As I read Ben Brantley's review of DOGFIGHT, a musical I liked more than he did, I was struck by the fact that Brantley barely mentioned the music. It made me think back to comments the great Stephen Sondheim has made about the fact that most reviewers are tone-deaf. They simply don't know how to write about music. Since what separates DOGFIGHT from the film on which it is based -- what separates any musical from its source material -- is the music, one would think that the most essential element to write about when reviewing a musical is the music. When I leave a show, the score is the first thing I think about and talk about. When I taught the history of the musical, I emphasized the scores and the students had to be able to identify the work of the major composers and lyricists. Yet as I look back through my own reviews on this blog, I don't say enough about the music.
For instance, in DOGFIGHT, there's a lovely duet as the young marine and the girl walk to their first date. The duet captures their thoughts as they walk silently together -- DOGFIGHT's version of "Twin Soliloquies" from SOUTH PACIFIC. It's a sweet, simple tune, more like the music associated with the girl than the early 60s rock associated with the boy. The girl, we discover, is an amateur composer and singer of the sort of folk music that would become popular in the mid-60s (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, for instance). Musically, her imagination dominates as she wins over the boy. The boy's music is gentle when with her but harsh when he is with his companions, as he is vacillating between being one of the boys and giving in to his feelings for a girl who does not fit conventional notions of beauty or "cool." What I liked most about DOGFIGHT was the way the music defined character and situation. It also stuck to the musical vocabulary of the period -- except for a few moments when it sounded like the Sondheim of the 70s, but Sondheim's voice is in the background of most strong scores of the past quarter century.
When I wrote that the score of NEWSIES is "serviceable', I mean that it is pleasant when one hears it, though many of the songs are so similar to each other as to be indistinguishable, but does one remember it when the show is over? I remember the story, the staging, the amazing choreography and that massive set, but the music is sort of a blur, except for "Santa Fe", which I had heard many times before I saw the show and, frankly doesn't make a lot of sense in the context of the story, much as the show's creators try to make it relevant. To my mind, Alan Mencken has written one great score -- BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- filled with lovely, expansive melodies and memorable patter songs like "Be My Guest." The rest is -- "serviceable."
Someone asked me the other day why I was so down on the score to ONCE. My answer was that the tunes sounded like they came from the John Thompson Red Piano Book. That answer means nothing to folks who never took piano lessons as a young kid, but the red piano book is the first set of tunes a kid plays. They're of necessity slow and very easy to play and barely songs at all with basically meaningless lyrics. "Falling Slowly" and its ilk sound to me like piano pieces for five year olds. Barely a melody and vapid lyrics. The composer was playing stuff from his new album on NPR the other day and it sounded exactly the same -- musically uninteresting. It isn't that I don't like Celtic music -- I happen to love that kind of music (more Scots than Irish, I must admit. I own every Battlefield Band recording). I just don't like the music to ONCE. And, since I could care less about the characters, the show left me cold. Even if I loved the characters, I couldn't care much for a musical with a dull score. Even the handsome, talented Steve Kazee couldn't win me over to this one. This was also my problem with the musical of BILLY ELLIOTT. The story was intriguing, the production values excellent and the kid performers extraordinary, but Elton John's music was barely totally forgettable.
There's a small-scale revival of NEW GIRL IN TOWN playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York right now. The show is a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's ANNA CHRISTIE written in 1957 as a vehicle for the great Gwen Verdon and staged by her then husband Bob Fosse. The score of NEW GIRL IN TOWN was by Bob Merrill, who had written some silly hit tunes like Patti Page's hit, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window." He was something of a Tin Pan Alley hack before he wrote two fine Broadway scores, NEW GIRL IN TOWN and the magical CARNIVAL, as well as the lyrics for FUNNY GIRL. The score of NEW GIRL IN TOWN s a serviceable score by 1950s standards, which were much higher than those by which a sane person can judge current Broadway scores. It had Anna's haunting ballad, "It's Good To Be Alive," as she finally feels a moment of happiness other father's barge, and wonderful novelty songs like, "Flings," sung by Anna's father's mistress, played memorably by Thelma Ritter. And, since this was a Gwen Verdon show, lilting dance numbers like "When I Waltz." I haven't seen NEW GIRL IN TOWN since I was sixteen, but I remember the show vividly and I can still sing some of the songs. Yet I wouldn't say that it is one of the great scores of that era. When I judge a current score, I have to judge it against a century of Broadway scores.
So, even if it is difficult to write about music without getting too technical, a musical has to be judged by its music. Is it memorable? Does the music fit the characters and situation? Is the score interesting and varied? Does the composer have an individual voice or does the music just sound generic? Are the lyrics appropriate to character and situation? Are the lyrics well written? Do the rhymes seem forced? Great show tunes have great lyrics as well as great tunes. Think of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Comden and Green, Sondheim (of course), Frank Loesser, Oscar Hammerstein on a good day (I'm not a fan of all of his work). Sometimes a good score is challenging ("Art isn't easy," as Sondheim wrote). I had to go to FEBRUARY HOUSE twice to appreciate its quirky, fascinating score fully.
Of course subject matter is important. As much as I admire Lin Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, I'm too old to be attracted to their high school cheerleader musical, BRING IT ON. But the most important ingredients in a musical are the music and lyrics.