Archive for September, 2010



September 24, 2010

Why a post about rhymes? Aren’t they self-explanatory? Well, yes and no. Mostly, the rhymes are obvious, and not much needs to be said about them. But there are some places in musical theatre where a word needs to be pronounced in a certain way so that it actually rhymes. I’ll give you two examples, and then give you a very special case of a word that needs to be emphasized correctly.

The first example is from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella: “In My Own Little Corner.” Because this song is not terribly vocally challenging, it is a perennial favorite in Anthologies for young people. But most young sopranos sing this one word wrong.

I’m a young Norwegian princess or a milkmaid
I’m the greatest Prima Donna in Milan
I’m an heiress who has always had her silk made
By her own flock of silkworms in Japan.

Obviously, this is an ABAB rhyme scheme. For some reason, maybe since the passage is 16 bars long, it rarely occurs to the singer that Milan needs to be pronounced in the old fashioned American incorrect way to rhyme with Japan. OR you have to pronounce Japan Japon, which is even sillier.

Another example, from Show Boat, from the song “Bill”:

But along came Bill
Who’s not the type at all,
You’d meet him on the street
And never notice him.
His form and face,
His manly grace
Are not the kind that you
Would find in a statue…

Even Audra McDonald sings this so that it doesn’t rhyme!

I assure you:

Are not the kind thatchoo
Would find in a statchoo

is the only correct way to sing this so that it rhymes. Most singers, in an attempt to have very clear diction, sing ‘that (with a clear t) you’ and then statchoo, the ‘normal’ way. Peter J. Casey informs me that many Australians say stat-yoo for statue. In which case, sing ‘that you’ accordingly. But in the show, you’ll have to sing it the ‘American’ way, thatchoo, statchoo. (unless for some reason your avant-garde production of Show Boat is set down-under!)

The final example of a rhyme that needs to be done just-so is from Wicked. The line completely confused me until my friend Stu Goldstone cleared it up for me. Thanks, Stu. WARNING: The following discussion is so arcane and wonky that it may turn you off to the study of lyrics entirely. I am a confirmed Music Theatre Geek, so I forge ahead anyhow:

In The Wizard and I, Elpheba sings:

“Would it be all right by you
If I degreenify you?”

Schwartz puts BY and FY on upbeats, which really need to be emphasized by the performer. Otherwise the stress of the word falls on: YOU. And then instead of:

Would it be alright BY you
If I degreeniFY you,

we have:

Would it be all right by YOU
If I degreenify YOU?

Which is not a rhyme. It’s an identity. You can’t rhyme YOU with YOU.

It’s like that line in the Wizard of Oz:

She’s not only NEARly dead
She’s really most sinCEREly dead.

Imagine if that were set:

She’s not only nearly DEAD
She’s really most sincerely DEAD

Takes all the punch out of it.


Teaching the Parts

September 17, 2010

I went over this in a previous post, but here’s a more thorough explanation:

When I teach parts, I use a bottom-up approach. Because the highest part is the easiest to hear, generally, I begin with the basses, teach them a phrase, then I teach the tenors. Then I combine the two parts together. Then I teach the alto separately. Then I combine that part with the lower two. Then I add the sopranos, sometimes without teaching the part because they’ve been sitting there figuring it out this whole time. Notice that this method gives the harmonic structure first, with the basses, and then the internal parts, which are hardest to hear, and that the tenors get to sing it 5 times. Then I do the next 8 or 16 bars, then I run it together. I try and tackle issues of pronunciation and cutoffs from the very first time I teach those parts. If I encounter something particularly hard on the list of things to learn, I do it right at the beginning. Then I go to something easy, then I go BACK to the hard thing and so on. You have to keep careful tabs on your group. The instant you feel you’re losing them, you have one, “Keep it up, gang, we’re making good progress” and then maybe 5 more minutes before you are completely wasting your rehearsal time. When your chorus is frustrated, they won’t learn well.

If you have the time and the technology, you can play the parts separately into a multi-track recorder and distribute them as MP3s. I usually make multiple tracks, one with the sopranos in the left audio channel and everyone else and the accompaniment in the right, one with the altos in the left channel, and so on. It’s a little time consuming, but if you know what you’re doing, it takes less time than pounding those parts out every rehearsal from now to doomsday.

With the solo singers, I usually let them get through the song once without commenting on it; then I go back and point out errors if there are any. I do like to look at the structure of the songs with the soloists. If the song is well written, the music and the drama move together, and singing a song well requires a knowledge of how the music is helping the drama. Key changes, changes in the accompaniment, where is the highest note, does the character change her mind in the song; these are things a music director can add to the actor’s knowledge of their role that the director may not be clued into. When I feel I may be stepping into the director’s territory as we make a musical decision, I tell the singer, “now this decision is between you and the director, but you should be thinking about…” Get your solo singers to THINK about what they’re doing. You’re never too young to be intelligent about your performance.


The CD

September 10, 2010

The CD is your best friend! And your worst enemy.

Your Best Friend:

The CD of the original cast recording is a document of that magical first production, with top notch cast and musicians, often with the composer in the room. It’s usually made right after the show opens, so it’s fresh and lively. Sometimes the actors in the original cast help you understand why the composer made her choices the way she did.  It’s a great way to acquaint yourself with the bones of the show.

Your Worst Enemy:

The CD will give your kids something to imitate. Something that isn’t necessarily the way you’d like it performed, something that isn’t necessarily the healthiest form of singing for their young instruments. And kids are really good imitators. Time constraints on the length of a CD often necessitate drastic cuts, which will cause problems when your choreographer tries to choreograph the dance with the cuts. Your version of the show may not even be the version represented on the CD. Sometimes the licensing organization licenses a version that went out on the national tour or a revision that’s different than what was recorded. The musical Big is a case in point. So is Footloose, which has a number on the CD that’s in a completely different time signature than the one in the score, or at least it was the last time I did it. Don’t assume that the version they sent you is the one on the original cast recording. You have to check. Also, if at all possible, DON’T REHEARSE WITH THE CD! The kids don’t memorize the words, they rely on the CD for the notes, the harmonies go away; it’s death. Don’t believe me? Turn the CD off mid song, and see how loud and accurate the kids are.


Knowing The Boundaries Of Your Job

September 3, 2010


It was tech week for a community theatre show, and the secondary female lead kept delivering this one line in a way that not only didn’t make sense, it made the next character’s line senseless too. Sometimes when you’re watching scenes over and over from your seat in the pit, some things just jump out and rankle you. So I brought this concern to the director, and she said, “You tell her.” I was too green to know that this was code for one of two things:

1) I don’t care about that, and I didn’t notice it. If you want to change it, go ahead.

2) She’s going to get really pissed if anyone tells her that. Better you than me.

Unfortunately for all of us, the second situation was the one in play. The lady in question pointed out colorfully and in no uncertain terms that I was not the director, that she didn’t have to listen to me, and that I was wrong, because she’d always been saying the line correctly. She subsequently fixed the line reading, but I had seriously overstepped the boundaries of my job. Her line readings were none of my business.

As the music director, you are in charge of the sounds that come out of your singers mouths and the sounds that come out of your pit’s instruments. Where those concerns meet the concerns of actors and other staff and directors, you look for solutions that work for both of you. You can’t solve the problems on your own which are not within the boundaries of your job.

1) You are not the director. You can suggest things, offer your opinion, but you are not responsible for how the kids say the lines, how the scene is blocked, or how the entrances and exits look.

2) You are not the kids’ private voice teacher. I believe in a solid line of demarcation between musical coaches and directors and their teachers. I tell my leads when I work with them, “If I ever tell you anything that your voice teacher would disagree with, I’m wrong and your voice teacher is right.”

3) You are not the sound designer. The man behind the board is making all the decisions, and he holds all the cards. You are not in a position to force anyone’s hand there. You are in a position to negotiate and work together.

4) You are not the choreographer. I heard a story about a colleague who told the choreographer in a withering tone of voice, “The tempo is marked Allegro. The kids just need to learn to dance it faster.” That’s a fantastic way to alienate your coworkers. If that’s your goal, go for it! Otherwise, negotiate and come up with something that works for you both.

You have more than enough to worry about fixing the things in your area, without worrying about everyone else’s problems. Do your job, not everybody else’s.


Playing Favorites

September 3, 2010

You probably don’t even know you’re doing it, but please don’t play favorites. You know the kid who shows up late every day, but he’s really good, and he’s nice to you, so you never get too mad at him? That’s a little unfair to the kid who doesn’t have as much talent, but who you reamed out for doing basically the same thing. And when you’re casting, you hear people saying; “he put in some good years, and he’s a senior, it’s his turn” Maybe so, and I don’t deny that’s important sometimes. But be careful, or you’ll alienate everyone else, and the things they’ll be saying about you will be true.