Posted on January 21, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I’ve been teaching a course in musical theater performance at USC for the past four years, but this semester, I was asked to come up with a class focussing on songwriting for the musical theater. I had taught writing courses at USC before, but they were solely attended by students in the School of Theater, and so I had an overabundance of lyricists and very few composers. This year’s course, however, is being offered in conjunction with the School of Music – in fact, it’s part of the Songwriting minor – so I was assured of a more balanced group of writers.

All the prospective students had to submit a portfolio of four songs, either music or lyrics (or both), and I determined based on those portfolios which students seemed ready and able to handle the frenetic insanity that is the hallmark of my class structure. I ended up choosing six music majors, three theater majors, and one girl who is a double major in the theater and music schools. My intention is that everyone write music and lyrics at some point in the semester – clearly some people will be better at one than the other, but everyone should know what it takes to get the job done.

For the first week, I wanted to start building a basic vocabulary of musical theater songwriting techniques, and to that end, we spent the whole three-hour class listening to and analyzing six songs I had chosen deliberately to represent a wide spectrum of styles.

1. “The Way You Look Tonight” (1936), Music by Jerome Kern, Lyric by Dorothy Fields
It’s not from a stage musical, but on a quick flip through my iTunes, this was the song that jumped out at me as the most perfect and clear example of a classic 64-bar AABA song. The melody is both surprising and inevitable, as Kern so often is, and one of the students remarked on the fact that during the A sections, all the melodic jumps are downward (all those plunging fifths and octaves) whereas the B section has that fantastic jump upward at “tearing my fear aPART…”. I’m also in awe of the lyric; that “Lovely” that starts the third A section, just a simple declaration, so unexpected and so conversational. A wonderful song on every level.

2. “Some People” from Gypsy (1959), Music by Jule Styne, Lyric by Stephen Sondheim
It was fantastic watching students who had never heard this iconic material get totally blown away by it. All the internal rhyme, the totally out-of-left-field dissonances of the “I had a dream” section, the pure thrill of hearing such quintessentially “show-biz” vocabulary used in such aggressive and uncompromising ways – the theater kids knew the song cold, but the music students were utterly surprised by it. I talked about how well the song is tailored to Merman’s specific gifts, the way that first “But I at least gotta try” must have been so unimaginably satisfying to an audience waiting to hear Ethel do her patented belting, but prepared so dramatically and effectively. Parenthetically, I mentioned the orchestrations, which give the impression of being brassy and busy, but are in fact very restrained because of the need to support an unamplified voice; I realized that if I were orchestrating it now, I’d use a lot more of the saxes and trumpets throughout to accent the vocal, and it would be infinitely less effective.

3. “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday In The Park With George (1985), Music and Lyric by Stephen Sondheim
For people who think of musical theater as congenitally corny and declamatory, this piece comes as a shock. Experiencing Sondheim’s utter mastery of form and structure in the service of such quintessentially personal content is humbling and inspiring. Look at the four times he uses “window”, and how they build inevitably to the last one, the breakthrough, the catharsis – “It’s the only way to see.” Years ago, Lippa and I were listening to the show while driving home from Goodspeed, and at the end of this song, we turned to each other with tears running down both of our faces. I’ve had twenty-five years to deal with it, but there’s something cruel about showing this to students who are just beginning to write for the theater – you can’t help but realize that you’re never going to do anything this good.

4. “Some Girls” from Once On This Island (1990), Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyric by Lynn Ahrens
A virtually perfect song from a virtually perfect musical. “This is the benchmark,” I told the students; “The bar is set right here.” A deceptively simple melody (with some gorgeous harmonizations), serving a lyric that carefully, methodically sets up a devastating punch. This song is what can happen when two extraordinary talented people know the rules backwards and forwards and can deploy them with lethal precision.

5. “Here I Am” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005), Music and Lyric by David Yazbek
I love everything about this score, especially because I know how unbelievably difficult it is to pull off something that sounds so breezy. So much musical theater comedy material is campy and overblown, and the music is usually simplistic to the point of non-existent – but Yazbek is amazing in his ability to write lyrics that get actual laughs and wrap them in music that’s not just harmonically sophisticated but dead-on for the character and the setting. One of the students was impressed with the simplicity of the setup; a door opens and this character that we’ve never met just starts singing, and within four lines, we’re entirely with her. I remember sitting in the theater and hearing Sherie hit “This nice sincere Sancerre” and just wanting to throw shoes at the stage.

6. “Shiksa Goddess” from The Last Five Years (2002), Music and Lyric by … um, Me
Because they’re stuck with me all semester, I wanted to make sure the students knew something about the kind of work I do, and how it fits into the musical theatre continuum that we’d been discussing all day. “Shiksa Goddess” is a good example of the kind of stuff that makes me tick: the large musical structure supports the storytelling, and the units within that structure refer to each other but also drift independently; the lyrics rhyme only when they have to, and the flow is conversational, unapologetically specific, and always directed to another character; and the show itself speaks to something personal and real and honest. I don’t always meet my own standard for what I want my work to be, but I’m never more fulfilled than those moments when I feel all the elements of a song coming together in a quirky but organic and genuine way.

It’s an idiosyncratic selection of songs, to be sure, but I think it’s a good indication of the sort of musical theater songwriting we’ll be studying and, I hope, aspiring to. And most importantly, it’s a selection that demonstrates my faith in The Song as the building block and the most essential element of a strong piece of musical theatre.

Next week: the writing begins! With tales of a garbage man, a lonely teenage wallflower, and a tap-dancing eight-year-old.