Archive for the ‘Sondheim’ Category


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

“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!


Polyrhythm, Musical Theatre, and Hamilton

June 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

Polyrhythm in American Music

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

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

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

Joplin 2

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

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


Irving Berlin and George Gershwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ritz 1

Ritz 2

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

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

Leonard Bernstein

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

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

Wrong Note Rag

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

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

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


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

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

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

What Happened After Bernstein?

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

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

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

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

Company 1970 1

Marry Me A Little, cut from CompanyCompany 1970

Stephen Schwartz also favors this kind of pattern:

From Corner Of The Sky in 1972.

Pippin 1972

Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife in 1976:

Baker's Wife 1976

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

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

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sally dear, now that we’re man and wife

I will do wonders to make your life

Soul stirring, and free of care

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

Furthermore dear should your ego need

Bolstering, I’ll do my share.

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

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

It’s all over the rap passages:

My Shot 1


My Shot 2

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

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

Satisfied Example

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

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

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

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

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




The Light in the Piazza: A Rough Guide for the M.D. Part 2: Music Directing the Show

July 20, 2014



I don’t imagine you need me to tell you that you must get the original cast recording.

The Lincoln Center production was well filmed for a PBS broadcast. If anyone is listening out there, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of people asking for that video to be professionally released. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, but it’s a crime that it isn’t on DVD, and my friends who were fortunate enough to tape the broadcast treasure that footage. (I taped it and then promptly lost the tape)

If you care to do more research, you should read the short story by Elizabeth Spencer. I rather hoped in reading it that I would find new insights into the characters, but it turns out part of the charm in the original story is the economy of the storytelling, which is kind of funny considering how extravagant the musical winds up being in that regard. It is a beautifully told story, and you should be familiar with the original form it took.

I didn’t watch the film before I music directed the show, but it seems to me that without that movie, probably no one would have been interested in the story as a property at all. The materials clearly indicate that the film is one of the sources of the show, and I think some of the ways the screenplay restructured and converted into dialogue what was only sketched out in the story have been retained for the musical. I think the tone of the show is probably more like the book than the movie was.


Margaret Johnson

This is one of the greatest roles for a woman written in the last several decades. The show is actually about her journey, and your production will rely heavily on your Margaret’s ability to convey a maternal care for her child that will come across as both loving and overprotective. In addition, Margaret has a very demanding vocal part, requiring a well grounded chest mix and a strong, free higher register. This actress must also be a very fine intuitive musician; there are some timing issues in the part that are really difficult. We’ll discuss those elements specifically number by number. The accent is also very important, and the dialect must be accurate, but not comical; it’s not meant to be a caricature. Just as every Mamma Rose in Gypsy will be standing in the shadow of Merman, every Margaret will be judged by the very high standard set by Victoria Clark. I think there are other ways of playing the role than Clark did, but you will have to discover them creatively. In short, cast the role very carefully, and be sure you have this caliber performer available before you program this show.

Clara Johnson

This is also a tough role. One of the few truly legit roles of the last decade, it requires a very strong ear and sense of rhythm, an effortless F-A at the top of the staff and above, an ear for dialect, and the ability to convey kind of innocence that could be read two ways: as naivete or mental deficiency. (not an easy task) That ear and musicality, though… You’ll see as you read why it’s very important that you have a top-drawer person in this slot. Some of this stuff is very hard.

Fabrizio Naccarelli

Clearly, this actor should be believable as Italian, should have an ear for the Italian language, should be likeable as an actor, and should have a strong tenor voice and an excellent ear. The ear is particularly important; there are some extremely difficult parts to hear and count in this piece. The actor must also be able to convey a certain innocence himself. The two lovers are both outsiders in their own way; Fabrizio’s father owns a tie shop, and he has no idea how to tie a tie. His brother is a cad, but Fabrizio isn’t a smooth-talking opportunist, he’s a genuine romantic. The audience must be able to believe that he is guileless and genuine.

Signor Naccarelli

Signor is the bridge between the two families; he speaks both languages and acts as go-between for the two worlds. He must have an ear both for Italian and for the Italian dialect, and be attractive and believable as an interest for Margaret. (there should be a little chemistry there) Nacarelli’s music isn’t really that hard, but he does need to be able to get his bearings in some strange accompaniment territory in Let’s Walk, and the Aiutami section is not for the faint of heart.

Signora Naccarelli

Signora is a really important role. Speaks only Italian except for one very important point in the show. Needs to be maternal. Needs to have a very good ear and sense of timing, and have a high C. No, I’m not kidding, although in a pinch, you could get around that requirement.

Giuseppe Naccarelli

Giuseppe sings very little, and speaks no English at all. The part in Aiutami is tricky, like all the others, but not physically difficult to sing. He should be a charming cad who can pick up Italian quickly.

Franca Naccarelli

This type exists, but you may have to dig to find one where your production is. Fiery Italian, one of two Italians who actually speak English in the show. Sings an F above High C, although if you just CAN’T do it, there is a way around that. She needs to have chemistry with your Giuseppe, in that, I-love-you-and-hate-you-passionately kind of way. Mostly sympathetic, but should also be able to be just a little scary.


There’s a little tricky counting and a lot of Latin here. Range is such that any male could do it.


There is very little chorus here, from which come a few tiny parts. I suppose all things being equal, they should be Italian looking and be fine singers. There isn’t really any dancing in the show.


I’m sorry these preliminaries take up so much space, but this show is unlike any other you will music direct, even other Guettel shows.

I found in playing the show that I had trouble being completely in the ‘head’ place and the ‘heart’ place at the same time. Much of the show is very difficult to play, requiring complete concentration. At the same time, the show is also full of emotion, and I think the MD needs to be in that emotional moment too. At the very moments the show requires most your sensitivity to the emotion of the moment, it requires your absolute musical concentration. During tech week, I discovered that if I stood at the keyboard and unlocked my knees and hips as I played, I was able to connect with both poles of the work. Later, when the orchestra came in, I needed to figure out how to maintain that feeling while seated, because standing the whole run wouldn’t have worked for me. You will have to find a way to reconcile the emotion and the intellect as you play. For a concert pianist, (I am not one) this must be what it is like to play a difficult concerto.

There are few dynamic or articulation markings in the vocal part, but there are many clues in the dynamics of the accompaniment which can inform your direction.

I asked if in my production I could be in charge of the Italian coaching. If you have a classical vocal coaching background, you may want to do that yourself, or have someone who understands how Italian works on set for a good amount of time in the rehearsal process. Many people online have carped about the Italian in the original production. I did too, especially Matthew Morrison’s pronunciation of the ‘c’ in luce, which goes against everything I’ve ever been taught about Italian diction. But then I began looking into it a little more deeply and was reminded quickly that there are actually many Italian dialects, and that the Florentine dialect is a little softer on some of those consonants. There are a number of videos on youtube where you can see what I’m talking about: These two girls cracked me up. Check out how this woman says piace with a ‘sh’ sound at the 10 second mark in this little video. And then watch the rest of the video for fun. The Italians love to make fun of their dialects, you can find lots of videos about dialetti Italiani. Anyway, I’ve come to think that Morrison was trying to be accurate to the Florentine dialect, which is slightly different than the Italian we were all taught as Americans singing art songs and arias. Which leads to another dilemma: Do you teach an accurate Florentine dialect that will delight the one actual Italian who knows the difference and comes to your production, or do you teach a more standardized Italian that will be less jarring for the audience members with a passing knowledge of Italian? I opted for the latter. That meant that I needed to wean the actors off the cast recording as soon as possible, so they didn’t internalize the pronunciation we weren’t using.

We had an Italian Night rehearsal, where all the Italians got together and I went over the basics of Italian pronunciation, (available in the prefaces to most books of Italian art song) we talked about the Italian comfortability with the body, and the use of the hands while speaking. We watched some clips of Il Commissario Montalbano to show these in practice. I love that show. The Italian speaker’s use of the hands isn’t a stereotypical waving around; there is a specific and varied vocabulary of gesture that helps underscore the speaker’s point. I also sent them home with some of those ‘learn Italian’ CDs, telling them not to bother trying to learn the meaning of the words, just imitate the speaker as accurately as possible.

Now, just as in Classical singing, it is extremely important to the characterization that every character speaking Italian knows the meaning of every word he or she is speaking. I mean to say, test them on that. What does that word mean? Which words are the most important to the sentence? This seems like a tall order to people who have experience trying to learn a language, but not classical singing. The hard part about learning a language is usually the construction of sentences. Here, all the grammar is done for you. Your job is to know what you are saying.

If you are Music Directing and playing simultaneously, may I suggest a list of spots you should start woodshedding right now?

1) The acrobatic figure from The Light In The Piazza that trips up so many pianists must be carefully practiced. On page 21 and 137, it appears in D. On page 188, it’s in E flat. When you start to play it in E flat, it’ll feel very funny indeed. I’ll share some tips about how to think about it later.

2) Have a look at that passage on page 25 “Transition to Uffizi”. It’s harder than it looks.

3) Especially if you’re not planning to hire a guitarist, please look at American Dancing. It doesn’t play very well on the piano.

4) The opening of The Beauty Is is actually easier than it looks, until you play it on page 167, where the new key of E feels a little odd.

5) The passage on page 53 at the beginning of 5b is a monster. I’ll confess, I don’t think I played it perfectly at any point in the run, and it isn’t cued into the other instruments. If each measure was a single chord, it would be one thing, but there are three per measure. It’s very hard at tempo, and it also comes in several keys. Here in E flat, on page 56 in D, and on page 59 in E. I found that the work I did in one key did not help my performance in another key; it was like they were totally unrelated. Get out your metronome and slowly work that tempo up. Yeah. Look at that.

6) Passeggiata part 2, page 56, the whole page. Not really all that hard to play, kind of hard to think about.

7) Look at the crazy part at measure 46 in Hysteria.

8) Measures 27-28 and 53-55 in Say it Somehow. Not for the faint of heart.

9) It isn’t SO bad, but spend some time in Aiutami until the groove feels solid to you.

10) Not hard to play, but hard to feel: Love to Me, (the whole number)

11) The second half of Fable, particularly page 211.

12) Look at the very last page of the Exit Music. I’m not kidding. You won’t look at it until the night before you open, and then it will come out of nowhere to bite you.

After day 3, my guitarist told me I was slipping a little and that I needed to keep cueing everything. Nobody in the show can afford to rest on yesterday’s performance; I wound up building a pretty extensive pre-show musical prep, running the hardest parts as though they were fight calls.


1. Overture

It’s very important to note that the licensed materials that come when you rent the show do NOT include the overture as it appears in the original cast recording. All the material in that overture exists in various parts of the show, if you wanted to reconstruct it, but they are not in the correct keys everywhere they occur, and are at any rate, not orchestrated here as they are on the C.D. I mention this, because if your director choreographs the overture, you will need to scramble to reconstruct it, and if you do, you’ll probably be violating your licensing agreement. If you need some reference point for the overture that appears here, refer to the Lincoln Center production video that appears on YouTube. Be careful to observe the subtle tempo changes when Clara’s voice comes in. I will discuss the accompanimental figures in the piano when they arise later in the score for their respective numbers. The main melody here, though, is never given a lyric throughout the work. The ‘Ah’ vowel and the various vocalise passages need to be given a framework, I think, for your sake, and for the sense of the passages as they appear in the production. In a purely technical sense, I suspect that since Guettel writes all the musical material before he writes any lyric, passages like this one were probably sung on some neutral syllable before they were given a lyric. But where in Myths and Hymns and in Floyd Collins, the vocalise serves a sort of ecstatic function, in Light in the Piazza, they almost certainly serve as a metaphor for a feeling that goes beyond language. This idea is made explicit in the first act Finale, Say it Somehow. Clara is singing an ecstatic feeling that goes beyond words.

At the end of the overture are several accompaniment figures we will encounter later in the song The Light In The Piazza. They require further discussion, but I’ll save that for the songs where they feature prominently.

2. Statues and Stories (Parts 1 and 2)

This is such a terrific opening number, and immediately throws you into Guettel’s musical world. A tempo marking with a specific mood. (we will see a lot of this) This says, “With an intimate energy”. Try to find that space. The active tenor line in the left hand that colors the tonality of the piece with those G#s, against the G naturals in the bottom of the right hand remind me strongly of the similar function in the chorus of Come To Jesus in Myths and Hymns. The G# acts as a Lydian #4, which is the typical go-to scale alteration for MT composers since The Little Mermaid whenever excitement or exaltation is implied. But this is no “Part of Your World“; Guettel continually reasserts G natural against it, calling its optimism into question. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the G# represents Clara’s wide eyed excitement and hope, and the G natural is her mother’s more cautious and protective stance. At measures 15 and 16, Clara asserts the G# in the vocal line. Margaret sings the G natural a measure later. Later in the piece, other sharps will be asserted against the tonality, D#, A#, E#, all come into play, but we’re not really modulating into A, E, B, or F#. No, these are just insinuations of brighter possibilities built into the texture of the accompaniment.

As you’re beginning to rehearse the number, make careful note of the pitches at 23 and 24 (“Was there a king, was there a queen?”) and the similar moment at 48 and 49. (“Go on and tell me what they mean…”) Those are tricky pitches, and close enough isn’t good enough. And may I point out that this rhyme takes 25 measures to pay off?

The dynamic indications beginning around measure 34 are important, they underscore this driving, contracting, pulsating build to 41, that immediately drops back again. It should feel like a living, breathing thing. And that odd moving line, which is so key to Guettel’s musical argument, should lead the charge. I say odd, because it’s a chromatically moving parallel 9th, beginning at G and A in 35 and moving up and back down by half steps with the dynamic change. The rest of the piano part is a kind of unchanging B minor chord with an added 11, dipping back to E briefly, before establishing a dominant pedal that will drop us back into G. At that moment (“On a central square…”) we suspect that the whole first 45 measures have been in a kind of dominant waiting for this payoff to the true key of G. (which also happens to have a lydian raised 4th scale degree of C#, canceled by C natural in the right hand) The key change also places the women’s voices in a higher range and creates a joyous release.

How wonderful this next set of details is, and how much it rewards close examination: Margaret says, “You can feel it”, and Clara echoes her, again Margaret says, “You can follow”, and Clara again echoes, Margaret finishes the thought “… the spark”, but Clara does not echo, she bursts out with, “We’re on vacation!”, which will get a laugh of delight out of any audience that isn’t comatose. Then a further following: “From an age to an age…” “in Firenze…” etc. Margaret is telling Clara what to look for in Florence. File those moments away; in the extension, they pays off magnificently. Make a note of the descending pitches of Clara’s line in measure 62, the subtonic VII chord can be hard to hear. This section cadences in D. Perhaps we were in D all along?

Now onto part 2: you may wind up having too much underscore at the beginning here: measures 23 and 24 can be cut, if that’s the case. Note that the verse we began the song with has become underscore, and our mother and daughter begin singing at the arrival of the chorus in G. And here we find our first instance of extension and slight alteration that Guettel employs throughout the show. It is also our first potential ‘wrong exit’

Let’s start with the payoff of the earlier ‘echo’ passage. Who is leading and who following in measure 34 of part 2? They’ve switched: Clara begins, “You can feel it”, and Margaret echoes. Clara sings, “You can follow”, and Margaret FOLLOWS! (microcosm of the show right off the bat) Then an extension, with a deeply satisfying and very subtle touch. Guettel has added two measures, 36-37, that weren’t there the earlier time, and he places a stomach turning low C octave in the left hand that is deeply dissonant against the F# of the melody and the C# that happens on beat 3. The low octave against the prevailing harmony is a time-honored Musical Theatre trope, used most memorably at the conclusion of West Side Story, where it puts the lie to the optimism of “Somewhere“. Here, I puzzled about it, since it immediately gets sunnier in measure 38, until I realized that it occurs right at the moment where MARGARET starts to follow. It must be her moment; it will not be easy for her to do the following. To take it a step further, Clara sings here “We’re on vacation!”, her mother echoes, and then random chorus people are drawn in, pulling the excitement, and the music, if not the words, into Firenze itself. Remember that in this piece, singing without words is a heightened expression beyond language.

And now some technical detail: Note that Margaret and Clara sing “It ignited there…” together the second time, and then Clara starts the next passage, not Margaret. If this way happens the first time, or if the other way happens this second time, you will be in the wrong part of the song. Clarify the difference here early. There is a further extension at measure 55 and 56, which I don’t see as a potential memorization hazard, but which IS an example of Guettel’s masterful technique of extension. Earlier this C major chord acted as a subtonic VII chord, a substitute for the dominant. But now, Guettel pulls the tonality two chords further out of focus before the arrival of the tonic. (which turns out to be D after all. Maybe we haven’t really arrived.) F major and Bb Major in the key of D are yet another abstraction from the home key, and when we do arrive at the D chord, we get just a couple further G sharps to drive that Lydian point home. And one further eye-opening moment in a SEA of incredible details: at the extension, on the word “finally”, the accompaniment foreshadows Clara’s great groove for “The Beauty Is“. To put a finer point on it, the ‘finally’ they’ve both been waiting for is the beauty of love.

More pedestrian concerns: Apply the subito mp to the chorus at 53; I think it’s implied. I took the F off the tenor line at 56, and the A off on the last chord, adding a D to the altos in 57. Why do Clara and Margaret’s lines CROSS at the moment they sing “finally” and then join together for “here”? By now I don’t need to spell it out for you. Buckle your seatbelts, folks. The whole show is like this.

2b.  Margaret Hat Underscore

Again, there are some figures in here that I will go through in greater detail later, but this is the famous hat moment, which will potentially take your entire tech day. Lining up Fabrizio’s entrance requires him to hear the rest of the melody, before his entrance. Starting at 27, the upper stave has that melody which will later appear in the number “The Light In The Piazza”: “…everywhere, it’s everywhere, it’s everything and everywhere…”, and then Fabrizio introduces himself on the line that Clara will ultimately sing his name on in the later number. The melody at 27 differs rhythmically from the version we know later. Could this be what the tune sounded like before the lyric was added? This moment after the hat foreshadows moments that happen later in the show that the two characters don’t themselves sing; Clara will sing Fabrizio’s name in “The Light in The Piazza”, and at the very end of “Fable”, Margaret says “Clara” at this moment in the melody. When Clara reaches that moment in her version of the song, there is no singing in that part of the tune. I believe that in West Side Story, every major tune gets a pre-reprise, where it appears in some other form before it’s proper introduction. In its own way, this is like that; foreshadowing. As Joseph P. Swain writes about West Side in his magisterial The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey, “This curious practice of giving the listener advance notice of important melodies to come… can only have a dramatic explanation…the forward direction of such references builds a sense of destiny…”

2c. Margaret Aside 1

Straightforward underscore.

2d. Transition to Uffizi

Marked ‘Sweeping”. Very MGM. You’re going to be playing this figure a lot in the show, and for the most part, it feels pretty natural. Again we find ourselves in territory very like Guettel’s earlier “Come to Jesus” or the very end of “The Riddle Song” from Floyd Collins. Again we also have that sharp 4th scale degree, both before and after the key change. In his other shows, the repeated answering figure in the right hand either comes as a little triplet up and down figure in each beat, or as a repeating figure that plays the bottom of the chord first and then up to the other notes over and over, each time going up. Pretty consistently in this show, the figure goes down one beat and up the next. Funnily enough, after playing this show for a couple of months, my right hand wouldn’t properly play the similar figures in Every Day A Little Death. I kept Guettel-izing them.

2e. Tour Guide

This charming waltz is actually music from Fable re-arranged and disguised. (another pre-reprise) This connection indicates to me that the scene is in a way from Margaret’s point of view. Marked “A Confection”, which is both more specific and more inscrutable than any tempo marking you’re likely to find in another show.

3. The Beauty Is

I often tell this story because it floored me when it happened: Matt Boresi and I were working on an opera, and I had written an aria for a coloratura soprano that had an acrobatic little accompaniment I was proud of. Matt took a trip to New York and saw Piazza. He came back and said, “You know, you’re going to be surprised when you hear this, because some of it sounds like the music you’re working on.” Sure enough, when the recording came out and I had a listen to it, the opening accompaniment for The Beauty Is was strikingly like this passage I had written, even though I had never heard Guettel’s song, and Guettel certainly had never heard mine. I use this as an example of how some ideas are kind of in-the-air, and it isn’t so much plagiarism that pieces sound similar as it is the fact that we are all experiencing the same cultural stimuli, so some things wind up popping up in multiple places. Specifically, I think I had listened to Guettel’s Riddle Song from Floyd Collins so frequently, that I was able to triangulate the idea into something similar to where Guettel was headed next. In turn, I think Guettel had been channeling Copland. The Riddle Song has overtones of Billy the Kid and Rodeo.

The Beauty Is has established itself firmly in the Soprano MT repertoire from day 1, and most theatre pianists have worked out its eccentricities long ago. But if this is your first time in the pool, the main figure has something happening on every single 16th note of the measure, and the hand positions are easy. So if at first you stumble, just slow it down. We have here all the hallmarks of Guettel’s harmonic style, the interior lines moving slightly by half step, blurring the tonality, even as we are firmly, and very functionally in G.

The thing that makes the Ab minor section at the Piu Mosso so inviting and warm is the descending harmony. Pick any line in the piano part and follow it and you’ll see it dropping. In fact, it drops for pages. The accompaniment pattern is one of Guettel’s favorites, a gentle offbeat pattern we’ll see again in Dividing Day and Let’s Walk. In other places, we’ve seen Guettel using chromatic tones to color a harmonically static passage; this passage is actually on the move, and it’s settling into darker and darker tonalities.

In measures 19-20 and 35-36 are tricky spots that many performers have floundered on. These are two different roads leading in two different directions. Be clear from the very first run through which tune is which, or you’ll be very discordant against the accompaniment. Measure 46 may require some practice for the accompanist; despite that E natural in the bass, this winds up quickly becoming an Eb7 arpeggio, which isn’t what you’d expect on first reading. Be sure Clara can feel the entrance on beat 4. This isn’t rubato, she’s in tempo there.

Again we have some masterful extensions at work here; you may not even know you’re hearing them. The passage from measure 44-46 is a left turn from what happened at measure 10-18, and measures 57-71 are an extended coda that totally veer off from what happened from 29-30. The form of this piece is really quite extraordinary. Melodic countours remain, but all the notes change. Similar harmonies drop us off in totally new territories, and repeated sections don’t last the same amount of time or end the same way. Look at the repetition on page 34 of the phrase, “This is wanting something”, using the same melodic contour down a step, then extending it as Sondheim would with a continuation of a pattern just a little further. And then look at the introduction of the octatonic scale at measure 56, used in the same way Jack does in into the woods, “…and you look below and the world you know begins to grow…”, full of expectation and perhaps fear. It’s only 5 notes, but the octatonic scale at 56 is a beautiful and dramatic touch. There’s another octatonic passage in 47 if you’re looking. There are too many details to mention here!

A few musical considerations: Be prepared to run the little motoric counterfigure at the very beginning with the orchestra; it takes a while to line it up right. That ensemble is very important there;  the orchestra is very exposed. The C in the vocal line at measure 59, “I’ve got a feeling” should not be a D flat, (see bassline for the reason you may hear it wrong). Have a plan for how to tackle that vowel, “He‘s just a someone too…” That’s a tough e vowel there, and we don’t want it to sound strangled. On the second “when you realize…” in measure 65, the D flat repeats. This is a change from the contour of the earlier 2 measures. I found the piu mosso a little tricky. Her note is tied over the bar, and you the MD have to assert the downbeat to go on. At the very end, my feeling of the ritard in 69 made it easier for us to play the measure in 4/4 with the last 2 eights changed to quarters. That may work for you too.

Aside from being one of the high-water marks for show songs in this century, this number establishes Clara’s wonder, romanticism, and joy; it’s the first major pillar of the show, supporting everything that happens afterward.

4. Il Mondo Era Vuoto (Parts 1 and 2)

This is Fabrizio’s first big moment, and it’s a doozy. Up until now in the show, Guettel has not modulated much; his effects are largely color and ambiguity within a single key, and the large scale modulations between key that there are function in the old fashioned way, like the modulation from D to G and back in the opening number. Here, Guettel cranks they key up by whole steps for what seems to have been intended as comic effect. As Fabrizio gets more and more excited, the key keeps ratcheting higher and higher. But it doesn’t really play as comedy, it plays as hyper-romanticism, until Signor interrupts him, and there you will get a laugh.

Again we find ourselves in very unstable harmonic territory. The bassline is a stable A flat pedal for much of the first page, but every other degree in the harmony is altered. In fact, all 12 tones appear in the first 4 measures. Again we find ingenious extensions, made more difficult by the fact that this time the lyrics don’t change to help us remember them. Let me lay those alterations out for you; as you’re music directing this, you must make many of these subtle changes explicit; not all of them will be ‘felt’ until they’ve been ‘thought’, if you follow me.

a) Measure 26 sure feels like a second A section (repeating what happened in measure 5), but it quickly overshoots the D flat and abruptly arrives at the chorus (“Clara!”)

b) The modulation into 4a is abrupt and tricky (note that he modulates down, so we have somewhere to go) Guettel has dropped us off after the chorus, at what we might call the bridge. Measure 6 is analogous to measure 49 in part 1, but it doesn’t go to “dormivo”, it skips even more abruptly backward to the chorus “Clara!” This time through, the section has an extension of the “sei tu” phrase. Your actor may have some trouble making sense of the time signatures there; the 5/4 measure followed by a 4/4 measure might be felt as 3+2+2+2. There is another modulation, and yet one further modulation takes us back to the chorus, but only 4 measures of it, because then we’re back to an altered version of the coda from the first half, interrupted briefly, and then concluding with an orchestral flourish that is clearly a cousin to the last few measures of The Beauty Is. The two introductory numbers for these characters are meant to be a matched pair.

The obsession with the name “Clara” is another parallel to “Maria” in West Side Story, where the name also becomes a mantra.

Other musical details requiring attention:

This is a number where a modern musical theatre rock tenor production simply will not do. Scooping up into the notes with a changing vowel position is here totally against the Italian spirit. That doesn’t mean it needs to sound like an opera aria, but let’s put it this way: The music itself does the job of being over-the-top and emotive. Adding any extraneous mannerisms, especially mannerisms associated with modern popular styles works against what the song is already doing. If you have a long Italian line, perhaps one learned from a teacher with a classical background, all the better!  It’s marked ‘With Italian Lyricism.’ Try to find out what that means, as you are able. The dialogue on page 42 has no safeties, so the underscore just has to time out. Fortunately, if the actors aren’t hamming it up too much, it works out. But the actor playing Fabrizio has to have a good idea of what the end of that underscore sounds like so he can know when to land part 4a. Throughout, the piano part has many dynamic changes that are important to building the long-term crescendo Guettel is asking for. Observe, for example, the precipitous decrescendo in measure 17 of part 2, or the crescendo from ff louder into measure 27. In other words, pace yourself and give it some levels. I found it difficult to get the orchestra to feel measures 40 and 41 in 3 out of nowhere. I wound up changing them to 6/8, and head-conducting them in 2.

I hope now you are beginning to see the particular charms of Guettel’s careful construction of this music based on structural alterations. One finds this kind of manipulation of materials in the micro level in Sondheim often,  but rarely do we find the large scale sections re-arranged as deftly as we do here, made all the more impressive because of how difficult it is to manage the seams between these re-ordered and extended passages in the middle of very subtle tonal shifts.

5. American Dancing

This is a delightful moment in the show, if you like, it’s the dress shop from West Side, only for the boys.

It reminds me a bit of “Is That Remarkable?” from Floyd Collins. Guettel taught himself to play the guitar for Floyd Collins, mostly in non-standard tunings, and this fun guitar part is also built around an alternate tuning. A pro guitarist will not need to alter the tuning of the guitar, though; the thing is perfectly playable in a standard tuning. I have to say, this is one place in the show where the lack of a guitar in the reduced orchestration is really felt. The part doesn’t work idiomatically on the piano at all, and the guitar is wonderful. I gave a strong 1 to start the piece off, then added my piano punctuation from the top staff where it was needed. Be sure you’re there when they block the number; there are actually cues in the music to align.

The last 4 measures are bells leading into the next scene. They are derived from the Passeggiata accompaniment. (another pre-reprise)

5a. Margaret Aside 2

This is a pre-reprise from two different numbers. The first two measures are what I’m going to call the ‘wedge motive’ from “The Joy You Feel”. I’ll go into greater detail on that when we get to the number itself. The wedge motive shows up when a character is trying to drive two others apart. The section starting at 3 is the opening motive of “Fable“. I have an interesting connection to make there, but again, you’ll get it later.

5b. Piazzale Michelangelo

Another foreshadowing: the passeggiata theme.

5c. Punctuation

This is kind of like the passeggiata theme upside down in a way. It does need to time out with the dialogue, so keep an eye on it during the scene work.

6 Passegiata (Parts 1-3)

‘Bells and Sunlight’ is the tempo marking we’re given here, another specific and odd marking. There was some interest when the show first came out about the fact that Guettel had so prominently featured a waltz, because it seemed to be a bold move into territory well mapped by his grandfather Richard Rodgers. I can’t resist making a connection here, but I won’t spell it all out, because I’m hoping to write a paper on this topic.

In 1964-1965, Guettel’s grandfather Rodgers, his mentor Stephen Sondheim, and the also legendary Arthur Laurents wrote a musical about Americans in Italy called Do I Hear A Waltz?, presumably completing much of it while Adam Guettel was in utero. If this team had produced West Side with Bernstein, then Gypsy with Styne, Rodgers in the composer position sounds like theatrical heaven, but the collaboration was famously unhappy, and the show did not fare well. Rodgers did not really get along with his collaborators. Sondheim belonged to a newer school of writing that didn’t see things rhythmically as square as he did.

In his fabulous book Finishing The Hat, Sondheim writes: “Unlike Lenny [Bernstein] and even Jule [Styne] who had come from a thirty-two-bar song tradition, Rodgers mistrusted any song whose measures didn’t add up to a multiple of four, or at least two. I would bring him the sketch of a lyric on music paper with a suggested rhythmic notation attached, and he wouldn’t even read it until he had counted the bars, usually by tapping on my sketch with a pencil in authoritarian skepticism; woe betide me if it turned out to be an odd number.”

The title number of that show is, naturally a waltz, but one that has an odd little accent in it, where the rhyme punches the weak bar in a funny way:

Do I hear a waltz?

Oh my dear, don’t you hear a waltz?

The tune has some terrific little harmonic left-turns in it, (Rodgers was no fuddy duddy harmonically) but the phrase lengths are very square. I suspect if Sondheim had set the lyric to music himself, he would have barreled directly into the next phrase with very little pause, but Rodgers gives some extra measures of chunk-chunk after the second line so that the phrase is symmetrical.

I see Guettel’s insertion of a prominent waltz into this romantic score not only as a daring entry into his grandfather’s prime territory, but also as a rejection of his grandfather’s phrasing regularities. Passeggiata is very irregular in phrase length, to an important dramatic end: Fabrizio doesn’t speak English well. If he’s going to be charming, it won’t be on account of his ability to turn a perfect phrase; the suavity of the waltz so deeply imprinted on our cultural memory is here chopped up and served back to us as a jumble of different phrase lengths. As in “Il Mondo”, where Fabrizio drops into an occasional 5/4 meter and truncates the second A to get to the chorus, here he begins a new phrase whenever the mood strikes and modulates up just as freely.

Come with me (2 bars)

Walk with me (2 bars)

Walking (1 bar)

In my city (3 bars)

Una (1 bar)

Passeggiata (3 bars)

You and I (4 bars)

Note that many of these phraselets begin on a weak beat, adding a breathlessness to the proceedings. On the word ‘evening’, Guettel displaces the C up the octave and heads out into new territory again. The triplets and quadruplets in the bridge sing very naturally but count very oddly. Don’t be afraid of them. Note that the modulation from measure 60 to 61 is changed to a quadruplet and extended by one note to pull us up into measure 86. Clever, no? Keep your Fabrizio honest about the difference between measures 100-111 here in part 1 vs. the same passage at the end of part 3, again a wrong turn will be a big mess. If you hire the full orchestra, 6a is something you can conduct, I think. But do look at the passage on page 61, it’s a Stravinsky moment, where the melodic material is sliced and diced and thrown into unexpected places. Spend a lot of time rehearsing pages 61 and 62. They need to feel very improvisatory and free, but they must actually be in strict tempo, except in the 6 measure colla voce passage. The bit at 41 is something we heard in 5c. (is it the crazy descending passeggiata figure inverted?) At that earlier moment, it had happened right next to the dialogue about milk. Here’s where that joke pays off. Yes, I’m telling you the show is so carefully constructed that a few bars of underscore musically connects to the payoff of that scene in the middle of another number.

In part 3, Fabrizio breaks away from the burden of language for the first time in measure 33. Popping up to the G flat in measure 43 is kind of tricky; Morrison floated it, I think.

One other detail: If you need more time in part 1 before measure 26, you’ll find 22 and 23 make a passable repeat safety.

6c. Transition to Tea Scene

Another acrobatic piano underscore along the lines of the Transition to Uffizi, with the insertion of a new figure at 21, which will pay off during the octet. This is another foreshadowing, because the jealousy setup between Franca and Clara pays off over this very music in the Octet.

6d. Che Gorgioso!

It’s just a chord, right? No. This chord is from measure 59 of  “Fable” on the first word of “Fairy tale”, on the moment Clara registers her happiness at Fabrizio’s home.

7. The Joy You Feel

This is a really tough and quite odd number, but the level of interesting detail here is a thing to marvel at. The right hand of the first accompanying figure is in 4. The left is in either 5/8 or 5/4, depending on how you like to think of it. So right off the bat you have two things that are out of kilter. And then what I call the ‘wedge motive’. Wedge Motive

Leave the C off, and you’ll see that the top of the phrase ascends, A flat, B flat, C. The bottom of the phrase descends E natural, E flat, D natural. Like a wedge; the wedge Franca appears to be trying to drive between Fabrizio and Clara. The wedge happens a few more times in the song, notably at measure 42, where it begins on the same f, but telescopes all the way out to a minor ninth, D to D flat. The next place in the show where the wedge will return is in Signora’s English solo in Aiutami, where she takes much longer to telescope out from A down to D flat and up to E flat. (pages 125-126) Immediately after that, on page 128, Giuseppe and Franca sing the wedge motive on Ah in a new harmonic context.

The Joy You Feel is a wild ride musically. On page 71, the vocal line has 11 of the 12 tones, and that’s why it’s important to establish the bassline that holds it all together; I’d play the lowest note on the staff every time you play through the vocal line for the singer. In what is now a very familiar musical turn, the second A moves after 4 measures into similar, but different territory. The section at 19 marked ‘Baroque Innocence’ is a welcome tonal respite, but not for long. The counting from 31 to 36 is tricky at first; you may want to just feel quarter notes and not bother trying to find downbeats. The accompaniment at many places in this number is at direct odds with what the singer is singing. If after some time spent playing melody and bassline, your singer can’t sing the melody accurately a capella, the rest of the accompaniment will only muddy things further. I added the E in the right hand of 37.

Notice the return of the accompaniment figure from Il Mondo under the words “Though truly happy you must beware”. Note that this is the same figure as the earlier wedges, except that the pickup C has been displaced up an octave, just as Fabrizio’s vocal line had done in Passeggiata. I added a crescendo in the last measure when the orchestra arrived, and the double bass added a nice punch. Don’t forget to encourage your clarinet to dig in in measures 40 and 41 too, that’s a cool moment.

7a. Margaret Aside 3

I wish I knew where those first 6 measures came from. Somebody please tell me. The music from 7-17 is straight from “Fable” at the end of the show, and it does its job well here, underscoring Margaret’s increasing concern.

7b. After Tea

I’m pretty sure this would have been easy to cue if I had been conducting instead of playing, but it wound up being difficult to conduct the first measure from the piano. A strong head nod 4 with a glance at the strings on beat 2 to prep 3 will do the trick.

8. Dividing Day

This is simply exquisite. I’ve included a little graphic of the bassline of the first 20 measures. It isn’t a true Schenkerian analysis, but I’ve shown the register transfers and made smaller the notes in the bassline that aren’t relevant. I’ve also simplified the pattern to half notes so that you can see clearly what’s going on. Guettel’s subterranean bass is in full flower here, pulling G minor chromatically downward kind of like a baroque passacaglia bassline, except it isn’t an ostinato. Note these chromatic descents, three times beginning on G, the third being an incredibly long descent from E flat hitting every note except B natural the first time down, and then with an octave displacement continuing the descent, this time hitting every chromatic pitch from that E flat to the F#, at which point the game changes.Dividing Day Bassline

In The Beauty is, this descending harmony felt like a homecoming. Here, I think it does pull the same sorts of strings that the old Passacagglia ground bass or the Chaconne bassline indicated for European cultural memory in the 18th century and earlier. You may remember it from the classic go-to passacaglia music textbook examples, “When I am Laid in Earth” from Purcell’s Dido or the bassline in the Crucifixus in the Bach B Minor Mass. In both cases, the theme was death and burial. I don’t think Guettel expects us to hear this as Baroque. After all, when he wants us to hear Baroque, he asks for it, like he did in the middle of “The Joy You Feel.” I think that when people with experience listening to western tonal music hear that descending chromatic bassline, the psychological implication is one of instability, because the foundations of the chords are no longer solidly diatonic, and one of dread, because the bass isn’t just unstable, it’s continually dropping. This is the work of a master.

The actress singing this will need to think about vocal production. This is the lower of the two extremes for her character, I think chest voice is needed. It seems to me the opening needs to be almost parlando, a quiet resignation. But I think the singer who digs into that chest too much may wind up throwing off the production needed later in the show. Perhaps not, but do keep an ear out for that; This role is a marathon, not a sprint. Let me note in passing that Margaret’s vocal line walks down in tandem much of the time with the bassline or moves up in opposition to it. They are partners in the opening sections. The melody G-A in measures 37-38 and the subsequent A-Bb are different. I don’t recall how Victoria Clark sings this, but I think many women singing this have those notes at the bottom of the range, so there isn’t a distinct difference between those two spots. Make that clear.

On a side note here, there is an absolutely exquisite countermelody in the 5 part orchestration of this for the piano from measure 32 to 43 that I can’t find in the full orchestration. I mean to say, if you play it sensitively, you will weep. I don’t know where it came from, but I don’t think it’s in both orchestrations.

Getting back to the big harmonic story Guettel is telling here, at that new section where the previous analysis stopped, the chord progression feels much more grounded. If you like, measures 32 and 33 are Em7, with one of those Guettel chromaticisims muddying up the 5th, then a Bm7 chord with the same chromatic fuzziness in the bottom of the right hand, on the 7th of the chord. Then a left turn into a fully diminished G chord, which turns to C7, then D/F#, then Bm7/F#. That’s not all that odd, notwithstanding the color notes in the right hand. This harmonic stability (at least for Guettel) reads to the listener like arrival. Her words here are acceptance and resignation.

Guettel returns to his descending bassline, but quickly pulls his trick of truncating the section to get to meatier matters. The vocal line traces a fully diminished chord in 43, which reads as anguish, and the passage from 44-47 harkens back to the contour of the melody at 32. What follows after this A section that has been brutally but poignantly altered is an underscore to… nothing. I believe in the first production she lit a cigarette and thought. In your production, you’ll have to see whether your actress and your theatrical space allow for this kind of moment. It’s a very bold gambit.

When the voice comes in, you’ll discover the telltale Guettel changes here and there, most notably in 71, where Margaret sings an F natural against the F# of the bassline. It’s only a 16th note, but we should try to tune it anyway, no? The melody on 42 is now repeated 3 times, and the tracing of the diminished chord we heard on “Suddenly you’re out of love” is sung here as “Hiding what you couldn’t say…”, then an inserted measure moves us up a minor third to sing it higher for “Was my cheek upon your chest?”, then a devastating coda leads us to the kind of high spare 5th musical theatre uses to signify that a character is totally desolated.

9. Hysteria/Lullaby

You don’t get much time off before your next jump into the deep end of the pool, and Guettel brings out every crazy modernist device to paint this disorienting picture, taking the kinds of things he did in “I Landed on Him” from Floyd Collins and going even further. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that the little figure at the beginning of Hysteria is a Stravinskyized version of The Light In The Piazza, which means it’s a pre-reprise. It’s tricky to get that Clara entrance at measure 9. When I did it, I attached it to the rising 16th note figure right before she comes in. The figure at 13 is a polyrhythm. The left hand is in groups of 3, the right in groups of 4. The accompaniment at 22 is a pre-reprise of Signora’s line “if there are suspicions I encourage them…” in Aiutami and also appears slightly differently in the Octet as “The diving underneath, the diving down…” It’s also parallel major 9ths, which give it that odd flavor.  At 31, you can hear in the accompaniment the repeated phrase, “Clara”, which will be sung by Margaret later. Over that accompaniment, Clara keeps saying her name. She will then sing this melody at 35 that she has already established as a self-comforting nursery rhyme. We will come to discover at the end of the number that this tune is a nursery rhyme Margaret has used to comfort her since childhood, and that Clara is here using it as a mantra. 31-34 is  marked “Unanchored, Twilight Zone”, but I promise you, you must perform it in strict rhythm, and play out those tiny notes to help Clara find her next entrance. I took a slight accel. leading to the 6/4 measure. Measure 44 looks hard, but just play it with the actress a hundred times and you’ll be fine. Use measure 45 to plant the tempo firmly, because you’ll be lucky to get the following 6 measures together with the orchestra. If you are conducting from the piano, you will not have to actually play the part notated on the top staff, but you should take a few moments to actually internalize the rhythm and contour of the thing, to help your orchestra manage it. That wild piano figure is a funhouse mirror version of The Light in The Piazza accompaniment. Clara’s pitch at 51 is very hard to hear. You will need to go over it many times. And now, something you may not have noticed: The passage on page 95 is an odd musical palindrome. It’s the opening melody of Passegiata, in 2 keys. Clara is singing it in G, Fabrizio in E. The music goes forward to measure 60, and then plays each measure forward in reverse order. That’s why it sounds so odd. You can see from the measure numbers that this was done in rehearsal. I have copied my page of the score so you can see what I mean:Hysteria Palindrome

Again, you must assert the meter at 68 so that your group can play this oddball melody with a good sense of ensemble. Also note that the first violin part at 73 and in 74-75 is extremely difficult. It should sound dissonant, but not like a mess. It is possible, just very hard.

For some reason, even though there’s absolutely no tonal center on page 96, Margaret’s entrance isn’t all that hard to hear, especially if you’ve done it a number of times. She needs to sing it in tempo, but totally ignore what’s going on downstairs. The clarinet is playing the melody in another key, the celeste and vibes are playing a tone cluster, and the cello is sliding around portamento from note to note. Eventually the bassoon comes in, playing in yet a third tonality. Margaret needs to ignore all that, and just sing it in C. Measures 88a through 95 are pretty straightforward, and then Margaret introduces a melody which will be the linchpin of her culminating “Fable“. Tellingly, Margaret will begin humming where she would have sung, “…where there’s a man who looks for you.” Margaret can’t admit a man into her fairytale for Clara. Not yet.

9a. Hotel Bar

Very free and open ended scene change music, which foreshadows a passage in “Say it Somehow”

9b. Fabrizio at the Door

Obviously this is from Il Mondo. The crescendo at the end makes the cutoff very effective.

10. Say it Somehow

This is one of the most difficult songs in a very difficult show. It’s where the audience first gets to see the physical attraction of the couple, and it’s the point when they break through their language barrier into that Guettelian third level, where only the ecstatic language of music is necessary. When Guettel is working out a pop-song groove, we see these kinds of patterns in the piano. The athletic pianism goes away, and the accompaniment begins (at least at first) with a simple pop assertion of the beat. We see this in Saturn Returns and Awaiting You from Myths and Hymns (Saturn Returns), parts of Daybreak and the simpler parts of How Glory Goes from Floyd Collins. In each of these cases, Guettel seems to be reaching for simplicity, but he isn’t content to stay there long, and what starts with a harmonically static C major chord with an added 9th for 5 and a half measures quickly starts drifting into exotic territory, B flat minor superimposed over C minor, A flat chords, C flat 9 chords, and floating above an improvisatory vocal line with Guettel’s trademark rhythmic dodginess. Clara’s entrance splits the &2& of the first half of the bar 4 ways. Not exactly Elliot Carter, but  not what you’re used to finding in a showtune. This is what I was referring to in my last post: it looks awful on the page, but it fits in the voice very naturally.

Fabrizio’s verse extends the passage by several measures in a couple of places. Quickly the two are singing in parallel 3rds and 6ths, which is music’s way of saying that these two are of one mind and heart. The “you are good…”s that repeat and are pulled back into weak beats are a repetition of excitement. And now we come to the hardest vocal moment of the show. The passage beginning in measure 27 is hard to hear and hard to sing, you get only sporadic help from the piano, which is so counter-intuitive that if you’re playing it as the MD, it will take much of your attention just to play the notes correctly, and to make matters worse, you need to memorize two versions of this, because the one in measures 53-55 has an extension that is really difficult to keep separated in your mind. The difference begins in 28 and 54 respectively. You need to plan for this issue before you start teaching the number, because if you pound in the first version too hard, it will make the other version harder to keep distinct in the mind. I’m afraid the orchestra will not be helpful. They don’t play the piano part consistently enough to help you on that front, nor does anyone play only the melody all the way through. It’s very exposed, it’s very hard, and it’s where you will either feel very good of very poorly about the kinds of singers you cast in these parts. (I felt good, FYI) In measure 44, you should know that the clarinet part ties over to the next measure. Not knowing that, I rehearsed it with a grand pause before 45 that I needed to clear out. At measures 25 and 51, I think the C on the word “the” in the cast recording is sung as a different pitch. Make note, it’s different than the D flat that comes a beat later. The last 17 measures align with stage action, and your actors may well need to hear the melody, which you will have trouble playing while simultaneously filling in the piano part. I wound up singing the top staff part badly as I played so they could work out their action for that passage.

A theme to follow in this number and elsewhere is the idea of knowing someone. “I feel known”, sings Clara in The Beauty Is. “Look at me!”, Clara says to Fabrizio after Franca has frightened her. “I know that you know me”, the lovers sing to one another here, right before the ascending “Ah”s. In Light in The Piazza, one of the essences of love is to know and to be known, a thing that does not require language, only the presence of the beloved. After the final underscore, the act break gives you a welcome rest before you tackle the equally difficult Act 2.

11. Entr’acte

Easy. Except in 17-22, which you aren’t used to playing in this key. Maybe you don’t want to wait for the day your orchestra comes to practice this. Note: no ritard at the end.

I also love how when Margaret gets nervous, she takes Clara from Florence, the seat of beauty and culture to Rome, the seat of imperial power, amid the ruins of the Empire. Not sure everyone gets that who sees the show.

12. Aiutami

Again, a very difficult number, but by no means impossible. I found the very beginning of the number to time out well when I took my cue from “CLA-RA!”, 3, 4, ka-chun-ka-chun-ka,  and so forth. It helped our Fabrizio land that opening, and it helped me establish tempo. The time signatures here work well for the MD, but some players noted they were thinking of it differently. Honestly, whatever works. The bassline ostinato does help ground things well, but I’ll give you a hint on teaching ALL the parts that fit over that accompaniment from 7-22. When the accompaniment fills out, it obscures the clear harmonic underpinning of the passage, which simply alternates between A minor and B fully diminished 7. Like so:Aiutami example


Teach all the parts from 7-22, from 24-59, from 88-131 over that kind of alternating chord progression. Every part will work well, and will ground itself over the harmonic structure of the piece. Signor Nacarelli’s part at 40 is an octatonic scale until 48, when it turns whole tone. The part at 60 looks hard, but we made short work of it. Work out how you’re going to get into the next section with Signora. Either build it off the end of her line or if you have a good sightline, work out a conductor cue. 63-71 has an octatonic melody over a very West Side Story “Jet Song” accompaniment. Measures 72-73 are diatonic, if odd, and 74-77 are in whole tone scales descending by half step. Budget some time for this, even if your Signora is an excellent musician, as ours was. At 78, Signora has a version of our earlier wedge idea, and it goes against the piano harmony somewhat, so you should learn it without the accompaniment first. It isn’t clearly notated, but in the quasi recitative at 84, put “with-” on 84, “Drama” on 85, “with-” after the downbeat of 86, and the “u” of “Aiutami” on 87, the “With-” after the downbeat of 88, and “help” on 89. You probably would have done that anyway, but it isn’t clear. The next section is hard to put together. For goodness sake, practice playing the wedge theme at 96 before you try to teach it to the singers. And budget some time for your reeds to look at that when you bring your orchestra in. It’s hard. Fabrizio can get his entry at 102 if he hears his earlier melody starting at 96. If you were unable to find a Franca with a high F, you can drop the passage at 108 down the octave. If your Signora doesn’t have that extended top, she can avoid each octave leap on 129 and 130, although I must say, it’s better as written, IF SUNG WELL. After that bit, everyone is singing things they’ve already sung for the most part. At 132, take a cue from the soundtrack for how to carry out that marking at 132: everything goes sharp for 2 measures until it’s just a shriek by the end. Measure 134 is spaced poorly. That big whoosh is only in beat 4. Have a look at it, maybe mark the beats.

13. The Light In The Piazza

The harp figure at the beginning can be a little tricky for the harpist; budget time to rehearse that, or perhaps pull that measure out of context and run it at your orchestra rehearsal. The whole introductory passage is not very intuitive for a pianist, but here are a few tips to get it into shape:

The figure beginning in measure 2 is obviously an arpeggiation of some chords that are in themselves simple. The tricky thing is to roll them down and up in groupings of 6 per beat when the bottom of the chord doesn’t always fall on a strong beat and not every note in the arpeggiation is played both directions. We’re all used to rolling up chords and back down, but these roll down from the strong beats, sometimes from the high A down to the F#, and other times all the way down to the A on the bottom. This leaves the bass note falling in odd spots in the measure. Lock in that top A on each beat, and you’ll be good. Base your initial tempo on the speed you want the vocal line to be in at measure 4. Above all, don’t get bogged down in the detail of the subdivision, focus on the sweep of the passage over the measure in tempo.

Note the indication that the tempo where the vocal comes in should push forward, then pull back once a measure for two measures and then over two measures for the following measures. Also note the melody reaching to a B in measure 5, and to a C# in measure 9.

I can’t be the only person who initially thought of “the” as an upbeat in the title phrase, but it turns out to be the downbeat. It took me a couple of play throughs when I first started looking at this piece years ago to get the feeling of it.

By now every time you see a passage like measures 21 and 22, you should be able to spot it as Guettel. It has both the left hand melody followed by right hand figurations alternating down and up, and then the arpeggiations slipping down and back up through both hands. All this is familiar territory by now, and familiar to pianists who have played this piece. By the time you get to the Piu mosso (“…side I see it, now I see it…”), we take this initial figuration and spread it about as far as it can go. The left hand asserts the pattern in two octaves now, there are a lot of clef changes to attend to, and some big dynamic changes to account for too. This also turns out to be quite difficult to sing, falling in the break of some sopranos, and necessitating clear breath planning. The measures from 51-53 are tricky for everyone involved. I found the best course of action was to explain what’s happening to the actress and the musicians, and then just barrel through and see everyone in measure 54. At the Meno mosso, you’re just a bit slower than before, but in 52, the quadruplet is basically a written-out ritardando, the following measure representing yet a further slowing of the melody’s tempo. Sing that passage while clicking your finger and ignoring the accompaniment and you’ll see what I mean. The trick to it is that the accompaniment does not slow down in measure 52 beyond the slowing that took place at 51. Only at 53 does the tempo slow again for the accompaniment, and there the affect is mitigated slightly by the fact that the subdivision is now septuplets and not sextuplets. How does this work in practice? The accompaniment needs to land strong beats of all 3 measures with the singer, and then they need to ignore one another in 52 and 53, and all will be well in 54. Pianist, don’t slow down in 52. Singer and Violins, count.

This number is dramatically so important, and our actress has to know this so well and feel so comfortable singing it that a real moment can happen. The music director and the musicians have to be there to support her for this pivotal moment in the story, where her love changes everything.  This is the central issue of the music in this show: the eccentric and fabulous harmonies and figures are in the service of naked emotion. Apollo, Dionysus and Eros are hand in hand.

13a. Back to Florence

A further Stravinskian examination of some material we heard in the Hysteria/Lullaby underscore

14-16. Octet Part 1, Clara’s Tirade, Church, Octet Part 2

After thousands of words of embarrassing praise for every aspect of this show, I must confess that a lot of this Latin prosody isn’t to my liking, but the number is, and the prosody of a dead language isn’t something to quibble about in a show so well made. The accents in measures 6 and 7 are the articulation of the correction the priest is trying to make.

Every time you reach the passage “The shock of winter…”,  make clear the importance of the hard “k” sound in just the right place, and choose a good vowel for the “…er” of winter. Take time to count out the 5/4 measure at 26. The subtle differences between the original passage at 22 and its reiteration on 43 may well dash your singers on the rocks. The trouble begins at measure 53, where an extra vocal ornament starts a set of slight differences: Clara and the Priest have a 2 measure Latin interlude now, and then “You appear” comes on a downbeat instead of beat 2. The whole passage has so many offbeats in it that it may drag. Have everyone clap or tap as they sing it to feel that rhythmic pulse they’re playing against. Clara’s passage on page 148-149 is very difficult. Budget time to go over it at great length and then periodically return to it in rehearsal to keep it working.

The Tirade is so much fun! I believe somebody filmed the pit in our version rocking out and posted it somewhere. We were backstage and we got a little carried away. Learn the melody slowly and accurately, and don’t rush. I love how convoluted her melody is most of the time, but then it slips into a simplistic and childlike Do-Re-Mi for places like “He is mine, he’ll always be mine!” The hardest part of the melody is “There’s a way to behave, there’s a nice way to behave, It’s what nice people do and that’s how it should be!” Go SLOW when you teach it, and have the actress tap something or clap through it to feel where the melody lies against the beat. At 43, we have another extension, this time breaking into a triple grouping against the 4/4 for a kind of wild hemiola. Help your singer negotiate the time signature changes, particularly the 5/4 measure, and crescendo like crazy in that last measure. Take time over the whole number to plan breathing with the actress. She has to be in the acting place where she’s totally unhinged, but she needs to be grounded to the needs of the music at the same time. Not an easy task.

Work for a gorgeous choral Ah in the Church scene that follows.

Have a plan before the first rehearsal for the molto rit. in measure 4. Use the breath marks in the melody to asset strong D consonants; build it into the fabric of the music from the beginning. Higher voices are on the lower staff on page 159. Again, have a plan for the molto rit in 19, and help them feel the pulse of the orchestra in 20, so they can get the sixteenths together. Have a few of your lighter voiced men go up to that high B. I found the end of that passage to be a little funny under the scene. Check in with your director. The music seems to play against what’s happening a little, but maybe that’s what’s intended.

16a. Something is wrong

In the full orchestration this is a clarinet. In the reduced orch, it’s a cello. Both are beautiful.

17. The Beauty Is (Reprise)

This beautiful little monologue almost doesn’t qualify as a reprise, it bears so little resemblance to the original. The opening melody is not as hard as it looks, but may require some TLC. Note that the accompaniment figure in measure 5 is an altered version of the music that accompanies “I’m just a someone in an old museum” in the original “Beauty Is“. The piano conductor score doesn’t make very clear when the piano doesn’t need to play, so here as elsewhere, it pays to go through with the full score and mark yourself tacet here and there. How lovely these reaching phrases are, the first in measure 8, the reach of an octave into a dissonant major 7th against the bass, then in 17 and 18, each reaching phrase lower and further from the mark than the one before. “I know, no I don’t know.” connect with some of Margaret’s earlier lines, and also fit into the theme of knowing and being known. The countermelodies in 25 and 26 will help your Margaret find her entrance in 27. The passage at 31 deserves piano attention; it is not the same as the last time we heard it. Another reaching phrase at 34 doesn’t arc, but keeps going up right into the singer’s break. Margaret sings the name “Clara” at only 3 places in the show: once in the lullaby to calm her with a nursery rhyme after her hysteria. At that point, their roles as mother and daughter have regressed, and Clara is the infant. Here, the second time, it is the anguished cry of the mother who sees she can’t save her, or go back in time to fix the past. The third time, in the Fable, it will be as she realizes she will need to free her daughter to love. After the hidden rhyme “fingers crossed” and “little lost”, there are no more regular rhymes, and as the number comes to a close, we have only identities, “away” and “away”, then three repetitions of “the beauty is”, with the turning point of her character arc, “I know what I have to do”, at which point the music barrels headlong into the scene change.

17A. Transition to Tie Shop

Very like 13a with a similar function.

18. Let’s Walk

I’ll confess that until I music directed the show, I didn’t care much for this number, but that’s because it’s a theatrical moment, perfect for the story arc, and relying on the chemistry and acting of the two singers in real space. The by-now-familiar Guettellian offbeat pulsing rhythm, the chromatic bassline are all in play here, but this time in the introduction, the bassline is moving back and forth tracing a half step like two feet walking in place, until the singers enter and it finally moves. The introductory chords are not so different from the main two chords we heard in Aiutami, only this time in the major and in a symmetrical rhythm. For me, establishing the tempo was a bit of a trick. Reliable groove is an apt marking: too slow, and the number drags painfully. Too fast, and the words jumble. I found that basing my tempo on the ideal speed for “I look at him and that was me…” helped me find the sweet spot. I also use Michael Jackson songs to remember tempi, (a subject for another post) and the tempo for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” was just about right.

The little verses sung by Signor and Margaret are straightforward, and the chorus, “But what do I know…” bears some resemblance motivically with the “The shock of winter” melody in the Octet, with its arching phrases and off-the beat placement. Like that other melody, it also has a tendency to drag. Keep an ear out for that. Also note the motif of knowing and being known, and the melodies on “Ah”. They echo one another at the beginning, then sing in unison at the end, with the telltale phrase extensions leading us to a very chromatic melody “No one knows, we only guess…”, which draws a number of threads together in one deft stroke. The very end of this number varies slightly in the reduced orchestration from the score I was using. You may want to look through your pit materials to check that out.

18A. Post Promenade

Same as 2e

18B. Clara’s Interlude

There is no fermata in measure 2, and the section beginning in measure 3 is in an unfamiliar key. An interesting detail I noticed is that in measures 7-9 there is a melody that differs from the “everywhere, it’s everywhere” passage that normally belongs over this accompaniment, but in this form it sounds a lot like the melody from Say it Somehow, “Ah, we’ll play a game, you trace it on my skin”, or more to the point, what happens on the last page of that number. Either this is an earlier form of the Light In The Piazza theme, or the other theme is being employed here to tie Light in The Piazza and Say it Somehow, leading up to Clara’s wordless burst of emotion. The section at 15 caught us all by surprise. It’s so simple, and so beautiful, and if you want the scene to last longer, there are plenty of ways to repeat that allow for that.

19. Love To Me

Um, watch this. Again we find ourselves in a deeply emotional moment where we also have to think. The meter can be conducted in 4, with a 3+2+2+2 feel. There are passages like this in The Call in Floyd Collins, and Build A Bridge from Saturn Returns among other places, but here Guettel seems to be looking for a kind of simplicity of groove, as though the guitarist is just adding a kind of lift on the first beat. Having said that, I found that for a while, I had to keep checking in to make sure I wasn’t putting it into 4. I also played it for a while much too slow, so it took me a little time to get the thing into my bones. Note the very chromatic moving interior lines and bassline. Noe also the familiar “Oh” passage. The closer we get to the end of the show, the more of these there seem to be! Note further, “You’re not alone!”, which pays off Clara’s “I’ve hardly met a single soul, but I am not alone…”, and “This is how I know”, yet another connection to the knowing/known theme. Depending on your Fabrizio, some of this may fall into a weird place in the voice. Floating some of this will work for some singers, others may need to access a chest mix. But whatever you do, work to keep it intimate. Showboating is wrong here.

19A. Wedding

The dynamics in the opening are important; try to keep it fluid, just as you should have done in the overture. Fable really should begin in measure 9 of this number.

20. Fable

So many people have been deeply moved performing and watching this number. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, you probably already know this scene is one of the glories of American Musical Theatre, a tour-de-force acting and singing moment, which needs to be paced and grounded over 15 pages of breathtaking beauty. I’d like to draw one last connection with Sondheim, to bring it full circle. This is the opening of Fable, followed by a familiar passage from Into The Woods:

Into The Woods Example 2

Fable ExampleIt isn’t the same chord, of course, but the insistent icy quarter notes have a strong family resemblance. Sondheim’s is the brutal moment when the witch lays the worst mother-guilt trip since Gypsy on Rapunzel and then clips her wings by cutting her hair. The other is the starting point for a number that will show us another mother’s journey to accepting the necessity of risk to finding happiness.


As long as that quarter note figure is still active, Margaret is in control of her expression. It’s a very uptight groove, and she breaks out for 2 measures: 11 and 12. When measure 22 breaks through, the icy theme is gone for good, but there is still much more ground to cover, so those dynamic changes are crucial to building layers that make sense. The crescendos will happen on their own. Unless you have a heart of stone, you’ll build. What counts most are the drops down to piano. There are 9 of those drops between measures 21 and 92, the climax of the piece. In its own way, this number is doing over 8 measures what the overture did over 1, an added richness of sonority, then a dip back. It also grounds Margaret’s epiphany and makes it feel as though the realization is coming over her in waves, not as a crystalline moment. Vocally, there are placement decisions to be made from 38 to the end that may be above your pay grade. We are again pacing ourselves to the bottom of 209, as the known/being known theme reaches its apogee: “If you find in the world, in the wide, wide world, that someone sees, that someone knows you, Love!” Don’t give it all up on the word “No” on 203, and be careful to manage the chest-head mix up through that passaggio or things will get screamy right at the pivotal moment. I don’t need to tell you how important breath management will be here as well. Managing the pit may require some finesse here, especially toward the end, where the pulse may be hard to get across at the piano. I kept thinking some of that cross hand business on 211 would be covered in the pit, but we are not so lucky. You will need to play those 2 octave cross hand jumps yourself. There are some other dynamic terraces to negotiate after Margaret has completed her big moment, and I wound up copying page 212 and sticking it to the side, because that page turn is a dog. Take your time at the end, and enjoy that very satisfying C# major chord.

21. Bows

This is music you have played before.

22. Exit Music

Everything makes sense here until the last page, which has a LOT of cross hand work that may be a pain for you. Look at it early and often during your rehearsal process, don’t leave it to the end.


There are two orchestrations available for this show, one with 11 pieces and one with 5. Normally, I love it when a score has a reduced orchestration, because everything is covered, and if you can’t afford all the books, you still have everything covered. But I can’t imagine this show without a guitar or a reed, and R&H will not let you mix and match. (I asked) You should also know that the guitar book in the full scoring has some cymbal cues in it, which initially worried my guitarist, but then he really enjoyed himself! All the double reed cues in the reed book are cued into the clarinet, just in case.

Don’t mess around. These books are HARD. This is not a show to try somebody out on; only hire the best for this gig. The harp book caused one pro harpist I used to grumble, but it is totally playable. There are some very tricky things in the strings, which my players were very excited to play. If you do get the smaller orchestration, it’s even more imperative that you hire pros; there are arco melodic double bass lines, and very exposed solo work. I scheduled an extra rehearsal with the orchestra than I normally do, and I’m glad I did.

Normally I do a hire this if you have only this amount of money section, but I can’t really do it here. The most important players are the pian0, the harp, the bass, and the guitar. (to my way of thinking) Then the strings and then the reeds. But the orchestration is so good, it’s a shame to lose players.


Music directing Light in the Piazza was one of the most musically fulfilling and challenging things I’ve ever done, and I’m so happy I got a chance to do it. I am grateful to my Villanova colleagues for giving me the chance.  The effort you put in will be repaid handsomely by this magnificent score.



Broadway Time Capsule: 1975-1976 season

September 30, 2011


Average Annual Income $4,818

Tickets cost: Balcony, $7.00 Orchestra $15.00

Gas $.57

Milk $1.40

President: Gerald Ford

This feature of the blog represents:

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

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

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

All the great historians of Musical Theatre at some point heave a great sigh, and say something like, “… and here’s where it all went down the tubes.” This era is when Gerald Bordman does that. Bordman told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1978: “I was a tired businessman myself for 20 years. I want to see pretty girls dancing and listen to someone singing a Jerome Kern song.” “I’ve stopped going to the theater. I don’t like profanity, which is used gratuitously in the theater now, or the working-class slum settings and radical sentiments,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1982. “Where are the zany, delightful musicals, the airy farces, the lovely operettas?” Bordman was one of our finest chroniclers of theatre, with a perceptive mind, but the things that drew him to the theatre were on the way out in the 1970s. He died this year, but others had carried on his work in his later life. Ethan Mordden waits another 10 or 15 years to start getting cranky about things, and if I think hard enough, I can find somebody who says the early 2000s are when Broadway died. It seems to hit right about when the author turns 40, which means I’m really going to hate the shows in the season 3 or 4 years from now.

The thing is, there are always a few streams running on Broadway at the same time. In this season for example, there are shows which use the frame of American musical theatre conventions to comment on American culture, (Chicago and A Chorus Line) there are shows trying hard to catch the rock sound more or less badly (Rockabye Hamlet), there are pieces that push the very edges of what a musical can be about (Pacific Overtures, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) There are also shows celebrating the African American experience, and celebrating it well (Me and Bessie, Treemonisha, Bubbling Brown Sugar)

If you are a partisan of one of those streams of theatre which is just coming into flower, it will be the beginning of a golden age for you. If you like one of the things which is being done badly, it will seem like the nadir of the theatre. At some point, Broadway actually WILL die, but for a long time yet I think it will more likely keep shifting, finding delighted new audiences and turning fans of the stile antico into sad, misty eyed dreamers, longing for a bygone day.



Chicago is a Bob Fosse show with music by Kander and Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Fosse. It is based on the 1926 play Chicago, by Maurine Watkins, which was in turn based on an actual murder in 1924. Fosse’s take is a sardonic, dark view of the world, where everybody’s in show business, egos are large, and all the presentation is sensational/sensationalistic. The story is told through vaudeville tropes, which at once evokes, sends up, and comments on the era it takes place in. It’s a concept musical, because the story isn’t told in a traditional way, the vaudeville tropes are the story delivery mechanism, not the book scenes. Notice that Fosse is continually refining his dark, bawdy vision. The story, the actors, the music, lyrics all are only pieces in his game. A step further from Sweet Charity and Pippin, perhaps Chicago is the perfect distillation of Fosse’s way of theatre.

Want to hear more?

Want to read more?

Deconstructing Harold Hill pp.24-36, One More Kiss, pp. 128-131

A Chorus Line

One of the reasons I brought up Gerald Bordman in the intro to this session is that he wrote something really incredible about A Chorus Line in the 1978 edition of his seminal American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. He wrote: “… the show seemed to many theatergoers taxing in its demand to listen to other people’s problems and disappointing in its lack of memorable music…” I think most people today would disagree with both those assessments of this show; the way the show portrays the humanity of its characters is generally considered quite moving, and the numbers ‘One’ and ‘What I did for Love’ are considered some of the most memorable music in the 1970s, if not in the entire modern era of Broadway. For almost every person on the creative team, it represented a high water mark. Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Bennett, Ed Kleban, and the members of the cast would not ever create any better theatre than they did in this love letter to the experience of being a Broadway performer. It captured the imagination of an entire generation of theatergoers.

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One More Kiss, pp. 217-222, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight pp.191-195


Pacific Overtures

It’s interesting to note that Chicago is covering a tawdry story using deconstructed Vaudeville methods, which Sondheim had explored in both Gypsy and Follies, and that in A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett was exploring the lives of performers fighting for relevance in a continuation of his work on Follies using methods he pioneered with Sondheim and Prince in Company, but Sondheim and Prince have moved on. They wouldn’t deconstruct show biz or explore performers until Merrily, which would scuttle their collaboration. Here they are again asking the question, “What can be made into a musical?” and finding the most unlikely and interesting answers of anyone around. Pacific Overtures is nothing short of a telescopic history of Japan, told through Kabuki theatrical conventions, with some Japanese musical and poetic forms, and with a cast of mostly unknown Asian men..

Someone in A Tree, one of Sondheim’s favorite songs.

Want to hear more?

Want to read more?

One More Kiss, pp. 131-134 Sondheim & Company, pp. 209-227, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber, pp. 213-220 Stephen Sondheim, pp. 279-284 Art Isn’t Easy, pp. 174-206 Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals, pp. 249-280 Finishing The Hat, pp. 303-329


Rockabye Hamlet

A rock Hamlet? Most people asked ‘why?’ And the second question was, “why would Gower Champion have anything to do with it?” This clip is very revealing:

P.S. I hear Meatloaf was in this show.

Want to hear more? There’s one track on this album.

Want to read more?

Not Since Carrie, 40-41, One more Kiss, p. 178

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Bernstein must have known his music was great, and that it would never work in the context of this particular show, because he insisted it not be recorded. (a shame for us, but a good choice for him, because it allowed him to reuse the material elsewhere) Ken Mandelbaum says “1600 contains the greatest score in post-war Broadway history that ever went unrecorded” Fortunately for us, there is a cantata version which was handsomely recorded in 2000.

I’m so glad these clips are on the web. You can hear 1) How stilted and crummy the dialogue is and 2) How magnificent the music is. What a waste.

The President Jefferson March

Take Care Of This House music starts 6:48 real tune starts around 8:00

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Not Since Carrie 323-327, One More Kiss, pp.127-128, 134-137


Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick tell the story of Henry VIII badly. Debut of Glenn Close in a musical, and the shortest run of Rodgers career. Ken Mandelbaum tells a story in Not Since Carrie about Nicol Williamson, at a curtain call. Dancer Jim Litten said, “That’s a wrap” but Williamson thought he said “That was crap” and slapped him right in front of the audience. Sounds like trouble, but then if you read the wikipedia article, you’ll see that Williamson is a slapper.

Want to Hear more?

Want to Read more?

Not Since Carrie, pp. 100-102, One More Kiss, p. 98-99


Ragtime King Scott Joplin’s 1910 opera was lovingly restored by Gunther Schuller, and played at Houston Grand Opera, afterward transferring to Broadway with Willard White and Carmen Balthrop among others. (Kathleen Battle was Carmen Balthrop’s alternate) A beautiful piece to be sure, but it’s better when you know that Joplin was creating an entire genre himself, there being no successful American Opera to act as a model.

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One More Kiss, pp. 158-159

A Musical Jubilee

What a cast! Lilian Gish, Tammy Grimes, Larry Kert, John Raitt, Patrice Munsel, Dick Shawn. Wanted to show development of the American Musical, but some of the songs sung were not even from a show. Closed after 92 showings.


Can somebody help me? I can’t find out ANYTHING about this show, except that it starred Armand Assante, was based on the naughty bits in the Decameron, and closed after 48 previews and 7 performances.

Home Sweet Homer

Yul Brynner attempting a big comeback as Odysseus, with the Man Of La Mancha team writing. The show ran into trouble the entire process, with people suing restaurants for food poisoning, choreographers getting fired, Brynner threatening to quit, and the backers threatening to close the show. Evidently on the road for the pre-broadway tryout, Brynner demanded all his hotel rooms be painted a specific shade of tan, and that the kitchens in the hotel suites be stocked with a dozen brown eggs, and no white ones! Lasted one performance.

Want to read more? One More Kiss, pp. 121-122

So Long 174th Street

Robert Morse, who was too old to play the part, in an overblown version of Joseph Stein’s play version of Carl Reiner’s novel Enter Laughing, which was based on Reiner’s life. Lasted 16 performances. Morse’s star power couldn’t pull this one out of obscurity, but the songs, particularly the one in this video, are still getting some play.

Want to hear more?

Want to read more? One More Kiss, pp. 187-188 Not Since Carrie, pp. 195-196

Something’s Afoot

A play on Agatha Christie Mysteries that never quite got off the ground. Seems to have a life in community and regional theatre.

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One More Kiss, pp. 180-181


Bubbling Brown Sugar

BBS was a tour through black music, and a fantastic tour at that. It ran for two years, and started a movement of tributes to African American songs that would include Eubie!, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Jelly’s Last Jam.

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Want to read more?

One More Kiss, pp. 172-173

Me and Bessie

A tribute to Bessie Smith by Linda Hopkins, I get the impression it was more a cabaret than a musical.

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Want to read more?

One More Kiss, p. 170


Patrice Munsel, the youngest singer ever to debut at the Metropolitan Opera, first singing there in 1943 at the age of 17, and making her debut the following year in Mignon. She had her own television show, The Patrice Munsel Show, from 1956-1957. Here she is on What’s my Line in 1958.

Glenn Close had already been in 3 Broadway plays, but Rex was her first musical. She has since appeared in Barnum, Sunset Boulevard, and an Off-Broadway benefit concert of Busker Alley.

Here’s a picture of her from Rex. She’s the one on the left, looking just a little like Joan Sutherland.


3 Times Sondheim Changed My Life

February 11, 2011

Sondheim is a little like Bach. In Bach’s time, his work had a reputation for being confusing, overwritten, too complex, and ‘overly artful’ as Johann Schiebe put it. Even Bach’s kids considered his music a little old fashioned, although they acknowledged his genius. Sondheim has never been called old-fashioned, but his music and lyrics have a complexity that many people find off-putting, and he has an undeserved reputation for writing cold, un-memorable melodies. But like Bach, Sondheim is also a writer who rewards close study, a creator of pieces containing seemingly inexhaustible riches, layers upon layers of meaning that keep revealing themselves if you have the patience to keep looking. As I coach singers in Sondheim pieces, I constantly find new details, turns of phrase, rhymes, relationships between musical components, subtle shifts of texture at crucial dramatic moments, the list goes on. The experience of beginning to grapple with these elements is heady and addictive, and leaves all other American Musical Theatre panting in the dust behind it. Like Bach, Sondheim is also a force to be grappled with for other writers. Because he has absolute mastery over an extremely difficult form of writing, he has set a standard which is un-approachable. You will never be able to construct a fugue as artful and meaningful as the great fugues of Bach. Although very good fugues have been written, and even some great ones, the territory is littered with the wreckage of composers who have tried their hands at the task and failed. Bach has quite simply cleared the decks. And I believe Sondheim has done so for the musical. It is impossible to construct lyrics as tightly constructed, as rigorously thought out, as perfectly rhymed, and as effortlessly spun as he has consistently done throughout his long career. You can draw inspiration from him, but you can’t compete; if you spent the lifetime it would take to learn his craft, you would live just long enough to crank out a sorry imitation. Less praise has been heaped on his contribution to the musical end of musicals, but his influence is everywhere. Every piano part that goes chunk chunk chunk chunk in the right hand and has offbeat octaves in the bass is a poor copy of the opening of Into the Woods. And these days, that means nearly every new musical out there. His rhetorical style has also come to dominate the vocal writing in modern musicals. Every line that nervously repeats itself, ending with a long held note is a Sondheim stepchild, but none of his admirers has mastered his ability to make so much out of a cell of so few pitches, spinning an entire song out of a three or four note noodle. There are then four stages for most intelligent musical theatre writers when it comes to Sondheim: discovery, admiration, emulation, and then a new direction. The new direction comes when one discovers that the ground is fertile, but that one can’t plow there anymore. That doesn’t mean the musical is dead, any more than music ended when Bach stopped writing. It means new directions must be found. One can draw a lifetime of inspiration from Sondheim’s dogged determination to follow his rigorous standard to the furthest corners of detail, but our next great composers will play Mozart to his Bach, forging a new trail away from the colossal monument of his work.

Sondheim is also a little like Proust. There is the first daunting realization that one will have to spend a great deal of time and mental energy even beginning to come to terms with the corpus of his work. But when you find your first gem of insight in Proust, you’re hooked. For me and Proust, it was partway through Swann’s Way, when he makes an analogy about the moon and says something profoundly insightful about education. At that moment, I knew it would be worthwhile to keep digging for more. In Sondheim, there are many such moments, but the one that struck me as an adolescent was from Sunday in the Park with George, and leads me to the first time Sondheim changed my life.

The first Sondheim musical I ever got to know was Into The Woods. My experience with musicals up to that point was Hello Dolly, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and a few other warhorses. All masterpieces to be sure, and I truly did love musicals. My parents played opposite one other in Li’l Abner in their high school, and my mother used to tell me all the time, “If you get good enough at the piano, you can play for your school musical!” She had no idea she was predicting the course of much of the rest of my life. At any rate, when I bought my first copy of Into The Woods, at the wherehouse in Redding California, I was dumbfounded by the music, the leitmotifs, the wit; it was like nothing I had ever heard before. I’m pretty sure I bought it because it came in a double CD box, but had a single CD price, and I thought I was getting a bargain. Those of you who have the CD know that it’s only one CD, the box is just big so the copious liner notes fit. Then, on a choir trip to see Les Miz in San Francisco, which I sort of enjoyed, I walked across the street from the theatre to a little drama store and bought a used copy of  the soundtrack to Sunday In The Park With George. At first, I was really confused by it, but I was determined to enjoy it, because I could tell it was intellectually rich, and even then, I was pridefully determined to have more intelligent tastes than my friends, who were all living and breathing Les Miz. And then at some point, I really began to listen to Finishing the Hat. I was a singer in our school shows, I was a horn player in the local symphony, I had started I think, to try and write a musical, I was arranging things for a little jazz vocal quartet I had started, I was playing piano for my church. I think I had a sense that I was a musician. And I also had a real sense that although I was successful at the things I was doing, I didn’t really belong with my peers; that I was operating on some other wavelength. Finishing the Hat contextualized that experience for me, and gave me a narrative. “You don’t feel like you belong, because you are on a creative quest, a quest which will sometimes lead you alone into the search for the best in your work” And that mindset was the germination of a tremendous part of who I am today. It is no exaggeration to say that these lines changed my life:

Finishing the hat,

How you have to finish the hat,

How you watch the rest of the world

From a window

While you finish the hat,

Mapping out a sky

What you feel like, planning a sky,

What you feel when voices that come through the window go

Until they distance and die

Until there’s nothing but sky,

And how you’re always turning back too late

From the grass or the stick

Or the dog or the light

How the kind of woman willing to wait’s

Not the kind that you want to find waiting

To return you to the night,

Dizzy from the height

Coming from the hat

I can take a sidebar here to say that the old complaint that Sondheim’s music is cold simply doesn’t hold water for me. He has too much to say to give people the kinds of long-voweled vocal lines they may be expecting, but there is truly nothing bloodless about Sondheim’s music. His accompaniments are full of rich chords with thick, lush voicings, they are alive with movement (interestingly the repeated accompanimental patterns begin to steal into his work just as American minimalist composers were finding the liberating power of tiny cells of notes) In Sondheim’s constructions of whirling eighth and sixteenth notes lie the heart of a romantic. At his most effusive, his characters keen with agony and rage. What makes his music distant and abstract to some is the stubborn refusal of the accompaniment to pander to the singer. The piano, which is truly the voice of all his accompaniments, is a running mood-maker and commentator, sharing musical material, but never playing along with the melody. He is more of a Verdi than a Puccini, and actually more of a Wagner or a Britten than either of them. Joseph Swain expresses this aspect of his music brilliantly in his essay on Sweeney Todd in his indispensable book The Broadway Musical. Another element of Sondheim that people find cold is the shape of his melodic lines, which rarely walk along stepwise or in gingerly moving pairs of sixths and steps like most songs people have come to think of as ‘showtunes’. His melodies are far more likely to pirouette and drop, or angularly jostle around. His music follows the dictates of character and moment. It is not often sentimental, but it is always tonal, and always exactly in step with the sense and prosody of the words, something which cannot be said for the music of his polar opposite, Andrew Lloyd Webber. (with whom he ironically shares a birthday) I will say that I don’t often listen to Sondheim for fun as I eat dinner or have friends over. But he doesn’t intend for me to.

The second time Sondheim changed my life I was in college at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, as an opera major. I had met the wonderful woman who is now my wife and the mother of my four children. I was still very cocky, but I had the growing awareness that I wasn’t going to be a success as a singer, for two reasons. Firstly, my voice wasn’t good enough for a career. There were people there who I knew had the voices to go all the way. In comparison, I knew I didn’t have what it took. Secondly, I began to see that my interest in music ran more behind the scenes. I liked to think about music and the way it functions, and I liked to edit and work on things until I couldn’t find anything else to fix. People who feel like that are not performers, they’re writers and conductors. So I decided to transfer to San Francisco and study composition. I had a realization that Sondheim represented a large part of the reason I had made that decision. So I found the address of his agent and wrote him a note. I expressed my sincerest admiration for his work, explained my change of plans to become a writer, and how he had been the inspiration for that change. 2 days later, a little note appeared in my mailbox. I have it on my wall in a frame now. It reads, on his letterhead:

October 26, 1994

Dear Peter Hilliard:
Thanks so much for the letter and the enthusiasm. They made my day.


Stephen Sondheim.

The signature is yellowed and barely visible with age, but it is a treasured item for me, even though for him it was a very small thing. To a young man with brains and ambition but very little skill, such a letter is nothing short of a talisman. Around that time, I saw Passion on Broadway. It was my first Broadway show, and I saw it in standing room in the back with Allison, who shortly after we were married, appeared in the show in its west coast premiere. In California, one thinks of Broadway shows almost as mythic things, in a faraway land where the great work is first seen. But to see it in person, one realizes that the dreams are tangible, that they can be seen and perhaps attained by real people in real time and space.

And the third time he changed my life is, I suppose, now. For whatever reason, he seems to have slowed his prodigious gifts for creating theatre, and shifted his focus to telling his stories and letting us know what he really thinks, finally telling us his true thoughts about his craft and the craft of others. A student gave me his book for Christmas, and another has just lent me the CD of Sondheim on Sondheim. He also seems to be on Fresh Aire every few weeks. He tells a deeply moving story in a voiceover in Sondheim on Sondheim about Hammerstein’s profound influence on his life. I won’t give it away; go get the CD yourself and hear it in his own voice. But suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about him, not just as an example of a writer to be admired, but as an example of someone who gives his gifts to others. And I’m realizing that if as a teacher and a father I can open someone’s eyes to the possibility of greatness; if I can pull back the curtain on some piece of music and say, “there is a world of terrific and almost inexpressible meaning here if you can learn to see it”, then there is a value that lives beyond me, and beyond even my work. Sondheim says in his book that he learned at the feet of Hammerstein, who learned at the elbow of Otto Harbach. And now, thanks to his absolutely stunning book, he is giving the same gift to whoever has the curiosity to listen to the things he has to say.

There may be a time when people no longer care about Bach. I can’t imagine that, but I suppose it’s possible. But Mozart learned much from Bach. So did Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky; it’s frankly hard to think of a composer that didn’t get something from Bach. If he and his work were somehow forgotten, his legacy would still be immeasurable. And I think the same is also true for Sondheim. All the people who learned from him will create an even greater legacy than that of his music. And for those of us who teach, the effect we have on our students and the people we make music with will far outreach the confines of our creative output.

So Thank You, Mr. Sondheim. You have given us much to think about.