July 26, 2017

20170726_104454.jpgI’m not very good at practicing.

I remember when I was just starting to look into the idea of being a musician. I began to realize that there were these different facets to playing proficiently. There were some people who could play by ear. For these people, music just seemed to happen on command. Then there were these other people who could play anything you put in front of them the first time they saw it. This was a different kind of fluency. They didn’t often happen in the same person. Both of these skills seem superhuman to the non-musician, but even then I had this sense that both of these skills were probably obtainable by practicing.

I must have been thinking about the two skills seriously, because I have a memory of asking my band director Mr. Jeske which was more important: being able to play by ear or being able to sight read. My director hedged; both were important. But he added that working musicians needed to be able to read.

At that point I knew how to read a lead sheet; even a lead sheet with complicated chords. In fact, my ability to read a lead sheet allowed me to pretend to be a much better pianist than I actually was; people could throw music in front of me, and I could get them a decent approximation of what was on the page, only on my terms, at my technical level. In retrospect, this was a sign I was more cut out to be a composer. I had not been a particularly good piano student. I would start fascinating discussions with my teacher to delay the inevitable revelation that I had not put in the time to learn how to play the music I was assigned. The secret that I didn’t really know how to play the correct way was a shame known only to myself and my longsuffering teacher Ellen Southard. Everyone else thought I was pretty good.

At one point, I played a Schumann piece in a master class at the local community college. As I recall, I made a hash of it. My playing was stiff and frightened; I was worried I would miss the chords in the jumping left hand, and my fears were well founded. Those jumps weren’t in my muscle memory. When I finished, Frederick Moyer, the kind and brilliant concert pianist who was in town to play Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto asked me what kind of music I liked to play. Perhaps he sensed that there was a musician hiding in me who was at that moment out of his depth. I said that I liked to play jazz out of a fakebook. He asked what appealed to me about that, and I said that I liked the freedom to play difficult things when I felt I could accomplish them and to alter my pace when I felt I couldn’t. He shrewdly pointed out that classical musicians do that too. They simply disguise their necessary tempo alterations as artistic choices. The audience laughed. I think he probably was trying to tell me that musicians all face the same kinds of problems. Jazz is not really a place to hide from technical problems, and classical music is no place to hide from personal expression. I don’t think I caught his meaning. My takeaway was that I might not have what it takes to tackle classical repertoire. Later that night I would get hopelessly lost in rehearsal playing 4th horn in the orchestra that accompanied him.

I started school as a voice major, then changed majors and schools to pursue composition. I’ll pick up the narrative at the age of 20 or so, when it became clear to me that to be taken seriously as a musician, or even to hold down a job as a working musician in any way, I would have to learn to sight read. So I went to the library and checked out a stack of books a couple feet high, brought them back to a practice room and played straight through them without stopping to fix anything. I then brought the books back, checked out more, and repeated the process. Within a year or so, I was able to crash through quite a bit of music in a halfway convincing manner. Not long thereafter, I started accompanying a voice studio. I recall my deep embarrassment when one student was a better pianist than I was and noted that I was not playing the page correctly. If I was going to be paid to accompany, I would have to play better than the singers. Somehow I managed to get a job playing cocktail piano at a restaurant where the waiters sang arias and musical theatre songs for bored travelers waiting to catch the next flight out of San Francisco. That was its own invaluable education.

I had been fortunate enough to stumble across situations where people were patient as I learned to read as quickly as I could, in high stress situations. So when I took my first job music directing a show for kids, I floundered a little, but I didn’t make a fool of myself, and more importantly, I didn’t need to spend hours in the practice room to get the show under my fingers. I knew what the notes meant the first time I saw them. But that doesn’t mean I could play them all. There was a new kind of curse: I could see exactly what the composer wanted the first time. If I couldn’t do what the composer wanted, that was too bad. It was as good as it was going to be the very first time I played it. I still hadn’t learned how to practice technique. I had only learned to practice my sight reading.

Incidentally, if you are not a good sight-reader, this is how to become one: Read a whole lot of music, as many kinds as you can get your hands on, and play it at a moderate tempo, never stopping to fix anything. Stopping to fix blunts the urgency of looking ahead and getting that information approximated very fast. You want to activate the part of your brain that decodes it quickly and sees 2 or 3 measures ahead. Additionally, the sound of your inevitable uncorrected mistakes will bother you so much, it will act as a kind of immediate and painful punishment. This will motivate you to be more observant next time. Pretty soon your brain will have sorted out what to look for, and how to find it fast.

These are skills the world needs from a musician, particularly a collaborative musician. The world does not want to hear you stop and figure out a passage. It needs you to get to the end of the measure with everyone else, preferably with an eye left over to cast a sidelong glance at the conductor.

But recently I spent many hours in the studio, recording a project that was really right at the edge of my playing ability. If you’ve ever spent any time in the studio, you know that it brings into sharp contrast the hard facts about your playing. They can do magical wonders with pro-tools, but they need something to start with. The studio is in some ways the opposite of the rest of the world. You will stay here until we get it right, and it will cost someone a lot of money if you get it wrong. 

I know the basics about how to practice: Play it slow. Too slow, really. Find a fingering that works. Play it every single time with that fingering. Be expressive. Find the meaning of the phrasing and incorporate it. Don’t let your mind turn off. Be engaged. Take a break when you can’t stay engaged. Memorize it if possible. Gradually increase the tempo at increments so small you can’t tell the difference. Master musicians often really don’t ever play it up to tempo until the gig is upon them. That’s terrifying, but the greats trust that the slow practice will get them what they need.

It’s kind of like Tai Chi, something I have only a tiny amount of experience with from a vocal intensive I took one Summer in High School. The movements are very slow and fluid. You are learning how your body and your balance work and interrelate. There is an aspect of the discipline where you would actually use the movements in self defense, but that’s not how the practice works on a daily basis. Technical practice on an instrument is slow and exploratory, not a contact sport.

Like everybody else, I instinctively want to increase the speed the very moment I find myself able to play it correctly. I suppose everyone is like this. Then when we increase the speed, we lose the fingering, or we improvise a new fingering on the fly, we barely make it through, we miss the point of the phrase, we become frustrated. We lose our focus and mindlessly bang out the phrase. But we console ourselves: “Nobody will notice”, we think. “Listen to how fast I’m playing it!”

Yesterday morning, before I went back into the studio for one final round of fixes, I had an interesting thought:

Musical practice is like spiritual practice. 

Normal life asks you to think and act quickly. Especially in our modern world. What’s that phrase I’m seeing everywhere? Life Comes At You Fast, generally followed by two contradictory tweets that reveal a sudden change in circumstance. People around you don’t want to wait while you figure your responses out. That’s like sight reading. Being a functioning adult means you need to know how to talk to people and speak intelligently and with humor no matter what happens. You have to know how to read a room and how to adjust your words and actions to avoid offense and to have a productive interaction with other people. Life is like chamber music.

But getting along with people and being productive is only one part of your life. Spiritual practice takes more time. Spiritual practice is the cultivation of the kinds of things you aren’t automatically going to do. Just like choosing your best way to get through a passage, spiritual practice is how you train yourself to behave with kindness toward people with whom you disagree. It’s training yourself to question your self-righteousness, to have courage to speak when others might disagree, to have the grace to disagree with kindness. And just as in my piano practice, I have the tendency to pass myself to the next level too early, wrongly assuming I have this tempo figured out. “Nobody will notice”, I think. “Listen to how quickly and wittily I responded.”

The spiritual practices that are a part of my religious tradition, like prayer and occasional fasting, reading, reflection, giving, among many others, are a kind of slow-motion living, where I can discover the tiny habits I have picked up that impede my playing in my daily life and correct them. It takes discipline and patience to incorporate that kind of work into your schedule and into your life. But the human experience is empty at the constant breakneck speed of the 21st century. You have to slow it down.

I think total musicianship requires a multifaceted approach aimed at quick thinking and also deep, transformative practices. So do our lives. Without a determination both to listen and live in the moment and to pursue deeper growth, we’ll miss out on the full spectrum of life and musical expression.











Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore: A Rough Guide for the M.D.

July 6, 2017

Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore: A Rough Guide for the M.D.
1908 Pinafore

A Word About the Piece:

The internet does not need me to provide a comprehensive history of HMS Pinafore. Along with The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, it sits at the very top of the Gilbert and Sullivan pantheon, beloved almost since the first performance. It is the piece which transported Gilbert and Sullivan from being an interesting potentiality to being a global phenomenon. The tunes and catch phrases from the operetta have become part of the lexicon, and as such, the operetta is among Gilbert and Sullivan’s crowning achievements.

It is by no means perfect, however. When the operetta first hit the boards, audiences must have felt the shock of discovery as they saw the first version of the G&S formula operating on all cylinders. Cutting social commentary, far more incisive than we had seen in The Sorcerer, memorable tunes worthy of comparison to Rossini and Offenbach, and a host of other details combine to make this operetta a truly English confection, not merely a parody of more respectable shows from the continent. But as time has passed, and Gilbert and Sullivan continued to hone their craft, audiences can see Pinafore as a brilliant step in a journey not quite completed. Commentators have sometimes noted that HMS Pinafore seems like a rough draft of The Pirates of Penzance. Arguments to that effect tend to cluster around the way Pirates is constructed, the way it reuses the most interesting character devices and plot contrivances of Pinafore, but in a smarter and more intentional way. While Sullivan may have taken part in those developments, the characters and construction of the plot are clearly Gilbert’s domain. In this post, I hope to demonstrate Pinafore as a musical step forward for Sullivan as well, one in which he started to draw thematic connections across the entirety of the piece, and in which he began to really come to terms with the way an effective finale is constructed.

It is no mark of shame to say that Gilbert and Sullivan were learning as they wrote. They did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. The fact that Sullivan was in excruciating pain while writing this operetta due to a kidney stone makes his achievement almost superhuman. (when I had a kidney stone, I sincerely wanted the doctors to have me put down) So while I may quibble with some choices here and there, I may beg the indulgence of the Gilbert and Sullivan community by reiterating that we composers can only hope to achieve what these two men did while ill, distracted, or otherwise indisposed.

Writing Operetta is a tricky business, but Gilbert and Sullivan found the elements of their success remarkably quickly. Their first collaboration, Thespis (the music sadly now lost) was an extravaganza, not a standard opera, and Trial By Jury is quite short. The Sorcerer, their third piece for the stage, had thus given them their first chance to present a full length piece with real character development. The Sorcerer had established the familiar patter baritone, a particular style of writing for the primary couple, ensemble work full of character and humor, and the broad satire of British cultural mores for which Gilbert and Sullivan are so famous.

With their 4th collaboration, HMS Pinafore, the writers began to tackle larger scale problems, particularly musical unity and pacing, and they began to find their stride in one of the most difficult areas of writing for the lyric stage; the finale. Their progress in these areas make HMS Pinafore a more successful operetta than its predecessors, paving the way for even more spectacular writing in the future.

In The Sorcerer, Sullivan had experimented with two different tunes for a single lyric, “with heart and with voice”, which were later unexpectedly combined. The irrepressible tune, “Now to the banquet we press” also made a second appearance at the end of the show. But in HMS Pinafore, there are a plethora of lyrics and tunes to which we return for a second (or even third) hearing:

We sail the ocean blue

What never? Well, hardly ever…

His sisters and his cousins and his aunts

For a British tar is a soaring soul

He Is an Englishman

Oh, joy, Oh rapture unforeseen

The return engagements of these melodies not only help us recall them to mind after the operetta has ended, they help unify the work musically. This operetta is not merely a collection of beautiful tunes, but a carefully thought out whole. I hope to draw connections between all these tunes below.

Another marvelous and enviable feature of Pinafore is its unending well of melody, much of which is flavored strongly with sea chantey. Not enough is made in the literature of just how well Sullivan matched his musical ideas to the topics of his operettas. Along these criteria, HMS Pinafore is basically perfection.

Before You Start:

A great place to start with any G&S Operetta is the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive page.The page for Pinafore is pretty extensive, including interviews and reviews of early productions, an extensive list of errors in the common scores, etc.

The most commonly used edition is the Schirmer vocal score, edited by Bryceson Treharne. It’s fine, but you will want to take time to correct the errors in the score before you begin rehearsing. I linked to Amazon here, because most people these days buy from them. But do be aware that they sometimes lump together more than one edition of the same score, so you might accidentally get a rival edition when you order. There are a few errors in the Schirmer score that are not on the errata list, and I will cover those below.

There is also a Dover edition, which I have not really looked through. I believe it goes with the full score they also printed, and includes some corrections and an alternate passage in the second act. I seems not to be paginated the same way as the Schirmer score, which may be an issue if your company is using the Schirmer version. The Dover edition also has measure numbers, which is great if somebody is calling them out, but again if anyone is using the Schirmer, that won’t be helpful. I wound up writing measure numbers into my Schirmer version and copying my notes into the Dover full score.

The Dover Full Score is quite good. Sadly, I believe it’s out of print, which may account for the preposterous price of $180 on Amazon. (someone is even selling it for $675!) By sheer luck, I found mine on the shelf at my favorite local music store and spent precisely $19.95. I will not sell it to you. As with the two other Dover G&S scores, the scholarship seems to be very good, but the lyric font size is very small, and I did find several errors, which I will list below. I believe in conducting chorus rehearsals from the vocal score until the chorus is off book, and then switching as early as practicable to the full score to conduct rehearsals. There is a real wealth of detail in the orchestration that you as a music director need to be aware of that is simply not present in the Piano Score. If you are renting parts, do check to see if you can get your hands on the score that goes with them to use as you rehearse. It goes without saying that conducting the operetta in performance with an orchestra from the Piano Vocal Score is an unpardonable infraction.


As always, the OakApple Press page laying out all the major recordings is complete and fantastic. Many of these recordings are available on Spotify, but I encourage you to buy a hard copy. Looking to D’Oyly Carte for style or pronunciation help is a good idea, but I’m sorry to say that even in the case of vowels, you will find very little uniformity from one D’Oyly Carte recording to the next. 1960 D’Oyly Carte is the one to have.

If you’re going to be Music Directing Gilbert and Sullivan, you’ll want to begin building a library of reference materials. I recommend getting these, as you are able:

The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian Bradley. You should probably get this one ASAP. There is a very expensive new edition I have not yet read. If it’s anything like its predecessors, it’s indispensable.

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan by Gayden Wren: Good stuff, especially seeing the shows in the context of the whole output. I come back to this book again and again.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Lexicon by Harry Benford: in which you will find the definitions of all those words you don’t understand.

After you have procured some of these, set aside a number of hours to do the following:

1) Listen to the soundtracks with the score in hand, marking things that strike you as interesting. I also made a pass at one point with a metronome and marked the tempi of all the sections from several recordings so that I would have a benchmark of speed. When a singer complains about a tempo, it helps to be able to check and say, “Ah, yes, we’re too slow” or: “This is within the range of generally accepted tempi.” or yet again, “I’d like to take it this fast, but currently our diction won’t allow it.” Sullivan doesn’t always notate phrasing or articulations, and while it’s easy to say, “Let’s just leave it up to the taste of the players”, it’s sometimes necessary to actually make clear decisions as a conductor so that the ensemble is telling the same musical story. I have developed a system with colored pencils, where I listen to a recording of a particular year with, say, a red pencil in hand and just mark interesting articulation, dynamic, or tempo choices for the key moments. Then I go back with a different color and enter another recording’s take on the same moments. Pretty quickly one begins to realize what is standard, what is done almost every time, and what is open to interpretation. You will also find your own preference in those places where there appears to be a wide range of opinion. To me, this is the beginning of discovering your own voice as a conductor; finding where the limits of expression have been in the past, and deciding what you are drawn to in answer to the points that are vague.

2) Take the Lexicon book and copy in pencil all the definitions into the score where you don’t already know the meanings.

As You’re Casting:

PInafore Characters


The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B.

Joseph Porter CardSir Joseph is the patter role, and could easily be played by a tenor or a baritone, but probably someone older than the other principals, because of the life experience he lays out in his signature aria. His lowest note is an A below Bass C, his highest the E above middle C. He should have strong comic timing and be able to play imperious. He was played originally by George Grossmith, the first Major General in the D’Oyly Carte Pirates and the first Koko anywhere.

Fortunately for us, Gilbert wrote a book for children elaborating the story of HMS Pinafore, and in it he describes the characters upon their first appearances. Since these descriptions were written decades after Gilbert’s inception of them, they are often different and sometimes clearer than they are in the actual script. His description of Porter is as follows:

“One of the most important personages in the Government of that day was Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. You would naturally think that the person who commanded the entire Navy would be the most accomplished sailor who could be found, but that is not the way in which such things are managed in England. Sir Joseph Porter, who had risen from a very humble position to be a lawyer, and then a Member of Parliament, was, I believe, the only man in England who knew nothing whatever about ships. Now, as England is a great maritime country, it is very important that all Englishmen should understand something about men-of-war. So as soon as it was discovered that his ignorance of a ship was so complete that he didn’t know one end of it from the other, some important person said, ‘Let us set this poor ignorant gentleman to command the British fleet, and by that means give him an opportunity of ascertaining what a ship really is.’ This was considered to be a most wise and sensible suggestion, and so Sir Joseph Porter was at once appointed, ‘First Lord of the Admiralty of Great Britain and Ireland.’ I daresay you think I’m joking, but indeed I am quite serious. That is the way in which things are managed in this great and happy country.”

“Sir Joseph was a gentleman of great refinement, who was very easily shocked, and as he knew that the society of charming ladies had the effect of making everybody polite and considerate, he never travelled any great distance without them.”

Later he writes: “I’m afraid that Sir Joseph, though a very distinguished man, was, like a good many other very distinguished men, a bit of a goose.”

Captain Corcoran

Corcoran Cigarette Card

Gilbert describes him thus: “…a very humane, gallant, and distinguished officer, who did everything in his power to make his crew happy and comfortable. He had a sweet, light baritone voice, and an excellent ear for music, of which he was extremely fond, and this led him to sing to his crew pretty songs of his own composition, and to teach them to sing to him. To encourage this taste among his crew, he made it a rule on board that nobody should ever say anything to him that could possibly be sung, a rule that was only relaxed when a heavy gale was blowing, or when he had a bilious headache. Harmless improving books were provided for the crew to read, and vanilla ices, sugar-plums, hardbake and raspberry jam were served out every day with a liberal hand. In short, he did everything possible, (consistently with his duty to Her Majesty) to make everybody on board thoroughly ill and happy. “

It sure seems like Sullivan was a little unsure of Corcoran’s fach. At times he seems like a tenor. In fact, in the original higher key of his Act 2 aria, it would take a tenor or a very impressive lyric baritone to do it justice. In many other moments, Corcoran is a real Bass Baritone. In almost all the numbers he’s in the treble clef, but in number 8 he’s in the bass clef. (When he appears in Utopia Limited 15 years later, he’s listed as a Bass) Then there’s the issue of him needing to be the same age as Ralph, but also the age of the father of Ralph’s love interest. Most productions ignore this, which makes the ending more ludicrous, and that’s probably okay. I would encourage you to cast a tenor with a full bodied sound. His lowest pitch is the B below Bass C. If you do Fair Moon in D, as it was written, and as it appears in the vocal score, his high note is F# above middle C or perhaps A, if he goes for the high note. If you do it in C, his high note is F above middle C, or perhaps G if he goes for the high note.

Rutland Barrington originated the role. He would also originate the role of the Sergeant of Police in the first D’Oyly Carte Pirates and the role of Pooh Bah in The Mikado. 

Ralph Rackstraw

Rackstraw Cigarette CardRalph is a traditional leading male tenor, although you have a good excuse to cast somewhat older, if you hope to explain away the baby swapping with Corcoran.

It helps if your Ralph has a flair for the dramatic, because he has some very purple lines and an over-the-top suicide attempt to pull off. His low note is E flat below middle C, and his high note A above middle C. The A needs to be pretty solid, Ralph hangs up there. There is an optional high Bb for those who are able.

Gilbert says this about him in his Pinafore Picture Book:

“One of the smartest sailors on board Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore was a young fellow called Ralph Rackstraw, though, as will be seen presently, that was not his real name. He was extremely good-looking, and, considering that he had very little education, remarkable well-spoken. Unhappily he had gotten it into his silly head that a British man-of-war’s man was a much finer fellow than he really is. He is, no doubt a very fine fellow indeed, but perhaps not quite so fine a fellow as Ralph Rackstraw thought he was. He had heard a great many songs and sentiments in which a British Tar was described as a person who possessed every good quality that could be packed into one individual, whereas there is generally room for a great many more qualities than are usually found inside any sailor… So, although Ralph had gathered up many excellent qualities, there were still some that he had not yet added to his collection, and among these was the appreciation of the fact that he hadn’t got them all. In short, his only fault was a belief that he hadn’t any.”

As early as possible, train yourself to pronounce the name Raif, not Ralf. You will save yourself a great deal of embarrassment among the seasoned Savoyards.

Dick Deadeye

Dick Deadeye CardGilbert describes him as follows: “…one of the ugliest persons who ever entered the Navy. His face had been so knocked about ans burnt and scarred in various battles and from falling down from aloft that not one feature was in its proper place. The wags among the crew pretended that his two eyes, his nose, and his mouth, had been playing ‘Puss in the Corner’, and that his left eye, having been unable to find a corner that was unoccupied, was consequently left in the middle. Of course this was only their nonsense, but it shows what a very plain man he must have been. He was hump-backed, and bandy-legged, and round-shouldered, and hollow-chested, and severely pitted with small-pox marks. He had broken both his arms, both his legs, his two collar bones and all his ribs and looked just as if he had been crumpled up in the hand of some enormous giant. He ought to have been made a Greenwich pensioner long ago, but captain Corcoran was too kind-hearted to hint that Dick Deadeye was deformed, and so he was allowed to continue to serve his country ad a man-o-war’s man as best he could Now Dick Deadeye was generally disliked because he was so unpleasant to look at, but he was really one of the best and kindest, and most sensible men on board the Pinafore, and this shows how wrong and unjust it is to judge unfavorably of a man because he is ugly and deformed.”

Deadeye was originated by Richard Temple, who was the first person to play roles in 8 different D’Oyly Carte original productions. He was the first Sir Marmaduke, Pirate King, Mikado, and many others. He must have been an extraordinary singer and actor. Deadeye is a strange sort, as a character, and as a piece of writing. He is clearly meant to be a kind of villain in the piece, but he lacks real agency. Although his revelation to Corcoran in the second act does precipitate the chain of events that allows the play to conclude, it is unclear what his motivation is, or what he is capable of doing to thwart the lovers. The type has fallen somewhat out of use over the years, but Deadeye is an example of a character outside the community who is dangerous but speaks the truth, as when he says, “When people have to obey other people’s orders, equality’s out of the question.”. This is a thought provoking sentiment even now, and is an unusually cutting and open statement of the general principle behind much of G&S. But as he also says, “From such a face and form as mine, the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination.” He is rather like Jigger and Judd combined, with a dash of Richard III or Iago. Vocally, the role is fairly demanding, particularly in the first act finale, where Deadeye has to sing very quick and rangy patter, some of which is rather hard to hear and  to place. He has a Bb below Bass C and an Eb above middle C within a beat and a half, for example. In the second act, he has a few measures of ensemble work which need to be floated. You should keep these things in mind while casting. The low note is G below Bass C and the high note Eb above middle C.

Bill Bobstay (The Boatswain)

This character is never referred to by name in the piece, only as Boatswain, (pronounced Bosun) Very important minor Baritone principal, he introduces the He Is An Englishman melody and has a great deal of dialogue.

Gilbert says precious little about him, except that he was “One of the most tenderhearted creatures living…”

When you audition this part, you simply must have someone who can carry the middle part of a trio. His low note is the G below Bass C, and his high note the E flat above Treble C.

Bob Becket (Carpenter)

Original Bob BecketBob Becket has no lines, but he has a very important Bass part in A British Tar. Requires a good ear and a clear, well placed true Bass voice, because at the end of the Glee, before the chorus comes in, Becket is the one leading the Rallentando, which ends on an important low E. His low note is that E below Bass C, his high note the E flat above middle C.

Bob does not appear in the Children’s book Gilbert wrote. Incidentally, Deadeye, Bobstay, and Becket are named for parts of a ship.






Becket (near bottom of diagram)


Josephine CardJosephine is the classic Gilbert and Sullivan soubrette, well suited to a light soprano, but also potentially for a richer-toned soprano who has access to the Bb. Mabel in Pirates has some coloratura, Josephine has none. The two arias require some long line, but the duet and many moments in Act II also require some faster diction and clarity of execution. She should have a good ear; some of the chromatic passages can easily go out of tune.

Gilbert describes her: “… a beautiful young lady with whom every single gentleman who saw her fell head-over-ears in love. She was tall, exquisitely graceful, with the loveliest blue eyes and barley-sugar coloured hair ever seen out of a Pantomime, but her most attractive feature was, perhaps, her nose, which was neither too long nor too short, nor too narrow, nor too broad, nor too straight. It had the slightest possible touch of sauciness in it, but only just enough to let people know that though she could be funny if she pleased, her fun was always gentle and refined, and never under any circumstances tended in the direction of unfeeling practical jokes. It was such a maddening little nose, and had so extraordinary an effect on the world at large that, whenever she went into Society, she found it necessary to wear a large pasteboard artificial nose of so unbecoming and ridiculous a description that people passed her without  taking the smallest notice of her. This alone is enough to show what a kind-hearted and self-sacrificing girl was the beautiful Josephine Corcoran.

Her range is Middle C to high Bb. (optional and highly recommended High B and C)

Cousin Hebe

Hebe CardOne wishes Gilbert had written a few words in his children’s version about Hebe, to clarify her character, but sadly, she does not appear. She is a principal chorus member with two important story moments, but other than that, we have very little information of the specificity of her character. It comes out of left field that she wants to marry Sir Joseph, because it had until that point not been entirely clear whether she was a sister, a cousin, or an aunt. Like the rest of the end of the show, we simply shrug and think, “Oh, sure.”

She was played originally by Jessie Bond, who would go on to create many of the Mezzo roles in future G&S shows, such as Iolanthe, Pitti Sing, and Tessa. She was apparently a good actress, but Pinafore caught her at the very beginning of her career, and she felt uncomfortable speaking onstage, so nearly all her dialogue was cut.

In a trio in the First Act Finale, she needs to have sufficient midrange volume to compete with Ralph and Josephine in a higher tessitura. Her range is from the A flat below middle C to the F above treble C.


Buttercup Card

Buttercup is the Mezzo of the piece. You could go a number of ways with the part. Unlike many other G&S Mezzos, it’s not entirely clear what the joke of her character is. Gilbert seemed unclear what exactly to do with her, and even her presence on the boat seems to be problematic for the book, because Gilbert keeps making her leave without reason only to return immediately afterward to deliver some piece of information. He would rectify the problem in Pirates by making her counterpart Ruth an active crew member who stays on and is integral to the action.

To put a positive spin on that, there are many ways a director could push the character. She could be hideous or sexy, an outsider or one of the boys. Since Gilbert hasn’t bothered to give her many distinguishing characteristics, you are more free to invent your own.

Buttercup should be able to play old enough to have been a ‘Baby Farmer’ during the infancy of Corcoran and Ralph, but of course the math on that is fishy to begin with. Her low note is G below middle C, her high note the E above treble C.

Gilbert describes her: “…a rather stout but very interesting elderly woman of strikingly personal appearance. She was what is called a ‘bum-boat woman’, that is to say, a person who supplied the officers and crew with little luxuries not included in the ship’s bill of fare. Her real name was Poll Pineapple, but the crew nicknamed her ‘Little Buttercup’, partly because it is a pretty name, but principally because she was not like a buttercup, or indeed anything else than a stout, quick-tempered, and rather mysterious lady, with a red face and black eyebrows like leeches, and who seemed to know something unpleasant about everybody on board. She had a habit of making quite nice people uncomfortable by hinting things in a vague way, and at the same time with so much meaning (by skillful use of her heavy black eyebrows) that they began to wonder whether they hadn’t done something dreadful, at some time or other, and forgotten all about it. So Little Buttercup was not really popular with the crew, but they were much too kind-hearted to let her know it)”

Later in the book, Gilbert gives a really elaborate backstory of Buttercup and Corcoran.

Midshipmite/Tom Tucker 

Sometimes there is a small boy cast, to whom Buttercup gives a lollipop after her opening number.


Sopranos should have the A above the staff and if possible the A below Middle C, although they have help on that note. There is a spot where a high Bb might be helpful, but Josephine also sings it at the same time.

Altos should have the A below middle C, and the treble clef 4th space E.

The Tenors bottom out at Bass C and have an A above Middle C for the top.

The Basses have the low G and top off at the D above middle C, although 2nd basses drop as low as Eb below Bass C.


I appreciate how the Gilbert and Sullivan choruses allow for the potentiality of many ages and body types, and also how singers can age through character types in the operas. Not everyone needs to look like the very first flower of youth to participate!

General Pronunciation Advice:

I copy here general note from earlier G&S posts, with some slight emendations.

I am still no expert on RP English pronunciation, but I offer here a couple of basic pointers, to which I intend to add as I learn more:

1) Be aware of the Trap-Bath split. A fellow Savoyard in my tenor section made me aware of this chart, which is very helpful: trap-bath

2) ‘R’s that begin a word are tripped or rolled. ‘R’s that come before a vowel are tripped. ‘R’s that come after a vowel are generally dropped. At no point is the ‘r’ pronounced as we Amerrricans pronounce it. (although you may encounter different kinds of Rs if characters have regional British accents)

3) Mary, Merry, and Marry employ three different vowel sounds. Where I come from, they are pronounced identically. In Philadelphia, they are pronounced as three different vowels, but they aren’t the same vowels. Interesting chart on this matter:http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_15.html In G&S, you’ll want to say Mary with an eh as in air, Merry with eh as in get, and Marry with an ah as in cat. (someone will certainly correct me on this)

4) Many u vowels will need a y sound before them: duty becomes dyewtee, tuning becomes tyooning, new becomes nyoo, and institution becomes instityooshun.

5) Been becomes bean.

6) For words which in American English replace ‘t’s with a d sound, a true ‘t’ sound should be used. “Water” is not pronounced “wadder”, and certainly not wooder, my Philadelphia friends. But be careful not to overcompensate. I have noticed that some Americans are so anxious to Britishify their speech that they change to ‘t’ sounds that are truly ‘d’s. Lady should not be Laty, as I’ve heard people say when attempting to posh up their language. Not every ‘d’ needs to become a ‘t’, only the ones that are truly ts to begin with!

7) As I continue to conduct these pieces, and after continuing encouragement from the English members of our American company, I am beginning to become fixated on words like “all”, and the second syllable of “Doctor”, “Major” and “Sailor”. The British “all” has a darker vowel than the Americans use, almost to the point of sounding like ‘ole’, and the second syllable of the ‘or’ words is pronounced like ‘or’, not ‘er’, as Americans would say it. I am still conflicted about that particular one, because the D’Oyly Carte recordings are by no means consistent on that point, and especially at speed, it is very difficult to articulate a tall ‘o’ vowel in such a word. It is something to keep one’s ears open for.

This video may be of use to you.

That is by no means exhaustive, and I’ve probably gotten some of it wrong, but that’ll get you started. There are some places in this show where pronunciation will be governed by a rhyme. I will try and hit each of those points as we go.

Going through the show number by number:


It is a little unclear exactly how the Pinafore overture came to be. In their preface to the Dover Pinafore full score, Carl Simpson and Ephraim Hammett Jones speculate that the overture may not have been written by the time the show opened, which may account for the unusually long introduction to the opening number. This sounds right to me. More on that introduction later. Sullivan often had help with the completion of his overtures, but the authorship of the overture we have is also somewhat mysterious. It’s part of the standard legend of Pinafore that the initial box office for the operetta was poor, partly because of a heat wave. The nasty experience of seeing Pinafore in a gas lit, poorly ventilated theatre in a sweltering heat almost led to the operetta’s closing, until (as the story goes) Sullivan conducted a medley from the operetta prepared by Hamilton Clarke at the Proms, and everyone fell in love with the music, leading to international success. Clarke had also helped with the Sorcerer Overture  This story has led to speculation that the Overture is a set of selections Hamilton Clarke arranged. But as Simpson and Jones have pointed out in the preface to the Dover edition, we have a set of Overture instructions in the score in Sullivan’s own hand, so while he may have referred to Clarke’s work in some way, he went to the trouble to write a good deal out himself. If you’d like to play armchair musicologist, the manuscript score is available here at the Morgan Library website:

You’ll notice the timpani part is notated, and the tutti chords, but then Sullivan has written the melody in the violins, with the understanding that the copyist will fill in the passages from the places where these passages occur elsewhere in the opera.

Pinafore Autograph Overture Page 1

First page of Sullivan’s autograph of the Overture

The overture is then, a pretty straightforward medley of the most memorable passages heard elsewhere. I only note one error in the Dover Full Score, and that’s in the pickup to measure 65. The Cello and Double Bass should really switch to arco there. With a good oboist and a sprightly, well articulated style, the overture packs a nice punch and is a great opening to the operetta.


1.Introduction and Chorus: We Sail The Ocean Blue

Pinafore Crew WoodwardThe Introduction is long; it took the place of the overture missing from the first performances.

Melodically, it covers the upcoming men’s chorus, Sorry Her Lot, I’m Called Little Buttercup, and I am the Captain of the Pinafore. Sullivan signals from the outset that he intends to develop his material this time around, and although HMS Pinafore is not as thoroughly woven a musical tapestry as we shall see in subsequent operettas, Sullivan uses ideas thematically and returns to older ideas much more intentionally than he had in Trial By Jury or The Sorcerer. In fact, we hear these tunes for the first time in radically altered forms: Josephine’s aria is prefigured in the oboe at a much faster tempo, and in 6/8 instead of 9/8. Buttercup’s aria is in 2/4, not 3/4. Corcoran’s entrance aria appears as a canon, moved into the minor mode. If this is in fact, a proto-overture, it does not behave as an overture at all; it’s acting more like a tiny symphonic development section.


G&S’s 2 previous operas Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer had opened with the entire chorus singing. But as I mentioned earlier, Sullivan had employed an interesting device midway through Act I in The Sorcerer. The gentlemen and the ladies of the chorus sang With Heart And With Voice in two different melodies, which finally joined together in a quodlibet. Sullivan must have found the device effective. In Pinafore, the show opens not with the full chorus, but with the men on their own in a memorable introductory tune we shall discover fits perfectly with the introductory tune of the women. Putting this tune at the very opening of the opera draws a connecting thread across the first 40 or so pages of the opera. By the time we hear the men’s tune and the ladies tune combined to complete the development of the thought, many more melodies have been introduced, which will in turn thread through the remainder of the show.

Starting with the men alone also turns out to be a great way to differentiate the members of the chorus from one another, and in 7 of the 10 subsequent operas, Gilbert and Sullivan would open with a men’s or women’s chorus. In Pirates, they would discover that involving the opposing groups of men and women romantically was even more interesting, and that it is even possible to split the chorus three ways, dividing tenors and basses into two. Thus the device of the gendered chorus is put to its traditional G&S formulation essentially for the first time here.

Gilbert’s narration of the story for children indicates that Corcoran has taught the men this song. Of course, in the Operetta proper, Sir Joseph is the only composer on board that we are made aware of.


Now to more mundane matters for the music director:

A practical consideration and an error present themselves immediately here.

Firstly, your timpanist may need a moment to tune from E flat to C. It’s kind of unfortunate timing.

The error in the Piano Vocal Score is not in the errata list on the G&S Archive page. On page 7, in measure 4, the eighths in the left hand are wrong; that measure should look like the previous measure’s left hand, and the eighths begin in the following measure.

Your pianist will be tempted to play the canon figure at the 2nd system of page 8 (Schirmer Vocal Score page numbers referred to here and elsewhere) forte, but it is in fact, piano, part of a long crescendo to the tutti statement of the melody on the 4th system.

Bruce Miller remarks in a G&S discussion group that the writing for the men is not ideal here. The basses lie somewhat low, so their part doesn’t project until the tenors arrive, and when the tenors do come, much of their part is also somewhat low. In No. 7, the tenors are up the octave occasionally, which is more effective. Be sure your singers sing the dotted rhythms faithfully. “dyootee”, not “dooty”, please. You should also decide what to do on the words “Portsmouth tide”, where the vocal part is similar, but not the same as the accompaniment. Not all recordings observe this difference. Watch the balance between Tenors and Basses on the word ‘ahoy’, a mild fp will keep rambunctious tenors from drowning out the basses. It’s customary to crescendo on the long ‘day’ before the final statement of the melody.

2. Recitative and Aria: I’m Called Little Buttercup

Buttercup BobI’m afraid I’m not so crazy about this number lyrically, for the same reason Gayden Wren lays out in his book:

I’m Called Little Buttercup is a virtual clone of My Name is John Wellington Wells, simply a list of items for sale, except that Wells’s items were funny, while Buttercup’s are commonplace and uninteresting. Many performers have found it hard to memorize, simply because there’s no order to it beyond the rhyme scheme, nor any real structure.”

The melody, however, is a winner all around. The melodies in The Sorcerer often played around with rising and falling three note motives, but never with this kind of economy. It almost sounds like a folk song, and like most good folk music, the melody refers back to itself constantly, so it coheres in a closed vocabulary. If Gilbert gives us a fairly pedestrian lyric, Sullivan the melodist is beginning with a bang.

Buttercup Melody 1

What a beautifully constructed melody; a subtle execution of a sophisticated idea! The second section of the melody modulates to the relative minor, adding new ideas to the ones already in play:

Buttercup Melody 2.jpg

The third portion introduces some chromatic ideas and rhythmic variety before closing with the opening melodic material to complete the circle.

Buttercup Melody 3

Aside from what Wren says about the lyric being hard to memorize, the number is not difficult to perform, nor conduct, but do keep it on the sprightly side.

2a. Recitative: But Tell Me, Who’s the Youth…

Compared to the dismal recitative in The Sorcerer, Buttercup’s short recit with the Boatswain is just right; brief, expressive, and easy to manage. As you conduct your orchestra, be sure to beat through the whole measure so they know where you are. For example, in the opening measure, cue the downbeat, then quickly beat through 2 and 3, holding at three until Buttercup sings feet, then give 4 as an upbeat, after which she’ll sing With, and you’ll be right there to land the downbeat of the next measure. It takes practice, but you can do it!

3. Madrigal: The Nightingale

Ralph Rackstraw Woodward.jpgI’ve been puzzling somewhat over why this arietta is called a Madrigal, since it’s not particularly polyphonic nor choral. Lyrically, it does play with tropes of the Renaissance Madrigal. The Nightingale sings at night, and is consequently symbolic of other nocturnal happenings like love, grief, and insomnia.

“Ah Well a-day” is one of those mournful phrases Gilbert liked to return to that sound vaguely Elizabethan, like Willow Willow Waly, Heighdy Heighdy, Misery Me, Lack-a-day-dee! or Tit Willow, Tit Willow. Shakespeare uses Ah Well-A-Day in Romeo and Juliet, when the Nurse tells Juliet that Tybalt is dead, and it seems to have been fairly popular in literature of the 18th century. Maybe the most famous use of “Ah, well-a-day” comes from the early English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who used it in a passage of The Rime of the Ancient Marriner to describe the dismay of the title character at having to wear a dead albatross around his neck:

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.

Ralph’s opening aria lyric is deliberately archaic and high-flown. He’s singing about a bird who is himself singing, forlorn, in the moonlight. In Act 2, his counterpart Corcoran will also sing, forlorn to the moon, but there is little poetry in Corcoran’s lyric. He’s petulantly concerned with his own affairs. So while others have carped that Ralph’s lyric here is full of cliches, I think Gilbert was actually starting a thread he would follow through the entire opera: Ralph is very poetic for a sailor, and in his dialogue, he will frequently sound like one of the poets from Patience. I like to think perhaps Gilbert was foreshadowing the fact that Ralph is in the wrong station.

It’s a shame that when we music direct these pieces, we often learn them via the vocal score. The Nightingale is a delightful little arietta when accompanied by the piano, but I missed until well into the performances the lovely orchestrational detail that the clarinet Nightingale is answered a step higher by the flute echo. I had internalized these things by melody only, and happily discovered their meaning as echos when I had the orchestra in front of me.

The first part of the aria is straightforward for the tenor and chorus. the echoing phrases in the men’s chorus end with “day” a different duration each time. Be sure your chorus knows that.

The pun at the end, “a lass” vs. “alas” will alas be lost on your audience if your Ralph does not observe the little rest after the word “love”. That sixteenth rest really makes the “alas” sound like an exclamation and not a noun.

3a: Ballad: A Maiden Fair To See

This is really the second half of the same aria, and like most early Gilbert and Sullivan introductory tenor arias, this one is in 3, with a long line and a couple of lovely high notes. The orchestral introduction is very chromatic, with 11 of the 12 chromatic pitches represented. Ralph’s melody is also very chromatic, with the first 2 phrases covering all the notes between B and F in a tune that floats down like a feather. The third phrase balances by climbing to the high A with again, nearly every pitch represented.

If the Madrigal section of the double aria was about storytelling, this is about the beauty of the line. There is maybe a little flexibility possible with regard to tempo, to let the tops of the phrases bloom, but think of this second half of the aria as the faster half.

The men of the chorus have a similar task to the one they just accomplished in their echo phrases, with the exception of the ending. My suggestion is to have Ralph’s “Oh pity pity me” be only slightly slower the first time, and then really observe the fermatas the second time. Then you’ll want to cue through the chorus as follows:

And he, (have the chorus catch a breath, line up and with Ralph’s me) Follow Ralph’s lead as he sings Our to line up his Captain with:

He, (again have the chorus catch the breath, to line up that with Ralph’s she) Follow Ralph’s lead as he sings And to line up his with:

Lowly (no breath, connect the Suitors together)

They will have to watch you so that you don’t get a bunch of SSSSSSS at the top of the last word.

Buttercup leaves here for no reason at all that I can tell, except that she has nothing to sing and Gilbert doesn’t know exactly why she is on board.

4. Recit and Song: My Gallant Crew, Good Morning

Corcoran’s entrance aria is marvelous, beginning with the opening exchange. If your chorus is well rehearsed, we get a great sense of the order that Corcoran brings to the ship. Gilbert’s retelling for children indicates this charming detail:

This was how he greeted his crew every day:

“My gallant crew, good morning!”

and they would reply:

“Sir, good morning!”

Then he would say:

“I hope you’re all quite well.”

And they would answer:

“Quite well, and you, Sir?”

And he would reply:

I am in reasonable health, and happy

To see you all once more.”

And they would sing:

“You do us proud, Sir!”

Of course, when he was not quite well, he would alter the words to suit his condition, like this:

“I have a dreadful toothache, yet I’m happy

To see you all once more!”


“I have a housemaid’ knee, yet I am happy

To see you all once more!”

And so forth, for Captain Corcoran never intentionally said anything that was not strictly true.

If you track down the book online, you’ll also read Gilbert’s charming way of softening the Big Big D to “Bother!” for the sensitive ears of the children.

In the Dover full score, you’ll notice that measures 18 and 19 have 2 readings. In the autograph and in the other sources, the 2 chords appear on beats one and two of measure 18. In the Schirmer Vocal score, they appear on the downbeats of 18 and 19. Probably your orchestral parts will match the Schirmer score, but it would be worth having a look to see what your parts say. Incidentally, the autograph score, and the 1880 and 1882 English and German versions have the two chords in one measure. It isn’t until the Metzler 1920 Vocal score that the other version seems to have appeared. It seems like the two notes were originally in one measure, then fermatas in the rests were sanctioned, and finally, someone determined it was easier to notate it as it now appears.

A frustration of this score in particular is the inconsistency of similar passages as they appear throughout the score. Where possible, I suggest that you standardize similar passages for the sake of memorization and clarity. This means that “What, never?” is always short the first time and carried to the downbeat in the following measure the second time. When this passage reoccurs at the end of the show, you should ignore the other lengths and do it precisely as you did it here. “And a right good captain, too” ends on beat 2, not on the and of 1 as it is notated at the end of the show. If you try to do the end of the show as written, you’ll be very frustrated to no conceivable purpose.

Traditionally there are no fermatas the first time through, and the second time through, you do them. I never got that first one quite right; the tenors need to be the link between the fermata and the next passage, it’s difficult for them to connect the old idea with the new section, even if you don’t breathe between the notes. Plan to spend some time there. Conducting the second fermata is hard, since you have to land beat 2, then suspend it, then reiterate it so you can get out into the next measure.

Everyone leaves except the Captain. Buttercup re-enters to talk to him, having done whatever took her off the stage. See what I’m saying? Gilbert doesn’t know what to do with her.

4a. Recit: Sir, You Are Sad…

This can somewhat tricky to conduct through if you’re not accustomed to conducting recits. (see my note to 2a) At measure 12, we are in tempo. The recit. is pretty good, if not inspired, but since Buttercup is so awkwardly brought off and back on, the exposition seems pretty hamhanded. She then leaves again, having fulfilled her function of getting the information out.

5. Ballad: Sorry Her Lot

Corcoran and Josephine WoodwardThere is a wonderful thread of detail in the orchestration of Pinafore that begins here, and it involves the use of the woodwinds in opposition to the strings, as a metaphor. Generally speaking, in traditional writing for the orchestra, the strings are the backbone of the ensemble, and the woodwinds are used to provide warmth, color, or melodic material above or behind the strings. The strings are the main course, and the woodwinds provide flavor, as a kind of musical garnish. Generally, Sullivan sticks to that approach. But beginning here in Josephine’s entrance ballad, Sullivan begins setting off the woodwinds in relief on their own, as in measures 3 & 4, and 32 & 33. It is a very small detail here, but it is significant nonetheless. This is the first place in the score where any winds play without the strings accompanying. With the exception of a few measures of very comical doubling of Dick Deadeye’s snide commentary in the First Act Finale, the next time the winds play without help from and in opposition to the strings is in Josephine’s other major aria a full act later, “The Hours Creep On Apace“, where they will represent a very clear metaphor. When we get there, I’ll elaborate. The metaphor extends into the trio Nevermind The Why And Wherefore, which also has this effect, and makes its final appearance as a device in Buttercup’s revelation that she swapped the Captain and Ralph in infancy. To make my point clear: Sullivan uses the family of winds alone in opposition to the string family in only 5 places in the score, and in each place, the subject at hand is the precipitous distance in station between Josephine and Ralph. If you are unconvinced, I hope to win you over presently.

There is much to say about the Ballad apart from that detail of orchestration.

Firstly, this is a fine example of Sullivan’s genius for unexpected text setting. If you were a composer and saw the lines:

Sorry her lot who loves too well

Heavy the heart that hopes but vainly

you might place the first three syllables on upbeats in 9/8 as Sullivan did, although likely you’d choose something more pedestrian, like a waltz. Then for the next line, if you saw:

Sad are the sighs that own the spell

Uttered by eyes that speak too plainly

you’d probably notice that those lyrics scan the same way, and you’d set them rhythmically identically. But Sullivan sets Sad not on the upbeat, but on the downbeat, which gives it a tragic emphasis, on the minor 6th scale degree over a half diminished ii7 chord. If you’re at a piano, sing Sad and play that chord. Is there anything more tragic? After bringing the phrase to a wonderful half cadence, Sullivan modulates to the relative major and reuses the first two lines, placing the first note of each phrase on the downbeat this time. In doing so, Sullivan has completely reoriented Gilbert’s lyric, just as Mozart often did to DaPonte’s libretti. Verdi and Puccini would have asked for an amended lyric. Note also that Sullivan’s setting basically ruins Gilbert’s internal rhyme; you don’t even notice it anymore. I think Gilbert meant:

A) Sorry her lot who loves too well

A) Heavy the Heart that hopes but vainly

B) Sad are the sighs 

C) That own the Spell

B) Uttered by Eyes 

A) That speak too plainly

But because Sullivan phrases it over many measures, we hear the second part like this:

Sad are the sighs that Own the spell

Uttered by Eyes that Speak too plainly.

The second part of the aria is in a faster F major, and just as the first half had been tracing gently descending scales, the F major portion traces chords up and down the range before ending on a chromatic melisma. On the repeat, Josephine gets a lovely cadenza up to the B flat.

Sullivan had set texts unusually in the previous operas, but this is a tremendous step forward, and he would continue in that direction in Pirates. 


I went into some detail in my Pirates Rough Guide into the way Sullivan shortens his connecting passages to build excitement. I think I called it ‘sawing the end off the diving board’ Here, Josephine’s opening music is shortened the other way, by cutting off the front! In measure 29 and 59, Sullivan moves the beginning of the phrase from beat 1 to beat 2. You can certainly see why he did this; the melody begins on the third, which would spoil Josephine’s cadence. (note also the bold descending tritone in the melody!)

Sorry Her Lot opening

Melody at the Opening

Sorry Her Lot Second Iteration

Introduction as it appears the second time

Sullivan would pull the same trick years later in the 3rd Act of Princess Ida in the title character’s aria: I Built Upon a Rock, which is also an Andante in 3/4 time.

I don’t find Josephine’s arias as convincing as Mabel’s in Pirates, but they are very strong. It is important to treat her arias as serious moments; the piece must be grounded and beautiful to work. The situations these characters find themselves in are by nature preposterous, but to make them work correctly, these few moments of sheer beauty must be sincere.

6. Barcarolle: Over The Bright Blue Sea

This sequence is where the opening number pays off! Many people have pointed out the wonderful orchestrational detail of the pianissimo bass drum strikes on “Bang Bang”. And again Sullivan’s melodic fecundity is amazing.

Performance details:

Be sure you are clear about where to breathe at the ladies entrance, and observe the dynamics. The last note on K.C.B. is tied to an eighth note in the next measure. The English have a way of notating cutoffs that I don’t completely understand, except that it’s inconsistent and doesn’t make sense to me. I do hope one day someone will enlighten me further on this. Conversations with colleagues have just led to mutual bewilderment. Cut off that B on the downbeat of measure 20.

7. Sir Joseph’s Barge Is Seen

Sir Joseph and Crew Woodward.jpgBy rights this should be 6a. The first portion is an elaboration of the opening number, with better voicing for the chorus and a truncated ending. It leads to one of the most delightful passages of delicate woodwind frothiness in the canon. Compare Climbing Over Rocky Mountain, which was originally written for Thespis, and was repurposed for Pirates. That’s quite a nice little tune, but it has nothing on this beautifully filigreed passage. The end of this number completes the musical idea that began in our opening number, and the number that immediately follows will inaugurate a new set of melodies that will be peppered through the show.

In your Schirmer vocal score, the tenors go up the octave for the lines, “And its crowd of blushing beauty” and for “and attentive to our duty.” The original orchestral score doesn’t have this, and neither does the 1878 Metzler, the 1890 Ditson Vocal Score, the 1920 Metzler, or the Dover full score. Only in the Schirmer does this variation occur. The Dover score is pretty good about noting these discrepancies, but it doesn’t make any note about this one. The higher version is much better for the tenors. If it’s an authorized change, I do wonder why it wasn’t incorporated into the version earlier in the show, when Sullivan was alive.

Apparently there is also some confusion about whether the lyric is“duties” and “beauties” or “duty” and “beauty”. Either is good, just don’t mix and match. Be certain your tenors sing fee-are, not feeer. It does, in fact, rhyme with we are.

The ladies vocal line here is fun, but tricky. You have to observe the staccato, and to float as much as possible that top A, which in amateur choruses runs the risk of being somewhat screechy. But the hardest part is to make the low A actually speak at the end of the passage. The alto line in “Sailors sprightly, always rightly Welcome ladies so politely” is rather unreasonable for the amateur, and will require extra care. Recordings often include a crescendo in the lines, Flags and guns and pennants, All the ladies love, Ladies who can smile, and Sailors welcome most politely, and I thought that was an effective choice. In measure 67, when the ladies parts meet the two gentlemen’s parts, it will come off best if we have already established differing character in the 3 sections. The bass part should be separated, even staccato, the women’s part light and dainty, and the tenors as full bodied as possible. If the three parts are all rather characterless, we won’t get much excitement when the parts are combined. The descending chromatic line in measures 78-83 has a potential of going flat. Be sure the half steps are small. Observe the written diminuendo and be sure to admonish your chorus to keep a strong breath support to help with tone and intonation. There are a number of ways to get the last 6 measures across. Often people come to a full stop before Sailors, then switch to 4/4 or a subdivide 2/4 in much slower tempo. Sometimes you hear a break between Ladies and Most politely. Whatever you choose, be sure you’re back in tempo when the orchestra comes in and be clear where you are cutting off. I think amateur choruses will have trouble cutting off on the and of 2 as it appears in the score. Better on 2 itself, or even the downbeat of the following measure.

8. Now Give Three Cheers

Sisters cousins aunts woodward.jpgIf you’re only working from the Schirmer Vocal Score, you may not know that there’s a traditional snare cadence after the first 6 measures and before the Vivace that acts as entrance music for Sir Joseph. It can be heard on a number of recordings. Just as No. 7 closed the loop on the first number, Joseph’s entrance music will reprise many times through the show, evidence of the determination of the authors to further integrate the musical material. Unfortunately for the sake of performance, there are several versions of the Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts refrain, and they are dissimilar in voicing and execution. You will do well to point this out early in your rehearsal process so that your cast can begin differentiating them immediately.

The closing Aunts of the chorus end on beat 4 the first two times in this iteration, and on the 3rd beat of the second measure on the final pass. You should drill in this cutoff as early as possible. It also, one hopes, goes without saying that these are Onts, not Ants. 

9. Song: When I Was A Lad

This patter song is a good deal simpler than My Name is John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer. It is, in fact, a very close cousin to When I, Good Friends Was Called To The Bar from Trial by Jury. Wells’s number was based on traditional Bel Canto patter songs, but this has the classic Gilbert and Sullivan flavor. In Pirates, they would find a way to marry the simplicity of form they explore here with the melodically complex writing of The Sorcerer. 

As with all patter numbers, the most difficult hurdle is simply remembering the words. There is a notational puzzle in the Schirmer score that is liable to confuse your chorus members who are dogmatic about stem direction. For some reason, there are always one or two chorus members in every group I direct who hold rigidly to the rule that when stems on a staff with two parts go down they are for Altos or Basses, and when stems go up, they’re for Sopranos or Tenors. When the exigencies of some passage require stems to orient based on another consideration, this causes great confusion for some people. On each page of this number in the Schirmer score, there are stems pointing up for the first time through and down for the second, to indicate different rhythms. It’s as simple as can be, but on page 49, the rhythms of the choral echo are so different that the measures look truly awful. Teach the rhythm by rote, or you’ll wind up explaining what’s going on many many times, as I did!

There are a lot of words here, many to mis-pronounce if you’re not careful. “Clerk” is pronounced “clark“. “Poss examination“, not “PAAS examination”, “so syooted me/he“, not “so soooted me/he“, “Pah-lee-uh-ment“, not “parlumint“. That’s a start.

In verse 4, Sir Joseph sings “the only ship that I ever had seen”, and the chorus echoes: “the only ship he ever had seen”, with no “that“.

It is traditional to perform the end of the 5th verse and the entire 6th verse slightly slower. Be sure when you get to “…by making me the ruler…” and “…and you all may be rulers…” that the tempo picks up again, or you’ll have a devil of a time coordinating your chorus entrance.

SIDEBAR: In May 1945, George S. Kaufman’s Hollywood Pinafore, or The Lad Who Loved A Salary opened at the Alvin Theatre. It was a spoof of Pinafore that took place in a motion picture studio. That may sound off to you, and it is a little goofy, but consider this dream team: It was written and directed by Kaufman, who had written for the Marx Brothers, the plays Merrily We Roll Along, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and would later win a Tony directing the original Guys and Dolls. Buttercup was played by Shirley Booth, who would win a Tony, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe in the 1950s. And William Gaxton and Victor Moore would play Dick Live-Eye and Joseph W. Porter, they had starred together in the original casts of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes,  Gershwin’s Let ‘Em Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing. They were the powerhouse comic team of Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s. The story goes that Kaufman ad libbed part of Joseph Porter’s lyric for this number, and a friend suggested he write the rest of it.

My favorite parts of Kaufman’s Porter lyric run like this:

When I was a lad I tried my hand

At every business in the land

My list was most diversified-

I sold umbrellas and insecticide.

(He sold umbrellas and insecticide)

But I could not make Anything go,

So now I am the ruler of the Studio

(But he could not make anything go,

So now he is the ruler of the studio)

I drove a truck and I worked in a bank

And at both those jobs I really stank;

I also made asbestos pies

And I manufactured artificial butterflies

(He manufactured artificial butterflies)

But in all that time I never said “no”,

So now I am the ruler of the studio

(But in all that time he never said no,

So now he is the ruler of the studio)Gaxton in Hollywood Pinafore.jpg

9a: For I Hold That On The Seas

There is again a drum roll/cadence that traditionally goes between the 9 and 9a that is not in the vocal score.

This reprise of the Sisters, Cousins and Aunts is in Bb this time, so all the voicing is completely different in the chorus parts. Thanks, Sir Arthur.

10. Glee: A British Tar

This is the first of two major patriotic pieces in Pinafore. Another sidebar here: when Gilbert and Sullivan were in their first full flush of success, they made a concerted effort to consolidate their gains and push into America and the continent. In their American effort, they supervised an authorized Pinafore and gave us The Pirates of Penzance, the history of which I elaborated on last year. But their effort to connect with Germany wasn’t as successful. It did produce an 1882 German vocal score, which you can still look at on IMSLP. It’s really a wonderful translation, and there are some places where the translator is actually funnier than Gilbert! (for brief moments) I bring it up here, because in the German version Amor am Bord, the sailors are not English. And in this number, they’re just sailors:

Der Seemann

Der Seeman ist gar ein leichtes Blut

And if you were wondering how the Kaufman rewrite went, they are writers:

A writer fills the lowest niche

Of the entire human span

He is just above the rat

And should always tip his hat

When he meets the garbage man

His lips should tremble

And his face should pale

His steps should falter

And his eyes should quail

He should live somewhere

In a ‘dobe hut

And he always should be ready for a sal’ry cut.

In the Kaufman spoof, when that section is reprised in the first act finale, it really has a nice punch, because it’s reiterating how low Ralph’s position is as a writer instead of his high status as an Englishman.

If your 3 principal singers are good enough, you should let them sing the a cappella sections without you managing them from the podium. Beat the measures for the sake of the orchestra, then begin directing everyone 2 measures before the Piú vivace for the sake of the rall. and the fermata.

I’m sorry to say that I find the orchestration at the Piú vivace somewhat ineffective. It’s thinly scored at measure 21 for the strings with no double bass at a piano dynamic, which makes it difficult to use the orchestra to help establish the new tempo coming out of the a cappella section. By the time the double bass and winds join in, you have had perhaps a devil of a 4 measures trying to coordinate things. It is not at all clear in the piano vocal, but if you bring the chorus in at a real piano dynamic, they stand a fighting chance of being together with the orchestra.

It’s a testament to Sullivan’s interest in developing his material over the course of the operetta that he does not give this tune its full due here. He is saving something for later, as we shall see.

11. Duet: Refrain, Audacious Tar

Ralph and Josephine Woodward.jpgThis is one place where I most feel Pinafore is a rough draft of Pirates. Stay! Frederic Stay! follows strongly the outline of Refrain, Audacious Tar!: In both numbers an allegro chromatic opening gesture in the orchestra leads to two octaves establishing a minor key. An exciting and declamatory allegro is followed by a slower passage in 3 in the parallel major, even though it’s a melancholy sentiment. But that’s where the comparisons end. Stay! Frederic Stay! then follows with a plot-driving recitative and a thrilling Allegro vivace in the relative major. It’s very close to perfection. By comparison, Refrain… doesn’t pack as strong a punch. Without Pirates to compare it to, though, we have to marvel at how far Gilbert and Sullivan have come since The Sorcerer. The classic G&S situation for duet between the romantic principals is one in which a character is of two minds, a public and a private one. the resolution of the plot comes when the two minds are somehow reconciled. In The Sorcerer, Alexis and Aline reach their most conflicted state in Act 2 over the matter of whether Aline will take the potion as Alexis demands. His expression of his sentiment comes in an Aria, and her decision to acquiesce later also happens in a brief aria. That critical juncture between the two characters had happened in individual moments, not jointly. Here in Pinafore, the authors have finally figured out how to bring the music to bear on the dramatic situation, and how to depict the conflict using all the forces at their disposal.

You will need to make some decisions together about the way the ending works. Since the duet goes somewhat out of time, you can sing the grace note a number of ways successfully, provided you all agree on the approach.

12 Finale: Can I Survive This Overbearing

In Pinafore Gilbert and Sullivan made striking headway in writing finales, an area that has stymied composers and librettists for centuries. Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the words for Mozart’s greatest operas wrote the following in his memoirs:

“This ‘finale’, which has to be closely connected with the rest of the opera, is a sort of little comedy in itself and requires a fresh plot and a special interest of its own. This is the great occasion for showing off the genius of the composer, the ability of the singers, and the most effective ‘situation’ of the drama. Recitative is excluded from it; everything is sung, and every style of singing must find a place in it-adagio, allegro, andante, amabile, armonioso, strepitoso, arcistrpitoso, strepitosissimo, and with this the said finale generally ends. This in the musician’s slang is called the chiusa or stretta- I suppose because it generally gives not one twinge, but a hundred to the unhappy brain of the poet who writes the words. In this finale it is a dogma of theatrical theology that all the singers should appear on the stage, even if there were three hundred of them, by ones, by twos, by threes, by sixes, by tens, by sixties, to sing solos, duets, trios, sextets, sessantets; and if the plot of the play does not allow of it, in defiance of his better judgement or of his reason, or of all the Aristotles on earth; and if he then finds his play is going badly, so much the worse for him.”

Trial By Jury had the virtue of being so short as not to require a complicated Finale. After the main problem of the piece is solved, the operetta reprised a bit of the judge’s tune and we were on our way.

Act I of The Sorcerer had ended with a number of the elements DaPonte laid out in his memoir: The cast was assembled, we heard a very memorable drinking song, an ominous and brief trio, a beautiful duet, and a full ensemble of confusion, such as one might typically find in a standard Offenbach operetta. Act II began with 3 pages of a comical scene, and then an exact reprise of the song that closed Act I.

The Act I Finale of HMS Pinafore integrates solos, duets, trios, and large scale ensemble work with constant commentary by the chorus in an amazing balancing act that shows absolute mastery from composer and librettist. It incorporates declamatory solo work, moments of pathos, threats, and patriotism, a near suicide, a patter song for the chorus and principals at breakneck speed, a sea shanty, and finally, a restatement of “A British Tar” which does not merely repeat the previous iteration, but is a major expansion and rethinking complete with one of Sullivan’s delicious harmonic left turns. The fleshing out of A British Tar feels less like a reprise and more like a payoff, as though this is the way this tune was always meant to be played out, and we are only at that moment hearing it properly.

As usual, the First Act Finale is the most difficult piece to manage as a conductor. I’ll give you some tips on managing the complicated factors at play here.

Be sure your chorus is clear on the rests in their first entrance, and make sure the word “cheer” has no ‘r’ in it. There are a lot of ‘t’ cutoffs here, it’s a great place to create real precision in your chorus.

Deadeye’s part is quite rangy. Have a listen to some of the historical recordings, and you’ll hear some options of sections to potentially speak, if the notes prove impractical for your actor. Incidentally, Deadeye’s passage “You must submit, you are but slaves” is one of the handful of passages I alluded to earlier where the winds are playing opposite the strings. Deadeye tells them they are slaves to the accompaniment of clarinets, bassoons and horns, and that she is a lady to the accompaniment of strings.

When Ralph sings his “My friends, my leave of life I’m taking…”, note that the chorus echoes with slightly different words than Ralph sang. Note that “faithful” is 2 eighths, not a dotted eighth-sixteenth pattern. Also somewhat problematic is the fact that only the sopranos sing the word “that” in the last phrase. This will be super counter-intuitive for your altos, tenors, and basses.

The way the vocal score lays out the chorus passages, “Ah, stay your hand…” and “Yes, Yes, ah Yes!” is potentially confusing. The sopranos and altos are meant to sing the higher note in the normal treble clef, the tenors and basses the lower note as notated, not the octave lower as might be notated with the tenor 8va basso treble clef. I hope that makes sense. Of course, altitude challenged altos may sing the lower note with the tenors if necessary.

The Allegro vivace “Oh, joy, oh rapture…” is an extraordinary passage in a style that Sullivan had explored several times in Act II of The Sorcerer, and an orchestral texture he would return to many times again in the future. The effect is achieved with a very quiet arpeggiated accompaniment in the violins and violas activated into sixteenth notes, the 2nd violins, cellos and basses punctuating the pattern in 2 measure pizzicato phrases. Over this very exciting but very quiet texture, the winds emphasize the most beautiful parts of the melody in a subtle legato. It’s simple, but very sophisticated, worthy of Rossini or Offenbach, for sure. And when Deadeye’s material is introduced and then applied into that texture, the horns begin playing offbeat octaves as the pizzicato portion of the texture speeds up. One gets the sense that Sullivan is holding some forces in reserve; there’s more to do here, and indeed he’ll get to that later. As you’re rehearsing this passage, keep the dynamic quiet, so that you can achieve all that subtlety in executing it with the orchestra.

The passage that follows is the nail-biter for the conductor, sitting, as such passages always do near the conclusion of the First Act Finale. Choose your tempo wisely, because you’ll be stuck with it when everything is happening at once. In truth, Sullivan wants this tempo to be exactly the same as the previous tempo, so you’ll really need to be thinking very long term to get that speed just right. As the principals begin to introduce the theme, make sure you observe the rests. When the chorus is introduced, again reiterate the importance of the rests, and decide where the consonants go when a rest comes between two halves of a word. For example, I chose: “this ve- ry”, not “this ver- y” as it’s written. I think “mu-ffled” is particularly important. Incidentally, you may not know that music engravers are required by the conventions of their craft to break up words as they are broken up in a standard dictionary, not by where the consonants lie artistically for the singer. In the US in the 50s and 60s, there was a move to overthrow this convention in choral music, but the results looked preposterous, and so now we’re back to the old way. You are not breaking the composers intention by moving consonants tastefully to the next syllable.

You will probably find that the bass part in this passage lies too low for some of your singers. Truthfully the alto part is low as well, but the bass part is actually going to be out of range for some of your basses. The tenor part is available for use at that point, and some of your tenors can pop up and help those altos if necessary, although most altos I know are proud of their low Gs and will resent the offer of assistance. Honestly no one will hear any of your low basses on those E flats in context. The bassoon is perhaps going to be mistaken for a bass at that point, which is all the same, frankly.

When the meter switches to a big 3/2 and everyone is singing, I have to confess that the choral scoring is not ideal. In our production, we did it as is, but there is potentially a way to alter it to make it lie better in terms of range and balance. Let me show you what I mean:

First Act Finale Complication A.jpg

It’s clear Sullivan wants the melody to come out strong, since he’s marked it forte and all other parts pianissimo. In the autograph score and the other early sources, Deadeye sings the Boatswain’s part here and The Boatswain takes the Carpenter’s line. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that we have a chorus of 24, and let’s assume the fantasy that there are exactly 6 on a voice part. (yes, I know this is ludicrous, but one has to start somewhere) This means that there will be 13 people singing the rather difficult melody, including Altos who will be singing a G above the staff in the measure following this excerpt. There will be 7 people on the very bottom part and 1 person on the Baritone part. (sung in the above score by the Boatswain) The finest tenor onstage, Ralph, will be singing essentially a second tenor part alone, while 6 other tenors and one principal Mezzo will sing a first tenor part just slightly higher. One mezzo alone will sing what is essentially a standard alto part. So counting from the top to the bottom, this would be the distribution of parts: 13, 1, 7, 1, 1, 7. This strikes me as kind of silly. If you have the time, you might redistribute things thus: All sopranos and Josephine on the melody, Forte. (that’s 7 people) Half the altos and Hebe on the top part, second line from the top, piano. (that’s 4  people) The other half of the altos and Buttercup on the lower note of the second line from the top, piano. (that’s also 4 people) All the tenors and Ralph on what used to be Ralph’s line, pianissimo. (that’s 7 people) The baritones, the Boatswain, and Deadeye on the Boatswain’s old line, piano. (that’s 5 people) All the 2nd basses and the Carpenter on the Carpenter’s old line mezzo piano. (that’s 4 people) This distribution is 7,4,4,7,5,4. If people are paying attention to dynamics, especially those tenors, I think this works better, and you still have a principal grounding every part. In reality, you probably don’t have as many chorus tenors anyhow.

However you manage this passage in terms of the voicing, you will need to observe some important precautions to get a good ensemble.

  1. When you teach this melody, take a lot of time clarifying the 3 versions of the descending passage slowly, or you will never ever get it in tune.
  2. In any passage like this, be very clear what each part is doing. The choral/chordal parts are not the main event, they are a texture below the melody. They should be piano, and extremely short, all rests being observed. This melody is also marked staccato, but it has no rests, so we should hear a long stream of delicate filigree. If the two parts have the same character, we lose the effect.
  3. There is a danger for each of these two musical components: The melody part has no place to breathe. If the singers try to catch a breath and jump back in, they will muddle the line and slow things down. Those singers need to drop a note or two whenever they catch a breath and sneak back in. The accompanimental part has rests. The notes after the rests will likely want to rush. Amateur singers also often breathe during each rest. In a passage like this, that’s a recipe for hyperventilation and also contributes to rushing. These tendencies lead to a strong potential for the singers falling out of sync with one another and the orchestra.
  4. Gilbert’s lyric here is wonderful, with an incredible double triple rhyme scheme: ABC ABC DEF DEF. Point that out, and drill the words without the music at half speed, a quarter speed and full speed, eliminating American Rs and clarifying plosive consonants as you go.
  5. Take a little time to get the group to watch you. I like to conduct speeding up and slowing down preposterously to get the group responsive to my beat, then I tell them to watch me as though I’m going to do that, even though I won’t. Try that, I bet it’ll work wonders. Incidentally, (and this is kind of important) it’s good to remind your singers that when they’re watching the conductor well, it will sometimes feel like the conductor is speeding up or slowing down erratically. That’s because when the conductor is trying to correct an out of control tempo, you should feel an adjustment. If you don’t feel the reins, maybe you’re not connected to the chariot.

Incidentally, the German version of this section has an impressive and difficult translation which has an easier rhyme scheme. If your German is good enough, try this on for size:

In dieser Nacht,
wenn Niemand wacht
nahn leise wir
wir sind schon hier,
Still schleicht ihr fort
zum Kirchlein dort,
sie wird als Braut
ihm angetraut!
Ihr werdet sehn,
es wird schon geh’n
und Niemand kann
sie trennen dann.

No automatic alt text available.

In dieser Nacht wenn Niemand wacht…

At the tail end of this passage are 2 problems. At the final “none, none”, the chorus will probably want to hold the second “none” as though it had a fermata. The fermata is on the rest, not the note. Then when the whole thing opens out into half notes, there is usually a tendency to rush. Try to get the chorus to feel the big 3 beat in the previous passage and maintain that throughout. There is no ritardando here.

I also feel the need to point out that the 5 measures that connect this passage to Deadeye’s final outburst are exquisite, and the chromatic descending line in the bassoon and horn combined with the chromatically altered melody would be the envy of many a Romantic composer.

Deadeye has an ominous recitative here, which is right where it would need to be to deliver a piece of information that ruins everything. In the same spot in Pirates, Ruth has a section of Recitative where she begs not to be abandoned. In Patience, this is the place where Grosvenor comes to ruin Bunthorne’s fun. There are analagous places in the First Act Finales of every subsequent Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but probably the best of these is Katisha’s entrance in the First Act Finale of The Mikado, where she truly rains blight on our festivities. Here, I can’t help the sense that Deadeye is not much of a threat to these goings on, and one wishes Gilbert had given Deadeye the agency to insinuate he’d tell on the pair. As it stands, we simply laugh to see him ignored.

The orchestra parts have some more dynamic variety than the Vocal Score lets on in the following Allegro. When the Tra las begin, the strings drop out, and the winds are marked piano, it’s suddenly very rustic. You might instruct your chorus to drop in volume there. The strings reenter forte when the sopranos have the melody alone. The dotted half note ‘La’s in that passage in the Altos, Tenors, and Basses should be sfzps, to let the melody clear, and do be careful not to rush that passage.

The British Tar reprise that begins here is really interesting, because Sullivan has written a brand new melody on the lyric of the original Glee for the women to sing. I found it more difficult to manage the lyric in this tune at speed than the mens part is 16 measures hence. I think you will want to get that women’s part as quick as you can manage, or the following passage will feel a bit soggy and slow.

The final stretto of the Finale is brilliantly done. Again, enforce a clarity of differentiation between the principals, who are putting across a very legato line, and the chorus, who are punctuating the line with little bursts of excitement. It’s easy to miss the Stringendo at the bottom of vocal score page 92, which speeds up to the Più vivo at the top right corner of page 93. At the bottom of 93, right on time, is one of Sullivan’s signature harmonic left turns. The one near the end of Trial by Jury heads toward the key area of VI major. The WOW moment harmonically at the end of the first act of The Sorcerer is an absolute shocker, a left turn toward flat III major, from the key of B, briefly into the key of D major. Sullivan must have sensed he was onto something, because this one also points toward flat III, from an E flat major tonality into G flat major. Bel Canto composers sometimes do this trick, but Sullivan manages to make it seem effortless and inevitable. Rather than seeming like a ‘predictable surprise’, I always feel like when I get near the end of Act I, the master is going to step up the plate and is always going to hit a homer.

I don’t know why Buttercup doesn’t have a line with the principals. She might sing with Hebe if you need the line fortified. Or perhaps you could create a line that incorporates Ralph’s higher notes. Or have her sing with the chorus. Or she could hold up a sign that says, “Gilbert forgot I was on stage.”

One further thing before I conclude the first act here: Your sopranos are all going to want to pop that high B flat at the end. You really only need one or two up there. Say that in your rehearsals when you’re learning the piece, and then when you get off book and on stage, periodically remove some chorus sopranos from the high B flat. It’s like cleaning a fish tank.



The Entr’acte is really quite short! I conducted the first 5 measures in 3, including the pickup to the 6th measure. Then I switched to a beat per bar, moving back to 3 for the rall. moments.

13. Song: Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing

It’s going to take a little time to unpack this one. Rutland Barrington, the original Corcoran, disliked the song, and asked to have it replaced. It seems to have been removed and then put back. It’s rather a difficult aria to sing well. We were fortunate to cast an exceptionally good tenor, who sang it in the original key of D. You should know right off the bat that the song was originally in D, but is often performed in C. When you get your parts, check the key. A whole step makes a huge difference here.

The vocal score is also misleading in another respect. The first measure is a horn, marked mp, not p, and the f chord in measure 2 is a pizzicato pluck from the strings. Banging that staccato chord at a forte on the keyboard is not at all the effect of the string section playing it pizz. When you see the accompaniment figure that follows in the piano score, you’re liable to use pedal and pretend it’s Schubert. It isn’t. That accompaniment is also pizz, very dry, an imitation of the mandolin he’s playing onstage. Pedal from measures 14-16, when the winds come in and play chords, and pedal from the second half of measure 28 through the downbeat of 38, where the winds add warmth and pathos to Corcoran’s lament. Note also the piano marking at measure 34. (which doesn’t make it into the orchestral parts in every edition by the way) If your singer can pull off that line at a quiet dynamic, it’s exceptionally beautiful, but quite difficult in that register, which sits right in most people’s passaggio.

Singers with Bel Canto experience will recognize this type perhaps more readily than the general public. If the text were Italian, a listener would likely peg this as Donizetti or maybe Bellini. Think Quanto è bella or Spirto Gentil for example. You’ll want a somewhat flexible rubato around the important cadences, an unobtrusive accompaniment, and a long beautiful, well supported line that culminates in the final phrase. The more beautiful the singing, the funnier the goofy lyric will be. After all, the template for these pieces are very serious love songs, and Corcoran is just annoyed by his job and his daughter’s inconvenient love life.

14: Duet: Things Are Seldom What They Seem

Corcoran and ButtercupThe simple duets between secondary characters that appear in the second acts of G&S are uniformly delightful. Along the lines of Wells and Lady Sangazure’s duet in The Sorcerer is this oddball list of truisms.

In his children’s book, Gilbert writes:  “though very uneasy at her portentous utterance –– was rather disposed to pat himself on the back for having tackled her on her own ground in the matter of stringing rhymes, and (as he thought) beaten her at it. But, in this he was wrong, for if you compare her lines with his, you will see that whereas her lines dealt exclusively with people and things who were not so important as they thought themselves to be, his lines were merely chopped-up proverbs that had nothing to do with each other or with anything else.”

Performance wise there is not much to say about this duet. The verses are fun and well scored. You need to train your singers to watch for your entrances after the fermatas and to be sure the phrasing of the sections they sing together are lined up to match. The last 9 measures are marked in the full score, with a slow diminuendo to the pp in the 3rd measure from the end, but these details do not appear in the vocal score.

Gilbert has a few other wonderful and telling comments in his children’s retelling of this number.

The Captain replied:

“Yes, I know

That is so.”

Then, beginning to feel his feet, as the saying is, he ventured into deeper water:

“Though to catch your drift I’m striving,

It is shady- it is shady.”

(He repeated ‘it is shady’ to give him time to think of the next rhyme, though he pretended that the repetition was part of the structure of the verse)

The Hollywood Pinafore version of this has a funny parody lyric:

Hollywood’s a funny place

Big stars little starlets chase

Little girl Ermine wraps

Till a multitude of laps

(Very true

So they Do)

Somehow all the weekly checks

Definitely hinge on sex.

One man fills another’s shoes

Hard to tell whose baby’s whose.

(So they be


Then later:

Though I’m anything but clever,

I could talk like this forever;

Films about a Chinese sleuth

Play to millions in Duluth.

15: Scena: The Hours Creep On Apace

Corcoran and Sir JosephAfter a bit of very funny dialogue between Sir Joseph and the Captain comes Josephine’s wonderful scena, in which we catch more glimpses of G&S greatness to come. Gilbert has provided a lyric full of unselfconscious character development mixed with real pathos, and for his part Sullivan gives Josephine a real Bel Canto aria, complete with sighing motives, a declamatory recitative, and some very impressive high work near the end. This is head and shoulders above anything Sullivan has written for soprano before.

Sullivan isn’t blindingly obvious about the way he uses winds vs. strings as a metaphor, but we are clearly hearing them at the beginning being used oppositionally against one another. Just as Josephine is weighing in her mind the two warring stations available to her, should she follow her heart or her head.

The recitative section is difficult to conduct through. Give the downbeat, and beat 2, and wait to give beat 3 until the word that rhythmically allows you to set up beat 4 for the orchestra. For example, in the first fermata, Beat One and Two, she begins singing. Line up beat 3 with “armor”, and by the time she gets through ‘and old’, you’ll be right on track to get the orchestra in on ‘brasses‘ on beat 4. The trickiest one is ‘pillows‘. Make sure your singer knows not to put any pause between ‘pillows‘ and the words that follow, because the next measure comes in time hot on the heels of the one before. This difficulty may not occur to you until you bring in the orchestra, so keep your ears out for it early in the process. “Luxurious” is pronounced lugzyoorious. (as I hear it), and “papa” is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.

Incidentally, the German version is stupendous here:

Josephine part 1Josephine part 2

I had a tendency to start the Allegro con spirito with a little too much spirito. Make sure you’re in the tempo you want the sung section to be in.

At measure 63, on the word “duty“, watch that the two half notes bear some relation to half notes, even with the rallentando and the turn involved, otherwise you’ll find it tricky to know when to resolve the chord in the next measure.

The dynamics in the number are clearly and carefully laid out in the full score, and largely absent from the piano vocal. They really help shape the number. For those of you who don’t have access, I’ll lay them out by measure from the top where they’re missing from the pv. (all dynamics in orchestra, not vocal)

m. 9 sfz m 11, sfz, m. 12 p, m. 14 f, m. 17 p, m. 23, beat 3 f, m. 24 p, m. 26 cresc. m. 28 implied mp in strings, p in winds. crescendo to f as it appears in vocal score. m. 32 p, then dynamics as they appear in piano score until m. 77 cresc. m. 80 beat 2 f, m. 82 p as written, then dynamics are correct for the rest of the number.

16: Trio: Nevermind The Why And Wherefore

If this isn’t one of the catchiest tunes ever written, I’d like to see what is. It’s also pretty shockingly chromatic! The first part of the tune hits every note except C and D as it sequences a descending turn, ratchets up by interlocking thirds and finishes off with a few descending tetrachords and a modulation to the dominant. There’s quite a lot going on there, and it’s amazing how effortlessly it plays out.

The second part of the tune reduces the melody to a simple drone, while the woodwinds pipe away at a shanty. The end of that section is an example of that motif of woodwinds alternating with strings that’s been running subtly through the operetta. As the three characters toss back and forth a list of the characters in the love triangle complete with social station, the winds and strings play their own game of back and forth. Sullivan is musicalizing the dichotomy at the center of the story. Added to that clever instrumentation is the traditional association of a highly chromatic melody with the upper class and the association of simpler music over a drone with a more modest social station. Contemporary audiences would I’m sure have recognized the two musical worlds at play here. When Mozart does these things, we write papers about them. When Sullivan does them, academia yawns….

There isn’t anything particularly difficult about performing the number if you’ve cast the right people. The vocal score doesn’t clarify whether the top or the bottom line is the Captain or Sir Joseph when the two are notated on the same staff.  In the Dover full score, the Captain takes the high part, but the other way would work as well.

17: Duet: Kind Captain, I’ve Important Information

Corcoran and Deadeye WoodwardI really envy Sullivan’s restraint. In my own writing, I tend to throw everything and the kitchen sink at every problem. (rather the same way I write these posts!) But Sullivan knows that all you need to pull off a number like this is the full string section and a piccolo.

Incidentally, the part seems to have been written for flute and then switched to piccolo at some point before the part was engraved. The little solo is somewhat tricky to get in tune on the piccolo; be wary.

This is also the spot where Deadeye actually does something to advance the plot!

This post is not aimed at directors, but if one happens to be reading, it is important to actually have a cat-o-nine-tails on stage here, so that modern audiences are aware of the instrument of discipline about which they are speaking. If you don’t, the bald-faced pun in the next number will fall somewhat flat. Fortunately the cat-o-nine-tails has been phased out of our cultural experience.

18: Soli and Chorus: Carefully on Tiptoe Stealing

This is actually the third longest passage in the opera without dialogue interrupting. It’s the meat of the second act.

Again, if you’re at all familiar with Pirates, you’ll hear this and immediately think of “With Catlike Tread”, which takes this exact joke, adds a pinch of Verdi and turns up the volume. I imagine Gilbert got a sense of how funny it was to see sailors cowering in fear at a loud noise and realized it would be even funnier if the scaredy-cats were policemen.

In the Hollywood Pinafore version, they bump into the microphone:

Goodness me!

What did we strike?

Silent be!

It was the mike!

The Dover full score indicates that the original autograph has the dynamic pp from the beginning, but a f dim. to pp over the first 2 measures marked in crayon. That’s a more effective opening, for sure. Be sure your men observe rests and staccati, and when your orchestra arrives, let them know to really bang out the fortissimo tutti chords without you having to telegraph them, so that the audience can really get a nice jolt. Also work to line up your chorus cutoffs, especially when they close on the letter ‘t’. That’s a nice moment to show choral uniformity.

The full score breaks at the Allegro before the Captain’s “Hold!” into 18a, and the orchestral parts we used broke up other numbers in yet other ways. Try to obtain the full score of the version you’re using or a first violin part at the very least and compare number by number, measure by measure to save yourself much rehearsal time. A very important error to correct in the piano score: violin and flute join Corcoran on his pickup “Pretty” on the way into the Vivace section.  This is important because without it, you’ll rehearse with Corcoran thinking he’s in charge of the entrance, which actually needs to coordinate with the orchestra.

To continue the theme of Sullivan’s use of musical motives to connect the piece, many have remarked on the fact that Josephine and Ralph are accompanied in their duet “humble, poor and lowly born” by a flute playing Corcoran’s angry melody. It’s a witty touch, perhaps depicting Corcoran’s simmering rage.

The ‘He is an Englishman’ that follows is the second and more famous patriotic moment of the piece, and although it’s customary to say that the melody is Handelian, I hear Elgar. No matter, just be sure to have long, legato lines with tall vowels. There is a canon in the clarinet at measure 109 that you will need to look up in a full score (or perhaps the clarinet book on imslp, remembering to transpose) to write into your vocal score. Much has been made of this elsewhere on the internet, and I’ll add that if your singer isn’t used to hearing the countermelody, he is liable to think he’s missed a cue and come in wrong. Your Boatswain will have to manage his breath; these are really very long phrases indeed. This may have some bearing on the speed you choose for the passage.

The captain’s sputtering reply, “In uttering a reprobation…” is a stroke of genius, and you must observe the goofy rhythms and pauses to get the full effect of his exasperation.

In Gilbert’s retelling for children, he softens Corcoran’s curse to the milder, “Hang it!”

The chord the chorus sings on “Oh!” often becomes a shout, but the chord is an effective diminished outburst. The soprano, alto, and tenor notes can be pulled from the prior melody. The bass note needs to be drilled, it’s a tritone from the F that’s so prominent around there.

Note also that the “he said Damme” passages are marked pp, which came as a shock to American audiences when the first English company brought it to the US. All the bootleg companies had been singing it in full chest voice.

There are some conducting pattern issues in the passage that follows. At the Moderato when Sir Joseph comes back in, you should really conduct in 2, despite the common time marking. The Captain’s phrase, “My Lord, one word” should really go back into 4. Then when Sir Joseph sings “I will hear of no defense”, you should go back into 2. When the chorus reenters at the bottom of Vocal Score page 142, you could be in 2 or 4 based on your own preference for that passage. I think both options are potentially effective. Thanks to Bob Binkley for pointing all that out to me early in rehearsal.

We haven’t heard the sisters-cousins-aunts thing for 86 pages, and Sullivan reverts to the original key and voicing we saw on page 44-45 of the vocal score. There is an error in the piano vocal on page 144; the cousins and sisters have been swapped on the second system. This error is perpetuated in the Dover full score. The inverted version spoils the rhyme. One further detail; the stringendo molto, the sempre stringendo, leading to the vivace of that passage are not normally observed. I don’t think it works all that well. You can try it for yourself if you want to be more authentic.

The reprise of He Is An Englishman is in a higher key now and fully harmonized. Fortunately, this harmonization is identical to the one at the very end of the opera, so you don’t have to learn this particular one twice. Choosing the places to breathe in this passage is tricky. Make a good faith effort at aligning breaths or just tell everyone to stagger their breathing and go for the longest possible legato.

The full score has 2 extra measures of the same chord at the end, which were apparently in the autograph, but have since been deleted. They are not worth reinstating. If your full score has extra, just cross them out.

19: Octet and Chorus: Farewell, My Own

The opening of this Octet comes off a little oddly, since the dialogue has gotten us to a fairly fraught state, and Ralph’s peaceful C major farewell seems really out of left field. Perhaps it’s a joke I don’t get. It leads, however to a miniature madrigal in Sullivan’s best style. How charming that there is a telephone in the lyric. At that point, the telephone was quite new.

Sir Joseph’s entry should pick up the tempo slightly, I think.

Deadeye’s part in the Quartet is hard to find and to sing at a quiet dynamic. You can perhaps add Buttercup to the part and move Deadeye to one of the two lower parts without doing violence to the score or the situation.

When the chorus enters, be certain your sopranos aren’t ‘helping’ Josephine on the high C. The chorus soprano part is low, but Josephine is all you need up there. (provided you casted well)

Someone may object that in measures 54-57 the winds play without the strings, which muddles my earlier argument, to which I point out that the strings are in some versions of the orchestration, and that the passage was not in the original production and is not in Sullivan’s handwriting.

At Sir Joseph’s entrance “my pain and my distress”, establish the new tempo with those two quarters, and conduct in 2. At the chorus entrance, be sure to trip the ‘r’ in ‘terrible’. Also, note that the last quarter in the right hand after Buttercup says, “Hold!” should really be tremolando 16ths in the right hand as in the following measure. In that tremolando measure, the left hand should have eighths, not a tremolo. If you get used to it the other way, it will strike you and the cast oddly when the orchestra joins you.

20: Song: A Many Years Ago

What a magnificent number this is! And how clever of Gilbert to bookend the entire operetta with Buttercup’s songs!

The opening orchestral introduction is about as German as you might want. It sounds like Carl Maria Von Weber to me. But you may hear Schubert’s Erlkönig as well. Whatever is about to happen, there’s Schrecklichkeit afoot.

When you rehearse your chorus, you must take great pains to observe Sullivan’s rests, which are based on the needs of the text and not an arbitrary pattern. Crystal clear diction, a slightly breathy, quiet, supported piano, and deadly serious clarity will make the choral parts very funny.

In his children’s version of the story, Gilbert hilariously makes fun of his rhyme by inverting the necessity of it. He footnotes ‘upper crust’ as follows:

“A vulgar expression intended to imply that one of them belonged to a family of some social importance. It is not an expression that I can recommend for general use, but Little Buttercup wanted a rhyme for ‘nussed‘, and there was no other word handy that would do.”

The Schirmer vocal score is missing the accompaniment in the last measure of page 153, and the first 3 measures of 154. The same passage is missing in the 2nd through 5th measures of 156. I don’t believe this error is listed in the standard errata. Both passages should be accompanied as follows:

Missing passage A Many Years Ago

Insert this missing passage into the accompaniment of your Vocal Score at measures 29-32a and 64-67a

This is also the final payoff of the winds vs. strings thread that’s been running through the show. The winds play rustically here in opposition to the string family just as Buttercup unravels the main problem of the piece.

Before I move on to the Finale Ultimo, I have to share the German version of Buttercup’s reveal, which I have to say is funnier than the original. (Please, no hate mail)

Buttercups Reveal auf Deutsch.png

Und nun, damit ihr’s wisst:

Ralph ist der kleine Feine,

Der Captain aber ist

der ganz gemiene Kleine

Which translates roughly:

So now you know:

Ralph is the little fine one.

But the Captain is

the very common little one.

The rhyme and the wordplay there are ganz und gar fantastisch.

There is a cut recitative that goes between 20 and 21. It’s fine, but it’s just as good spoken. The Dover score has reconstructed it should you want to use it.

21: Finale: Oh, Joy, Oh Rapture Unforeseen

The Finale Ultimo is less ambitious than the first Finale, but as if to hammer home the point of thematic unity of the operetta, the closing number of Pinafore includes no fewer than 4 reprises of previous numbers. It is what we might call a ‘megamix’ in today’s parlance, one final chance to catch these melodies before leaving.

There is an error in the Schirmer vocal score in measure 26, where the Captain should have “For he” with two E flat sixteenths and “is” in the following measure on the downbeat. The Autograph full score, and all the early Vocal scores have it that way.

Again, alter the chorus echo cutoffs here and on the next page so that they match the earlier versions as they appeared in the first act. There is no conceivable value in arbitrarily changing these note values for the end of the show simply to remain true to what was probably a memory lapse.

Traditionally there is a pause after “But wherever I may go”

The final version of sisters-cousins-aunts is harmonized differently than any of the other versions. You’ll have to learn and probably drill each individual version to keep them straight.

At the very end of the show, there is a rather ineffective original ending that appears in the Schirmer score. It is likely not the version your orchestra parts will have, and it’s not the version commonly used. The ending used since, apparently 1914 goes like so:

Traditional Pinafore Ending

There is one other ending with Rule Britannia which was added in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It was not in use at D’Oyly Carte by 1924, when I believe it had fallen out of fashion.

A hand copied conductors score from this time period was recently given to me by a dear friend. It includes the Rule Britannia ending (and no other).

Rule Brittania

Rule Brittania 2.jpgShould you require music for Bows, I suggest beginning the Overture at the Allegro Vivace, measure 72 and playing to the very end.

Your Pit Orchestra:

With regular musicals I sometimes counsel music directors not to hire all the players, but with G&S, you’re dealing with a true orchestral color, so I think it best to hire as much of the orchestra as you can afford with good players. The original orchestrations are available from Tams, but I can’t imagine why you’d use that when there are available here at a reasonable price or here for free. Reductions can be found here, or here or here for example. (incidentally I think we can now stop reducing this one, fellas)

Better that you do G&S than that you ignore it, but do try and do it properly if at all possible, with Sullivan’s magnificent orchestration in full color! Have fun with your production of Pinafore! I will be including more G&S as I music direct them!


Little Women: A Rough Guide For The M.D.

June 6, 2017

Image result for villanova little women

Little Women is perfect for professional and college productions, and might also suit a small high school, particularly a girls school. The show has 6 strong female roles and 4 for men, a great cast breakdown for organizations looking for lots of roles for young women. Cross-generational audiences enjoy the piece and it’s easy to market. The only drawback is the lack of a large chorus, (or indeed much of a chorus at all) which is a deal breaker for a lot of high schools or community theatre groups.


1) Read the original book. You may have read the book as a child. Read it again. It’s the kind of book one mis-remembers, or that one reads very differently as an adult than one does as a child. I’m not linking here to a particular edition. There are many, and lots of places to read it for free. Most of these versions include both “Little Women” and “Good Wives” together as “Little Women”.

2) Listen to the Original Broadway Cast Recording

3) You may want to watch one or more of the film versions, but this is by no means necessary (and may actually cloud the waters a little):

There were 1917 and 1918 silent versions that are now lost.

1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo. This was the first version with sound.

1949 version starring June Allyson as Jo. This version uses a script based on the 1933 version. Janet Leigh (yes, the one from Psycho) plays Meg.

There is a 1950 and another 1970 miniseries from the BBC. The 1970 version runs 3-4 hours and is apparently okay, with Laurie and Bhaer as real standouts. The 1950 one was live, and is lost.

There’s also an hour long 1958 TV musical adaptation with Joel Grey as Laurie, Florence Henderson as Meg, and operatic Mezzo Risë Stevens as Marmee. The score was written by Richard Adler, of Adler and Ross. Jerry Ross had died 2 years earlier at the age of 29, and this was the first work Adler attempted after that tragic loss. Because this version only adapts what we now think of as the first half of Little Women, Beth lives. (oh, that should have had a spoiler alert…)

There is a 1978 Television Miniseries version with Susan Dey (Laurie from the Partridge Family) as Jo, Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg and William Shatner as Bhaer which is currently on Youtube. Greer Garson plays Aunt March.

And then there’s the one you probably already saw: the 1994 version with Winona Ryder. When I see Winona Ryder now, I just keep flashing back to her faces at the SAG awards, which kind of takes me out of the film, but this is the closest film to the vision of the story that we see in the musical, and it holds up well.

Evidently there’s a new film version in the works with Lea Thompson as Marmee and Lucas Grabeel as Laurie, a new miniseries from PBS and the BBC, there are anime versions, a nice opera, there are comic books… If you go that far, you’re not really preparing to work on a musical, you’ve found a new hobby.

The Authors

Composer Jason Howland’s professional reputation is based on this show and on his work music directing Frank Wildhorn’s shows and Boy George’s Taboo. He won a Grammy in 2015 for producing the cast recording of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. He was born in Concord Massachusetts. He claims as his strongest influences Rodgers, Sondheim, Bernstein, and Menken. I do hear those influences in his music, far more than I hear Wildhorn, even though he is professionally associated with those scores.

I know Mindi Dickstein from my grad work at NYU, where she teaches. She’s had great success writing for Theatreworks USA and Disney. She’s won a Jonathan Larson Foundation Award, among many other laurels and honors. She also grew up in Massachusetts.

Bookwriter Allan Knee had written the book for a short lived Broadway musical Late Night Comic in 1987, but is probably better known for writing the play that would become the movie, and then the musical Finding Neverland. He had also had experience adapting Victorian writing when he adapted The Scarlet Letter for a 1979 miniseries on WGBH.

The Genesis of the Broadway Musical

Right after the Winona Rider movie came out in 1994, Knee, who had toured a straight play version in 1993 and 1994, was tapped to write a musical version for TheatreWorksUSA. They had a reading in 1998, and then TheatreWorksUSA dropped the project. But the show won a Richard Rodgers award, and Jason Howland and (the woman he would later marry) Dani Davis picked it up. After three weeks, the original composer and lyricist (also a husband and wife team) were released, and Howland stepped down as a producer and started rewriting the score. They retained Alan Knee’s work on the book, who revised heavily, and then the production team looked for a new lyricist. Dickstein was tapped to redo the lyrics, having written Astonishing as a kind of audition. After a workshop, the director Nick Corley was also let go. According to Corley, the producers were going for something like Wicked, and according to Knee, he was giving them something like Our Town. They replaced Corley with Susan Schulman, who was a natural choice, because of her experience directing The Secret Garden. Sutton Foster was hired to play Jo, fresh from Thoroughly Modern Millie. 

That seems like a lot of unimportant detail, but let me unpack this briefly, because the climate of the decade the piece was written and the turnover in personnel reveal a lot about the intended character of the musical itself. I have no idea what the discarded score sounded like, but the producers claimed the songs didn’t take the kind of emotional journey they wanted for the characters, and Howland and Dickstein’s score strongly leans in the direction of emotional journey. I think the shows that heavily influenced the tone of Little Women are 1991’s The Secret Garden, 1998’s Ragtime, and 2003’s Wicked. I’ll point out the areas of convergence as I go through the show, but I think the show is meant to have the family friendly warmth of The Secret Garden, the scope, emotional journey and timescale of Ragtime, and the feminism and power-ballad writing of Wicked (which must have been fresh in everybody’s mind when Susan Schulman’s 2004 reading was underway)

There are some interesting technical and storytelling problems in adapting a well known classic to the Broadway climate of the mid ’00s. The tagline of the Broadway production was: “Six generations have read the story. This one will sing it.” This slogan makes the goals of the marketing creative team clear: This is a classic, and we’re going to infuse new life into it. You are connected to generations of women as you watch this show. But it isn’t as easy as that. Today’s younger feminist audiences would probably prefer to see Jo simply pursue her writing, without a romantic interest. In fact, Alcott didn’t originally want Jo to marry; Bhaer is a compromise with Alcott’s fans. But adaptations of the musical can’t cut Bhaer out without angering people who know the original novel. The feminist relationship with Little Women is complicated. Google around and you’ll see what I mean. When I read the book, I was struck by how each chapter seemed to be providing a context and often a moral for young 19th Century women, offering life lessons for girls who want to live the life of the mind, and also for those who want to follow the norms their society laid out for them.  The book is long enough that any adaptation would necessarily need cutting; even an extremely faithful retelling would involve a significant alteration to the totality of Alcott’s vision. The authors of this musical chose to emphasize a version of the story in which Jo realizes that the relationships and memories of sisterhood are the life’s blood of her work, and that finding the potential of her gift means that she will need to lean into those relationships for her strength. It’s a beautiful picture, and that story arc is well told near the end of the musical.

Technically, though, the intersection of this vision of the story with the conventions of the theatre and the requirements of the audience make for a slightly stilted beginning and ending. Theatrical convention requires that we see our heroine with her intended love interest first, because the audience reads that first meeting as a promise. Convention also requires that we end with the romantic resolution. So the musical is book-ended with a flash forward and a proposal, both of which would be unnecessary if the source material didn’t require it.  Your audience probably won’t mind this at all; the show runs very well as written.

Musically, Little Women has a similar problem. In a ‘Defying Gravity‘ world, a musically subtle chamber piece on nascent feminist themes is not going to really fly. Wicked takes place in a kind of fantasy universe, so the musical landscape was up to the writers to establish. Here, the writers needed to touch on a sound palate that calls up the 19th century in reader’s mind, while still allowing occasional flights into modern power ballad.

Jason Howland said in an interview for BostonGuide.com:

“The novel is a classic, so we felt we should score the piece like a classic musical. To write some sort of modern pop score would have been a disaster-that wasn’t the world these characters lived in.”

I’ll say Howland was mainly very successful at this goal, although in the strongest narrative parts of the show, we are squarely in the world of the modern pop mega-musical.

Writing a show is in some ways about trying to strike a balance between often conflicting market requirements. Considering the complicated parameters that constrained the musical, the creative team chose excellent solutions, which I will try to elucidate as we go.


Sutton Foster is, naturally, the type for this part. Needs a strong belt, and a strong personality. Vocally the thing to worry about is the end of Astonishing. (more on that later) It’s quite difficult. But don’t just cast a super-belter either. The part also requires some quality legit singing. It goes without saying, Jo carries the show.


Bhaer has a difficult job: He hardly has any stage time, and has to convey somehow a German stodginess and an endearing personality that will convince us that Jo should wind up with him. He also has some tricky vocal spots to manage, particularly in the final duet in the show. There are some options in terms of dialect. Be sure the dialect isn’t a caricature and that it doesn’t make the lyric unintelligible.


Beth is a legit soprano. She should have a Gb above the staff for the end of Delighted, but in a pinch, Marmee could do that. The G natural at the end of Off To Massachusetts is unavoidable. It helps if she can play the piano a little, although that presents a staging issue I’ll go over when we get there. She needs to be able to play sickly without overplaying it, and to be a fairly subtle actress with a good sense of timing.


The trickiest thing for Amy is that she should be able to play an annoying younger sister and an annoying young adult without becoming annoying to the audience. Not necessarily a belter, although the part doesn’t go terribly high.


Meg is the top voice when the sisters sing together, so she should properly have the high Bb you’ll need at the end of Delighted. You should definitely choose a legit soprano, her voice lies that way in More Than I Am as well. Meg is a traditional ingenue.


Marmee needs to be a very strong singer with maternal warmth and a strong stage presence. Her presence grounds the show, she is the only really benevolent adult in the story. At the end, her guidance helps Jo see a way forward from her loss. She must have a strong E flat below the staff and an E flat above treble C. If you have options, also be thinking about someone who has experience negotiating their break.


Laurie’s part is too high. I’m just going to put that out there. Needs a more than serviceable sustained high A. He ages during the piece, so you should get someone who can play young and slightly older. He needs to be a strong match for Jo so that we really feel conflicted at the end of Act I, and he needs to have something of a sensitive side so that we believe he fits into the imaginative world of the sisters as he must in Act I.

Aunt March:

Aunt March has one of the unreasonable ranges in this show. Her low note is A D# below middle C and her top note is an F# a little over 2 octaves higher in the same number. The part isn’t enormous, but does require a very strong character actress, because her presence grounds a number of critical decisions in other characters.

Mr. Brooke

Brooke doesn’t sing much, but he does need a solid F#. It helps if he’s handsome and able to play slightly awkward well.

Mrs. Kirk

Originally doubled with Aunt March. If she doesn’t double Aunt March, she doesn’t need to be a singer.


If you’re trying to beef up the role of the chorus, you could un-double some of these cast doublings. I should say though, that it’s a neat effect that in the play-within-the-play, the characters are playing the literary versions of themselves, which underscores one of the themes of the play: Jo’s inspiration comes from her family and friends.


This was a double for Mr. Brooke in the original production. If you’re looking to expand the chorus, you can cast another actor here. There is some sword-play involved.


This was a double for the actor who played Laurie. Later Rodrigo is played by Beth. I believe sword-play is involved for both. Laurie Rodrigo needs the high A. Beth Rodrigo doesn’t really sing, except as part of an ensemble.


Clarissa was doubled in the original production by the actress who played Meg. Like Meg, should be cast with a very competent soprano (the part contains a high B, but that could be assigned elsewhere if necessary). There is sword play involved.


This was a double with Amy in the original production. It goes to the F below middle C.


This was a double with Marmee in the original production. In our production, we doubled Aunt March. Moderate mid-range, not particularly challenging.


The Knight was originally a double with Mr. Laurence. Very small part, not at all difficult.

Trolls, Hags, Monks:

These mini-chorus parts in Weekly Volcano press are marked as optional, in case you’re doing a super stripped down version. As far as I can see, they would work equally well cast as girls or as boys, and I suppose you could include nuns with the monks.

A few things to note about the Music Director’s Materials:

For the most part, the vocal score is very poorly cued. You’re going to want to take all the parts and mark your score up so you know who is doing what, particularly if you’re leading the show from the piano. The music of this show is built around the sound of the piano, but there are a number of places in the show where if you’ve hired the complete band, the piano shouldn’t play at all. Budget a lot of time to go through parts and add pertinent info to your score. It’s kind of a shame that there isn’t a proper piano/conductor score, with every note the MD needs to play and the others cued clearly, but that’s life. The pit books are mostly good, although there’s a 4 measure passage in the English Horn that’s in the wrong transposition and I can’t for the life of me remember where it is. When you hear something really odd, you’ll know you’ve found it. Most of the errors we found were in the Oboe/English Horn book.

Digging into the show:

This score is super interesting to work through. There are clear motives that run throughout, (which I’ll try and point out) and some of these motives are really clever and help the storytelling immensely. Other times I feel the use of the motives actually undercuts the large scale storytelling. The end of the show seems ‘rushed to press’ to me. There are places where you can tell the thing was done in a hurry. How I Am, near the top of the second act is the last number to have a metronome marking, and The Most Amazing Thing is the last number in the score to have any kind of initial tempo marking at all. None of the scene changes has an initial tempo marking, which is mostly not a problem, except in a few places, where several tempi make sense. I will cover some of the rough spots as we go. Writing fast and getting something up quickly is the nature of Broadway, but as an MD, you’ll have to burnish some things that would probably have been burnished for you had they been in the writer’s shop a little longer. There are three cuts or rewrites in the show, among what I assume were many rewrites, that break some beautiful thematic continuities in the show. I will rely on a video of the pre-opening Broadway production here and there to help make my case. Hopefully the video doesn’t get pulled, so you can see what I’m talking about. There are shadows of other shows hiding in the wings, never to the point where things feel stolen, but more an acknowledgment of the Authors’ influences. These are also interesting and may help your performers lock into the right style.

00. Overture

This Overture is really more of a prelude. It introduces the Lydian #4 scale degree (D# in the key of A) that Howland associates with Jo.

Howland said in an interview with Playbill in 2005, 

“One of the things you hear in the score a lot is a “sharp four” relationship – a note that doesn’t fit the key of the scale it’s in. You know “Maria” from West Side Story? “Ma-REE-uh.” That “ree” note? That relationship is something Menken uses all the time, that Bernstein used all the time, and that I have picked up. And it’s all over Little Women. It’s all over Little Women when it’s about Jo. These things probably mean nothing to anybody else but mean something to me.”

Musicians have spent a lot of time poking around West Side Story looking for this interval, the tritone. The most famous example of Menken using it is the sharp four in the accompaniment figure and the opening melody at the beginning of Part of Your World. It’s also famously in the Back To The Future score main title theme and the Simpsons Theme. There was briefly a kind of vogue recently for this kind of sound in musical theatre. Andrew Lippa’s John and Jen (1995) also has this kind of sound throughout. The sharping of the fourth scale degree makes a dissonant interval against the tonic note, which is kind of spicy, but it also gives the scale a kind of ‘lift’,  and points the harmony toward the dominant key, which is why composers like to use it to describe aspirational situations or to describe something quirky and delightful. Jo is all that. The musical material of the Overture comes from Our Finest Dreams and Delighted, and hearing them at the top of the show like this calls attention to the ‘sharp four’ note that both pieces share. For the sake of our discussion here, I’m going to call these ‘Lydian’ moments, because the Lydian mode features this interval prominently.

Here’s the ‘Finest Dreams’ Lydian idea, as it appears in the overture:

Lydian 1

And this is the ‘Delighted‘ version of the same idea, also from the Overture (I have corrected some spelling here):

Lydian 2

The dominant pedal (E) in both cases obscures slightly the fact that we’re in A major, and that the D# is higher than it would normally be. I’ll keep pointing these Lydian things out as we go.

1. An Operatic Tragedy

It’s super fun to begin the show basically in Jo’s imagination. Whoever came up with that idea deserves a gold star.

I found the right hand octave pattern a little tricky, and I regret that I allowed myself to be lazy in rehearsal. The top note locks in with the left hand patterns, and when the left hand is less active, it goes back to a squarer pattern. Well, mostly. Have a look, and don’t cheat.

This is a kind of draft of the much longer sequence at the top of Act II. I’ll get into much greater detail there. The opening figure I mentioned earlier, slightly modified, will also start the next song, Better, and very similar material is found in Astonishing and Take a Chance on Me. 

In the parts, measure 58 is marked With Incredible Fanfare, Molto Heroic. The piano vocal does not have that marking. Getting out of measure 32 is tricky because the strings have a flourish on the way into 33 that’s not indicated in the Piano Vocal. If you’re conducting, it’s not so bad. If you’re playing, you’ll have to finesse that.

2. Better

The bright, energetic, percussive accompaniment contrasts nicely with the written-out backphrases of the vocal. The rhythm of measure 40 in the vocal part is a little awkward. In the Original Broadway Cast Recording, Sutton Foster doesn’t sing the 8ths, only quarters. There is a fermata in the parts in measure 73 that’s not in the Piano Vocal.

It’s hard to know if this is Howland’s detail or orchestrator Kim Scharnberg’s, but the figure in 28 and 30 is the first appearance of a version of the Astonishing motive rhythm (but not the intervals). The fact that it’s cued in the piano score makes me think this song reached its current form earlier in the show’s development.

3. Our Finest Dreams

Howland mentions Menken as an influence in the Playbill interview I reference above. Our Finest Dreams shows that influence most strongly, along the lines of Menken’s opening village scene of Beauty and the Beast, or several passages in his Christmas Carol.

The accompaniment figure is built around that Lydian idea, which is really effective.

There is a slide whistle in the percussion book in beats 2&3 of measure 17 that didn’t make it into the piano vocal. The figure in the right hand in measure 54 is pizz and glock cues. (which is delightful!) It continues a little past the cued passage.

Again, the number has a few cues in it, which makes me think it arrived earlier in the show’s genesis. If I can be a super musical theatre nerd and nitpick here for a moment, this number is also an example of a lyric that rhymes, but the musical setting makes it appear not to rhyme. The first few times I heard it, I thought the rhyme was plead/dreams and bleed/dreams. (which may qualify as a near rhyme, but is not really a true rhyme) Then I thought that maybe the plead and bleed are the rhyme and the title of the song is a kind of tag repeating idea. Then I figured it out. Here’s the way the lyric must have scanned on the page:

We’ll dim  the lights, the crowd will hush.

We’ll start the overture and Beth will surely blush

And when Clarissa starts to plead

Christmas will exceed

Our finest dreams!

That scanning of the line would only work if the note on the second syllable of exceed were long, the way it is near the end of the number, in measure 123, where exceed really does sound like it rhymes with guaranteed

Mindi Dickstein does clearly know how to rhyme ‘dreams‘ though, because at the end she runs 3 in a row: beams/screams/gleams/dreams

3A. Transition to March Parlor

I suspect these scene changes were written by the orchestrator fairly late in the game. That’s standard procedure, anyway. Almost all the scene change music doesn’t need a piano. That’s lovely, if you’ve hired the whole band. The show has a little much piano in it as it stands, and these moments without a keyboard are nice.

4. Here Alone

If we had to point to the influence of Frank Wildhorn, I think it reveals itself in Marmee’s two extraordinary ballads. A wildhornian sense of what a powerhouse female voice can do is put here in the service of a very good lyric. (something Wildhorn doesn’t always get) This song really deepens our understanding of Marmee as a character, and this glimpse into her private world characterizes her far better than she is in other adaptations.

There’s another dynamic at play here; the presence of Maureen McGovern. She’s a big name, and people want to see her sing. I’m speculating that she needed to have 2 songs, because, dangit, Maureen McGovern gets 2 songs. And because the audience doesn’t really want to see this character or the actress playing the character singing a big flashy uptempo, we end up with two rather similar downtempo songs. Because the two songs are so similar, they have to be placed as far away from one another as possible, the first near the very beginning of the show, and the second near the end. The one at the end is somewhat problematic from the point of view of pacing, and I’ll get into that later.

The first 8 measures of intro are a reprise of a portion of Our Finest Dreams that got cut. You can hear them in this video from the rehearsal process, at about the 1 minute mark:

Those opening measures do not appear in the vocal selections. Incidentally, the vocal selections for this number aren’t a good substitute for the PV version. “Tell” in “tell you everything is fine” is a different pitch. The piano vocal has Eb. The same for the second A section “I can’t talk about the war” and in the third A section “at this hour.” The rhythm on “remind you” is different in the PV, as well as the rhythms for “I don’t know which part is harder”,“Counting days”, “Do you know”, “manage four young women, I’m not certain”, “…wish that you were with me..”, “I could bring you home”, and “so much longer”. The accompaniment interludes between vocal phrases have all been simplified in ways that I think are unfortunate.

But even though the Piano Vocal version is better, there are some funny spellings that can trip you up. For example, in measure 49, the left hand is playing an E major figure, while the right hand is spelled in F flat major. (well, kinda.) Interestingly, the same funny spelling will happen in a similar moment in her other big song.

Measure 74 presents a challenge negotiating the fermata. The band lands beat 4, and the singer leads out into the next measure. Experiment and find an approach that works best for singer and musicians. The parts have a rit. in measure 82 that isn’t in the piano vocal, and they don’t have the fermata that the piano vocal has in 83.

If you’ve cast a strong singer (and I sure hope you have!) in the part, you should find working on this piece extremely rewarding. It is a challenge to find a placement that keeps the bridge exciting, while leaving room to mix the two Ebs.

4a. Transition to Aunt March

At about 17:30 in this video, you can hear an older version of Here Alone, which was rewritten to get the current iteration:

Measures 1-8 are identical, as is the lyric, but the melody is very different. The scene change 4A Transition to Aunt March is the old melody for “every word should bring you closer”  The new version of Here Alone is a more compelling melodic statement, and I like it. But the ghosts of the old version throughout the show used to pack a punch, and now they dangle tantalizingly in the air, as for example in this scene change, which refers to the old version.

Without the old version to ground us, the first 3 notes sound like the opening of the melody of Here Alone, but then seem to become the music for I won’t let this defeat you in Marmee’s other song. (Marmee’s second act song was originally related thematically to the first one) Then we hear the theme which underpins Could You. Nerd alert: The “…won’t let this defeat you” as stated here is an inversion of “…be there when they need me” in the previous number, and is also related to the motive in Could You, as I hope you can see below. The family resemblances remain, but the tunes are cousins now, not sisters.

Little Women Example 4

Little Women Example 3

Little Women Example 5

5. Could You

To my ear, this number is also in Menken’s world. The number can be done very broadly or more subtly. There’s a musical joke in having Aunt March belting part of the song coarsely, and operatically singing the higher part legit. The most clear spot for this is the indication from 66-68: (belted!), It isn’t very hard, then (in head voice) for someone full of dreams like you… I found that a little over the top, we went for a subtler take. I imagine there’s a whole spectrum of ways to play it. Embedded in this musical joke is the idea that Aunt March is at heart perhaps a little coarse herself, and that Jo is ultimately a pretty good sparring partner in this game of who-can-be-more-posh.  If you’ve chosen an Aunt March that can’t sing the lowest notes, you should bump the notes from the second half of measure 56 through 58 up an octave. Your Jo may also find the two Es in 157 too low. You can alter those up an octave or substitute a G# if those low notes don’t speak.

Work the ritardando in 91 carefully; it’s a bit tricky to conduct through. In the similar spot at 107 and 108, if you’re conducting from the piano, let the first violin take the phrase and head nod or conduct through it rather than trying to coordinate the ritardando playing the top line together; you’ll probably wind up off from one another.

I found the rhythm in 96 and 97 very awkward. I think Sutton Foster’s alteration on the cast recording makes more sense. 2 eighths for “donkey“, 2 sixteenths on “for a“, a dotted eighth for “chance“, and three sixteenths for “to see the“. This is incidentally, what the Vocal Selections version has. Normally I advocate singing the ink on the Piano Vocal Score page, at least to start, but the rhythm as notated makes that line just unsingable.

There’s some deft musical storytelling here. We find a lovely interplay in the orchestration between winds and strings in the waltz section. (notated in 6/8) Aunt March and her upper class world is represented by strings, Jo by winds and percussion. The tonal difference between those worlds is amusingly depicted here.

The detail of who sings first is also well managed here. Note that in measure 59, Aunt March begins, “You could be beguiling”, and Jo answers each of her phrases.

In measure 76, Jo begins negotiating, and Aunt March answers.

In measure 92, they’ve swapped. Jo is now singing “I could be beguiling”, and instigates the new section. But Aunt March then leads the charge by beginning the coloratura call and response. In measure 100, the tables are turning, Jo begins the coloratura, and by 105, Jo has synthesized the winds and strings and commands them both. Aunt March begins again at the Coda: “Change how you walk…”, but the anything-you-can-sing-I-can-sing-higher contest that follows is ultimately won by Jo, who sings her highest and lowest notes within 3 beats.

If the number is well staged, it’s a great burst of energy after the ballad we just left, and inaugurates a string of several uptempos that drive the storytelling forward.

5A. Could You- Playoff Transition

As with most of the other Scene Changes, you can conduct the scene change without playing the piano.

6. Delighted 

Again, this number shows a strong influence of Menken, in the best way. The melody keeps wavering between “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Bananas in Pajamas”, which is a cute place to be.

I wish they’d spelled the first figure correctly, with F double sharps, but I’m probably in the minority there. It’s also pretty near impossible to conduct the figure truly colla voce, because the pit players have to play with the singers.

The dance break, clearly a later addition (as witnessed by the measure numbers) is pretty awkward to play, and irregularly phrased, which may annoy your choreographer. The pit piano book polka is much easier to play, you’ll be relieved when you can switch over. Do yourself a favor and put aside some extra time to practice 38H.

Have fun with the polka accel. in measure 40.

7. Delighted Reprise

The top of this number underscores Amy throwing Jo’s pages into the fire. Originally Amy actually had a tiny bit of a song here, which was awesome, and fleshed out her character. The underscore here from measures 3-8 was part of the accompaniment.  You can hear it at about the 33 minute mark.

If you were trying to bring more of a chorus into the piece, this is a place to add dancers to the party.

I found this underscore pretty difficult to time out, and the page layout makes it more confusing. It looks like the dialogue is supposed to line up roughly with the scoring, but that just can’t be the case. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me. The last 2 measures are clearly meant to land the sight gag of Jo sitting on Laurie. But that’s just too much time not to have any safeties! The dimensions of your stage and the idea the director has for the scene will give you your marching orders. Because the waltz is built on 2, 4, and 8 bar phrases, you can build in some repeats to get the job done. But do be careful that you’re aware of the tonality of the waltz. Don’t repeat from G major to F#, for example. And try not to simply repeat the same 2 measures 100 times. That’ll destroy the important scene it plays under.

The waltz is scored beautifully for the string quintet, you will have fun conducting it. There is an error in the double bass book in measures 7 and 8. Compare to your piano vocal score and adjust the bass book accordingly.

7A Moffat Underscore

More of the same, in both the positive and the negative. The underscore is beautifully scored, and ideally the fermata would land perfectly on Laurie’s interrupted line. In reality, it won’t time out that perfectly. Either build in some repeats or be satisfied with ending early.

8. Take A Chance On Me

I have a lot to say about this number, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

We find ourselves in Stephen Schwartz‘s world, and Howland uses a chord that Schwartz brought into popularity in Wicked. In this interview, Schwartz credits Laura Nyro‘s music with turning him on to that chord, and he used it as far back as Godspell, his first successful show. It’s sometimes called the Wicked Chord, because of its prominence in that score. Here are three examples as they appear in Wicked:

Wicked Chord 1Wicked Chord 2Wicked Chord 3

One way to think of this chord is a bass note with a major triad superimposed a 5th higher. It tends to work well when it acts like a IV chord leading to V, and if you play it, you’ll notice it feels like a Major 9 chord, except that there’s never a third in the chord, so in a way, you’re feeling the top part of the chord as a tonic chord. Schwartz doesn’t just use this chord as a passing chord between other things, he sometimes elevates it to places of real importance. (like the third example above)

Here’s a prominent, and very similar use of that chord in the accompaniment of Take A Chance on Me:

Wicked Chord Take A Chance

It’s interesting that Howland is using the chord a little differently here. It’s not implying IV7-V-I, but flat III7-IV-I. I like this sense of using a flat III chord to make the IV chord feel like a dominant. But let’s not get bogged down there.

When the title is most clearly stated, we hear two different Wicked Chords in the same measure, and both are being used differently than Schwartz used them:

Wicked Chord Take A Chance 2

At the beginning of the number, we also hear another Lydian idea, related to Jo’s motive, which we heard at the very beginning of the Overture:

Lydian 3

This is clearly meant to be Laurie’s motive. It’s sensitive and wistful and endearing.

Laurie’s verse here works well in the situation, and the time signature changes show clearly how uncomfortable he is. Because the motive at the beginning of the song has the same notes as Laurie’s melody, your singer will probably be tempted to sing the rhythm as 16th notes instead of 8ths. Make sure Laurie sings the rhythms on the page. There is some freedom available here, but remember as you rehearse that you’ll need to bring the band in and have some semblance of those measures passing. Don’t let it get too fast and loose in rehearsal or you’ll never be able to convey to the musicians where you are on the page.

The number then slips into a driving modern musical theatre uptempo, with another Lydian touch:

Lydian 4.jpg

All the D#s in this passage and elsewhere are #4 in the key of A, and they give the section a bright, propulsive, aspirational quality. As in Somethings Coming from West Side Story, the triplet figure above the metrically regular Lydian accompaniment gives the audience clues that Laurie is a dreamer and a protagonist.

Take a Chance, like Astonishing, ends on notes that are in a dangerous spot for your average musical theatre singer. In a professional setting, you will find tenors who can sing it, but in most other settings, the number ends unreasonably high. I moved the number down a step. Sometimes when I say on this blog that I’ve done something like that, I’m inundated with requests for copies my materials. I’m not going to do that for you for a number of reasons. If you choose to transpose it, be careful that you don’t move it so far that the beginning goes out of range, and obviously transpose the band’s parts too.

I hope I’ve made it clear that I like this number a lot. But I do think it’s problematic in terms of storytelling. In a post-Sondheim world, the savvy musical theatre listener has come to expect that musical material shared between characters will have a dramatic meaning. When we listen to Into The Woods, we hear Rapunzel’s Ahh theme in  the Witch’s Stay With Me, and we know that it indicates thematic and dramatic unity. It means something. In Lloyd Webber’s musicals, that kind of musical storytelling is not in play. Reprises happen without regard to what the tune ‘means’. It’s simply a nice tune that bears repeating. This is one of the reasons Lloyd Webber shows, for all their beauty, often do not hold up as well as pieces of theatre.

I think an audience member listening carefully will hear in the unity between Jo and Laurie’s musical material that they are meant to be together and that they share an aspirational world view. Laurie says in this lyric that he wants to travel, and that he is a reader, as we know Jo to be. We believe him because his music is grounded in the world of truth for this show. So when he appears in the second act and claims to be interested in the more mundane life his grandfather had planned out for him, we have some difficulty believing he is telling the truth. And because we suspect he was musically a good match for Jo, (Bhaer is not) we have a greater difficulty in believing her eventual match with Bhaer.

But that’s some pretty deep nitpicking. In your production, the number will go off like gangbusters, provided the tenor can sing it.

9. Take A Chance- Transition

I also transposed this down a major 2nd. (again, no I will not send you my parts) Think of measure 10 as a blank measure to establish the new tempo in 3, then cue the pickup measure (11) into the new section.

10. Better- Reprise

There is a long dialogue scene between 9 and 10. A good chance to stand up and stretch, if you aren’t visible from the stage. The beautiful English Horn solo at the beginning comes from the phrase “…or raising little women when I am here alone” from the original version of Here Alone. Because we never really heard that tune before, we don’t have that association, so the sense of Marmee’s love for her children isn’t hanging in the background as she leaves and the scene switches to Jo. I’m not crazy about the lyric here, but the music does something cool, and I credit Kim Scharnberg, the orchestrator. In the pit, the Euphonium is associated with Bhaer. After the sung portion at the top of the reprise, we hear a flute playing the melody for Better, and when the melody gets to the part where the original lyric says “better than what’s already here”,  the euphonium sneaks in, as if to say, “Bhaer is better than what’s already here!” On what would be the word “here” in the tune, we segue to the Concord Transition, (10A) and Laurie appears to ask her to skate with him. So ‘what’s already here’ is Laurie. No audience member will ever hear that, but I think it’s neat.

10A. Concord Transition

You don’t need my help negotiating this, except to say that since there’s no tempo indication, you have some leeway tempo-wise. It sure feels like it should be in 2 to me. Again, Howland or Scharnberg or whomever is responsible for this passage, has really done a nice job of combining the musical motives of Jo and Laurie under this cute exchange. The last section of the number is the beginning of Off to Massachusetts, which I’ll go over below. The Oboe book doesn’t change key in measure 16 as it should. Make sure you mark the book there to be in A.

11. Off To Massachusetts

In addition to helping flesh out the relationship between Beth and Mr. Laurence, this number serves the purpose of grounding the show in the historical period. Similar examples might include the “Sweet Polly Plunkett” scene in Sweeney Todd, or the many ragtime piano passages in Ragtime. It has a trick lyric that gives a little of the same zing as the speed test from Millie. It’s a parlor tune, and it’s designed to be pre-recorded, beginning with the end of Concord Transition 10A. You can have the actress play the piano, but if you’re going for an authentic looking Victorian piano, you’ll want to build a shell around an electronic keyboard; the real thing would be way too heavy to move, (and it does have to move) and it would sound dreadful. A spinet is probably not far from the sound you’d get from an old parlor piano. For our production, we recorded the bad piano as heard here on the worst upright in the building, and I detuned one of the unisons to make it sound really bad for the underscore. Then I retuned it so it wouldn’t be distracting for the recording that accompanies the two of them. The one in the second act I recorded on a better piano, to match the piano Mr. Laurence gives her. We placed speakers inside the set behind a decorative Victorian air vent near the piano so the sound would be localized on the set.

Getting the timing right bringing the sound in for the underscore takes some doing unless you’re triggering it from the keyboard book. However you’re doing it, you need to make sure your tempo with the band locks in with what the recording has or you won’t sync up.

The vocal books have a rit. in measure 5 that is not in the Piano Vocal. The orchestra comes in at 24, which is really great, but you’ll be disappointed to learn that the orchestra doesn’t help you at all in measure 34 and 35. You’re on your own, get to practicing.

12. Five Forever

Again, I feel like this number is in Menken’s musical language. Howland even manages to work in that sharp 4 scale degree, even though we’re in minor, which isn’t even compatible with the Lydian mode.

Five Forever Example

Five Forever #4

The resulting ambiguity is neat. Are we headed into D major? No, it turns out we’re headed to the relative major E for the chorus, which turns out to have a kind of Western adventure Aaron Copland vibe. When, following the chorus, we head back into the verse at measure 29, Howland plays the same mode mixture game in Major, with the progression E / C7 / E / C7.

Whenever I got to the dance break, I got a deja vu about The Music Man for some reason. I think it’s a reel, although some person with greater knowledge of dance forms will perhaps correct me. Laurence Rosenthal, the guy who wrote the dance arrangements for The Music Man put similar reels into the dance breaks for Seventy Six Trombones and Shipoopi.

76 Trombones dance break:

Music Man Dance Break

Five Forever Dance Break:

Dance Break FIve Forever

That dance break is one of the places where we really miss the inclusion of the pit piano information in the Piano Vocal score. The piano is really part of the rhythm section, but none of that information is in there. In the downbeat of measure 65 there is an error in the English Horn book. There’s another in measure 74. (I don’t remember what the first error was, but the downbeat of 74 should be a written E, concert A)

The other place where the Piano Vocal score really lets you down is the way Laurie’s part is notated. His first entrance in measure 17 is written the traditional way, the first note being the B below middle C on the piano. But the next time he comes in, that should be an octave higher than notated, or in the women’s clef, beginning on the F# above middle C. The next entrance in measure 35 is mislabeled. Laurie should be on the bottom staff, notated the way tenors normally are. Amy, Meg, and Laurie should be on the top staff. The cast recording does not have the lower part at 39-40. It should be Laurie if you use it. Laurie’s part is again at the bottom at 42, although you could add one of the girls for balance. Laurie’s part at 53 is different in the cast recording and in the vocal selections. (I mention this in case your actor is learning from the OBC and not from the score) The dialogue at 71 times out perfectly if your Jo doesn’t hold the note out too long, and Meg begins immediately.

At the end of the number, there’s some funky rhythmic notation that isn’t explained. It’s a knee slap from the original choreography. Your choreographer wouldn’t know this from the cast recording, where it sounds kind of rim-shotty, so you’ll have to explain what it means. It is not cued in the percussion book.

13. Transition

Doesn’t need much explanation, except that measure 7 and after should really be in 4, not in cut time, and the musician’s parts do not say Slower as the PV does.

The melody at 9 is, I believe, the phrase “In the past, when you were gone, the hardest part was missing you” from the old version of Here Alone, which is particularly poignant, given the action onstage. The actor and the audience don’t really feel that, since the underscore calls back to a tune that’s no longer in the show.

14. More Than I Am

This is a lovely little song, and it’s Mr. Brooke’s only real moment.

Meg’s last note in measure 30 should be a C#. (as it appears in the vocal selections) The page turn from 91 to 92 is extremely unfortunate. Mark the heck out of the E sharps. The chord on the downbeat of 41 is supposed to be rolled down, not up. (it’s in the part, not in the PV)

A funny thing about the lyric: “Wait for your return? Wait while you’re at war?”

Question lyrics with no interrogatives are impossible to set to music so that they sound like questions. Howland has done his level best here, but the phrases will always sound like statements. I’m a composer, and If I ever figure out how to set things like this to music, I’ll post it here.

One further gripe: Why is Meg’s part on the bottom and Mr. Brooke’s on the top?

14A. Transition to Attic

This number starts with the same cut portion of Our Finest Dreams that we heard at the top of Here Alone. Originally that would have recalled the fun of their time together playing their mock adventures, but now it’s just a pretty tune, since we don’t know what it’s calling back to. We have a transition at 11 that’s a little tricky. The accel. in measure 5 leads us to a cut time at 11. Neither the cut time, nor the new tempo marking is in any of the parts. If you don’t tell the band about it, they’ll be really confused.

15. Take a Chance- Reprise

This is some really great musical storytelling here that will pay off in Act II well. Laurie is, of course, reprising his melody from before. He doesn’t know this isn’t going to work well. The orchestra does, however. This accompanying music is a little like the opening phrase of Sunday in the Park with George, or Back To Before from Ragtime, only with some mild dissonance that reveals something is wrong.

The oboe player actually completes the phrase in measure 16. None of the other players even has a measure 16. So I suppose you have a choice of whether to leave the phrase hanging or complete it.

16. Astonishing

I’m not the first person to call attention to the similarities between Astonishing and Defying Gravity. That similarity is no knock on its effectiveness, but rather to say that Little Women exists in the same millennial musical theatre language of other shows of its time. Someday Musical Theatre scholars will remark about the importance of the bravura number with multiple sections for the heroine at the end of Act I in turn-of-the-century American Musicals, and they’ll point to these two pieces as exhibits A and B.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I go into far too much detail and that I probably need an editor to separate the boring from the interesting. But I’m going to hit a lot of points here and deconstruct this number pretty heavily. Apologies in advance for the length. Some nerd out there will enjoy it.

Some perspective:

Defying Gravity is a sprawling Verse Chorus number with a clever Bridge that calls back to Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It clocks in at about 6 minutes. Jimmy from Thoroughly Modern Millie is a similar, but less ambitious number that caps the first act of another female centered musical, which features a rather fractured flapper verse and a standard 32 bar AABA form with an instrumental break and a repeat of the B and final A sections. It’s only 3 and a half minutes The other number people are likely to know that lives in this family of pieces is Let It Go from Frozen. Like Defying Gravity, Let it Go is a large scale Verse Chorus number with an exciting bridge. It’s a little under 4 minutes. Let It Go doesn’t modulate at all. The others modulate regularly.

What sets Astonishing apart isn’t the length. (it’s about 4.5 minutes) What sets it apart is the structure. It opens with a machine gun kind of verse, which repeats itself AABB style, but with lots of twist and turns and modulations. Then the mood shifts, and we build from a piano accompaniment rather like the opening of the second half of Jimmy. But where Jimmy ran a very standard 32 measure AABA form, this form is so expansive and irregular that it barely feels like AABA form at all. It’s more than double the normal length of an AABA. With the coda it’s a full 72 measures in 4/4 time. And although the complete product sounds very finished and crafted, the irregularity of it makes us feel as though the song is being formed in some way on the spot, which is really wonderful, given that Jo is discovering a drive to discover her own terms of success, breaking boundaries along the way.

The opening accompaniment figure is pretty great, with its Db minor 6/9 chopping away into a kind of Phrygian flat ii chord.  Rhythmically, it’s nearly identical to the accompaniment of Laurie’s number.

Take a Chance On Me:Astonishing Accompaniment.jpg


Take A Chance Accompaniment.jpg

If I’m trying to think creatively, it’s possible to imagine that Jo is repurposing Laurie’s accompaniment in a pretty dark tonality to reject his advances. But I think in practice, it’s another example of the problematic similarity between Laurie’s and Jo’s musical languages. The audience reads that they belong together musically, here at the very moment where they mustn’t.

But coming back to what’s working extremely well: Howland’s melody here at the top of Astonishing is positively Sondheimian. It begins with a rising cell of three notes, which is then extended in retrograde with extra pitches at the end, then sequenced in augmentation.

Astonishing Melody Deconstructed.jpg

The game extends through some Ahrens and Flaherty style key changes (as they did, for example, at the top of Journey To The Past in Anastasia) with a wonderful economy of material. A lot of people these days are writing Sondheim style accompaniments. Not very many people are deploying the rigor of a Sondheim melody. For those of you not familiar with how Sondheim uses these same techniques, have a look at the opening melody of On The Steps of The Palace. I’m hoping to do a video breakdown of that sometime this summer.

The opening, which was originally longer and more involved, began with a nervous pattern of rising sixteenths. The section culminates in a decisive pattern of descending quarters. Great musical storytelling: Jo has moved from confusion to a turning-point kind of question. And as a composer, I’m envious of that rising scale in the left hand that goes all the way up the C flat Major scale subdividing 3 measures by a beat and a half per note. It’s very cool:

Astonishing Bassline.jpg

In the interest of turning over every little stone on the beach:

Astonishing Descending 4 note pattern.jpgWicked Descending 4 note pattern

The next section of the song, beginning in measure 38, is brand new, in a mammoth AABA form. There’s a callback to the first part, with the rising set of three notes that starts the melody. If you look at the measure numbers in the PV, you’ll see that there were 5 measures cut between “I don’t know how to proceed” and “I only know I’m meant for something more” You can hear the cut measures here, at the 3:14 mark.

This seemingly inconsequential cut destabilizes the already sprawling form, which works in a fascinating way. I’ll lay out that form below:

First A Section, Truncated in Previews to 14 measures. 

I thought home was all I’d ever want: My attic all I’d ever need

Now nothing feels the way it was before, And I don’t know how to proceed

{CUT LINE USED TO BE HERE, see video above}

I only know I’m meant for something more, I’ve got to know if I can be Astonishing


Second A Section, Complete 19 measures

There’s a life that I am meant to lead, alive like nothing I have known

I can feel it, and it’s far from here, I’ve got to find it on my own

Even now I feel it’s heat upon my skin, A life of passion that pulls me from within,

A life that I am aching to begin.

There must be somewhere I can be Astonishing. Astonishing.

B Section (Bridge) 10 Measures

I’ll find my way, I’ll find it far away

I’ll find it in the unexpected and unknown

I’ll find my life in my own way, today.

Third A Section 14 Measures (lyrically same as other As, musically new in the first 2 lines)

Here I go, and there’s no turning back. My great adventure has begun

I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun

I will blaze until I find my time and place,

I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.

I will not disappear without a trace (would normally be something that scans like “There must be somewhere I can be Astonishing”)

A Section extension 14 measures

I’ll shout and start a riot, be anything but quiet

Christopher Columbus, I’ll be Astonishing, Astonishing, Astonishing at last.

The sections of a normal AABA song are not normally this large, and the established pattern for AABA form songs is 1) that we want to really recognize the tune in each A section, and 2) that we clearly associate the title with a really memorable tune. We do associate the title Astonishing with an important three note motive, extended creatively as shown below:

Astonishing motive.jpg

These A sections do repeat musical ideas, but are unusually irregular. Howland varies them quite a bit, we modulate several times, and because of the cut, we don’t even hear the full A section until we’re well into the form, so any sense of predictability evaporates. The 10 measure B section is short in relation to the 14 and 19 measure As, so we don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing when we’re going to get back to the final A. When we do hit the last A, the melody is inverted, and we hear Mi Re Do instead of Do Re Mi, so you have a real sense of arrival, but no melodic familiarity. Because we are unable to ground the melody in a traditional understanding of form, we are forced to hear the repeating parts of the melody when they return as an exploration of melodic ideas working with some logic we simply have to trust. This seems to dovetail well with the idea of Jo ‘finding her own way.’ Whether the manipulation of form was intended by the authors to convey this effect, or whether it was simply the byproduct of the process of trying to tame the sheer length of the piece, it hits the mark as an excellent act closer, just as Defying Gravity does in Wicked.

Now that I’ve cracked the song open, let’s get to the performance issues.

Measure 35 is in 2/4 in the PV and in the parts. In the Broadway production, in the Vocal Selections, and in the Musical Theatre Anthology, this is another 4/4 measure, with half notes in the melody and a whole note in the accompaniment. I would go ahead and change it back. Your singer has likely learned it the other way, and it works better this way anyway. Be sure to tell your pit players about the change.

I think the ending of this song is too high, and that unless you’ve cast somebody really unusual, it’s going to be difficult to get a belted ending that’s consistent from night to night. I dare say even Sutton must have struggled with it. The trouble is that the beginning of the song is fairly low, and if you bump the whole number down even a half step, the first notes may not speak the way you want them to. I have a neat solution to this double problem which I’ll lay out for you now in case you want to use it. Again, no, I will not e-mail you my version for lots of reasons.

At measure 54, the first time the word Astonishing appears,  there is a modulation from Ab Major to B major that takes 2 measures. 2 further measures were cut at this point, you can tell from the measuring in the PV. Play the original key all the way up to the first two beats of measure 57. Then, instead of playing the chords Fb/Gb and Gb major, play Eb/F and F instead. Then from 58 on, play the whole thing a half step lower, starting in Bb major. This makes the long high note a manageable D instead of the frightening E flat. I was worried that my seam might show, but the modulation as written goes to so foreign a key that the standard modulation up the whole step to Bb actually sounds very natural, and I venture to say that only somebody with perfect pitch would even catch the change.

Somehow I stumbled on a copy of the entire number transposed down the half step. (no, I won’t e-mail it to you) At the end, in measure 110, it says in the piano part: vocal first. That does not appear in the Piano Vocal or in the Vocal Selections, although it is the way the cast recording goes, and I think it’s a good choice. Let her land “last“, then come in with the last chords.

Act II

17. Entr’acte

To everyone’s surprise, I have nothing to say.

18 The Weekly Volcano Press

The opening of Act 2 takes a little practice, particularly in transitions. Fortunately for you, in the rehearsal process you will play this piece 10,000 times. This will give you plenty of time to get your act together. The number is a sure fire winner, maybe one of the best Act II openers I’ve ever come across.

To clarify the idea I laid out earlier about this number: The characters in Jo’s story are played by the people who inspired the story in her life. The character Clarissa and real life Meg are models of feminine virtue. Rodrigo is a hero type, so is Laurie. Mr. Brooke is Braxton, both are masculine figures who in Jo’s mind are trying to remove her sister. Amy is a troll in Jo’s mind, both are obstacles to her travel, both love glittering jewels. Mr. Laurence is the Knight, who is lonely, but has a sword to pass on. Mr. Laurence will pass along his piano later in the play. Marmee and the Hag is the only comparison that doesn’t quite ring right, until you see that the hag is wise, and that she perhaps represents a vision of adulthood that Jo doesn’t aspire to. (at least not earlier in the play). Taken in this light, the Weekly Volcano Press sequence is an Allegory about a woman on a journey. She finds she needs to reject the advances of men, even the ones who, like Laurie (Rodrigo), mean well. She also must reject the example of the older women in her life and the temptations of materialism. In the end, we discover that the hero was not Laurie/Rodrigo, but rather Beth/Rodrigo, which is the true arc of Act II. Hence the opening of Act II becomes an allegory for the entire show.

An important musical theme is introduced in this number, and it’s in a family of Jo’s tunes.

Astonishing Motive Relationships

The Astonishing motive is hinted at here and there in Act I, but it doesn’t appear in this set of intervals before the end of the Act. The motive is activated, if you will, during Astonishing, and it continues to formulate for the rest of the show, particularly when Jo is grappling with the actualization of her dreams. All 3 of these important melodic ideas center around a half step and a major 6th in various orderings. I’ll mention this again briefly later.

Now to the practical elements:

There is a fermata on the first measure in the parts, but not in the PV.

In measure 29 and elsewhere, the cello and marimba have the repeated 8th note pattern. I found it was easier to play it on the piano to keep us together and to keep the ensemble clean. At 59, the feel is the same as at 29, but the time signature has changed, so everything looks different. Your players may have trouble figuring that out at first unless you’re conducting and not playing. Measure 46 and other similar spots like 124-125 do sound like Castle in a Cloud, but whatever you do, don’t mention that in rehearsal. At measure 83, all the strings gliss up. It’s a really cool effect. There is a caesura (railroad tracks) at the end of measure 92 before Clarissa comes back in in the parts, but not in the PV. We didn’t use it. Either mark it into your part or cross it out of the players parts. In measure 153, I think not all the orchestra players begin their run on the same note of the scale, which may lead to confusion coming out of the fermata.

If you’re looking for a spot to open out your chorus, you can cast more than 3 Hags and more than 2 trolls, and if you look at the piano part in the troll section, you can see an easy third middle note to add to their exclamations. In measure 120, there is a caesura before Clarissa’s entrance that’s in some of the pit books, but not in the piano vocal score. Use it if you want to. The prosody in 123 is pretty poor, and the Chorus of Hags in measure 91 and 92 are inexplicably saying the opposite of what the main Hag is saying. In 136, the 1st Violin A harmonic is not printed properly in the book. The parts have a fermata at the end of measures 145 and 147 that are not in the Piano score. Measures 160-163 don’t time out very well against the dialogue. I’ll bet there was some business there originally. Measure 161 can disappear without damage to the musical sense.

When you’re teaching the lowest part in the All Sing section at 173, make particular note of measure 176. It is not exactly the same as the other versions of that tune. There are lots of options for parts here: you can assign them different ways depending on the singers you have at your disposal.

I think in the original production, there must have been some clever staging to get all these characters off stage. If your production is simpler, you may need a playoff to get the imaginary people off before the continuation of the scene. If so, you can use 128 through the third beat of 130 as a playoff.

18A NYC to Concord- Transition

Another gem of underscoring that begins with Five Forever, and then manages to fold in Weekly Volcano Press, ending on a great chord that sounds like we’re headed into a commercial break in an ABC family movie. (I mean that as a compliment)

18B. Beth Plays Piano

Before you and the sound guy go off and record this one, you might want to talk to your director. Beth is pretty weak here, and the scene may need a particular kind of way of playing that the cast can react to.

19. Off to Massachusetts Reprise

This is very similar to the original version of the number, except that it’s supposed to be four hands, and it segues into the scene change. If you’ve recorded the earlier versions, you’ll obviously need to record this one too, and you may want to overdub a more full left hand with octaves so that the 4-hands reads better.

19A. Jo to Professor Bhaer Transition

In your piano vocal score, (and I believe in the parts as well) there is something funky in the transition from 19 to 19A. The last measure of 19 is the pickup measure to 19A. That’s potentially pretty confusing.  

20. How I Am

This number is Bhaer’s first chance to establish his musical voice. It’s a lovely song, and it does the job well, although it’s inexplicably in somewhat the same mold as Mr. Brooke’s number in Act I, and I’m not sure how I’m meant to interpret that. There were also some growing pains in the process of bringing the song to the stage; 20 measures are cut after the first A. They can be heard at the 1 hour 39 minute mark in the early video. Bhaer is talking about the weather. We don’t miss this cut.

The Euphonium is featured prominently here: it’s associated with Bhaer in the show. We also get a good sense of Bhaer’s German fastidiousness with this fussy staccato accompaniment figure. In the first two A sections, Bhaer’s melody is repetitive and carefully delineates a descending scale pattern. In the second A section, as he talks about the uneasiness he feels, measure 45 slips into 6/8, and by the time Measure 50 rolls around, Bhaer’s orderly world has been disrupted. We modulate to a pretty foreign tonality, and the orderly 12/8 slips into all manner of compound triple meters. This portion is tricky to learn for the actor, particularly in how long to wait before the beginning of new phrases. The whole central passage modulates 4 times and changes time signatures 18 times.

The lyric is very clever in the way that it reframes the central question: She asks how I am? By the time the central, freeform section ends, he’s asked a question:

“Who asked her to change how I live, how I think, how I am?”

When we return to the relative simplicity of the last A section, Bhaer’s attitude toward his life has changed. The house is far too quiet now. An echo of the Astonishing motive appears as he remembers her.

Have a good look at the piano pit book. You’ll see measure 42 in the Piano Vocal really needs a left hand. The parts in measure 101 have a rall. at the beginning of the measure and a fermata on the half note. The PV does not. In Violins 1 and 2, the harmonics for A and D are oddly misprinted. Block out some time to spend with Bhaer to figure out how to negotiate the pattery portions, and if you’re using a dialect, to figure out how to be convincing as a German and still intelligible.

20A. To The Beach

Again, I believe this is the remains of another song that is no longer in the show.

21. Some Things Are Meant to Be

I don’t know Jason Howland’s other music, but if I had to take a guess, I’d speculate that this song comes closest to his own original voice. In the show, it is strikingly moving, and out of context, it has become a go-to song for voice teachers working on mix.

I’m not going to go into detail about the content or structure of the song, because it’s so simple and direct that my commentary will only blunt the force of the expression. But do note that while the devastating “let me go now” is what squeezes the tears out of the listener, Mindi Dickstein’s previous lyric has laid the groundwork for the ending of the show: “Some things will never die/The promise of who you are/Your memories when I am far/from you.”

For those of you just looking for tips on this song, be careful as you’re learning the song to differentiate between the timing of “the world at our command” and “sail on with windy ease” the second time through has an extension.

The piano part is not particularly difficult, but do challenge yourself to keep the sixteenth pattern as even as possible. The string writing is exquisite in this orchestration, you’ll really enjoy playing and conducting it. In measure 48, the parts have a quarter rest at the end of the measure. For some reason, the vocal score has a fermata. For our staging, we found the passage from 48A-48D wasn’t long enough. (48A-C are also not labeled, by the way) You can repeat 48A and 48B if you’re looking for more time there. In measure 48D, the caesura comes after the half note in the books.

As heartbreaking as the number is, the reprise of “Off to Massachusetts” in measures 74-77 really twists the knife. Measures 81-82 subtly prefigure the very end of Days of Plenty. 

22. The Most Amazing Thing

This is another piece in the Menken mold. The show really needs a frothy uptempo after the saddest moment since Sweeney recognized the Beggar Woman, and we are about to tackle 2 more very broad songs immediately after, so this is the last island of comic relief in the musical. The opening motive is another transformation of earlier ideas:

Our Finest Dreams:

16th motive 1

Could You?

16th motive 2

Take A Chance:

16th motive 3

Most Amazing Thing:

16th motive 4

As presented here, the motive most resembles Take A Chance, and it’s clearly meant to bring Amy into Laurie’s world for the audience. If Amy’s original tune in Act I hadn’t been cut, the main melody here would have developed it; the two tunes are related. There isn’t anything particularly challenging here, for singer or for accompaniment. The number works very well.

22A. To The Attic

Another great scene change. The cello solo at the end is particularly wonderful.

23. Days of Plenty

Frank Wildhorn’s lyricism and sense of the power of a woman singing well is once again present here, but Howland again deploys those resources with a great deal more taste and restraint than Wildhorn generally does, and this lyric is excellent. The vocal writing is as good (and as potentially difficult) as Mother’s music near the end of Ragtime, and the strings in the orchestration are also extremely well deployed. This is a great number.

If the next 10 minutes of the show doesn’t really land, we’re in some slow territory for the show, pacing wise, because the number that follows is also a long ballad.

The form is another very long AABA form. The A sections are exquisitely paced, an almost completely pentatonic melody topping off on Middle C for 8 measures before reaching Eb, then F, then G, then A flat and then settling down on the Supertonic again. This slow expansion of a generally low range perfectly matches the sentiment of Marmee’s grounded optimism in the face of sadness.

The B section releases all the energy of the A sections into a dogged exploration of Bb, Ab, and C, the money notes for Maureen McGovern, (and, one hopes, your singer) as Marmee underscores the necessity of moving forward in the face of tragedy. The inverted chords rocking back and forth around the Subdominant Chord gives us a sense of forward momentum while leaving room for the song to continue to grow beyond the B section.

The final A has the melodic shape of the first 2 As, but this time we’re an octave higher, and the extension of Db (on days) is a terrific payoff.  The number concludes with a beautifully paced descent to the lower register again, so that musically we have taken a journey from grounded aspiration to hope to the assurance that the ones we love will always be a part of who we are even after they pass. It is the true message of this telling of the story, given to the wisest woman in the piece.

Now, for some practical things:

The opening 3 note phrase is for cello and alto flute. You will find this difficult to tune. The figure at 74 is again strangely written in Fb major in the right hand and E major in the left. In the orchestra parts there is a caesura midway through measure 80. Your Piano Vocal score doesn’t have it. In the last 2 measures, the English Horn has the G-Eb, and you should cue him/her.

There are some singers for whom this will be a walk in the park, but I would hazard a guess that most women will need to figure out how to get that middle section belting open and relaxed, and perhaps more importantly, how to land the last “She’ll be there” in such a way that the next phrase is set up correctly. But that’s part of the fun of working a number like this.

24. The Fire Within Me

At the end of the first act, Jo had held the stage for a tour-de-force number, and it stands to reason she needs an 11:00 number to match it. Days of Plenty was a similar number, so the show has a real potential to bog down under the weight of big important songs. It’s important to find lots of energy and drive for Jo’s last big moment, to counteract the natural heaviness of this part of the show. Having said that, this is a well executed piece of writing. It has a tough job to do: it needs to bring the major storyline to its conclusion, and it needs to be more than Jo simply agreeing with what Marmee just sang about, but an actual exploration of the ideas.

The opening verse originally had 8 more measures, (according to the numbering) and it’s rather along the lines of the scattered opening of Astonishing, except that as Jo grapples with the way forward, she cleverly inverts the motive we heard in Aunt March’s number:

16th motive 2


Fire Within Me

As I hinted at earlier in The Most Amazing Thing, this motive of 4 16ths followed by 1 or 2 longer notes is an idea we’ve heard throughout. If I want to freight this music with some major storytelling duties, I can make a case that Jo is trying to reclaim the motive she established in Our Finest Dreams from its other iterations as altered by Aunt March, Laurie, and Amy.

Following this fragmented opening verse, Jo embarks on another expansive AABA song. This song is the final step in the evolution of the Astonishing motive, and also utilizes a new motive that does the heavy lifting in the rest of the show.

The fully transformed old motive comes from the most easily identifiable shape in our old friend Astonishing, but two of the notes have been switched:

Fire Within Me Transformed Old Motive.jpg

The other motive grows out of a thought we first heard in measures 71-74 in Days of Plenty, where it underscores the word “life” in the line “She will live as you carry on your life.” We might consider this chain of rising thirds as representing Jo’s self realization and her integration of her memories and her network of family and friends into her work:

Fire Within Me New Motive

That figure underscores each time she sings “the fire within me”.

Incidentally, the accompaniment figure that appears at 19 is also a callback to the accompaniment for the cut version of Here Alone, which is another musical way of showing that Jo’s newfound strength is grounded in her mother’s centered presence.

Throughout the song, Howland uses G flat (F#) very expressively. Sometimes, as in measures 24, 34, 36, 46, and 52, the G flat is a melancholy flat 6 scale degree. Elsewhere, as in 26, 29, 38, 41, and 60, the same pitch spelled F# is a sharp 5 scale degree that leads up to tonicize the vi chord. It’s a lovely effect, and though Howland may not have been thinking of it this way, it’s also an excellent metaphor: sometimes the very things that are painful to us can also lead us in new directions.

At the end of this formal centerpiece of the number, Howland uses a telescoping scale idea that also cribs from the climax of Days of Plenty:

As it appears in Days of Plenty:Telescoping Days of Plenty.jpg

As it appears in Fire Within Me:

Telescoping Fire Within Me.jpg

From 67 through 88, there is an extended underscored scena that incorporates nearly all the major motives of the score, including, in measures 84-87, the cut section of Our Finest Dreams.

A repeat of the B section (everything I promised them is here) culminates in a reprise of the end of Astonishing, in the lower key, and in a movingly subdued tone. But we do need to applaud after the 11:00 number, so we get a 2.5 measure tag that includes one final Wicked Chord.

There have been lots of 11:00 numbers over the years that quote and reassemble themes from earlier in their respective shows. Cabaret ends with a montage like that; Follies and Gypsy are other examples. In most cases this memory-lane device is used to depict a sense of tragic loss or a character becoming mentally unhinged and losing a grip on what is reality and what is memory. But here, the time honored device is being used to another end, as Jo is using the fragments to assemble a new identity as a writer. It’s an ambitious number that manages to hit all its marks and still let the singer really sing.

Onward to practical matters:

There are a lot of dynamic changes in the accompaniment part that are expressive and important, and can get lost. Keeping these dynamic changes in mind should help keep shape the arc of the song and keep it from simply getting bombastic.

When the middle section is blocked, you simply must be in the room. The music times out to cues on stage and vice versa, and you need to be involved in those choices. None of the stage directions you see in your score are in the script, and the director usually works from that. So you should stop reading this right now and type an e-mail to your director telling him or her there’s business here. You can cue the band members for the individual call outs there; just be sure to mark in your score who has what.

There’s an error in measure 34 and 43. The melody should not drop down to the F in either place.

24A. After Fire Within Me

Very basic transition between the previous number and The Most Amazing Thing, to get us into the world of the wedding.

The orchestral parts at measure 11 read Faster, in 2, FYI

24 B. Professor Bhaer Entrance

Again, Kim Scharnberg is using the Euphonium to represent Bhaer, and the tune is, aptly: “Sometimes when you dream, your dreams come true”. It ends on “And someone else feels the flame you always knew was there.” In my mind it goes, “You always knew was Bhaer.”

But before we tackle that number, let me double back to something I said up top:

Modern audiences, myself included, rather feel like the show could end at Fire Within Me and be very satisfying. The main problem of the story has been resolved, and the previous action did not make Jo’s marriage necessary. So Bhaer and the last song here are pulling a lot of weight, maybe more than they can bear. We have to quickly pay off whatever romance we’ve managed to establish between Jo and Bhaer, and we need to somehow create the need for Jo to marry and satisfy that need at a lightning pace. The constraints of the source material make this approach mandatory, but if the show falters, it’s here.

25. Small Umbrella In The Rain

This number works as well as possible, given its impossible task, but I have to say that it seems the most unfinished number in the score. I had my private reservations about whether the number worked until I got the orchestra in. When the orchestration is played, the song really does its job.

Let’s start with what is really smart about this number:

The opening phrase in the piano is the related to the Take a Chance Reprise, in which Laurie proposes and fails.

Take a Chance Reprise opening accompaniment:Take A Chance Reprise Opening Phrase

Small Umbrella opening accompaniment:

Small Umbrella Opening Phrase

But where Laurie’s accompaniment during the failed proposal had become more and more dissonant, Bhaer’s accompaniment follows a progression that suits the melody. (with one exception I’ll get to in a moment)

When the number proper begins in measure 15, the melody is operating on the same 2-tier shapes as Jo used in the main melody of Fire Within Me, low notes alternating with high notes in a kind of double pattern. The accompaniment contains the rising idea Marmee introduced in Days of Plenty, and that underscored a lot of Fire Within Me. It’s played by the Euphonium, Bhaer’s signature instrument. Musically, we really need something like this, to connect Bhaer with Jo in terms of style.

The chorus, beginning at measure 31 is really lovely, simple, and apt. The bridge is even better, and it lets Bhaer show some of the romantic side we started to see in How I Am. 

If you wondered if I was perhaps stretching things by calling the opening theme proposal music, note how it underscores the tentative proposal at measure 61. Measure 65 is a repeat of the earlier section, except that now Jo begins, and the two trade phrases at a much quicker pace, essentially negotiating the terms of their relationship as equals. If you recall the musical storytelling in Could You?, Aunt March and Jo were negotiating to see how much Jo would need to change in order to merit a trip to Europe. When Jo began the echoing phrases, she had been putting on a show, playing someone opposite her true self. But here,  Jo and Bhaer are acknowledging their differences and calling them an assets.

And now for the negative: some of this number seems rushed to press.

As in More Than I Am, we again have the male part above the female part in the score, which is awkward to read.

In measure 9, I think the chord intended is an EbMaj7, which makes a lot of sense with the melody. But there’s a slightly-too-clever A natural in the chord, and no G. This is a nice touch from the angle of bringing the Lydian idea back one more time, but in practice, it makes it very hard for the singer to catch the opening pitch of his phrase. If you want to perhaps change the A to a G, or at the very least add a G to the lick, your singer may have better luck.

Then in measure 15, the rising figure I like so much seems not to be connecting properly to the melody I like so much. When the vocal drops to the C in measures 14 and 17, it fights the right hand B and D, and in measure 20, the D in the melody fights the C in the accompaniment, and two beats later, B in the vocal fights the C in the accompaniment. It feels like the marriage of these two motives was as rushed as the establishment of this character relationship.

The part writing in measure 83 is just not very good for Bhaer. In beat 3, the voices are suggesting C major, but the accompaniment is suggesting B minor. You could leave it as is, add a middle C to the 3rd beat in the right hand, or change the last 4 notes for Bhaer in the measure to E E D G.

In measure 89, Jo’s part is odd; their vocal line sounds like A minor, or maybe C6. But there’s no A anywhere in the piano part, so, Jo’s part sounds like a wrong note. Now, I suppose it’s possible that the ‘wrong-note-ness’ of it is intentional, but I still added an A to the downbeat of my right hand so it sounded more harmonically intentional. The other ‘fix’ would be to have Jo sing a C instead.

Bhaer’s opening phrase lies awkwardly and is difficult to sing. If this proves problematic, I suggest shortening the last notes of the phrases. I think you’ll want to change the rhythm in Jo’s part at 11. …called a sun-shower sounds much better with eighth-eighth quarter, Half. In measure 40, and again in 91, I think you’ll want to get rid of the sixteenth rest and change the three 16ths at the end into an eighth note triplet.

26. Volcano Reprise

This little songlet also has a lot of weight to pull in the storytelling of the piece. The best moment is the final “Astonishing” played (but not sung) by the orchestra. It’s always nice to force an audience to complete a phrase in their minds. One wishes the chorus were involved some way; this moment blunts the message of the show somewhat. Our Astonishing moments do not come alone, they come in relationship to our past and our people.

27. Bows

The bows in the Piano Vocal are a hot mess. Measure 22 was a pain in the earlier key. Now you have to learn a totally different fingering. Play the piano version instead, unless you didn’t hire most of the pit.

28. Exit Music

Very standard exit music.

The Pit Orchestra:

The score is very well orchestrated for a mid sized ensemble, driven by the piano.

Bare minimum (1-6 players) :

This is a piano driven score, so the piano is a necessity. The bass player is also necessary. Oddly, I think the drummer is not necessarily critical. There is very little set playing, most of the book is mallets and the occasional cymbal roll, bells or added color. Very helpful, but not necessary. The backbone of the ensemble is the string compliment. If you can hire more than piano and bass, hire the 2 violins and the 2 reeds.

If you have more money (7-9 players), add (in this order I think): cello and viola, then french horn. If you have the whole string compliment and the reeds, you have a very full sounding pit, which is really breathtaking in the ballads.

If you have more money than that, (10-12 players), hire (in this order): trumpet, trombone and percussion.  The trombone book has the Euphonium, which is a nice touch. The rest of the brass don’t play all that much, and when the trombone player isn’t playing Euphonium, it’s silly without the trumpet.  The trumpet adds some fun fanfare moments in the fantasy sections. The one place in the score where all the brass is really nice is the top of Five Forever, where the first 8 bars are a brass section feature.

Best of luck with your production of Little Women! I really enjoyed ours!


Broadway Time Capsule: 1985-1986 Season

May 30, 2017



Average Annual Income: $17,321

Tickets cost: About $30

Gas $.93 a gallon

Milk $2.22 a gallon

President: Ronald Reagan

This long dormant feature of the blog represents:

a) a way to get to know your Broadway history by plopping you down in a particular season and poking around there

b) an easy way to see video clips and audio clips of year-specific shows and

c) a hand guide for T.V.’s time traveling Scott Bakula to what shows to see when he visits New York.

I’m only covering shows that opened this season. You could still have seen older shows in their original runs. 42nd Street was still running. So was Cats, A Chorus Line, and La Cage Aux Folles. But this season was pretty dull for new shows. Normally I have a ‘nerd points’ selection, but I had some trouble selecting one this season. The previous season had given us Big River (which was also still running).The next season would bring Les Miz and Starlight Express. But in 1985-86, you really would have been better off reading Calvin and Hobbes, or watching Elmo, both of which made their first named appearance on November 18, 1985. For comparison, check out my list from 1975-1976. An embarrassment of riches.


Song And Dance

An Andrew Lloyd Webber confection starring Bernadette Peters, Song and Dance is remembered primarily for Tell Me On A Sunday and Unexpected Song. Critics and history have remembered Song & Dance as being beautiful and unusual and somewhat pointless. The audience, however, liked it enough to let it run for 474 performances.

I have to get something off my chest here. Unexpected Song has such a gorgeous melody. And unlike a lot of people I don’t really like Lloyd Webber’s melodies. But not many singers can really pull off a convincing F# below the staff, and several Gs 2 octaves higher in the same song. It’s just poor writing for the voice. And then am I supposed to take the lyric “take me to a zoo that’s got chimpanzees” seriously in a poignant love song? Ugh.

But Bernadette Peters! Here’s a snapshot from the 1986 Tony Awards.

Want to hear more? Original Cast Recording

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

Drood is famous for a couple of things: the beautiful song Moonfall, which was the go-to song for a generation of legit sopranos who wanted to sing showtunes in a particularly dry time for sopranos, and the choose-your-own-adventure style ending. Dickens never completed the original story, so the ending chosen by the audience was a clever work around. In 1986 the show’s title was changed from The Mystery of Edwin Drood to Drood, apparently in an attempt to draw a new audience. I’ve never really understood that. Were they hoping people would think it was a different show? Betty Buckley played Drood, leaving in 1987 to replace Bernadette Peters in Song and Dance. Peters had left Song and Dance to create the Witch in Into The Woods.

The show won the Tony for Best Musical and Rupert Holmes became the first person to receive by himself the Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Music and Lyrics. He had also written the orchestrations. The show had a nice revival in 2013.

Here’s the 1986 Tony Awards presentation:

Want to hear more?


You know, if you’re time traveling, you really should just see Follies, actually. The one at Lincoln Center on September 15. It’s a one time concert, though, so it doesn’t count for this format. It had literally everybody in it. Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Comden and Green, Elaine Stritch, Liz Callaway, Licia Albanese… Like, everybody.

Singin’ In the Rain

I’m pretty curious about Singin’ In The Rain. This was one of the most endearing film musicals of all time, and in the famous title song sequence, the producers of the Broadway version actually rigged rain to fall on a 20 by 40 foot section of the stage. But as impressive as that was, and even thought it was choreographed by Twyla Tharp, the production was still missing something. It ran for a year, and the poor reception dulled the sheen of Tharp’s reputation and threw her into a depression.

Here’s that famous scene:

Here’s Good Mornin, with a little interview afterward:

There’s no Original Broadway Cast recording, but there is a recording of the West End production that preceded it here and a recording of the 2012 revival.


The News

Frank Rich’s review in the Times didn’t mince words: “Every minute of The News, as it happens, is agony.” Variety said: “They don’t come much worse.” The Associated Press said: “Journalism will survive ‘The News‘, a ludicrous and distasteful rock musical that blasted its way Thursday into Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Eardrums and confidence about the future of American musical theater may not.”

It was a rock show about a serial killer and the tabloid using his murders to boost circulation. Eventually the editor’s daughter connects with the serial killer via the personals in the tabloid. The cast held mics. Poor Anthony Crivello played the Killer. It ran 4 performances.

I looked for a long time to try and find more about this piece, but it seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.

The Wind In The Willows

Ken Mandelbaum’s book informs us that this adaptation of the beloved book made Mole a woman and added a near romance between her and Rat. The songs were, evidently good, and Toad was played by Nathan Lane, in one of his first major turns in a musical. The critics were not kind, and like The News, it closed after 4 performances.

Here’s a number from the show:

Big Deal

Okay, Big Deal is Fosse’s last show, a show he’d been wanting to write for a long time, and it featured an almost entirely African American cast. How bad could it have been? Well, the score was all recycled older songs, which you might say was the natural end of Fosse’s manhandling of composers over the course of his career. A lot of money was spent on an expensive set that most people seemed not to like. It was in trouble out of town, and wasn’t fixed by the time it limped into New York. Beat Me Daddy, Eight to The Bar was the number that showed the old Fosse magic, as Wayne Cilento and Bruce Anthony Davis made his signature moves pop one last time.

But hey, if you’re a time traveling Fosse fan, you should really go see the revival of Sweet Charity instead.

Here’s the 1986 Tony Presentation of Beat Me Daddy:

Uptown… It’s Hot!

A retrospective of Black Showbiz, from early jazz through rap, created by and starring Maurice Hines, Gregory Hines‘ brother. The Hines brothers started their career doing routines patterned on the Nicholas Brothers, who were probably the greatest dancers ever to appear on film. He was nominated for a Tony for his performance in this show, but it only ran 24 performances. Critics were particularly unimpressed with the framing device. Show biz angels have to pass a test on the history of African Americans in showbiz in order to earn their wings, so they watch a retrospective on a VCR.  Still, I kinda wish I’d seen it!


Eddie Korbich made his Broadway debut in 1986 as a replacement in Singin’ in the Rain. He would later play Zangara in the original Assassins.

Nora Mae Lyng, famous for her work in “Forbidden Broadway” made her Broadway debut in Wind In The Willows. Sadly, she passed away just this month. Here she is as Patti:

I’ve undoubtedly gotten some things wrong. Please feel free to comment below!



Polyrhythm, Musical Theatre, and Hamilton

June 28, 2016


Today I’d like to explore a rhythmic thread in American Musicals which has been reinvigorated in the musicals In The Heights and Hamilton: polyrhythmic patterns. The specific polyrhythmic pattern I’ll be discussing was brought to America by Sub Saharan West Africans who came as slaves, and it grew to influence Central American Folk Music, Spirituals, Ragtime, Jazz, and many other forms of music. As the Habanera, the rhythm has been influencing classical music since the mid-19th century, and when Modernists began to incorporate jazz into their music in the early 20th century, it became part of the arsenal of rhythmic innovation that made the twenties such an interesting decade for music.

As the American Musical began to shed its European finery and take up a more local flavor, composers pulled many elements of black music, including this rhythmic idea. By this time the rhythm had become a fundamental part of the way Americans thought about constructing music. Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in particular devised melodies that expanded on a simple construction common to African music in order to play terrific mathematical games with phrase lengths. The culmination of this constructive complexity comes in the musicals of Leonard Bernstein, who used the device in such a sophisticated manner that he wore out the vein.

In the 1960s and 70s, the culture of Musical Theatre lost the taste for the exploration of these ideas melodically, but the Tresillo rhythm increasingly dominated accompaniment figures, especially in Sondheim and Schwartz.

More recently, the phenomenon that is Hamilton reintroduces a rhythmic play in the vocal line we enjoyed so much in the 1920s and 1930s, through the language of Hip-Hop, where artists have been consistently using these devices for a long time.

In this article I hope to show some of this development and trace just a little of its influence in Musicals, both from long ago, and from today. I am no expert on Hip Hop, but I’m going to try to connect that thread too, and show that Lin Manuel Miranda draws heavily on a musical culture that is linked to the same rhythmic heritage that enlivened the Jazz that once inspired Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Don’t worry, I’m going to do my best to keep it easy to understand.

Polyrhythm in American Music

The idea of more than one rhythmic grouping of notes happening at the same time is nothing new. Things like that were written in the Renaissance, and Mozart, Bach, and especially Beethoven liked to play games with rhythmic patterns. [Since first posting this, my buddy Vance Lehmkuhl turned me on to Haydn’s rhythmic games in his Symphonies too. Wow!] There’s a particular rhythm distinctive to West Africa called the Tresillo, which we see in a lot of Latin American music, particularly in the Habanera. It’s very similar to a hemiola, (the same amount of time divided into both three parts and two parts simultaneously). But while the main beat here is divided into 4 parts, there’s another thing going on which is almost divided into 3 parts: 123 123 12. (this illustration from Wikipedia) There are plenty of places online to see this kind of thing if you have the time to look, but check this video out and you can’t miss it, in the drumming. 12312312.

When Africans brought these rhythms with them, they took on a slightly different form, but the 3+3+2 pattern remained firmly rooted in the bones of the music: (try right around the 16:00 mark)

In Cuba, this same rhythm would become the heart of the Habanera, which would itself become an influence on Jazz, and Urban Blues, particularly for W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton. In the United States, the rhythm embedded itself in many kinds of black music. Its inclusion in Ragtime helped to export it all around the world, and a critical concept emerged: A foreground musical idea could play a complex rhythmic game with a more regular background pattern. This is the heart of what Ragtime is all about. Here are two famous examples from The Entertainer by Scott Joplin. I’ve marked the groupings so you can see how the 3+3+2 pattern appears.Joplin 1

Joplin 2

European composers were delighted by these rhythms, which seemed to be a new way out of what had become a rather boring rhythmic palate for Western Music. Bizet famously took the color and exotic flavor of the Habanera rhythm for his 1875 opera Carmen, and Debussy in 1908 wrote a ragtime spoof in his Children’s Corner, cheekily quoting Wagner in the process. By the time Stravinsky got around to manipulating these ideas in 1917, he had already found by other means a way of detaching the various phrase lengths from their regular oom-pah partners, leaving the gears of accompaniment and melody free to link up in improbable ways with each other. (or against each other, as was more often the case)

For Americans, though, the game has generally been to set up a fairly square and somewhat predictable accompaniment rhythm, over which the other musical lines play a game of syncopation. The trick to the particular kind of syncopation I’m discussing here, using patterns to emphasize a cross-rhythm, turns out to require a cheat in order to work. Because music (especially Western Music) tends to organize itself in symmetrical patterns of measures, you can’t just stack groups of three on top of groups of 4 without putting in a group of 2, or you’ll be out of sync. It’s kind of like Leap Year: We need an extra day every so often or the whole year winds up being off. The pattern we’ve been discussing was 3+3+2 to add up to the 8 needed to line up with the beginning of the next measure without just being off by an eighth note. But composers of novelty piano music in the 20s figured out ways to stretch that even further, to delay the re-alignment and keep the plates spinning, for example with a 3+3+3+3+2+2 pattern, holding off all the 2s until 2 full measures are up. This keeps the right hand pattern off kilter longer and makes the resolution even more amusing for the listener.  Zez Confrey’s biggest hit Kitten on the Keys, published in 1921, carries this idea to an even further extreme: 3+3+3+3+3+3+3+3+8 (with all the twos covered right at the end) He follows that with the traditional 3+3+2.


Irving Berlin and George Gershwin

It was only a matter of time before these syncopated games made their way to Broadway, and it makes sense that Irving Berlin would have had a hand in that, since his biggest early hit was Alexander’s Ragtime Band and since he had such a terrific ear for the interplay of multiple parts as evidenced by the many part songs he wrote throughout his entire career. He was an astute listener to things going on in the culture around him, including the newer developments in rhythm.

For 1921’s Music Box Revue, Berlin crafted a novelty number called Everybody Step. In the chorus of this song, he plays a very subtle rhythmic game. 3 quarters, 3 quarters, then a nesting pattern of 4 groups of 3 Eighth Notes to add up to a total of 4 groups of three Quarters. Through this ingenious figuration, Berlin arrives at symmetry after only 3 measures, so he takes a full measure with no melodic content to bring the pattern back into symmetry with a 4 measure unit:Berlin 1Berlin 2

At this point we’ve elevated the game from building patterns of threes and twos against a larger set of fours, and are now nesting smaller subsections of rhythm into the larger patterns.It’s kind of a miniature version of the large scale structure happening within one of the pieces of the other structure.

This kind of writing sets off a sort of rhythmic arms race: How unusual can the pattern be and still make a memorable and sensible melody? George Gershwin recognized Berlin’s acheivement and pointed to Everybody Step as an exercise for singers who wanted to learn Jazz. He would also launch the next salvo in the battle for rhythmic supremacy, in 1924, in a song he and Ira wrote for Lady Be Good. The title says it all: Fascinating Rhythm.

Fascinating RhythmGershwin has chosen a different game than Berlin: He uses 4 groups of 3 quarters just as Berlin did. But instead of building a nesting set of eighth notes inside the larger pattern, Gershwin innovates from the other direction. The corrective extra space isn’t all shuffled off to the end of the phrase. Instead, some of the four beats we need to complete the four measure phrase are inserted between the groups of three as eighth rests, leaving 2 and a half beats of correction at the end, after it’s all said and done. (That ‘I’m all aquiver’ line doesn’t count out exactly the same as the others, but in context I think it’s basically as I’ve divided it here, with the first eighth of ‘ver’ as part of the 3 pattern.)

I might also point out that this phrase is as much ‘phase’ music as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase or Clapping Music. Notice that each successive measure begins on the next note of the phrase. This happens because Gershwin’s extra eighth rest in the pattern makes the melody just one eighth note short of a measure long. Amazingly, the thing is singable by any random person on the street. That’s genius.

I’d like also to point out that Ira evidently had a very difficult time writing a lyric for this tune. The freestyle rap culture we’ll come upon later is a lyric driven rhythmic game. The game in the early 20th century is driven by the fingers, and the lyric has to do the best it can to keep up after the fact.

Irving Berlin’s next bit of mastery is one of his most famous songs, Puttin’ on the Ritz, which he wrote in 1927, but which didn’t find its way into a musical until the 1930 film of the same name. Berlin embeds the extra four in the middle of the pattern, for a 3+3+4+3+3 idea. He also nests a syncopation which is a kind of three grouping inside two of the threes.

Ritz 1

Ritz 2

It’s really ingenious, very singable, and also phases similarly to the Gershwin we just examined. Watch that F. It’s in beat 1 the first time, on the and of 4 the second time, on 4 the third time, then on the and of 3 the fourth time.

Because all that rhythmic interest is compressed into 4 measures, the remainder of the phrase plays out with only a handful of notes for the following 4 measures.

Leonard Bernstein

After Gershwin died in 1937, we don’t see a lot of this kind of rhythmic play in popular music or on Broadway, with one notable exception: the music of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s music includes a lot of Jazz ideas, and I hear in his music the strong influence of Gershwin and Stravinsky. In Bernstein’s lectures about Mozart, he spends some time talking about Mozart’s exquisite sense of balance, so we know that Bernstein thought this way about all kinds of music, not just showtunes. In his shows in the 1950s, Lenny introduced some real rhythmic innovations; equal parts Gershwin and Stravinsky. By the time Candide rolls around, Bernstein is playing such fascinating phrasing games that he seems to be tying together the threads of Post-ragtime experimentation and Viennese waltz Hemiola. Some of it doesn’t even sound like Jazz anymore.

The first Bernstein example I want to explore is The Wrong Note Rag from Wonderful Town in 1953. It only takes 5 seconds or so to hear that Bernstein is taking the examples I’ve listed above one step goofier and more off-kilter. He frontloads the two counts, and then runs 4 3s in a row, which leaves the rhythmic resolution of the phrase until the very end of the 8 measure unit.The next 8 measures use Berlin’s trick from Puttin’ on the Ritz and embeds a smaller syncopation into the same count set of 2+2+3+3+3+3.

Wrong Note Rag

I’m not even going to begin to discuss what is happening in terms of key here, but it’s further out than anything you would have heard in Musical Theatre in the 30s and 40s.

What’s new here? Bernstein is using the same rhythmic elements pioneered decades earlier by Confrey, Berlin, and Gershwin. What I hear is a new expression of irony. In the introduction, he quotes a very commonplace cliche that he later embeds into the melody itself, and unlike his predecessors, Bernstein is pushing the edges of listenability for comic effect. The lyric is self-referential and mocks the tune. Once a style of music can be parodied in this way, it’s probably not possible to make it function the old way; it has passed into nostalgia and camp.

1956’s Candide is where Bernstein takes that idea of varying phrase-length so far into the classical realm that it one no longer hears jazz in it. There are many examples of this in Candide, but we’ll look at a passage here from Bon Voyage. Bernstein’s intentions here are clear, he marks the meters on the score:Candide corrected


(Bernstein marks the first measure of each 3/2, cut time, and 3/4 meter. I’ve continued marking it for clarity. Yes, notation nerds, I know I’m breaking some rules here to conserve space) 

Note that the first half of the first measure of accompaniment is blank, which makes the listeners unsure whether they are hearing a full measure of 3/2 or a measure and half of cut time. Note also the use of both patterns of 3 half notes and three quarters: it’s Irving Berlin’s game writ large. This is by no means the only example in Candide of this kind of writing, and West Side Story, written right around the same time, also has this kind of thinking in it.

At this point, Bernstein has so internalized this rhythmic interplay that it has simply become part of his musical language. But he’s also playing the game at a level so much more sophisticated than his peers writing musicals that they basically conceded the field to him.

What Happened After Bernstein?

For all intents and purposes, Bernstein disappears from the Musical Theatre landscape after he takes the directorship of the New York Philharmonic. (although if you want to see the rhythmic master at work in his later years, you must have a listen to this. About 40 seconds in, each phrase is slightly longer than the last)

There are some outliers like Burt Bacharach who do really creative things with rhythm, but they are no longer playing the same game as those earlier composers. Bacharach loves to really break up the phrase lengths, but the melodic ideas are not playing a balancing act against the accompaniment; they’re in lock step. Think of a song like Promises Promises in 1968 from the musical of the same name. The time signature changes keep the melody in step with the accompaniment at each juncture.

The 3 against 4 patterns didn’t disappear by any means, but they moved into the accompaniment. In a way, this was a return to their home; patterns of three come very naturally on the piano or guitar, but they do not occur as naturally to a singer. In the 1970s, Sondheim favored Latin bass lines, which often approximate the rhythm I discussed earlier because they’re descended from the same African source. But it’s in the right hand that we find the interplay we’ve come to expect from these earlier experiments, demoted now to the function of providing a bed of eighths or sixteenths over which the singer provides melody:

Another Hundred People (1970) is perhaps the archetype of this accompaniment style:

Company 1970 1

Marry Me A Little, cut from CompanyCompany 1970

Stephen Schwartz also favors this kind of pattern:

From Corner Of The Sky in 1972.

Pippin 1972

Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife in 1976:

Baker's Wife 1976

Other examples would include Patterns from Maltby and Shire’s 1983 musical Baby, parts of  You’re Nothing Without Me from Cy Coleman’s 1989 City Of Angels, No More from Marvin Hamlisch’s 1993 the Goodbye Girl,  Stars and the Moon from the 1995 Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, and a host of others.

Note that in these patterns, the number grouping is usually the same, (3+3+3+3+2+2) and that the note patterns are for the most part metronomic and unvarying, which is only right. After all, this is an accompaniment, not a foreground figure. It really shouldn’t be too interesting. These patterns appear frequently in mainstream Musical Theatre from the 1970s onward. In fact, I think these kinds of piano finger-picking patterns are one of the truly distinctive features that mark mainstream modern musical theatre after rock began to be introduced. One doesn’t find this kind of accompaniment many other places, and when one does find it in the occasional choral octavo, it often sounds ‘like Musical Theatre’. Even though the style contains an echo of the earlier patterns, this is a far cry from the kind of metric playfulness we had seen 40 years earlier. The vocal melodies we hear from the 1970s onward in most Musical Theatre are generally fairly square, rhythmic interest coming from back-phrasing or from simply singing very very fast, or with long notes at the end of an otherwise busy phrase. I’m not arguing here that this writing is bad, I’m only pointing out that the interests of the writers lay elsewhere. On occasion, we find examples of people using the older styles in a pastiche mode, for example in Ragtime or Thoroughly Modern Millie. But the fact that they’re employed to evoke the earlier time simply proves my point.

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda

Look AroundSo far I have only been discussing the mainstream Musical Theatre written mostly by white composers playing out ideas that originated in black culture. The Musical Theatre written by people of color over the last hundred years has consistently brought in elements from Blues, Jazz, Latin Music, Soul, Hip Hop, R&B, Gospel, and other related forms. Because these popular forms are more closely connected to the source of black music, they often contain elements of rhythmic play that mainstream white musicals haven’t been interested in exploring. This incredible culture of black musicals has intrigued white audiences, but never in such an overwhelming way as the recent reception of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work.

The opening number of Miranda’s 2008 In The Heights begins with the son clave rhythm, which includes the tresillo, and is the lifeblood of Afro-Cuban music. As an urban Latin groove unfolds, Miranda, singing himself as the character Usnavi, raps:Usnavi

(this iteration comes from the piano vocal selections, the cast recording is slightly different.)

Now that we have all learned what an important and capable writer Miranda is, these words seem like an introduction, a statement of purpose, and a demonstration of methodology. He claims a multifaceted ethnic heritage and his intention to return to it, along the way playfully phrasing 3 and 2 beat phrases at the level of the eighth and the quarter note, and even splitting the eighth into triplets. This way of playing the foreground against the background is still a rich vein in hip-hop, but we haven’t seen it so convincingly and pervasively applied in Musical Theatre since Bernstein, and then it contained a rich admixture of Stravinskian modernism.

Much has been made elsewhere of how well Miranda has managed to fuse the values of Hip-Hop and the well-made musical, and that’s very important. But here I want to examine the re-infusion of rhythmic play. Even though I’m certain Miranda knows this thread of Bernstein’s theatre music very well, his expression of it is not a throwback to Bernstein at all, but a re-connection to a much deeper thread via the language of Hip-Hop, where these African ideas have never left the conversation.


In an interview with Jon Caramanica,  Miranda talks about his influences, and the kind of music he listened to as a child. He actually describes a listener exactly like me in this interview:

“..they hear a polysyllabic rhyme, and they go, ‘oh! Eminem!’, because that’s the only polysyllabic rapper to which they are exposed. If you only have like, a toe in that water, that’s all you’re gonna know.”

Intuitively, of course, I know that there’s a deeper culture of that kind of rapping; I just haven’t encountered it in my daily listening habits. So I was interested to hear some of the places he first encountered the kind of quick internal rhyming I’m talking about.

“When I discovered Big Pun, I mean everything… everything turned upside down. Just ’cause, you know I’d heard, I’d listened to Rakeem, I’d listened to, you know, Kool G Rap, but to hear [raps] ‘Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly…’ I literally didn’t know that was possible. Even Musical Theatre had never given me internal rhyme like that.”

He’s right. Internal rhyme in traditional Musical Theatre is incredible, but the balance is between the perfection of the rhyme and the exact placement in the scansion of the rhyme. One of my go-to internal rhymes is this knock-out from Sondheim’s Follies:

Sally dear, now that we’re man and wife

I will do wonders to make your life

Soul stirring, and free of care

If we fight, and we might, I’ll concede

Furthermore dear should your ego need

Bolstering, I’ll do my share.

The wonder of Sondheim’s rhyme, (which is goofing on Ira Gershwin’s style) is that the dear-we’re, do-to, fight-might, …more-your internal rhymes land like clockwork at the same foot in the scansion, that the impressive bolstering-soul stirring rhyme sits unexpectedly at the top of each last line as a bonus, and that there are no near-rhymes, only perfect ones. Despite the mechanical brilliance, it also sounds like something somebody might actually say; there are no Yoda-isms. This is how good traditional Musical Theatre rhyming works. But the example Miranda raps from Big Pun is playing Scott Joplin’s old game, with the accents punching out 3+3+2+3+2+2+3+3+2+2+3+2+2. It was awesome when Stravinsky heard it, and it’s still awesome now. (I understand that this is super old news for Hip-Hop fans, but you’ll bear with me)

It would probably be impossible to list every time this device happens in Hamilton; once you hear it working, you won’t stop noticing it all over the showWashington

It’s all over the rap passages:

My Shot 1


My Shot 2

It’s also in the accompaniments, like this figure in My Shot:My shot Accompaniment

Sometimes it’s in both at the same time. This example has most of that old Habanera bass line, and then in the next measure we hear the Tresillo rhythm twice as fast as it was in the previous measure. At the end of the following two measures, we get the sped up sixteenth version twice in a row, with accents to make sure we don’t miss it. But it’s also up in the vocal line.

Satisfied Example

And then this moment, where Miranda runs 6 threes in a row over a barline:Satisfied Example 2

I don’t know about you, but these excerpts and others like them are among the most thrilling moments in the musical; they’re what make it distinctive for me as a listener.

Musical Theatre, like other kinds of popular culture, needs a kind of blood transfusion from other art forms to keep from slipping into a coma of repetition. In the 1920s and 30s, the infusion came from Jazz. In the 60s, it came from Rock, in the 80s, we suddenly got very interested in what the British had to say. In this century, one lifeline seems to be coming just in time from the Hip-Hop community, reflecting ideas as old as America itself, and rich with a complex and conflicted racial past. It remains to be seen whether other writers can make the same kind of compelling musical arguments, or whether Miranda will be the only master. It’s tempting to think that every significant new show will speak this new language, but the important thing is that new musicals keep pulling in people and ideas from other genres and cultural experiences and using them authentically and compellingly in the service of a good story.

I’ll let Lin-Manuel Miranda have the last word, from that same interview:

“What I like about Hip Hop is what I like about Musical Theatre, which is we can absorb any genre and flip it and make it our own. That’s the thing the two genres share, even though there isn’t a ton of overlap. You can have a musical that absorbs disco music like David Byrne did with Here Lies Love, and use it to tell a story. You can use Emo to write Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; it takes whatever it needs. Jay Z’s biggest hit sampled Annie. Hip Hop has that same thing, of we will take what we need to get our message across, and that’s what I love about both genres.”




How did they do school shows back in the day?

June 22, 2016

I’ve recently found some old sources about how to put on a school show. This blog originally catered toward people putting on school shows, and I thought some of my readers might get a kick out of how much things have changed, and how they also absolutely haven’t changed at all. There seems to have been a real vogue for school operetta from the late 1920s through 1940, and most of these quotes come from that era.

Oddball Advice

Have all your rehearsals onstage.

“Have your rehearsals conducted as often as possible upon the stage on which the contemplated performance is to take place, for in an operetta you will in all probability have groups to deal with. If available space is not taken well into account, it will be found necessary at the last moment, perhaps, to dispense with the services of some who have worked hard in preparation, and who have possibly gone to the expense of purchasing a costume. This, to a boy or girl is heartbreaking.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Despicht goes on to explain that if you can’t have all your rehearsals onstage, you can tape out another room to make sure you don’t need to dismiss half the chorus when you realize they don’t fit on the stage. I love that this advice sounds like it comes from bitter experience.

Kids are cool and will basically get all your casting decisions.

“The director should be unbiased in choosing his principal characters. His chorus must know that he is governed in his choice by the desire for a successful production. Students are generally fair minded and will abide by the directors decision.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Where is this school? Has anyone experienced this calm reaction to casting, ever?

Scenery is Overrated.

“Perhaps the wisest plan is to trouble very little about [scenery], for it is far less essential than many people suppose…” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

If you need publicity, that’s what the English department is for.

“The English department will handle the publicity.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Or you can do it the old fashioned way: (I’m pretty sure this picture was meant as a joke in the book)

Live advertising

Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Wow, Things Have Changed!

Spanish Grandee

Those gas lights can be a pain.

“Let some adult be in charge of all lights and fires about the premises. He should have no other duties. Lastly, don’t lower the gas in the auditorium so that visitors can neither read their programmes nor the Book of Words.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

I know this is the way theatrical lighting has been for most of the history of theatre, but it’s a miracle everyone wasn’t immolated at every production.

Need electrical lighting equipment? Make it yourself!

“A home-made dimmer may be constructed at a comparatively small cost. In making a dimmer, consideration should first be given to the resistance, voltage, and candle power of the light to be employed. Ordinarily a resistance equal to four times the resistance of the lamp load must be placed in series with the foots or borders, or with both, in order to dim completely either or both of these circuits. The bulletin, L.D. 146 A of the General Electric Company, on stage lighting suggests…”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“A set of four or five dimmers can be made for five dollars. Common drain tile is used. A copper slug is cemented to the bottom of the tile, with an electric cord attached to the slug leading out the bottom. To the other end of the cord is attached another copper slug. The second wire is unbroken and runs down the outside of the tile. The tile is filled with water and the closer the slugs come together the brighter the light will be…” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

“The following homemade dimming device is very satisfactory for small stages. In recommending this we want to again caution the amateur to be very careful, for there is always danger in handling live wires. Take two old dry cell batteries and extract the center pole by breaking away the packing around it. This center pole is a stick of carbon. Next cut one of the wires of the electric cord leading from the current source… fill a large earthen jar three-fourths full of water…” – Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Hold up. To save money, we’re chopping up batteries and floating things in water?? After theatrical lighting went electric, it’s still amazing everyone wasn’t killed!

An opposing view is expressed by Mr. Jones:

“While it is quite possible to make improvised dimmers, it is not advisable on account of the fire risk and the danger of electrocuting the stage crew.” -Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Have half the rehearsals during the school day.

“It is always desirable to make the rehearsals a part of the classroom work…”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

“In this schedule at least one-half the time required should be taken from the regular school day. The arrangement of such a program will conserve the strength of the participants, avoid conflict with scheduled and extra events, encourage cooperation, and avoid serious encroachments upon the leisure hours of the student and the director.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

But when would they do the standardized testing?

Costumes? Make the girls sew them.

“…when a performance of any dramatic piece is contemplated a committee of ladies should be formed to carry out this department of the business. The ordinary theatrical costumer does not care for the work unless he may charge an enormous price. The school staff, assisted by lady friends, do the work better, and at much less cost.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Well, the bit about theatrical costumers charging a lot you have to agree with. But surely there must have been some boys who wouldn’t have minded helping?

Don’t choose shows with all that tawdry jazz in it.

“It is a cause for regret that so many [published operettas], consisting of cheap and tawdry verses set to commonplace and drab, or jazz-colored melodies, masquerade as worthy operettas, and as such are admitted into good standing in the musical repertoire of many schools.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

No Cello? An Alto Sax will do. They can just transpose.

cello sax-Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

This is just a terrible, terrible idea. No, no, no.

I’m just going to leave this here…

Make upblackfaceBoth of these come from Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

um nomistrelsblackface 2

These are from Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930, who says “The only real black-face makeup is done with burnt cork.”

“Irish, German, blackface, and similar characters usually involve a certain amount of dialect, and actors must be especially careful not to overdo it. The colored porter in ‘Peggy and the Pirate,’ the Swedish maid in ‘Sailor Maids,’ and the Irish comedian in ‘Belle of Barcelona’ are funny only if they are heard.”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Let’s hope those days are all behind us.

Some Things Never Change

Pick a worthwhile show.

“If the supervisor or amateur director, then, realizes and accepts his responsibility and opportunity in connection with the selection of an operetta, he will be confronted by two questions: first, ‘What will the singer do to the operetta,’ -second, and equally important, ‘What will the operetta do to the singer?'”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“…our first admonition is to select an operetta worthy of serious production, one that will enlarge the interest in life itself, that will instruct and deepen the sympathies, and lead to a better insight into the motives of men.”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Use Understudies.

“The presence of well-trained understudies also serves another purpose- that of keeping each member of the cast alert in the matter of attendance, interest, and effort; for the knowledge that someone else stands ready to step into his place is an excellent spur for each principal.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Don’t let kids cast the show.

“To have a vocal class vote on these candidates is one way of asking for trouble. The judgment of the class is too apt to be prejudiced.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Shockingly, I occasionally hear of schools that have students make the casting decisions today.

Don’t bow to parental pressure.

“A supervisor should be cautious in dealing with the ambitious ‘little star’ who in order to gain a footing, will sometimes bring unthought-of pressure, and even parents with interests somewhat their own ‘move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.'”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

“Family connections, social prestige, or financial status have no bearing whatever on the qualifications of the actor. No boy should be chosen because he is the trustee’s son, and no girl is qualified merely because she is the banker’s daughter!”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Make sure the singing parts are cast with actual singers.

“Singing by people absolutely devoid of prowess is torture to performer and audience alike.” – Charles T.H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Learn the music first.

“If possible, let all learn all the music, solos and choruses (regard being paid to the range of the child’s voice) and let the spoken parts be read til all errors are eliminated. Nothing so irritates the young performers as to have to ‘stand about’ when all should be in action, while some soloist repeats and re-repeats his part.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Yes. Have the music rehearsals first.

Somebody actually needs to block the show.

“Although it is plainly evident to the audience that in the preparation of the operetta the music has been carefully directed, it is equally apparent to a critical observer that the action in the average operetta suffers from the lack of direction.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Biggest complaint I hear from kids about productions they’re in? They had to make up their own blocking.

Your costumes need not be as racy as they are on Broadway or the Vegas national tour.

“In connection with the dancing chorus it is well to supervise the type of costumes that will be worn. Girls particularly will want to wear the abbreviated costumes seen on the professional stage. These generally are unsuited to school productions, aside from the fact that they are seldom compatible with the text of the show. Perhaps the most serious effect of this type of costume is to provoke eyebrow raising and loss of sympathy for the production by the adults of the audience. They may ask, and rightly so, if that is the sort of things schools are teaching today.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

I’m with him. In some high school productions I’ve attended, I’ve spent most of the dance numbers studying carefully the ad for the car dealership on the back inside cover of the program. Oh, and you kids get off my lawn.

You also don’t need to blow your vocal cords out singing like the Original Cast Recording.

“The conductor will do well to keep in mind the fact that the average operetta will be given but once; the voices of the singers will be used for years to come. No vocal effect therefore will justify the misuse of the voices of the cast and chorus. Furthermore, the director in his choice of the operetta should remember that a work which has no moments that are really musical- from a vocal standpoint- is unworthy of the time of the conductor, the cast, or the chorus.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Get those scene changes moving fast.

“One or more of the early rehearsals should be devoted to stage setting alone; the director may use, as an incentive for acquiring rapid shifts, a definite time limit within which the used setting is to be removed and the next one set up. Dress rehearsals often drag late into the night simply because the stage manager has neglected to have separate rehearsals for scenery and lighting.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“Do not forget to hold one or more special rehearsals for the stage crew at which time nothing is done but the actual changing of scenery and properties. A half-hour wait between acts is intolerable and unnecessary.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

“Never, under any circumstances, let more than ten minutes elapse between acts. Five minutes are better.”– Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

Shout it from the rooftops, people.

Have an honest to goodness dress rehearsal and give the speech.

“See that they are equipped with everything necessary and require them to wear it at least for the first act if no change is necessary. This is important. You will then find that the flowing dresses of the girls catch on the scenery, that one boy trips himself on his cane, that swords are difficult to manage, that beards fall off and any number of things are apt to happen. Another trial for the director is the disposal of costumes after the dress rehearsal. Watch your hero throw is outfit in a corner and rush out. When he wants it again, he will not be able to find it. Then confusion results, and the curtain rises on a thoroughly demoralized hero. Get a suit box for each person. Impress your cast with the necessity for taking care of their costumes. Your home economics people should check them as soon after the dress rehearsal as possible. Hold your dress rehearsal at least two days before the performance.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Makeup. Amirite?

“Watch the make-up problem. Amateur make-up artists are often bad. Professionals are sometimes worse. In a school auditorium where the lighting is inferior to the professional theater, your professional make-up man will plaster it on so think as to make your actors look ridiculous. Try out your make-up man as you do your electricians and scene shifters. It will pay dividends.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

There’s always that one kid…

“You cannot do anything with the fellow who arrives at the school just at curtain time. He is a species that produces gray hair on the director’s head. Sometimes you can predict who that person will be, but sometimes it is your most trusted principal actor… In any event, if you wish to live to a normal age, have your entire company on hand a half hour before curtain time- and keep them out of sight.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Be inspirational. Energy, energy, energy!

“Just before the curtain is ready for the overture he should call all of his people on stage and have another one of his heart-to-heart talks. This talk should be entirely optimistic; he knows they are going to give him a wonderful performance; that every one must give him the best that is in him; that they must all watch for their entrances; speak loud enough and make the audience feel that this is the happiest and peppiest bunch of young people in the country.” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

But More Importantly: Why do it?

“Reasons might be easily added, such as the extraordinary amount of pleasure the young folks take in the musical portion of an operetta, the charm this always has for the parents and friends of the youthful singers, and so on…”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

 “Few programs seem to afford audiences as great pleasure as does the school operetta: it seems to be a lodestone which attracts many who are vitally interested in, as well as those who are remotely concerned with, what is going on in the school. The pleasure afforded to the school community; the gratification which results from seeing, even in a minor role or in a chorus part, one’s own child or a neighbor’s; and the varied appeals of the operetta itself,- all combine to make it a unique medium through which a school may appeal to its own particular and intimate audience.” -Frank A Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Kenneth Umfleet’s words are still profound and important, probably more true now than 80 years later.

“Most of our educational efforts have been considered sufficient if they have properly attended to the intellectual side of the pupil. The emotional elements, which in reality are far more important in determining character and action, have been left to shift for themselves, practically unguided. We have been centering our efforts on training the intellect rather than the emotions, yet the greater part of mankind lives, and is guided by emotion. It is said that practically all the actions of the present generation are traceable to an emotional source, and, in view of this supposition, the neglect of emotional training is a serious fault in our educational system. It is the opinion of many that dramatic activity will serve as an emotional outlet, an excellent safety valve for the young…

…Moreover, in our schools and in our life we fail to recognize adequately the educational power of joy – the joy of refined and edifying leisure activities. Our education seems to have run to brains, giving slight regard for the feelings. It has been slighting the heart, the imagination, the creative and dramatic nature of the child…”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

I’ll try and share more trips down memory lane as I come across them!


A Wonderful Noise: A Musical By Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl

June 16, 2016

I had the privilege of Music Directing a delightful new musical by Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl this past Spring at Villanova. Normally when I music direct a production, I do a long and exhaustive guide explaining the ins and outs of putting up the piece. Because this work is newer, and because I was heavily involved on the creative end of the production, I’m going to write this post a little differently. This lovely work deserves a wider audience and I’ll make a case for which kinds of companies could put it on. I also imagine some of you may be interested in the backstage process of putting on a new work like this, so I’m going to share what it was like to prepare to program the work, to rehearse it, and some of the process of orchestrating the music for the pit.

Michael Hollinger is a nationally known Philadelphia playwright with a reputation for writing very smart, carefully constructed plays full of humor and insight. He is a careful listener, an insightful teacher, and a witty and thoughtful conversationalist. His plays share these qualities. If you don’t know his work, you’re really missing out. I should also mention that he is a fine violist and a wonderful speaker about the process of writing a play.

Vance Lehmkuhl writes for the Philadelphia Daily News and is an expert on all things vegan. He is an exceptional and award winning cartoonist, sometime pop-band frontman, music enthusiast, and remarkable outside-the-box thinker. Kind, clever, and hilarious, Vance is the sort of fellow you want to be standing next to at a Vegan party.

These two really extraordinary men met and began collaborating at Oberlin College and have worked on a number of projects together. They wrote A Wonderful Noise as a collaborative effort. Michael wrote the book alone, but the story, score, and lyrics were a team project. The musical has won the Frederick Loewe award for Musical Theatre and the In The Spirit of America Award from the Barbara Barondess MacLean foundation, and it was produced very successfully at Creede Repertory Theatre in 2009.

I profile the authors here because the piece shares many of the qualities and interests of these two delightful and unusual men. A Wonderful Noise is a rarity for new musical theatre. The writers set out to write an un-ironic book show set in the 1940s, built around 9 young Americans “becoming the Greatest Generation”, as Hollinger put it once in a conversation with the cast. The musical is a love letter to classic musical theatre and barbershop harmony, but it also manages to tackle feminist issues, pacifism, and religious differences with warmth and humanity. The lyrics are fun, zany, and often very witty.

The plot revolves around two singing groups entering a barbershop competition in 1941: The Harmelodians, a traditional mens group, and Sweet Adeline, a girls harmony group trying to crash the competition dressed as men. The members of these two groups are locked in a musical and romantic rivalry which comes to a head at the competition itself. Meanwhile, the threat of war begins to cast a shadow that threatens them all.

The book scenes demonstrate Hollinger’s trademark deft storytelling touches, smart characterization, and perfectly seamless exposition, and the musical storytelling is ambitious and smart. It’s difficult to tell a story using period musical ideas without descending quickly into characterless pastiche, but Hollinger and Lehmkuhl find ways to be authentic to the tone of the period that are infused with a personal and zany voice that feels really original. I’d like to single out nine numbers for special mention:

All photos here are from the Villanova production directed by Harriet Power, and were taken by Paola Nogueras.

1. End of the Line

The opening number of the show takes place as both quartets arrive in Saint Louis. It’s a rousing kickoff that makes great use of the entire cast, both contrapuntally and as a full group. The accompaniment sets the mood of the period, the number quotes Chattanooga Choo Choo and briefly introduces a melody which will later be the major love theme of the show.

2. All for One

The men’s group is introduced in this lively march, which deftly quotes several classic songs to introduce the importance of Barbershop in the characters’ conception of comradeship, especially as it relates to World War I. This is also the first time we begin to hear snippets of real barbershop harmony, all of which is executed very authentically over the course of the piece.

3. Give A Girl A Chance

The ladies opening number is a rousing ensemble calling for greater opportunities for women. There are some deft Motown touches and comic moments that seemed very apt as we presented the musical during the Primary season in 2016. It’s a showstopper.

4. Turn The Clock/Corner of Your Heart


A Wonderful Noise does some really smart and special storytelling in this arena: In a flashback it is revealed that Chip and Mae had been dating some time earlier. Chip had written a poem, which Mae had set to music as a surprise. When their relationship failed, each of them took the song back to their groups and arranged it for quartet, unbeknownst to the other. The audience gets to hear the material as originally presented, and also in two totally different arrangements, each of which shrewdly reveals the characters differing outlooks. (both musically, and in terms of what happened in the relationship) This use of music to reveal character is the mark of a well-made show.

We hear the men’s version of Turn The Clock in rehearsal, and it’s really fun to watch them fine tune their performance. It’s a straight up traditional barbershop ballad, with all the charm and detail we would hope for from the genre. The ladies version is a very subtle piece of writing for women, with some exquisite harmony and some word changes to show Mae’s thoughts on their breakup.

5. I Can Sing That

Agnes has a wonderful traditional showtune here, where she tells Pettigrew she can sing anything, and then does, including a Mongolian Yak Milking song. It brought down the house.

6. Act I Closer (Give and Take)

This sequence is really special. Snippets of barbershop are peppered through the final scene of the Act, which is a complicated game of one-upmanship. That scene rolls seamlessly into a really complex closing number, with touches of Music Man style speak-singing, fast close harmony, a catchy tune, scatting, a canon, and a wild 8 part counterpoint that barrels us to the act’s conclusion. It is quite difficult to learn; we needed to spend a lot of rehearsal time to get it into shape. But while the material is difficult, and there’s a lot going on, the storytelling is very strong and easy to follow, and it leaves us breathlessly right where we should be at an act break.

7. Ma Roney’s Daughter

This number is meant to be a little too off-color for the audience at the competition, but it’s very tame by today’s standards. (which is part of the joke) This is easily the funniest barbershop number I’ve ever heard. Barbershop groups should really be doing this outside the context of the show. I won’t spoil the jokes for you, except to say that the song is about the charms of dating and marrying a woman with a wooden leg. The barbershop writing is really exceptional, and it’s beautifully paced. Another show-stopper.

8. Chit Chat

A really fun number with wonderful wordplay and a great swing dance break for two guys.

9. Chin Up

This was a difficult number to learn, but it’s a wonderful toe-tapping audience pleaser with some hilarious lyrics, and a really fun all-sing for 6 characters. Picture a rousing Dixie style romp full of references to historical figures who failed and got back up again. (except some of them didn’t)

Those are just 9 of the numbers in this little jewel of a show. Many smaller companies often have difficulty tackling Golden Age musicals, with their large cast and orchestra sizes and budget breaking scenic needs. This musical taps into the same kind of nostalgia and good-clean fun you would expect from pre-1960s musicals, with a knowing nod to some relevant social issues and some modern touches. It also has the potential to resonate strongly with older audiences. But unlike shows like Oklahoma or Brigadoon, A Wonderful Noise would work best in a small house with a strong ensemble cast of good musicians (more on that later). If that describes your theatre, I would encourage you to look into this show. Audiences adore the barbershop quartet in The Music Man; this musical plays out the same joyous thrill over the course of an entire evening.

Behind the Scenes of the Villanova Production

Barbershop Workshop

In 2006, director Harriet Power headed a two week workshop at New Dramatists with the authors to develop and revise the piece, so in a sense, our production was a reunion of a creative team that had originally done a lot of the work of perfecting the show. I was the new kid on the block with this piece, but they brought me up to speed in a hurry.

We began talking about the production a year in advance. Because of the complicated a cappella writing throughout, we wanted to make sure we had the kind of singers to pull off the score well. We held a workshop on Barbershop/Sweet Adelines singing on campus to explore the interest and abilities of our student body. Michael, Vance, and Harriet joined me as I gave a brief talk about Barbershop Singing, its history and practice. Then we did a warmup and I quickly separated the singers into 4 parts based on range. Then I took the ladies, Michael, Vance, and Harriet took the men, and we quickly taught them a passage of traditional barbershop. If you’ve ever done any barbershop style singing, you know that the highest part and the bass part are not generally very difficult to hear, that the melody is in the second voice from the top, (called the lead) and that the second to lowest voice (or baritone) is often punishingly difficult, because it threads in and out over the melody note to fill in whatever note in the chord isn’t covered by the other three voices. It’s best to teach this kind of music a part at a time, combining voices in different pairings until everyone knows what’s happening relative to the other parts. If you’re paying close attention as you teach the parts, you can easily discover who has a good enough ear to carry the part, who has potential, and who really can’t do it. There are many fine singers who can’t negotiate these kinds of interior parts. When we had taught a passage, we split up into solo quartets and tried it without the piano to help. Then, at the end of an hour or so, we all came back together and sang our selections as a group to each other. Like most colleges these days, Villanova has a very strong a cappella scene, so many of these singers had experience with a cappella music, but not much familiarity with barbershop, and as with most people, they were surprised at how fun and challenging it was! The creative team decided it would indeed be possible to mount the show, but we’d need to spend a lot of time making sure we cast the right people, and we confirmed the suspicion that we’d plenty of rehearsal time to get a collegiate cast where they needed to be. Villanova acquitted itself well.

The semester before auditions, I designed and taught an undergraduate course about a cappella singing; how to arrange for vocal ensembles, basic vocal and rehearsal techniques, auditioning and organizational ideas, etc. It was built to support the student a cappella community at Villanova, which is very strong, but it also gave me a chance to get my own head around the issues involved. The class was such fun, we’re repeating it this coming year.


The show had two public readings and a full production with piano before we got to it, but this was going to be the first time it would be performed with a pit orchestra. I was charged with the task of writing the orchestrations. The summer before the production, I met with Michael and Vance over vegan snacks and coffee, and we carefully went over how I was going to build the band parts. It was important to me that we have a small pit, in the same scale as the cast, firstly because Villanova’s performance space isn’t enormous, and secondly because I wanted future productions to be able to hire the entire instrumentation without having to cut anything for budgetary reasons. The show needed a swing feeling, so we opted for Piano, Bass, Drums, two reeds, (doubling between them flute, piccolo, clarinets, alto, tenor, and bari saxes) a trumpet and a trombone.

As I began orchestrating, I listened to a lot of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and of course Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie. I discovered the challenge was to recreate the sound of the swing era without a full compliment of reeds to play against a full compliment of brass. In a big band arrangement, the trumpets usually play together, the saxes play something else, and the trombones yet a third thing, mostly as sections, antiphonally. You can’t really do that with only one trumpet, one trombone, and 2 reeds. That instrumentation is better suited to a dixieland style. However, I found that you can get some of the same feel even with a reduced orchestra if you’re clever. When the alto sax is on top of a chord voicing and the tenor is on the bottom, with the trombone in the middle, you can get a decent sax section clone. (although it gives the trombone a workout) When the trumpet is on top, the trombone on the bottom, and the alto in the middle, you get a kind of brassy trumpety sort of sound, and when you put the tenor sax in unison with the trombone, you can fake that kind of trombone section all-play sound fairly well. There’s a charming duet in the second act between the Jewish member of the mens group where he attempts to court a girl in the other group who is pretending to be Jewish and failing. Writing the quirky klezmer clarinet was a lot of fun, and I found other places in the score to write Gene Krupa style toms, soulful bluesy sax, marching band piccolo obbligato, dixieland trombone, and motown bari sax. It was really a blast to put together the pit.

As I finished first drafts of each of the numbers, I’d send them to the authors, and they’d return notes to me that were really helpful, clarifying what they intended dramatically, and I worked to clarify my work to reflect their intentions. It was delightful to have such an inside look at how the authors wanted their material performed, and I felt much better prepared to start the production.


Our audition process was very specialized and comprehensive. We heard the normal song selection of classic musical theatre and a monologue, and I did a range check. Then I did two ear-training exercises; the traditional one, where I played a three note chord and  asked the actor to sing the middle pitch of the three. Again, an inability to hear that pitch doesn’t make a person a bad singer, but for a show like this, you need really fine ears. If we got a good result there, I put the actors through a really unreasonable test: I played My Country Tis Of Thee with them, then asked them to sing it in the same key they just sang it in, while I accompanied them in another key entirely. By the time we got through that gauntlet, the audition committee and I had a fairly good idea  of who was going to be a possibility for the two quartets. Of that group, we separated the voice types, particularly looking for the highest and lowest parts. This style of singing requires a very strong, clear bass, and a light, floaty high tenor. The singers best at putting over a song should go to the Lead, and the best ear should go to the Baritone. (second from the bottom) This distribution is also true of the ladies group. Of course, the authors and directors also had strong ideas about who would suit the roles best, which figured into our callback plans as well.

For the callbacks, I had isolated brief sections of the more difficult moments in the solo and duet numbers to be sure our actors were capable of the harder non-group moments. We also taught 4-8 measures of the a cappella music for the men and another set for the women. The big moment in the evening was the counterpoint section of Give and Take. We taught the large group of actors the parts based on their ranges, then split them into groups of eight (4 men, 4 women) and heard them carry their parts on their own. After this process, we had a short list of who was able to do the heavy lifting in terms of the a cappella music. I relayed my thoughts to the rest of the team, they contributed their own observations, and we continued with scene work to get enough information to cast the show.


Once we had decided on a cast, we scheduled a number of early rehearsals, where we began with the most difficult ensemble music. These rehearsals were spaced a week or two apart, so that there was time for people to leisurely run things on their own between our rehearsals.  We recorded MP3 files which we uploaded to a dropbox for the use of cast members. Our goal was to hit the ground running when our rehearsals began. I had a wonderful Assistant Music director in Lexi Schreiber, who was able to share some of the duties of rehearsing the two groups, take notes, and bring another set of great ears to the table. A true Barbershop group directs itself and feels its own pulse. Our goal was to get the groups to be able to rehearse on their own as soon as possible. I’m happy to say that by the end of the rehearsal period, we did get there, and the Music Directors were eventually not needed in the room for these groups to get fine work done on their own. In the show, the a cappella numbers are led by the groups themselves, not by the conductor.

The creative team met early to plan our rehearsals over a plate of vegan brownies. After we had plotted our rehearsal time, we went carefully through the script to find where the scene changes would go. We had a great time trying to locate the right mood for these scene changes, and deciding whether each scene change would button up the scene that had just ended or instead lead us into the next number. We then planned on a mood and chose which songs from the show would be quoted in each scene change. I would ultimately write these scene changes during rehearsal breaks. Since the orchestra needs to be generally subdued when singers are involved, and since the musical has numbers without orchestra at all, these scene changes proved a great place to let the band really shine. The creative team gave me free rein to do as I chose with the bows, so I elaborated a full big band style medley of the numbers we only hear for a few measures.

Our regular rehearsals began about 6 weeks ahead of our opening night and we started with a very strong push to learn all the music. We were fortunate to have the authors in the rehearsal room many times, and we clarified passages based on what we heard. The materials had been in various forms, from the original readings and from the earlier production, so we agreed on a standardized format, and I edited the parts to match one another and for clarity. We also expanded several of the dance breaks and rewrote some harmony passages for easier execution. I time stamped each revision on every page, so that we could easily see whether we were using the most up-to-date versions of the music. I found when I was in rehearsal, I was in a much better position to finish the orchestrations intelligently, knowing more where the difficulties in the score were, and what the cast would need to hear to do their best work. My AMD and I had a great time working subtle musical references into the orchestra. I was pretty far behind, but a snow day allowed me to catch up and finish that part of the work. The parts were extracted and sent as pdfs to the musicians, and I began to build a new piano vocal score that cued the orchestra in to use during performances.

Tech and Preshow

Our sitzprobe was the first time anyone had heard the orchestrations. For the most part, they went off without a hitch, although there were some revisions needed. Harriet Power is well known for really tight transitions, so we needed to trim a lot of the scene changes down to just a few measures, and one wound up needing to be rewritten completely the day before we opened. I found I really enjoyed knowing exactly how long each scene change needed to be! The scene changes as I wrote them are still in the score, so future productions can take the time they may need to transition without vamping endlessly. I tried to hire musicians I knew would play well at sight, but who would also share their honest opinions about the writing. Several of the players I hired are also professional composers and arrangers. Their feedback was extremely helpful. One of my players was using an Ipad, which worked well, except when revisions made it necessary to re-assemble a full PDF of the part, and I realized I need to find a way of doing that more efficiently than I had been.

Many shows have a ‘fight call’ for various physical actions on stage that may be dangerous. Lexi, my assistant MD and I developed a ‘musical fight call’ that we used before the show to keep the difficult parts running smoothly. There is a part right before the first act finale where two brief numbers need to begin without a pitch being played. they begin with one character singing, but we took to starting those numbers randomly out of the blue just to be sure we could do it. The complicated counterpoint passages also got special nightly attention. But we found once we had really internalized them, they became some of the easier moments in the show.

Closing Thoughts

It was a true joy and a fine challenge to work with such gifted collaborators on new material, and I do hope that my readership will give some thought to including A Wonderful Noise in future seasons. Your audience will thank you. I also hope that smaller companies (even school companies) will consider the possibility of commissioning or putting on new work. The licensing fees one normally pays for a musical everyone has seen dozens of times could go a long way toward bringing something new and original into the world.

For More information about A Wonderful Noise please contact: michael.hollinger@villanova.edu