Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fools' Duets

Luke delves in to structures and tips for fun patter songs.

In this article we will be exploring what we have called the fools' duets. This is not to mean that these songs are only done by foolish characters or are only the comedic relief, but that they tend to lighter tone and content.

Whereas lovers' duets tend to focus on emotional content and highlight the journey of the lovers, fools' duets tend to be about a specific event or person. They focus more on wordplay and rhyming and tend to be very structured in their format.


One of the more common techniques used in this style of duet is patter. Patter puts a premium on rhyming and verbal dexterity and less importance on the quality of the singing. While these can often be solo songs, such as The Major Generals Song from HMS Pinafore, they do work well in duets also.

The patter duet often will focus on one-upmanship, and this is often done at a meta level, with characters setting up rhymes for one another. A brilliant example of this is the Act 1 closer from Sweeney Todd, Try a Little Priest. In this song, Mrs Lovett and Sweeney have decided that the best way to get rid of Sweeney's murder victims is to turn them into pies. During the duet they challenge each other to name the taste of pies made from people of various professions.

In Try a Little Priest, you will notice that they also talk in between verses and choruses, and do little jokes and business, but they always come right back to the structure that was established at the start of the song. This is a valuable technique to use in a patter song, realising that you can use dialogue in between singing, but to always go back to the structure.

Did You Hear The News?

We used this dialogue-during-the-song technique in the song Did You Hear The News? from One Bride. In the song, Joel Gilmore sets up the format for the song and as other join him (Alex Reichart and Tom Dunstan) more characters are added there is some dialogue before it goes back to its base structure. The song is then topped off by a lovely tag by Luke Allan.

A good format for this sort of song was set up by Dan Beeston, with a structure that focuses on the setting up of rhymes for the other person.

Character 1 - A
Character 2 - A
Character 2 - B
Character 1 - B
Character 1 - C
Character 2 - C

You can also insert a chorus in this format using similar rules, allowing the actors to set up rhymes and jokes for each other and creating escalating stakes.

Something to try

An exercise you can try to focus your skills on patter with someone else is to choose a nursery rhyme or simple song that you both know. Using the structure of the existing song will allow you to focus more on the words you are singing. The first singer will sing the first line of the song and you can trade lines back and forth as long as you can rhyme. If one of can't think of a rhyme, just insert a new word and try to go as long as you can on that word.

If you continue to do this for a while, it will give you practice in thinking of rhymes faster, and you will start to think of more about what you are saying rather than focusing on singing the song.

More examples

Other fools' duets and solo songs that are worth checking out to give you more ideas on how you can approach this style include Agony from Into the Woods and Bear Necessities from The Jungle Book, and Bring Me My Bride and Everybody Ought to Have a Maid from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Photo by Al Caeiro

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