What a comforting notion. They wrote what they liked according to their understanding and sensibilities. Or in other words, they created music that sounded good to their ears regardless of what the academics said was correct.
Over the years I have been quite aware that I haven't been as diligent in my study of Music Theory as I ought. Sure, I passed all of my classes in College, but I confess that my ear is faster than my brain. Where I have learned to write melodies and accompaniments that may use advanced devices, I have not had the patience to analyze these processes according to the formal language of Music Theory. For me, the music just has to sound right. I have been gratified however when I get flattering feedback that my music has genius. The approach may be a bit primitive, but the outcome sounds like I know what I'm doing. Hmm....that's a point to ponder.
Those of you who have studied the works of the Great Masters, do you also remember learning that they just wrote what they liked and many regularly broke the rules as they went along?
What a comforting notion. They wrote what they liked according to their understanding and sensibilities. Or in other words, they created music that sounded good to their ears regardless of what the academics said was correct.
Plenty of the great Masters surely had a wonderful command of the language of Music Theory. Still, some of the best music that has been passed down to us comes through musicians who couldn't personally even write it down. After all, music is a heavenly gift. Musicians have always made music throughout our long history. Music Theory developed along the way as a system to help musicians notate their music and let them communicate their ideas to others as well as preserve it for future generations. Music Theory is a language. It is not the music.
This holds true in the world of Musical Theater, too. Styles and fashions come and go. Composers are always looking for inspiration and who knows where that inspiration will take them.
Take the music of Alan Menken for example. In writing "Pocohantas," he clearly used influences from Native American instruments, motifs and tonalities. For "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Tangled," and others, he followed traditional American Musical Theater song forms such as the production number, soliloquy, love duet, novelty song, reprise, and finale to support plot development and resolution. For "Hercules," he used styles of American pop songs through the ages such as Gospel and 1960's rock and roll. That's just one prolific composer. There are so many other examples.
In writing my Children's Musicals, I have tried to hunt for musical inspiration that would best fit the stories. In "Stone Soup" I wanted music that sounded like the 1800's American Westward movement. Both "Momotaro" and "A Successor to the Throne" needed music using Oriental pentatonic tonality. For "Parizade's Quest," it had to have music that evoked ancient Persia. For "The Tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff" I borrowed melodic motifs from Edvard Grieg. I researched Old English Pantomime circa 1600 and typical styles of Renaissance music especially Nursery Rhymes for "The Adventures of Dick Whittington." And, I took a page out of Alan Menken's playbook for "Never Cry Wolf" by using some pop music of the decades for inspiration even though the story is set in ancient Greece.
Don't think I ever once worried about Music Theory when writing these songs. My training and study shows, I suppose, but the music just had to sound right. Guess I am more primitive than genius level.
The Fourth of July fireworks can be so exciting --- especially for the very young or those very in love. I have witnessed firsthand some fantastic fireworks shows and what made them even more exciting was when I was there with the one I loved or I was at a new place experiencing the grandeur for the very first time. Okay, young lovers don't need a lot of help enjoying fireworks. They make their own!
I will never forget being on the Mall in Washington D.C. between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument one 4th of July in the mid 1970's. I was there visiting a friend who left her baby with her husband just so she could take me to see this once in a lifetime experience. We took the mass transit from her apartment and then walked the rest of the way (I thought it must have been 3-4 miles!). We had to crowd ourselves in with the masses of people who had had the same idea. But it was worth it!
Another memorable 4th of July was when I was performing in a children's trio on a show called "Panorama." My two aunts Janie and Dot Thompson were in charge of directing this huge community production held at the BYU stadium in about 1961. In those days, different Church Stakes were charged with making this show happen for the Provo City celebration. After the show, there were big fireworks. (That tradition is alive and well in today's Freedom Festival at Provo, UT and the Stadium of Fire.)
I remember three parts of that show when I was six years old.
The first was rehearsing with what seemed like hundreds of other children to make our entrance onto the stage. The band played "The March of the Siamese Children" as we came onto the stage and bowed to the audience. I think we were part of a panorama of recent hits from Broadway shows such as "The King and I."
The second part was being in the big finale number and singing the the first verse with Tanya and Cory with the solo spotlight just on us. Then, the number grew bigger and bigger to the grand finish and the standing ovation --- my first Standing "O." Okay, I was just a small part of the number, but it gave me legitimate bragging rights.
The third thing I remembered was that on the show just before our big finale number, a little known group called the Osmond Brothers performed. Later when they became famous, I still had the memory of upstaging them on that Panorama show.
Of course, the best part of any of these shows was being almost directly under the fireworks. I love looking up at the fireworks. It is still exciting to me. Unfortunately, it is harder and harder to get that coveted front row seat for the fireworks. I guess the best way is to be in the show.
Today is June 28th, my mother's birthday. She loved roses. I remember how she couldn't wait for June because that was when her roses bloomed. I watched how she lovingly tended her roses, made cuttings and arranged them for table decorations, and even sprayed rose scented perfume around the house. Pink roses were her favorites. Mom loved how roses were a symbol of how hopeless situations can change for the better.
One of the first musicals I ever performed in was "Gypsy." This was at a tiny little community theater in Pasadena, Texas. It was our first summer in Texas and my mother decided we should get involved in the community somehow. She had 8-year-old me audition, and that's when the director discovered my mom's piano skills. She was hired to accompany the show on the spot.
I didn't get a big part. I was just one of the many kids in the first scene. Yet, all of us extras had to stay until the curtain call at the end of the show. Because of questionable content in the second act, we were NOT allowed to watch the show. So we stayed outside in back playing board games at the picnic tables. We could hear the songs, though, and believe me, we learned them all!
One song in particular has stuck with me because it still reminds me of my mother. In the show, the stage mother was always trying to build up her daughters' act. She tried to be upbeat and encouraging, saying, "Curtain up! Light the lights! You've got nothing to hit but the heights. Starting here, starting now, baby, everything's coming up roses!"
My mother was great at encouraging people and building their talents. She certainly made sure I had songs prepared for any occasion and was right there to play for me any time I was asked to sing. And I wasn't the only one. She made herself available to help out anybody who needed her coaching help and accompanying support. She could make even those with slim talents look good.
How I miss her positive energy and immense talents! Happy Birthday, Mom!
Last night I went with members of my family to entertain the residents at a group home for the elderly. Our aunt works there and asks us to come several times a year as a favor to her. Since this week is Valentine's Day, we decided to sing a program of Love Songs and Show Tunes.
Choosing the songs was a group effort. We decided that collectively, we as a family of singers, know many, many songs. Because of that fact, we realized that we were not the best judge of which songs would be considered "common knowledge" and would work well in a sing-along. We needed songs that the residents would remember and have a connection to.
We decided to choose songs that would have been popular or at least written in the 1950's and early 1960's when these elderly people would have been young adults. We started looking through collections of popular songs during those years. The love songs we gravitated towards turned out to be mostly show tunes from Broadway Musicals that had been made into movies like Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma," and "State Fair." We also opted for pop songs made famous by entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. And, we included a few perennial favorites that were just plain fun to sing like "A" You're Adorable," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
As the piano player, my job was to figure out SINGABLE KEYS so that most people could join in comfortably. As a singing family, we don't really care what key the melody range falls into because we can all sing harmony. But, most people just sing the MELODY. (What a strange concept!)
I am always astonished that so many songs published in these Song Collections are written in UN-SINGABLE KEYS and have really uninspiring piano accompaniments! The pianists out there must appreciate playing in the keys of C, D, G, B flat or F with few sharps or flats, but really? What may be easier for the pianist can be so uncomfortable for the singers. The TESSITURA of these songs lays just too high or too low for a normal singer. Since I was in no mood to have to transpose the entire program of songs, I made the final cuts. I culled 10 songs from our longer list, using those that had the most moderate ranges, then transposed a few of the simpler ones into better keys.
Another astonishing aspect of the evening was comparing the melody as written in the "published" version to the melody sung according to the group's collective memory. Sometimes a melody polished "by committee" is much better. It was a revelation!
Our evening of Love Songs and Show Tunes went very well. The residents seemed to enjoy singing with us some of the love songs they remembered from their youth.
The theory of using UNDERSCORING in film and theater is to "heighten the action" or "reveal the feelings" of the actors. We have all been affected by the use of underscoring -- especially in film. Imagine what it was like watching those early silent films without words or background music. No wonder organists were hired to play in the the movie houses all around the country to help sell the new movie industry. Composers quickly took note, and soon theatrical scores were created to go along with the movies. New stylized techniques were invented and utilized by various instruments to create those eerie and exciting sound effects. And then came the advent of SOUND in movies. By all accounts, the movies are immeasurably enhanced by underscoring.
Well, what about theater? On stage, contemporary shows are using more and more pre-recorded scores -- including underscoring throughout the show. And this is not just for Musicals. As a musician, I am a bit dismayed at how so many professional theaters are no longer employing pit orchestras of any size. But I am even more dismayed at the use of underscoring throughout the entire show. When used by professionals (sound boards and engineers and lavalier mics on all of the actors), the through-underscoring is effective. However, in the less endowed productions, the underscoring can be a DISTRACTION OF EPIC PROPORTIONS!
I recently went to see two middle school Musicals "Into the Woods Junior" and "Once on This Island Junior." Both had pre-recorded Soundtracks with underscoring throughout -- that means that all of the narration and most of the dialogue was delivered over the soundtrack. Where this is an enhancement when adult cast members have sufficient personality and talent and skill to project and emote past the footlights, the little 10-13 year-olds with little experience couldn't compete.
Imagine yourself as the grandparent who dutifully comes to see the grandchild in the school musical. You have had no exposure to the music or story of the show. You have no idea about how to distinguish one character from another because the costumes are not too helpful and the kids all look and sound juvenile. The acting, singing, dancing and staging are only as good as the kids' emerging talents allow. The school has a tight budget, so sets, sound, lighting, and backstage communications are dismal at best. The auditorium is noisy with bad acoustics, noisy babies crying, and rustling of people and chairs. Then add to the mix CONSTANT MUSIC and SOUND EFFECTS on a pre-recorded track. You really have no hope of understanding, let alone enjoying, this production at all!!!!!
My advice to directors that want to use pre-recorded soundtracks with underscoring throughout every scene --- CUT THE UNDERSCORING! There is usually a clause in the contract that states that you may discreetly CUT material from the show as necessary to accommodate your particular situation. That usually means that you may cut or adjust lines when they are too difficult or you have to change the blocking or delete names because you don't have enough characters, and stuff like that. But you can also just NOT PLAY the underscoring throughout every scene.
It will help your audience understand the show so much better!
Last night, I went to the "Alan Menken - A Whole New Word" concert at BYU. Alan Menken is the composer of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and many other great shows. I was going by myself and thought I would be very lonely sitting way up in the back of the hall. But just before the concert started, I saw a friend sitting down front all by herself with many open seats around her. I went down to talk with her, and she coaxed me to come sit by her. Her people couldn't come, so I got to sit up front with a perfect view of the stage. Wow! I got a great seat to watch one of my idols!
Alan Menken came out on stage to thunderous applause and proceeded to tell the story of his life punctuated with playing and singing songs from all of his hit shows. He told about growing up in a family of dentists. His father was a dentist and so were his uncles and most of his cousins. It was assumed that he would also grow up to become a dentist. He said he was ADHD and did not have the patience for studying or even practicing piano. He loved music, but just didn't want to practice other composer's music. He spent his practice time making up his own songs. He went to New York City as a Pre-Med student, but quickly realized that he needed to do something else. He wondered if he could make a career out of writing songs.
So he did whatever he could with music to make a living - accompanying for dance classes, singers, nightclub acts, etc. - all while writing songs and trying to figure out how to get them heard. He had some success writing jingles for TV and radio. He got the chance to write some songs for "Sesame Street." Fortunately, he connected with lyricist Howard Ashman and together they wrote a few off-Broadway shows. After "Little Shop of Horrors" got some notice, Ashman contacted Disney about writing the songs for "The Little Mermaid." We all know what happened next - the trajectory of Musical Theater changed!
During the late 1960's through the 1970's, Broadway was dying. There were very few box office successes on Broadway. Many of the theaters were closing due to lack of business and the businesses were turning into seedy bars and tattoo shops. Once Disney decided to buy a theater on Broadway and start producing shows there, the future for Broadway perked up. Other mighty shows such as "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera" also came in and improved the landscape on 42 Street. Alan Menken has had many shows featuring his music on Broadway. Many of his movies (his "babies"), even the ones that were declared box office flops, got a second life on the Broadway stage. "Beauty and the Beast," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Newsies," and others all started as movies, and are now full-fledged theatrical pieces. They are performed live all over the world by professional companies, community theaters, and even school and children's theater groups.
He said that he is often asked "What is the secret to writing memorable songs?"
"Well," as he pointed to a youthful picture of himself up on the screen behind him, "It's the aviator glasses."
Where can I get me some of those?
Alan Menken is such an inspiration to me! I love his music and enjoyed immensely getting to know a little more about him at the concert.
The first time I went to see Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" - the animated film - I was so disappointed. Not that the film was not beautifully drawn or that the characters were not engaging or that the music was not wonderful. I was disappointed because the main character did not get her own solo song or "aria." I wanted Belle to have a solo like Ariel got to sing in "The Little Mermaid." Every other Disney princess had their own song, why not Belle? My own voice students plus every girl that I accompanied for at auditions, it seemed, wanted to sing the latest Disney princess song. That's what made the animated movie a bit of a disappointment.
Well, apparently, that was not the original vision from the composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, either. As I heard them say in an interview once, they said that at the time (1991) that Animation was the last best place to write Musical Theater. In fact, they wrote "stage musicals for film." As a team, Menken and Ashman were based on Broadway. Yet they were tapped by Disney to write for the animated movies. But still, their concepts and ideas were firmly rooted in stage theatricals. A cardinal rule for stage musicals is to give the main character a solo song at a point in the first act where the audience gets to hear the character's thoughts and emotions. This allows the audience a chance to learn to care for that character. And that was exactly what was missing in the movie! But animated Disney films had to stick to a finite, short length, so no solo song for Belle.
Gladly, the stage show was later produced on Broadway and opened with more songs that explored the characters in depth and explained a lot of things. All in all, it is a much more satisfying bit of storytelling. The expanded version of "Beauty and the Beast" has solo songs for Belle, Beast and Gaston that give motivation and development to those characters. And the servant's song "Human Again" explains a lot about the enchanted knick-knack characters that is never explained in the movie version. Much, much improved storytelling!
I recently saw Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" performed in theater-in-the-round. This was done in an extremely tiny theater with a very small cast, but oh, how imaginatively produced. It was exceptional! So colorful and delightful! I was worried that I would miss the lavishness of seeing a full Broadway show done on a large stage with that special Disney "magic." Well, I am happy to say that the show is so well-written, that I did not miss the hugeness of other productions. This show was done in an intimate style and relied on the few actor's superb characterizations and wonderful use of imaginative costuming instead of large sets, pyrotechnics and overwhelming numbers of cast members. All in all, it was back to basics, but great use of those essentials. I loved that show! The stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (in most any production) is by far a more satisfying experience in storytelling than the animated movie.
Here I am back from tour and wondering if it was all a dream. We performed in many wonderful venues, visited many interesting places in New York, Washington D.C. and Boston, and stayed in the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square for 9 nights. Pretty fabulous, indeed.
One very neat thing we did was to go see the new musical "Finding Neverland" on Broadway. This is a stage adaptation of the movie about how playwright James M. Barrie came to write the classic children's play "Peter Pan." I knew the story already from seeing the movie featuring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. But now, after seeing the stage play, I can wholeheartedly say, the musical is so much richer! The addition of music and stage magic makes the story so incredibly moving! We were privileged to see the original cast still in the first run performance. It was great! The actors were all very good, but Kelsey Grammar really stole the show. He was great and his part was so much fun! All in all, the production was full of high energy and surprises throughout!
I was most curious about how they managed the stage magic. One song, in particular, was so beautifully staged. While the character of Sylvia was singing outside of her row house in the moonlight, we were transported through time and space to London in the early 1900's. Then I started realizing that the clouds in the sky were going across the moon. The song was nice, but I was mesmerized by the effect of that sky. I think they must have had several scrims with different images and movies being projected onto them. It was mind boggling.
The part Kelsey Grammer played was the most pivotal and entertaining in the entire show. He played the over-bearing Theater impresario that "owned" James Barrie. He was always pressing James to create the next project. As he used phrases such as "Time is ticking, James...tick...tock...tick tock" or waved his crooked walking stick the shadows on the scenery behind him projected images of clocks or Pirate hooks, thus helping the audience understand that this is where James Barrie got the inspiration for the character of Captain Hook. Foreshadowing in the most entertaining way ever!
The magic was spectacular! So many beautiful effects such as flying, and Pirate shenanigans, and of pixie dust making everything sparkle. What a delightful production. Once again I am jealous of what can happen when creative people are given great leeway with healthy budgets!
While on the East States Tour with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, we will be able to spend some time in New York City. One of the extra activities I opted to do in my spare time is take in a Broadway show. A group of us from the choir will be going to see Disney's "Aladdin." I have been to Disney World and Disneyland and seen all of the movies, and some of the stage productions. I have even directed some of the Disney Junior shows (including "Aladdin, Jr."), but I still marvel at Disney 'magic." I really want to know how they accomplish the magical effects.
But, as I have been told before --- it's Disney MAGIC!
A friend sent a link to a Back Stage Pass video about the stage show "Aladdin,"
https://youtu.be/B2QkcGcnpB8 and I got excited. Maybe they would reveal some of the "how to's" to accomplish this Disney MAGIC. But no -- it's still Disney Magic! Although they did give close up glimpses of the costumes and some of the contraptions under the stage. My daughter was once a performer at Disney World. She said that the performers sign a contract that they will never reveal the Disney "Magic" or even who they portray or where they will be at any time in the Park. Guess that is still in effect.
It will be exciting to see the magic carpet fly. The artwork on this show is simply astounding. Notice the perspective to make the carpet look like they are sailing high above the world below.
Check out the perspective here when Aladdin is down in the Cave of Wonders. Wow! The budget expenses must be astronomical! I know that the cast is fairly small and they make frequent costume changes to make it seem like the population in Aqaba is sizable. But, the stage crew must be pretty large to tackle all of the set changes, lighting cues and do all of the "magic." It would be quite an education to be a back stage hand during this show. I am really looking forward to seeing it. Here's to Disney "Magic!"
* * * * * * * * * *
P.S. The production of "Aladdin" was just as magical as we expected, even if our tickets were in the nose-bleed section behind some structural columns. I get so pumped-up by seeing professional live theater done so well. I always hope to be able to draw inspiration and encouragement for my own writing from these experiences.
One of the lead characters in the "Parizade's Quest" cast, Lili Wilson, who was Parizade, asked me if I did children's theater when I was young. I told her that I did. She asked if I ever wrote scripts and shows when I was young. I told her that I did. Then she proceeded to tell me that she was writing a show for her 4th grade class to present to the school. She was a bit frustrated that the other children did not always follow her directions even though she had spent so much time and effort preparing the script and getting the costumes ready all by herself. I told her that directing a cast of your peers is difficult, but to keep trying and they will eventually come around.
Lili, I was a lot like you. When I was in 5th grade, my friends and I thought we ran the school. We worked quickly to get our regular assignments done so that we could spend time down in Mrs. Richardson's Music room. She was awesome. We would do her bulletin boards and coach the younger classes and help with folk dancing on Fridays. She especially loved having my mother available to accompany her special concerts and programs. At the end of our 5th Grade year, Mrs. Richardson let us put on our own version of "Peter Pan." I plagiarized the script, stealing from many sources, and we freely used music from both the Disney animated movie and the Broadway show. She let us create the costumes, sets, and staging and choreography. Well, she did have a group of singers sing along with us on risers to the side of the stage so that the event could qualify as a chorus concert. My mother accompanied and we put on a show!
Judy played Peter Pan, Stanley played Captain Hook and I played Wendy. We danced and sang and pretended to fly and had a great time. We had wonderful support from our parents and teachers. We had the feeling we could do anything we put our minds to. We worked hard
and created something wonderful. Our efforts were rewarded by the fun we had and the enjoyment we gave to those who came to the performance. Little did we know that what we did was foreshadowing our futures. Judy kept singing, working with children's choirs, and putting on shows. Stanley went on to play cello in orchestras. And I continued to write, direct and produce children's theater shows.
So Lili, keep following your dreams. You may be foreshadowing your future!
My name is Betsy Bailey. I have sung, written and taught music all of my life. I enjoy writing and directing Children's Theater shows. This blog will be directed to topics on creating the magic of Children's Theater. I would love to hear your comments!