First day of intersession course on musical lyrics was very exciting. We watched and discussed DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG. Tomorrow: TOPSY-TURVY, and Gilbert. I have told the students that the thesis of this class is that lyrics can and should be as good as any other kind of writing, and that we are going to hold them to the same standards we would a short story or a poem. To make this statement makes me very happy.
it’s time to go;
it may be all in vain, you know —
Into the woods,
but not forgetting
why we’re on the journey.
Intersession course on musicals starts tomorrow. Let the whirlwind commence!
Snark follows. I received my Dr. Horrible DVD in the mail today. Although I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and still enjoy it, I think the lyrics are one of its weakest points. With the exceptions of the Bad Horse numbers, and, to some extent, the medley-created humor of “So They Say,” I am getting sick of the bad-on-purpose writing. Like this, from “My Eyes”:
Listen close to everybody’s heart
And hear that breaking sound
Hopes and dreams are shattering apart
And crashing to the ground
Blah. It’s not even funny any more. After a week of Gilbert, Sondheim, Hart, Willson, Harburg, and Ashman, this is embarrassing. Even in the Bad Horse choruses, which are my favorite parts of the film, because a) they are choruses, and b) they are better written, there are, sorry, really horrible touches:
He saw the operation you tried to pull today,
But your humiliation means he still votes “neigh –”
And now assassination is just the only way.
There will be blood, it might be yours —
So go kill someone —
Signed: Bad Horse.
That “just” in the line “and now assassination is just the only way” is awful. It’s, er, “just” there to provide another syllable.
It’s better to have nonsense words than bad writing — it’s better to have unrhymed text than bad rhyming — and it’s better to do anything than write this, from “Everything You Ever”:
So you think justice has a voice,
And we all have a choice?
Come on. Grateful as I am to this team for experimenting with new methods of distribution and production, and for creating a humorous Internet musical, and for employing Neil Patrick Harris, it seems pathetic mismanagement to have spent 200K on anything and still have lines like that left in.
Also, to ensure my credentials as a curmudgeon, the habit of putting lyrics online without any punctuation is driving me bonkers. In trying to create handouts for the class, I spend way too much time fiddling with semicolons. I can’t give them handouts without punctuation. It completely undermines the premise of this course that lyrics are serious writing. (Gilbert, I am sure, would never have allowed his lyrics to be printed without punctuation. If I’m wrong about that, and I guess I should probably find out, then I disagree with him.)
Here’s how. I think.
We’re going to choose an over-arching narrative for our class-written musical, something with mass culture appeal that has not yet been made into a musical – Harry Potter…AVATAR…something… – and break it, roughly, into acts and scenes. Each student gets assigned to an act and a scene, and to the song from that scene.
They each (the students) only have to write one set of lyrics. One. But they have to revise it twice. They’ll be assigned (or can assign themselves, better) to particular topics or scenes from the over-arching story, and that topic becomes their song. They work on it for the entire course.
The students are going to be divided into 5 groups of 5 each, each assigned to a chunk of the narrative. I’ll try, based on the first day, to break it up so that folks with theater experience are divided fairly among the groups.
The other 4 members of the group become the chorus members for the lyricist’s song, if the song has a chorus. Everyone will, in this way, be in four choruses as well as writing their own song.
Any rehearsal time they get will have to occur outside of class – I think most of them won’t rehearse, but will just do a cold read.
And on the final day of the course, we’ll present all the lyrics, one after another, in narrative sequence, resulting in a mass-crafted musical. There won’t be music, but they can read them out loud.
I like it. A lot. I like it better for its many seeming impossibilities.
The primary business that makes this clogged artery [Times Square] the tourist heart of the city is theater, and the musical remains its driving force.
Perhaps the most ominous detail I noted in assembling the list of the decade’s most important new musicals relates to this troubling phenomenon. Only one composer-lyricist on this list had more than one new show on Broadway during the decade. His name was Mel Brooks*.
– Charles Isherwood, “Cue The Chorus: The Musical Endures,” NYT
Isherwood provides a timely survey of the decade in musicals, days before the start of the intersession class I’m teaching. There is so much material on this topic. I am used to having my critical and academic interests be more marginal — this is as if** I suddenly decided to write a paper on the atomic bomb, or something. Sources? Websites? Lyrics online? Everything! At your fingertips! Constantly!
I’m The musical is so popular!
*We are going to see the touring version of the Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN musical on the 14th, as a class.
**You know you’ve been in graduate school too long (and only one semester!) when your California-honed habits of using the word “like” inappropriately are challenged. Makes me sad.
I am going out, in a wig and enormous sunglasses, to rent HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. (In the interests of scholarship.) If I’m not back in an hour, call the taste police.
Long post here. For those of you who have asked me what the musical theatre lyrics course will include, here is a class-by-class breakdown. I am heavily indebted in this material to the website Musicals101.com, maintained by John Kenrick, and particularly his lengthy article on the connection between gay culture and musical theatre. He writes from a perspective that combines scholarly knowledge with personal opinion. It’s fun to read.
I am still making changes but things are starting to become more final. The first week is (mostly) about lyrics, the second week is more about history and representation, and the third week, which only has two classes, is an in-depth study of one lyricist: Howard Ashman. Hopefully we can use Ashman to sum up everything we’ve looked at before, and also address the idea of musicals and animation.
When I started working this up, I wanted it only to be about lyrics, but that turned rapidly into an all-white-men-fest, and a rehash of the first fifty years of the last century. So this version of the course is, hopefully, broader, and more relevant to contemporary practice.
Each week they have to write one set of lyrics, which receives a small-group workshop with five other students on the last day of the week. I am debating about having all of them work from the same source text (Harry Potter: The Musical? Star Wars: The Musical?) or letting them choose their own sources. I want them to come out of this thinking of themselves as lyricists in the Gilbert model – able to write the lyrics without the composer, and present something to the composer. They all have to write one chorus, one duet or solo, and one song which combines solo characters with choruses, I think. Either that, or they all have to write one ballad, one tells-a-story song, and one chorus or medley…
I’m still deciding.
Day One: (God help me.)
Introduction to the course.
I’m going to go around the room and ask everyone what their favorite / first musicals were, and favorite songs from those. We will then try to divide those songs into formal groups, including both thematic and structural categories;
– ballad (AABA)
– dance number
– messenger speech / “Let me tell you how it happened…”
– dramatic monologue
– patter song
and so forth.
I will explain that the goal I have for them, as writers, in this course, is to be able to critically analyze different types of song lyrics, identify what types of lyrics they are, and produce versions of those lyrics themselves. Secondly, I want them to have some more ideas about both the history of the form, and its political implications.
Terms: Lyricist, librettist, book, composer, orchestrator/arranger (Shall We Dance example) etc.
Then we will discuss what a musical is, the origins of the term, the first musicals, first musicals in the United States, etc.
Discuss: Why are musicals so popular? (John Kenrick) Why are people willing to pay five hundred dollars a ticket for them? What are some of the problems with musicals? Why do so many people hate them? What are the worst musicals? What makes them so bad? Introduce theme of representation in musicals, and of stereotypes. Introduce theme of queer culture and musicals. Discuss course’s bifurcated approach between New Criticism (focus on lyrics as lyrics) and historical / socioeconomic criticism. Best of both worlds.
We’ll do a “name some of-the-moment popular musicals” brainstorming. Contemporary manifestations of the musical: HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL(s), Urinetown, [title of show], Spring Awakening, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Proposition 8:The Musical, Joss Whedon, and the musical episode of Buffy, among others. RENT and the problem with RENT. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats. The jukebox musical: Across The Universe, Abba. The take-songs-and-rewrite-lyrics musical: Moulin Rouge, John Gay…
Where do musicals come from? I will use this point to deliver a short but impassioned speech on the Greek chorus (surprise). We’ll look at some Greek choruses as “song lyrics” and talk about how they map onto contemporary song categories. Segue into a discussion of the form’s origins in operetta.
This leads us, of course, to Gilbert and Sullivan. We’ll listen to excerpts of PINAFORE and PIRATES and do some analysis of those lyrics. And then begin watching TOPSY-TURVY, the Mike Leigh film on the making of THE MIKADO. If, as I suspect, we do not get to TOPSY-TURVY on this day, we can at least catch up on day two.
Day Two: Continuation of Gilbert unit. I am going to have to explain a lot about 1885-era Europe. I have friends who have seen this movie who were put off by it, early, by Leigh’s depiction of topless Parisian prostitutes with Sullivan, and stopped taking the rest of the film seriously — or who watched it but didn’t understand all the British history stuff. I’m either going to judiciously fast-forward so that we (mostly) watch only the production-related parts, or else pause a lot to discuss things.
Day Three: Sondheim. We’ll watch most of WEST SIDE STORY (which segues into the next class on race and ethnicity and the musical) and listen to lots of excerpts: definitely ASSASSINS, COMPANY, PACIFIC OVERTURES. Sondheim as the heir to Gilbert. Lyrics.
Class “socioeconomic status groups,” race, ethnicity, representation, and the American musical. Vaudeville, minstrel shows. Musicals and war/jingoism. We’ll watch parts of SOUTH PACIFIC and FINIAN’S RAINBOW, THE WIZ, HAIR, CAROUSEL, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and PORGY & BESS.
Day Five: Gender, sexuality, queer culture, camp/cult/transgressive musicals. THE WIZARD OF OZ. Judy Garland. VICTOR/VICTORIA. ROCKY HORROR. HEDWIG. Since this is a Baltimore-themed class, the film we’re going to watch the most of is HAIRSPRAY: but this day is also going to cover the dance musical, including portions of GREASE and A CHORUS LINE, and address the issues with representation of queer people and AIDS in RENT. Sadly, this ties in to the upcoming Howard Ashman unit in a painful way, since he died of AIDS early in his career.
Day Six: Yiddish theater / Jewish culture and the American musical: briefly treating FIDDLER and the many Jewish lyricists of the genre, before spending most of the day on THE PRODUCERS and Mel Brooks and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in preparation for our field trip to see the YF musical.
Days Seven & Eight: The musical and animation. The Disney tradition. The move away from animated musicals with the move to 3D animation. Address puppets, Muppet Show, Jim Henson, AVENUE Q. Howard Ashman: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LITTLE MERMAID. Conclusion of course.
I’m having a lot of fun here, if you can’t tell.