A Musical Needs to Quack Like One

Sing Ducks Sing: Quack 2
So, I began with a great idea of conducting Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER) by adapting Burke’s play, Ducks on the Moon (2010) into a musical. What I find daunting is that arts-based research is ARTS-based, and in our project, it is the musical form that is at stake. Although I have released two CDs of original music, Faith is a Bicycle (2013), Courage Walks with Us (2014), and am soon to release a third CD later this year, tentatively titled, I Don’t Do Lazy Like That; these are smooth jazz/pop songs. These are not musical theatre songs. Although ABER is form(s) of educational research, it operates within particular artistic forms with their own traditions. My first task then is to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the breadth of the musical theatre landscape, and how to write one. To that end I read six books (Atkey, 2006; Frankel, 2000; Kniffel, 2013; Mandelbaum, 1991; Mordden, 2013; Viertel, 2016), and consulted two online resources (Brown, 2007; Miles, 2014).

atkey_pic1From these readings, there appear two over-arching (and inter-related) distinctions that appear useful as I begin the composition phase:

  1. What are the kinds of musical plays? …Or, asked differently, how might music be incorporated into and/or transform a play?
  2. What are the kinds of songs within musical theatre?

The following section will wrestle with these questions.  At the end of each section, I focus my thinking in light of Sing Duck Sing.

Play-with-Music or Musical Drama?
There is significant variation in the musical form(s) itself, including: play-with-music, musical comedy, musical drama, revue, Broadway opera, musical revue, operetta (Frankel 2000; p. 16). There are some effective and popular plays-with-music, such as “George Ryga and Ann Mortifee’s… The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in 1973” (Atkey, 2006, p. 16), though currently there seems to be more musical comedies and musical dramas that are successful. Music operates differently within these formats—particularly so between plays-with-music and musical dramas:

“Between a show song and a pop song, however there is a basic difference. The former is a dramatic action, the latter is not. A show song is a heightened action springing from a dramatic context, and as a results reveals character, develops situation, forwards plot. It lands somewhere else from where it started, it makes a difference” (Frankel 2000; p. 90).

A play-with-music may have songs tangentially related to the dramatic action—almost evocative of the theme; whereas, musical dramas tend to have songs that are ideally constitutive of the plot. Characters sing their lines. Indeed, Frankel (2000, p. 22) claims that “songs take over most of the main points of the plot, and makes them the high points.”  In fact, he suggests that “songs heighten action more than dialogue” (p. 22). Ideally, then one must choose a book/play to be musicalized in which “something is at stake” (Viertel 2016, p. 18), and contains “actions high enough to break into songs” (Frankel 2000; p. 22).

My Duck asks: Look for the high points in the play…see how they may be enhanced, while being mindful of the “ ‘chop and drop’ job, with the original play cut down to make way for [the songs]” (Mandelbaum, 1991, p. 178). This, if Sing Ducks Sing will be a musical drama; otherwise consider a play-with-music.

Musical Theatre Song Types
Songs for the theatre may be written within many different genres or styles, but there are some specific song types for the musical theatre—some of which seem to be defined by character and plot development; others, seem defined by placement within the musical. Having said that however; it appears that these categorical types are used out of routine, since action/plot reveals character. As in pop songwriting it is better to show not tell; and in musical theatre, it is better to show character through deeds, trials or activities rather than description.

Opening Number

Obviously one of the first songs, it can “introduce a hero or heroine whose burning passion would drive the plot” (Viertel 2016, p. 22). How to start a musical seems not an easy question; Frankel, 2000 (p. 111), ponders that “to open with dialogue, not sing, may be even harder. More than courage it takes skill. The energy level is in question. Does a musical feel like a musical until its first song?”  The subtle idea here may be that a musical needs to quack like one—from the get-go; whereas a play-with-music may feel more like a play.  Opening numbers are critical: they create that all-important first impression. “One thing is certain, however: opening numbers can make or break a show. They have turned flops into hits” (Viertel 2016, p. 31). This may be one of the reasons that “the opening usually keeps undergoing the most revision” (Frankel 2000; p.  111).

My Duck asks: What will the first song be like? How to introduce?
I Am Song
The role of this song seems to be to introduce and establish character(s) and significant plot details:

“In the I Am song the character’s need is to confront…to claim or to discover” (Frankel 2000; p. 103).
“Establishing numbers are the I Am song writ large. To ‘establish’ or set situations is their action—in the times, the place and most if all the relationships out of which the musical stems, or to which it may need to shift.” (Frankel 2000; p. 109).

My Duck asks: Who does the protagonist in Ducks on the Moon think she is? How does she see herself? How does she see herself in relation to others, and in relation to being a parent? Probably important, how does she see herself in relation to disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

I Want Song
While the I Am song serves to introduce, the I Want song is sets up or describes the dramatic conflict, the reason, the motivation. It has been described in the following ways:

“I Want song is to strive for or to demand something more or something different in its essence” (Frankel 2000; p. 104).

“‘I Want’ song—a solo number in which the protagonist tells the audience what’s driving her or him. That spot is usually the second in the show.” (Viertel 2016, p. 59).

“The hero has to want something that’s hard to get, and go after it come what may. The sooner the audience understands this, the better” (Viertel 2016, p. 61).

“In a musical, after the protagonist has told us of his or her hopes and dreams and the accompanying determination to achieve them, in the I Want moment, there is usually an encounter with a love interest. And there’s usually a song, which I is called generically, a “conditional” love song” (Viertel 2016, p. 81).

If the I Want song is a soliloquy, there are come cautions: “‘Musical soliloquies’ have been so overused that some experienced writers avoid them now on principle.” (Frankel 2000; p. 44)… “They fail because of attacking the problem in which the character is caught, they lament it, which stops the action and puts off the audience. A good soliloquy seeks something for the character to do about the problem, which advances the action and enlists the audience.” (Frankel 2000; p. 45)

My Duck asks: What is it exactly the central character of Ducks on the Moon wants? Is it that she wants her son to be just like her other children? Or, does she want her son to respond to the parenting lessons that she has so well-learned?

Metaphor Songs
“Musical metaphors take advantage of the unique qualities of musical theatre to portray a situation in presentational non-literal fashion” (Brown, 2007 paragraph 6).

My Duck asks: Although not a terribly common kind of song, I think it may be useful in this case. I need to think about this in light of ASD.

 Comment Songs
Comment songs may be thought of as teachable and/or informative and/or comedic; they have been described as “intended for instruction, for example one character giving advice to either another character or the audience itself.” (Miles, 2014). “Relief and comment [songs]…may appear to exceed or contradict the direct-action use of music…relief songs may be divided into three categories: respites, novelty numbers, and interludes. (Frankel 2000; p. 117).

My Duck asks: My feeling is that this entire play is quite instructive in the most poignant of ways. My feeling at this point is that to add one of these kinds of songs would be counter-productive. I think that the songs need to exemplify autism.

 To Reprise…and to segue
“The reprise is the return of a song later in the plot—but a return to add, not to repeat.” (Frankel 2000; p. 113). “The simpler the reprise is employed, the better…. [and] there is a danger of over-use” (Frankel 2000; p. 114). “The music of the segue stems from somewhere in the score, either literally or stylistically. Though an audience hears segues only subliminally, they aid in story-telling sharply.” (Frankel 2000; p. 116).

My Duck asks: It seems that to reprise in a small musical like I am going to co-write, I need to really think about the central metaphor of the musical, so that the reprise will emphasise it.

Tent Poles Songs
“Tent poles [songs] are usually fun. They’re usually up tempo” (Viertel 2016, p. 147).  “As is true with Hamilton, tent poles usually involve lots of people, too, but not always.” (Viertel 2016, p. 147).

My Duck asks: It seems that to reprise in a small musical like I am going to co-write, I need to really think about the central metaphor of the musical, so that the reprise will emphasise it.

It seems some musical theatre song types will just naturally resonate better with Ducks on the Moon than others; for example the metaphor song will be useful I am guessing at this point.  Also, I need to think about the I Am and I Want songs. Although there is definitely more latitude, musically speaking, with a play-with-music rather than a musical, at this point I am thinking about a musical……

Stay tuned little ducklings….

Atkey, Mel (2006). Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre. Toronto, ON: Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.

Brown, Larry (2007). The Dramatic Function of Songs in Musical Theatre. Available online at: http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/theater_topics/Musical_Theater.htm

Burke, K.J. (2010). Ducks on the Moon: A Parent Meets Autism. Hagios Press: Regina, SK.

Frankel, Aaron (2000). Writing the Broadway Musical (Revised and Updated). USA: Da Capo Press.

Kniffel, Leonard (2013). Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals. Chicago: Huron Street Press.

Mandelbaum, Ken (1991). Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Miles, Alison (2014). Types of songs in musicals. Available online at: https://prezi.com/m/6ofe13bejsfd/types-of-songs-in-musicals

Mordden, Ethan (2013). Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press.

Viertel, Jack. (2016). The Secret Life of the America Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. New York: Sarah Crighton Books.