The Dramatic Function of Songs in Musical Theater
by Dr. Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
Musical theater has become one of the most popular forms of stage entertainment today. Musicals combine the full spectrum of all the arts: words, singing, dancing, stage spectacle, providing audiences with something for just about every taste. The addition of music to a standard play heightens emotion, reinforces dramatic action, evokes atmosphere and mood in ways that words alone cannot. Musical theater encompasses a wide range, from revues to Broadway musicals to grand opera, depending on how music functions dramatically in the work. In a revue such as “An Evening with Cole Porter” or “Side by Side by Sondheim,” popular songs by a composer are performed for their own sake without any dramatic context, whereas in opera the entire drama is conveyed through music. The critical distinction concerns how closely the different elements mesh to form a synthesis of the arts, with all contributing to the development of the dramatic action. In the best musicals, songs do not exist only for their entertainment value, but develop story, mood, theme, communicating drama through music.
In 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein's
As Rodgers and Hammerstein’s successful career demonstrates, the key is integration, how well lyrics and music work together with the book for dramatic purposes. Songs may function dramatically in several ways, a primary one being to define character. The best type of character song fits the dramatic situation and cannot be fully appreciated if taken out of context. For instance, “Pickalittletalkalittle” from The Music Man (1957) describes the petty gossip of the ladies’ committee perfectly, but would not work outside this play. Ironically, many Broadway songs have become famous because they were not closely tied to the characters or their situation in the musical and could be performed by someone like Barbara Streisand without the listener needing to know anything about the musical itself. Generic songs may become popular hits, but they are not the most effective musical numbers. The best dramatic songs cannot be sung by anyone; that is, they are not interchangeable. The number “Getting to Know You” from The King and I, which Anna sings to the children, originally was written for the young lovers in South Pacific. Even with its pleasant tune and lyrics, it functions less effectively as a dramatic song because it was not written for the specific character who sings in that particular situation.
I am songs: Director Bob Fosse (Pippin,
I want songs: Whereas “I am” songs describe a present state, “I want” songs suggest a course of action for the future. Characters often express their goals and dreams through song. Don Quixote’s famous “To Dream the Impossible Dream” tells of his desire to look past this dark world and discover a better one. In “Nothing” from A Chorus Line (1975) Diana Morales declares her undying dream of becoming an actress even though failing her improvisation class; several women sing of how dance helped them escape from a dismal home life: “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.” In Fiddler, Tevye daydreams, “If I were a Rich Man,” a desire similar to Eliza’s wish for another life in “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” Some characters may say “I don’t want” something: in Company (1970) Amy lists at breathless speed all the reasons why she objects to “Getting Married Today”; in My Fair Lady (1956), Alfred P. Doolittle expresses similar reluctance toward matrimony in “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.”
Reprises: Often a tune will occur again in the show as a reprise, which can be used effectively to reveal how a character has developed during the story. If the creators are thinking as dramatists, they will avoid repeating a song simply to let the audience hear it again, which would be like Hamlet reciting “To be or not to be” one more time just because people enjoy it. Such repetition serves no dramatic purpose. An effective reprise which functions dramatically reveals the development of character since the last time it was sung. In My Fair Lady after a nasty confrontation with Eliza, Henry Higgins returns to the lyrics “I’ll Never Let a Woman in my Life” but immediately contradicts these sentiments when he realizes “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” (a type of “I am” recognition song). The lyrics may reflect a change in the character’s attitude or self-awareness, or they may indicate a change in situation. In West Side Story (1957) Tony and Maria reprise their romantic ballad “Tonight,” but now its hopeful optimism is threatened by another activity planned for “tonight,” the gangs’ street fight; this time the music takes on a harsh, violent tone. In Gypsy (1959) Louise sings “Let Me Entertain You” first as a young child in an innocent vaudeville routine; years later when she has become a strip tease dancer, she reprises the number in a sultry, seductive manner, offering a different kind of entertainment to her audience. The two princes in Into the Woods (1987) reprise their song “Agony,” this time realizing the lovely damsels they could not live without earlier are not as alluring as some new prospects.
Emotional climax songs: When characters reach a point in
the drama where they can’t help but explode with feelings of love or success or
simply the joy of life, music serves to amplify these emotions to a level above
mere words. Emotional climax songs are exuberant, celebratory, and infectious,
allowing the audience to share the characters’ passion and excitement. In My Fair Lady, once Eliza conquers her
language lesson, her personal victory demands that the characters burst into
song, “The Rain in
Songs that Tell Stories
Exposition songs: Because songs take up time
reserved for dialogue in a play, musicals must move quickly to establish the
dramatic situation, introduce the main characters, and give audiences some
reason to care about them. Exposition songs inform the audience about what has
happened prior to the play and what has brought the characters to this
particular point in the action; they also may preview the themes of the play.
Set at the turn of last century, Ragtime
(1998) opens by presenting three groups whose stories will soon intertwine: a
white, upper-middle class family, a black Ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker and
his woman Sarah, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. As each group takes
the stage, they challenge the assumptions of the status quo, foreshadowing the
tensions that will arise in the melting pot of
/ You were supposed to
have been immortal.”
songs: At the heart of every drama lies conflict. Some of the most exciting
numbers in musicals involve conflict songs when characters struggle to attain
differing goals. The musical 1776
depicts the frustrating challenges the founding fathers faced in writing the
Declaration of Independence. As John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin
argue their points of view with other members of the Continental Congress,
several conflict songs arise. The first number serves as both exposition and
Narration songs: Not all pertinent action in drama occurs on stage. Narration songs describe events that we otherwise do not see. In a touching number in 1776, “Mama, look sharp,” a soldier tells how his best friends had fallen on the battlefield, crying for their mothers to find them before they died; his somber words give us the sense of being in the midst of the bloody chaos. In Ragtime Evelyn relates how the murder of a former lover by her husband became the “Crime of the Century” and boosted her career in vaudeville.
Summary songs: Similar to narration songs, summary songs compress lengthy amounts of time into one number. In My Fair Lady the maids and butlers pity “Poor Professor Higgins” as he spends months teaching Eliza how to speak properly. “Good Night and Thank You” describes Evita’s rise to prominence from small town girl to film actress with the help of one lover after another. Later “Rainbow Tour” relates Evita’s promotional visit to several European countries. In a summary song from The Fantasticks (1961), “Round and Round,” El Gallo takes Louisa on a whirlwind tour of the world, showing her the wonders she has always dreamed about. Each of these songs describes more time than we see on stage.
Songs with Special Functions
songs a character not in the dramatic scene steps to one side and sings
about the events on stage. Stephen Sondheim (whose work is discussed in more
detail below) uses this device in several musicals. In Company (1970) Bobby, a
metaphors take advantage of the unique qualities of musical theater to
portray a situation in presentational, non-literal fashion. In the example
mentioned above from 1776, as John
and Abigail sing to each other, we realize that in real life they were
separated by hundreds of miles and must have corresponded by letter. The duet
allows them to converse in a more immediate, personal manner. In Ragtime Evelyn’s courtroom testimony
before the judge concerning her husband’s murder plays like a vaudeville
routine, while she performs as the scantily clad girl on the swing; in
metaphoric terms the “Crime of the Century” has become the hottest show in
town. The narrator of Evita, Ché Guavera was an historical
person, an associate of Castro during the Cuban revolution. Born in
Cameo songs feature a minor character in a memorable number, someone who otherwise might be forgotten. The soldier who sings about the death of his buddies in 1776 is a good example; prior to his song he appears only to deliver messages from General Washington. Staking out her territory, Evita evicts Juan Peron’s current “bit-on-the-side” from his bed, leaving the girl to ask “What happens now?” as she sings “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (in the film version Madonna took this song from the cameo actress). Giving some sage advice to Pippin (1972), Granny belts out the show-stopping number “Just No Time at all” in her only scene. A good cameo song defines a minor character quickly and effectively, as well as giving a performer in a small role time in the spotlight.
Parodies rely on audience familiarity with music not in the show, either a specific song or musical style, to evoke an appropriate mood. In Company Bobby’s would-be girlfriends chastise his lack of commitment in a 1940s, Andrews Sisters’ style trio, “You could Drive a Person Crazy.” In Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1969) Pharaoh appears as the “King” in an Elvis impersonation, describing his strange dreams to Joseph; this musical also features a western ballad, “Another Angel in Heaven,” and the “Benjamin Calypso.”
Spurrier, James. The Integration of Music and Lyrics with the Book in the American Musical. Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Illinois U, 1979.