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Songs That Move the Plot Along

ART TIMES December 2006

I have in the past touched upon the subject of how few songs in a musical actually move the plot along. That is to say, songs that make things different after they are sung than they were before it. I do not mean songs that reveal characterization but those that actually alter the action.

Let us take “My Fair Lady.” Higgins sings “Why can’t the English” to let Pickering (and the audience) know his point of view, long established, and nothing changes. The same is true about his “I’m an ordinary man” and “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

Liza’s “Wouldn’t it be loverly?” “Just you wait” and “I could have danced all night” merely express how she feels before she began to sing and she feels the same afterwards. “Without you” is a song of realization but that realization came before, not during, the song. Perhaps “Show me” is an attempt to change things (Freddy’s reticence in this case) but it fails to do so. On the other hand, “The rain in Spain” number does exhilarate Liza more than did her success with pronouncing the words in the dialogue, but that is perhaps a weak example. (It was pointed out to me by a member of my Continuing Education class when I asked them for a plot-changing song.)

Mr. Doolittle’s two songs are music hall turns, while “The street where you live” is there to give the young lead something to sing and provide the show with a hit number. It is only the last song in the score, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” that brings about a change: a change in Higgins’ attitude toward Liza.

I have hunted high and low among those musicals with which I am familiar and have found very few songs—sometimes none at all within a show—that actually advance the plot. The Soliloquy from “Carousel” is one of them, because Billy is not the same person after the song as he was before it. “Poor Judd is dead” is the only “Oklahoma” number that changes things, if only by a few millimeters.

Now all of this is a holdover from the early musicals in which songs were deliberately non-plot-specific so they could be sung at just about any point in the show by just about any character—and indeed be replanted into another show entirely, as happened with “Bill.” It could not seem to find a place in any Kern-Wodehouse musical comedy and wound up with just a few lyric changes in the Kern-Hammerstein “Show Boat” as a serious number.

In fact, consider all of the great “hits” that have outlasted the shows of which they were once a part and then see how many of them refer to the plot. Even in “Lady be good,” the line “Susie be good” was changed to a repeat of the title wording when recorded out of context.

I might have mentioned in a previous article that the reprise (mind you) of “So in love” in Act II of “Kiss Me Kate” does cause the female lead to change her mind about walking out of the show. But Cole Porter knew what he was doing.

Even in my beloved Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, very few songs could not be cut out without leaving noticeable plot gaps. Consider “The Mikado.” The opening chorus sets a Japanese atmosphere. “A wand’ring minstrel I” is a showcase for the tenor. Pish-Tush’s song gives needed background information, as does Pooh-Bah’s “Young man, despair.” These last two cannot be cut.

The entrance and the two introductory songs for Ko-Ko tell us nothing new, nor do the entrance of the female chorus and “Three little maids from school.” The song in which the girls tease Pooh-Bah, “So please you, sir” adds nothing but a wonderful tune—and indeed not a single solo, duet or ensemble (other than the sequences in the Act I finale, in which Katisha tries to make things happen but fails) would be missed from the point of view of the plot. Only the song about the little tom-tit changes things and changes them so much that the plot is resolved as a result!

In “HMS Pinafore,” the Act II duet in which Deadeye informs the Captain of Josephine’s marriage advances the scenario. And I would welcome any suggestions of real “plot-changers” from their other works.

Or take “Rigoletto” (please!). Of the great arias in that work, all of them express what a character is feeling and will continue to feel before and after the number. Even Rigoletto’s burst of anger at “the vile race of courtiers” in Act II is ineffectual, so again nothing changes. (Note, however, that it takes the REPRISE of “La donna e mobile” to change the course of the action, if only to make the jester examine the body inside of the sack.)

So I am wondering if it could be possible at all to produce a musical in the older style—with separate songs and not merely an unending stream of chord modulations and what amounts to “dry recitative” as is prevalent in today’s “musicals”—in which every song is dramatically pertinent. Frankly, I doubt it.

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