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!


One comment

  1. Hi Peter, saw your recent production at Villanova. Your work shone through brilliantly both on stage and in the pit; huge thanks for making this wealth of knowledge available. Looking forward to more posts like this!

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