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Songs (and Dance) That Do Not Move the Plot Along

ART TIMES January/February 2007

We established in our last essay that an incredible number of musical show songs do little or nothing to advance the plot—or usually even the characterization of the singer or the theme, if any, of the work as a whole. We can now consider numbers that do not even pretend to advance anything but the audience’s enjoyment.

In the modern theatre, such sequences are often staged as what is called the PRODUCTION NUMBER. Since these sequences are difficult to integrate into the plot, most of them don’t even try. The cheapest way to sneak in songs that are there to exist only as songs with no dramatic purpose whatsoever is have the characters put on a show or throw a party.

In “South Pacific,” we have the “Honey Bun” number, so beloved of local talent shows in which some potbellied male local gets into a grass skirt as his wife or secretary or doctor’s aide warbles the lyrics. Take the whole sequence away and nothing changes by way of continuity. In “Damn Yankees,” a show is thrown together for no other reason than to give Gwen Verdon a chance to sing and dance the “Who’s got the pain” number and other cast members to hoof and vocalize through “Steam heat.”

And please note, that these three songs were much sung out of context by many singers great and small.

“Promises, Promises” takes place in an office, so naturally a Christmas party has to be thrown by the management to allow a number called “Turkey Lurkey Time” to be performed by some dancers, among whom in the original production was Donna McKechnie. Pleasant hokum but scarcely of any dramatic value. Or, better still: scarcely of any dramatic value but pleasant hokum nevertheless.

Here is one counterexample. In “My Fair Lady,” the big production number at the Ascot Races does not fit into the category of dragged-in song and dance. The “Ascot opening day” number is necessary in that it creates the oh-so-perfect upper class atmosphere that Liza is about to shatter. The Embassy scene, with no dialogue or lyrics at all, is one of the pivotal moments in the plot. (In the printed edition, it is given a full page of nothing but stage directions.)

A variation on slipping in a plot-stopping number is to have a character ask for a song or a dance, more or less out of the blue. So in “The Gondoliers,” when the female chorus suddenly shows up in Act II, the baritone lead simply says, “Ladies, what do you say to a dance?” And Sullivan does his stuff with the lively “Dance a cachucha.” Well, a dance does seem appropriate here, to be sure.

In “Oklahoma,” the request is a little more specifically motivated. Will has just returned from Kansas City and is given a whole song to show that “Everything’s up to date” there. Then he goes into a little two-step and a local asks quite naturally, “Whut you doin’?” So we get a dance thrown in for a definite reason: education. At the dance in “The Music Man,” the title character is given the cue, “Come on, Professor, show us some new steps,” with predictable results.

When Judy Holiday learned to “Mu-cha-cha,” it was because she needed dance lessons in “Bells Are Ringing.” (The fact she never dances at the party is beside the point.) The same goes for Manon Lescaut’s lesson in the Puccini version of that tale. And speaking of opera, just about every ballet in opera is there because the audience insisted on it, not for any dramatic purpose.

Wagner was utterly against interrupting the action in “Tannhauser,” and so he put the ballet in just after the overture. This infuriated the Jockey Club, whose members always came fashionably late, and—well, that is another story. Verdi also put ballets, against his better judgment, into “Il Trovatore,” “Macbeth,” and even “Otello.” Most productions sensibly omit them.  On the other hand, other than the big tenor and soprano arias, what else is there to recommend “La Giaconda” other than the Dance of the Hours ballet? But it would never be missed dramatically if it were omitted

I have neglected all those shows that have a show within the show like “Kiss Me Kate” and “Babes in Arms.” There the reason for songs that do nothing for the plot is too blatant for serious analysis. On the other hand, even these songs can do something to advance the framing story, as they do in “Kate,” because they reflect to some extent the events going on behind the scenes.

So once again, I call upon my readers to supply any examples of big production numbers that change things in the plot, characterizations or theme. It might prove a very small list. 

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