Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The 3 Rs - Reprise, Reuse, Recycle.

In an improvised scene or show, I love it when the actors bring back a previously shelved idea. It seems to be one of those things that gives the illusion of planning and structure where there isn't any. The same concept applies to music in improvised shows.

In musical theatre, a reprise is when a song from earlier in the production makes a return appearance. Although they will often have different lyrical content, or a different tempo, or a different feel, they are recognisable as being related to the previous song.

In many ways, this is similar to a character leitmotif that appears with variations during the story. Because it is recognisably related to something the audience has heard before, it evokes some of that previous feeling or memory.

As the musician, you can encourage a reprise to a song by playing the previous song again. This is tricky; that song from earlier must be memorable enough that the audience knows what you're doing - and memorable enough that you can actually recall what you played! Hopefully the actors are cued in to the music, and make the same connection you are hoping the audience will make, so they can bring out the previous lyrics. A simple chorus really helps here.

The actors can very easily force a reprise by jumping in to the song again. As long as you're on the ball, you'll follow them. It doesn't even matter if you can recall the chord progression you used the first time round; the actors have done the hard work to make the audience recall that previous piece, and you can pretty much play what you like. Personally, I prefer this sort of reprise. The actors know when to bring back a song, and which song to bring back, based on how the lyrical content of that song could apply to the scene at the moment.

In a short-form scene, I find reprises work well when a main character (perhaps the hero) has changed as the story progressed, and they finish the scene with a reprise of the song with which they began the scene. For example, a scene about a janitor might have opened with a simple song about making the room shine; perhaps the janitor's fortunes improve during the story until he owns his own company, and he might finish with a song about how he shines.

A long-form musical really lends itself to reprises - you should have a great many opportunities to find songs that can come back. Of course, we have an example for this, coming again from One Bride.

What A Beautiful Day For A Walk

This week's recording What A Beautiful Day For A Walk is a full scene that includes a song in two parts. In the story, Nancy is just getting organised to dig up the gold she believes is buried in the playground, then leave the town a rich woman. Golly doesn't know of her plans, and thinks she is back in town to get to know his family better. Nancy is developing feelings for Golly, but her feelings are tempered by her knowledge that she is going to leave; Golly is falling headlong in love with her.

The first part of What A Beautiful Day For A Walk is a quick, happy little ditty. You can hear the point where I think a song should start; the underscoring suddenly comes in to focus as accompaniment, and Tristan and Amy dive right in.

I really enjoy some of the interplay that happens in between the songs. The bit about Nancy's parents in particular makes me smile.

The second part is a bit of a freeform ballad, where Golly exposes his feelings, and Nancy replies. You can hear the disappointment in Golly's voice towards the end. Then Tristan, in a flash of brilliance, brings back the chorus from the first song again, and Amy follows him, jumping in with both feet. The music is noticably changed from the first time around; it has gone from optimism and energy to something bittersweet.

There is one moment in particular I desperately love in the second song. When Tristan sings "filled with smiles", the music has moved to a somewhat risky chord. It would have been easy for Tristan to have gone to a note that didn't fit, but it happens that he landed on something that suited it perfectly.

I had one member of the audience, a fellow improviser, tell me after the show how impressed he was with that reprise. I agree :)

Photo by Al Caeiro

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