Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Real Lesson of "Dance 10, Looks 3"

In the musical theatre, we love our instructive parables, from the casting of Gene Kelly in Pal Joey to the struggle over finding just the right opening number for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One of the most popular, however, revolves around a specific number from A Chorus Line.

Those of you acquainted with the basics of this story can skip the next paragraph. However, for the uninitiated...

The character Val has a gleefully naughty number about how much more successful she has been in appealing to casting directors since she got plastic surgery. It was pitched as a big comedy number, but it wasn't getting laughs. The creators scratched their heads at this until they looked in the program and recalled what title they had given it: "Tits & Ass." In short, they had put the punchline of the song in the title. They changed the title to the more oblique "Dance 10, Looks 3" and it brought the house down. Happy ending.

The lesson usually derived from this is one of detail and pacing. Through it, we are taught that even a seemingly small detail like a song title can completely change an audience's reaction, and that jokes are better when left to unfold organically, not when telegraphed.

This is all perfectly true and perfectly valuable, but I think it overlooks the more fundamental lesson of the parable. Because here's the thing: "Dance 10, Looks 3" is just fundamentally a much better title.

Unless you are deliberately obfuscating for effect - like the intentionally vague title "Epiphany" in Sweeney Todd - your song title will also be the key phrase around which the song is based, and a good key phrase must get at the central dramatic tension of the song. "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music is a great title for the song it is attached to because the song is all about the comically contrasted reactions of the various characters to the suggestion of a weekend in the country and the disparate things it means to each of them. Right there in that seemingly innocuous phrase you have the tension that drives the entire number.

In this light, "Tits & Ass" is a terrible title primarily not because it telegraphs the punchline but rather because the song is not properly about that punchline. The song is about the tension the character discovered between her talent and her looks and how she went about resolving that tension. Or, put more elegantly, "Dance 10, Looks 3." The title is about the double standard she faces. The punchline is about how she deals with it.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Matilda and the Much-Too-Packed Lyric

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Sondheim once wrote, "Many lyrics suffer from being much too packed," making the point that excessively dense lyrics fundamentally interfere with clarity and thus kneecap one of the main functions (I might even go so far as to argue the main function) of those lyrics - to convey events and ideas clearly and elegantly. And the moment I read that, the example that sprang most readily into my head was the musical adaptation of Matilda.

I would like to highlight the contrast between two numbers in this show. The first is "Miracle," which apart from anything else has the misfortune of being the opening number. Maybe it was the pressure that positioning implies that drove composer/lyricist Tim Minchin to pack his words and rhymes so densely that they lose virtually all impact. It hardly helps that the lyrics occasionally let themselves down even on their own terms, as with the infamous miracle/umbilical non-rhyme that gets repeated enough times for it to stop being funny (i.e. more than none).

 A big part of the problem is that the number is not just too densely packed with word and rhymes, it is too densely packed with responsibility. The song has to establish the situation and setting, introduce a set of characters, and get the audience invested in the story. On top of that, Minchin somehow decides the time is right for some slightly limp social satire, so throw that on the pile as well. It is possible to imagine this being done passably well if properly paced and staggered, but the result is a mess. The song takes far too long to settle precisely what it hopes to achieve with its allotted time, and I can easily imagine a large part of the audience losing interest in that time. This is, after all, the opening number. The opening number is crucial, we all know this.

So "Miracle" is a bit of a wash, but there are also parts of the show that I quite like, and they are perhaps best summed-up in the song "Naughty"...

 Alright, after the trying-too-hard intro, the song gives itself basically one job - to establish the character of Matilda and her operating philosophy. The lyrics are still quite wordy, but the superfluous rhymes have been cut down, and - more importantly - the aim of the song has been streamlined into something more easily manageable. Consider the long pauses between "That's not right...and if it's not've got to put it right." The lyric does not dumb itself down in the least, it simply recognizes that it has a dramatic function within the story, and that in order to fulfill that function it must meet its audience halfway.

In short, it is not "much too packed." Well done.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sweeney Todd vs. Into The Woods: Two Approaches To Film Adaptation

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I have been given to understand that I am somewhat outspoken in my love for the 2007 Tim Burton adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Whatever your complaints (and I've heard them before, I guarantee it), I would like us to set them aside for a moment and consider the movie as an adaptation alone.

Consider, for example, the controversial decision to entirely excise the chorus numbers. One might immediately presume this to be a measure taken against implausibility and staginess, but it actually serves a larger thematic purpose in the movie. The Tim Burton filmography is almost entirely about alienation, and Sweeney Todd is no exception. You can see this in the make-up work, where the gaunt and skull-like circles around the eyes are granted to those in Sweeney's sphere who have succumbed to madness. Toby, for instance, is not given the gaunt eyes until his very last scene - the one in which (SPOILER, I suppose) he cuts Sweeney's throat.

The decision to cut the chorus numbers extends this theme. The music and the related compulsion to sing is re-framed as a product - or perhaps an expression - of the madness inherent in the main characters. Where the Hal Prince interpretation emphasized the universality of inter-human predation and framed Sweeney's crimes as an extension of the callous disregard for life in an over-industrialized society, Burton pares back the story. He makes it less socially relevant, true, but at the same time more intimate and personally affecting.

For a film adaptation, this is - at least in my view - entirely the right choice. In a medium in which the camera can precisely focus on whatever specific element the director demands and capture micro-expressions that would be imperceptible on the stage, taking a sweeping story and making it tight and close is a choice that perfectly suits the medium into which the work is being transferred.

In short, Sweeney Todd serves as an excellent example of how to adapt a musical to film with a keen eye on the comparative advantages of each medium. By way of contrast, then, let us compare this approach to that used in the recent film adaptation of Into The Woods.

As I explained in my review at the time, I did not think the movie was particularly bad. The source material is just so good that you would really have to go far out of your way to make it unwatchable, after all. However, I also criticized the approach of the adaptation with a metaphor that I would like to elaborate on somewhat here.

The adaptation of Into The Woods is characterized not by any major additions, chronological fiddling, augmentations, or what have you, but instead by its omissions. Say a certain scene has to be cut for time. In that case, the subplot that the scene in question resolves must be cut in its entirety. If this cannot be done without destroying the main plot, then a more disposable subplot must be found. If you are going to cut the resolution of the Witch's arc, then you must also cut Rapunzel's death. If you are going to cut the Narrator and the Old Man for reasons of staginess, then you also have to cut "No More." You must cut precisely the right scenes in order to maintain the basic structural integrity of the piece as a whole.

In short, this adaptation treats the story like a Jenga tower. The trick is to pull out precisely the right blocks so that the whole edifice does not collapse.

Which, while I recognize that it's probably necessary in this case given just how complicated the plot of Into The Woods can get, I would assert is entirely the wrong way of going about it.

While I hope this does not require reiteration, I may as well repeat it here: the cinema and the stage are separate mediums with separate demands, and a good adaptation of one to the other requires heavy alteration of the source. If that alteration "ruins" the story, then maybe that work should not have been adapted in the first place, which is also a possibility that I think the entertainment industry doesn't consider nearly enough.

But in any case, whatever your reservations might be about Helena Bonham-Carter's singing, Sweeney Todd stands alongside the likes of Fosse's Cabaret as a shining example of how to do a stage-to-screen adaptation right by rebuilding rather than just reducing the source.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rap In Musicals, And How We've Been Getting It Wrong

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I think that we have been approaching the use of rap in the musical theatre the wrong way all this time. In the paragraphs that follow, I hope to briefly convince you of two things...
1. That rap is well-suited to integration in a musical theatre idiom, and
2. That some fairly basic misconceptions about the dramatic strengths of rap have prevented this integration from being carried out in a manner and to a degree that matches its potential.

Rap is, on paper, an excellent fit for the musical theater. The musical is perhaps the only field of creative endeavor that really and truly cares about lyrics. It is, at any rate, the only one that demands perfect rhyme and meter as a prerequisite for full respect. The influence of pop music has, in the last couple of decades, somewhat corrupted this ideal, but the musical is still leagues above its corrupter in almost every regard.

Rap, however, comes in a close second. The demands of the form may not be as rigorous, true - much rap is still far too eager to settle for mere assonance rather than rhyme, but that has always been the premise of rap. The rhymes, such as they are, may not be elegant, but in exchange there will be more than twice as many of them. The best rap emphasizes precise and complex vocal rhythms, unpredictable rhyme schemes, and imaginative wordplay. See Tech N9ne for an excellent example of the first, Kanye West for the second, and Childish Gambino for the third.

It is easy to see, therefore, the appeal inherent in the idea of the two formats that value lyrics the most joining forces. Which is why it is incredibly surprising that it has not happened more often. Sure, we have had sprechstimme, we have had the Witch's story in Into the Woods, we have even had Rex Harrison, but it is only recently that shows like In The Heights have attempted to bring rap to the musical theatre in a big way. And even then, I think In The Heights failed in being the one thing I suspect it most desperately wanted to be, which was influential.

I think this reticence, however, can only partly be put down to neophobia. The fact is, even on the few occasions on which I have heard rap used in a musical, I don't think I have ever heard it used particularly well. No, not even in In The Heights.

We think of rap as soliloquy, as an outer expression of internal monologue, similar to the big belting numbers with which we are familiar from the rest of the musical theatre. And, to be sure, some rap is like this, but I would like to contend that this is not where rap is at its best, that it is not where rap really excels. Look at the more casual format of rap mixtapes, the back-and-forth banter of dis track feuds, and even the use of the latest slang in a way that revolutionized musical theatre lyrics when Frank Loesser did it, and I think you will come to roughly the same conclusion I have: Rap, at its best, is not monologue. It is dialogue.

And this is where I think we have been going wrong. Usnavi desperately shouting to be heard over the swelling orchestra in In The Heights merely underlines the more fundamental issue - rap is a format for people talking to each other, and should be used as such. Even in its soliloquy mode, it is the conversational intimacy with the listener, the feeling that the artist is talking to you as they would a friend, that lends rap the largest part of its undeniable mass appeal.

Now, there are already parts of the musical theatre that rap could very easily be worked into. Recitative could be made roughly a thousand times less awkward by making it a witty and efficient rap break, for example. But I think true integration demands an even larger change in paradigm. We can design new types of conversational songs that always sounded awkward when sung but might sound like the most natural thing in the world with the shifting rhythms and colloquial style of rap. We can make soliloquy songs more confessional and less presentational.

I genuinely believe that rap offers a new range of techniques to the musical theatre dramatist, but exploiting the full potential of those techniques will require thinking about musical drama in a new way to suit a new style.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Discerning Lyricist 150th Post: The Order of Things From Here


You know, I glanced over some of my earliest posts the other day, and found myself simultaneously repulsed and inspired - repulsed that I once thought this rubbish publishable, and inspired that I have improved both as a writer and a reader to the point where I can recognize and reject at least some of my own rubbish when I see it.

I started this blog as an outlet for my thoughts on musicals, which I ran out of in short order to a degree that came as a surprise to absolutely no one but me. My long hiatus corresponded with the period in which I finished and graduated college, and following that I briefly repurposed this as a personal blog that could serve as an online home for all of my casual, multi-topic rambles.

Given the insidious mission creep of late, I thought this milestone might present an opportunity to re-focus my efforts on this blog and delegate some of my other efforts. Henceforth, this shall be the way of things:

  • The Discerning Lyricist blog will house all of my articles and essays on music and the musical theatre, as well as any original songs I write and all of my (one hopes) world-famous limerick reviews.
  • Cinemibus (, my newer blog, will house the Cinemibus webseries, the Cinemibus Podcast, and any essays I might do on non-musical topics, particularly film analysis.
  • As ever, you can find my Talking Picture and original song videos on Youtube at and my Cinemibus webseries and Discerning Lyricist videos on Vimeo at
To those of you who read the blog, be you regular or freshly-arrived, thank you. I can promise you the work will only get better from here.

A. Stefan Melnyk

Saturday, June 13, 2015

1776 and Trying NOT to Get That Laugh

Being laughed at for something we take seriously is a more or less universal fear, but it is especially potent in storytelling because often the integrity of an entire scene or even of the entire work can hinge on a moment not being interrupted by unwanted laughter. If you are a playwright, however, you do have one final recourse - not an ideal one, by any stretch - in the form of the players in whose mouths your words have been placed.

Author and playwright Jean Kerr once said, "It's very embarrassing to say to an actor, please try not to get that laugh." This reminded me of one of the best examples I have ever seen of needing to overcome the comedy in the material, and it happens to come from one of my nostalgic favorites: the musical 1776.

Because it does dramatize a historical conflict - the debate over declaring American Independence - of which we already know the outcome, Peter Stone's book has to draw the audience into that world so entirely that the part of our brains that knows of course the damned thing's going to get signed is either pushed away or ignored. For the most part, it does that splendidly. There is one moment of dramatic climax, however, that lives or dies on how well it is played. Or, in short, how well it manages not to get that laugh.

All the other delegates have cast their votes in favor of independence. All of the backroom deals, persuasive rhetoric, and agonizing compromises have finally paid off. The last undecided state is Pennsylvania, and the tie-breaker delegate within that three-person delegation is...James Wilson.

The moment that they, as characters, and we, as an audience, realize that James Wilson is going to decide the entire question of independence is a crucial one. This is a man whose defining character trait up to this point has been that he has no opinions of his own. The rising dramatic tension of the scene requires that the audience take this seriously, but in some of the embarrassingly large number of productions I have seen, this moment gets the biggest laugh of the night and just flattens the dramatic progression. What went wrong?

The problem is that there are two warring elements in this scene. On the one hand, there is the supreme irony - and thus the inherent humor - in the fact that the entire debate has come down to the one man in the room who gives the least of a shit about it. On the other hand, there is the dramatically intriguing fact that the entire debate has come down to the one man in the room whose actions are entirely unpredictable to us.

All of the other votes were previously more or less decided behind the scenes before that final vote is held. The scene flies through those votes, which makes this part of the scene its dramatic heart. You cannot afford a big laugh here. But I have seen this moment played for laughs in the past, sometimes accidentally by directors who weren't careful enough, sometimes deliberately by directors who didn't know any better.

The irony of the situation can never be entirely eliminated of course. It is integral to the situation. But it need not necessarily be a laugh-out-loud sort of irony. With careful direction and performance, it can instead be a dry, detached irony. Maybe it can even achieve a bit of Brechtian alienation and make us think - in line with the themes of the work as a whole - about just how arbitrary some decisive historical turning points can be. James Wilson is the horse-shoe nail for want of which the battle might be lost. But the audience must think about this, not laugh about it. And that responsibility, for better or worse, falls on the people putting on the production.

This serves as a reminder of a number of things, but mostly of the extent to which playwrighting cannot be seen as an isolated art. 1776 has a fantastic book, but there is a moment within it that dies on its arse if the director and actors bringing it to life are not, in their own way, equally fantastic at what they do. Sometimes, not getting that laugh is the greatest service you can render to your material.

Limerick Review: Jurassic World

So they'll give this concept one more try,
Paving over the people who died,
And you all have a shot
At predicting the plot.
To the point where you have to ask "why?"

But this time, instead of just gore
And thrills that we've all seen before,
The audience demands
More to fill up the stands,
So they make a huge new dinosaur.

This obvious meta-commentary
Is also supposed to be scary.
But with the same plot for us
As III's Spinosaurus,
The whole thing just feels a bit airy.

Howard's Claire is put-upon
Efficient, calm, and withdrawn,
Until she gets saddled
By her sister, brain-addled,
With her own set of ill-behaved spawn.

The movie takes a sexist turn,
As Claire's childlessness is spurned.
The brats are most skilled
At almost getting killed,
And yet she has something to learn.

The younger kid, despite my rage,
Recalls my own dinosaur stage.
And in spite of his blunder,
His huge sense of wonder
Neatly mirrors my own at that age.

But then, I continue to whinge
About the Chris Pratt cliche binge.
He'perfect and right,
An uber-macho knight,
And the "alpha" line made me cringe.

The plot tries to start, on a whiz,
A romance that lacks any fizz.
It just undermines
To have so many lines
About how far below him she is.

But it's all an ill-conceived blend.
One scene has a person contend
That "nature vs. tech"
Is a whole bunch of dreck,
Which the film's forgotten by the end.

And then we're given Claire'P.A.
Who we don't see for most of the day,
And whose return is soured
When she is devoured
In an oddly unpleasant way.

So many plot points that it's hittin'
With resolutions it's omittin'.
Which makes sense, once you glean
Each CG set-piece scene
Was started before it was written.

It has many flaws to redress,
But it's not smart enough to transgress.
The problem is not
Any evil it's got,
But that the whole thing is a mess.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Few Words On The 2015 Tonys...

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This year's Tonys were very confusing for me. This is, to be sure, my problem, so before several paragraphs of what I imagine will be something akin to self-administered therapy for me, here are my basic reactions...

I am very happy that Fun Home won, not least because it gives me even more ammunition when I corner people at parties and try to convince them that graphic novels and stage plays are not so different in storytelling technique. Failing to televise the acceptance speeches of the women who wrote the show was inexcusable, not just because it undermines what would otherwise be a terrific win for women in theatre, but because it represents the contempt the ceremony seemed to have for everyone who was not an actor...but more on that further down.

The ceremony itself was regrettable. I get annoyed when someone jokes that a particular children's show or whatnot must have been made by people who were high, because have you seen how much care has to go into those shows? THIS...this is what something made by high people looks like. From the tone-deaf shoehorning in of numbers from Finding Neverland and (most egregiously) Jersey Boys, to the bizarre and embarrassing jokes delivered by Cumming and Chenoweth in costumes that ran the gamut from the trying-too-hard to the racially questionable, this ceremony frequently felt loose and improvised in the worst way.

But all this is, to me, secondary to the weirdness that is the place that the Tonys occupy in the musical drama landscape right now. It is difficult to pin this all down without repeating myself, but here goes...

When you think about it, the Tony awards are the weirdest major awards in existence. The Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, they may all display a significant degree of myopia in how they determine eligibility, but I will say this at least for them: at least they aren't awards for plays on a specific street in New York.

Of course, I do understand why this is, and tradition only accounts for part of it. The only way to effectively counter the inherently exclusionary nature of a live performance - particularly one in a limited run - is to hold it in a city of such staggering population density that the audience cannot help but be comparable to that of the newer mass media formats. I get it. And you have to draw a geographical distinction somewhere. I get that too.

What I do not and perhaps will never get is how this is supposed to be the pinnacle of achievement for musicals.

A large part of the problem is that I come at this from the perspective of someone who likes plays but loves musicals. So, on the surface, the Tonys this year would seem to be ideal for me. The musical medleys gushed out at a prodigious pace - perhaps too prodigious, but never mind - with the plays consigned to a sad and bafflingly inept montage of clips. However, I also come at this from the perspective of someone who loves the medium and the works but is not terribly invested in the inner workings of the industry. That is to say, I relish the concerto more than the piano.

As much as the Tonys try to brand themselves as the musicals award show - and by god did they try this year, I will get to that later - the border drawn around their eligible material is fundamentally a geographical and not artistic one. This is not an award for musicals as an artistic format, this is an award for a very small physical region that has been cordoned off, in part, for the purpose of hosting works in the musical format. And, of course, what this really means is that it is an award for a very small and intensely insular industry.

This is neither an original nor an insightful observation. I make it only to contextualize how weird and conflicted I felt the attitude of this award show to be. On one hand, the insufferable Something Rotten opening number served as a sadly telling mission statement, a smug and self-congratulatory love letter to the musical as a medium, a promise seemingly delivered on both by the oddly over-packed musical medleys and the marginalization of everything that was not a musical. On the other hand, the rest of the show was heavily New York industry-centric, spending the greater part of its time giving the appropriate awards to actors who most people will never see in action (save for the few who were imported from Hollywood) and pushing aside those behind-the-scenes artists whose work will be far more lasting and - in its own way - far more accessible to the audience outside of New York.

Neither of these approaches is necessarily the wrong way to go about it, but I found myself disoriented by how confused the award show seemed in its attempts to reconcile them. I would honestly have advised them to just pick one or the other. Either make it all about the magic of musical drama and the hard-working people who conjure it, or embrace the New York insularity of the thing and just make it an inebriated industry happy fun time party. Just don't try to do both and end up half-assing it, which is what happened.

Congratulations to the winners and here's hoping that next year's awards will actually be worthy of the art they commend.