Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Introduction Songs

In a long-form musical, you have lots of time and scope to set up a fantastic story. A big part of that is introducing the characters to the audience and giving each of them their own identity, and place in the story. An opening song is a great way to get started, and if you do it right, a big ending can give your show the push it needs.

In our themed ImproMafia musicals, we tend to have a largish cast (seven to eight people). We generally go in to the musical with a little bit of structure, perhaps identifying the social groups that take part in the story, and casting the romantic leads. (We always have romantic leads! What fun would a musical be without a little romance?)

You could have a series of short scenes that gradually introduce characters. That’s going to take a lot of time, and that’s time you’re not spending getting to the meat of your story. Opening up a channel in to the audience’s hearts through a song is a pretty efficient way to do the same thing.

Goals


The first scene of a musical often has several goals:
  • Introduce the characters
  • Set the scene for the story
  • Establish the musical mood

One verse per character


We’ve found a good way to do this is to open with a song that lays down the basics of the story, and gives many of the characters some solo time in the spotlight so the audience gets to know them. We might start the scene with only one or two people on stage, and slowly add to the group until most of the cast is gathered. As individuals are added, they get a verse of a song, and can use the verse to perhaps introduce themselves, sell their character a little bit, and provide their place in the story.

This song doesn’t necessarily need to introduce all of the characters. If you have a story where the action comes from catalyst character (like Maria in West Side Story, Tommy and Jeff in Brigadoon, Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), you might make the introduction song about life before the catalyst, and delay introducing the catalyst for a little while. You might also have supporting actors ready to play supporting characters without strong identities, and they might not take part in the opening song.

Suddenly you have six or seven people on stage, and a song that requires a big ending. Nailing a big finish on the opening scene is a tremendous way to get the audience completely on-side right away. As much as you want it to be a group-effort communal-mind sort of thing, our best success has come when one person has taken the reins to conduct everyone in a tight ending. Arguably it should be a pretty primary character that does this, perhaps one of the romantic leads, or an exceptionally high- or low-status character.

Change up the music


The feel of that opening music will help to set the tone for the rest of the show. A musical set in the old west is going to sound different to a musical set in an accounting firm. A happy-fairy-land musical is going to open quite differently to one set in a meat packing plant. (Hmm, actually, happy-fairy-land music in a meat packing plant would be kinda funny.) Our themed ImproMafia musicals open with an overture, and olde-style credits projected on to a big screen. The overture segues in to the introduction song.

An introduction song that touches all of the characters can make for a pretty long song. As the musician, you want to try and introduce a few changes in key or feel to keep it moving along. It’s good to keep some consistency in the feeling you’ve set up for the musical. There are lots of parameters you can play with, including key and tempo.

Examples


As always, it’s easy to see this stuff in action with an example. Good news – I’ve got two examples for you. Next week you can listen to ‘Our Town’, the introduction from One Bride for Seven Brothers. The following week we’ll have ‘Table Manners’ from Worst Side Story. (Don't forget you can subscribe to the Musical Hotspot Podcast to have these and other songs delivered right to your portable music device of choice!)

Of course, this is just one way to open a musical. If you haven’t tried it, give it a shot – it has worked well for us, and will probably work well for you too.
Photo by DyanaVPhotos

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