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So You Want to Produce a Musical (5): The Singer & the Song

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES
December, 2004

Although I mentioned this aspect of musicals in the last essay, I want to elaborate on it this month.

            A play—even “just a musical”—is drama. Something is happening up on that stage that means something to the character(s) and therefore should mean something to the audience. When Mame’s partygoers open the show with that paean in her praise, the audience is supposed to know nothing about her. Whoever is playing the title character must make you feel she deserves all that praise. If the actress plays it as if Mame feels she DESERVES the world on a platter, the song doesn’t work. In other words, the number must establish Mame’s character and that character should be a likable one. After all, most of the action springs from her attitude towards life.

            When Eddie Foy, Jr. sings about the need to keep everything going on time in “The Pajama Game,” he must try to convince not only the characters on stage (although it is against their interests) but also the audience. Again this number comes very early in the show, and it must have some dramatic purpose. Of course it establishes his character, but it also sets the theme of what management wants versus what labor wants.

            Take “Why Can’t the English” from early in “My Fair Lady.” As usually played, it is sung to Pickering, who does not need to be convinced. It should be sung as a way of convincing the crowd waiting for the rain to stop and perhaps even the flower girl herself. It is Higgins riding his hobbyhorse, Higgins on his soapbox, preaching. Not only does it perfectly give us his character, but it also sets off the train of events for the play by putting the idea in Liza’s mind that perhaps she should do something about her speech.

            Some songs, say “Steam Heat” in the second act of “Pajama Game,” are mere padding, and the best we can hope from these numbers is lively delivery and good dancing. Of course, those interpolated numbers designed to please the audience and/or give some star a “turn” might be an exception of sorts. Consider again the “Steam Heat” number. It is supposed to be part of a show within “Pajama Game.” Therefore the “audience” being addressed is not the real one but the invisible members of the cast who are supposed to be watching the performers.

Take, however,  “Were Thine That Special Face” from the show within a show in “Kiss Me Kate” that is indeed being sung by an actor to his ex-wife and can deliver quite a dramatic punch if the actress reacts to the words that he is addressing not only to Kate but to the woman he still loves. A good director can bring out quite a bit of drama here by giving his Kate a “silent script.”

            Let us consider a song sung by a character alone on stage. I have already expressed my dislike for singing directly to the audience. So there is Freddy in front of Liza’s house ready to burst into “The Street Where You Live.” Now the “you” is inside and theoretically out of earshot. But Freddy hopes she can hear and sings it to the door of the house—which is probably upstage, but the singer can “cheat” a little and be seen and heard to advantage.

            Of course, the most famous soliloquy is called “Soliloquy” (from “Carousel”). Here is a long number that falls into several parts. It is clear that the singer is talking to himself; Billy would NEVER confide his private thoughts to anyone, even the audience. Here a good director could get around things by (perhaps) having him sing one section to the sky, another to the sea, a clump of seaweed, some jetsam on the beach—or just staring into space, as we actually do when thinking to ourselves about very important things.

            One will argue that singing directly to the audience is no sin against drama. I feel that even in a straight play, breaking the fourth wall destroys all the illusion that theatre is supposed to create. Do you really want Liza or Billy or Whomever to admit that he/she is nothing but a character in a play, and that all the problems the play has created are nothing but a work of fiction? That this is “only a play”? And don’t retort that Shakespearean characters do just that. First of all, no one is really sure that the Globe actors spoke directly to the audience; and if so, the traditions of theatrical “realism” of that time are not those of ours. 

And just who is being addressed when the sailors in “South Pacific” proclaim, “There is nothing like a dame”? Most directors have them face the auditorium and belt it out. How much more natural that they should be telling it to one another or to the non-military persons on the stage or to Bloody Mary, et cetera. After your set designer and costumers have gone through all the agonies of giving you the most realistic set possible, why ruin it with easy staging?

            So much more to say, so little space to say it in. We shall see.

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