music behind a scene, music that morphs and flows with the narrative and the emotion on stage. Sometimes this underscoring has a tempo and a structure, sometimes not; it just depends. As you approach that point where you think a song is about to appear, what do you do?

If I feel a song coming on, I'll often change the underscoring so it falls in to a pattern suitable for vamping. A nice repetitive pattern, with a sign on it for the players that says "Song goes here". I'm talking simple patterns like the beginning of Bette Midler's The Rose (ah, one of those songs I learned as a kid) or something with more interest like Five for Fighting's The Riddle, both soft piano ballads with fairly similar tempos and emotional states. There is a whole world of offers there for you to give based on different styles or themes - pick something appropriate to the moment. When the protagonist is set apon by the evil temptress, for example, I might choose something with a strong latin feel in a minor key.

If one of the players picks up on it and fires up a song, great - now you're moving along to wherever the song takes you. If something happens on stage and that offer isn't picked up before the action moves on, that's ok too, just morph back in to your underscoring.

It's a little easier if you feel a song coming on at a time when you happen to be not underscoring. It's way more obvious to the players that you're getting them ready to sing when you start vamping from silence.

A great way for the actors to signal that they're about to sing is for them to demand the focus in the scene by taking some kind of pose. Often this might be a distinct stepping-forward, facing the audience. It could be other things too, like taking one knee in front of their love interest. These strong physical cues almost pause the scene, putting a very clear focus on that actor in readiness for whatever comes next. If you've started vamping, this is a great way for one of the actors to indicate to the other that they're going to take the reins of the song.

Michael Pollock discusses many of these same concepts, and how actors can construct great verbal cues, on his site in his excellent post Tips for Accompanists: "Cueing a Song" in a Long-Form Musical.

Singer starts

A particularly brave actor might just launch in to song during the scene. There are a few different ways this might play out.

If you were underscoring the scene, it may be that the actor has picked up on the key or feel that you were playing - or perhaps the feel they had in their head, not the one you had in yours. You have to evaluate how you change your underscoring to become accompaniment to the song they can hear in their head, usually by fiddling with the tempo and rhythmic structure. I find this situation quite challenging - for some reason, I have a harder time putting together what I think is a musically coherent construction when we enter the song this way - it ends up being stream-of-consciousness singing/music without much of a structure. Without a strong structure, songs often fail to find a definitive ending, and the actors find they've just started speaking again instead of singing. Oh, the song's done. Right. This whole area is something I need to work on.

If, while you're underscoring, the player steps forward or provides some other strong physical clue that they'd like to sing now, that gives you the chance to quickly morph from your underscoring to an introductory vamp.

When a player bursts in to song when you weren't underscoring, you have the fun challenge of doing the chromatic shuffle to find the key they're in. Usually they can convey the tempo and feel they want through their physicalisation and the lyrics. Sometimes this can be quite challenging. If you find you struggle with this situation, you might ask your actors to help lead you in by accompaning themselves with subtle (or over the top) finger-snapping or toe-tapping.

Now what?

OK, you're in the song. It's started nicely. What do you do now?

Good question. That's for another post.

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