Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Challenge - Response

Normally, in an improvised song featuring multiple singers, one singer will take and own an entire verse/bridge/chorus, and perhaps someone else might come in to do a different verse/bridge/chorus. That's just a convention of course - there are other ways to structure a shared song.

One of the devices I love in an improvised song is when the singers trade lines in a verse. One singer starts a verse with a line, and another singer does a rhyming couplet to continue. Simple! Well, except that the rhymer has very little time to construct a line that fits the story and rhymes.

As an aside - you know how I feel about sacrificing story for the sake of a rhyme. Don't do it. That said, this challenge-response technique in a song only seems to work if you can construct rhyming responses.

Any duet is going to have the best chance of success when there's a strong relationship between the characters. This challenge-response form can play on that very nicely. Two lovers might progressively up the stakes about how they feel about each other; foes might trade insults; friends might sympathise with each other over a common issue.

We've had a good example on Musical Hotspot previously, with Luke and Amy's song Best Friend/First Mate, where Amy repeatedly set up rhymes, and Luke knocked 'em down. But for this article we're going to concentrate on an example from Worst Side Story.

You're Nothing Without Us


This scene takes place fairly late in the show. Melissa/Messy is packing her bags to leave town with her love Napkin Ring, when her old gang members Fingers and Drive-In show up. They both want her to come back to the gang, and are trying to convince her she won't survive on her own. Fingers is taking a hard line; Drive-In isn't as good at hiding his feelings.

Listen to You're Nothing Without Us, then we'll look at some of the really good bits.

There are quite a few occasions in the song where the singers trade rhymes. Near the start, Tom Dunstan (Fingers) and Joel Gilmore (Drive-In) trade an opening line. As the song progresses, Kiesten McCauley rhymes with both Joel's and Tom's setups, throwing their taunts back in their face. Joel and Tom neatly trade rhymes in the first chorus; Joel and Kiesten in the second. I think this challenge-response works very well in this song with the different dynamics between the characters. There's a strong adversarial relationship between the gang and Messy on one side; there's a strong sympathetic relationship between Fingers and Drive-In.

Other things I like in this song:
  • This is one of those times when you can hear the piano make a very distinct "It is time for you to sing now! Sing!" offer. Usually I ease in to those situations, but in this one I think it was quite a strong offer.
  • Joel's setup for the chorus was brilliant - the "You're Nothing Without Us" was a perfect line, phrased just right.
  • Kiesten's final line really signalled a dramatic end to the song. With just the audio you miss her turning on her heels and striding off stage confidently, walking away from her old gang in a huff.
  • Joel's post-song coda was fantastic! I only wish I was on the ball enough to not accompany him when he sung that. (Homage to Homer Simpson. "Mono... D'oh!")

Only one more song to be featured from Worst Side Story, in a few weeks. Stay tuned :)


Photo by Al Caeiro. Written by .

1 comment:

amytriesagain said...

I love reading your dissections. Awesome post, as always.

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