Learning to Read Music
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Can you read a musical? Obviously a line-by-line account of the big tap number in 42nd Street isn’t going to give you much insight into why that show works, and the lyrics of most shows just aren’t as profound when they aren’t being interpreted by a skilled performer or accompanied by rousing music. Sometimes reading lyrics merely makes one realize how much nonsense was rushing by, given power by that snappy tune or belting voice.
There is a class of musical, however, in which the book and lyrics are profound enough to stand scrutiny without singing and dancing. Eight musicals have been judged worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Of Thee I Sing; South Pacific; Fiorello!; How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying; A Chorus Line; Sunday in the Park with George; Rent; and most recently Next to Normal.
I just finished reading Next to Normal, a musical about one woman’s manic depression and schizophrenia, her attachment to a dead son, and her neglect of her husband and daughter. Although there is very little book beyond the songs, Brian Yorkey’s lyrics advance the story steadily and provide real insight into the difficulty of family relationships when mental illness intervenes. It’s a harrowing work, but one that ultimately leaves the reader with hope for better futures for those involved.
To the list of readable musicals, one could probably add most of the work of Stephen Sondheim, a composer and lyricist whose wordplay is remarkable, whose subject matter is usually sophisticated, and who is an outspoken advocate of lyrics that don’t “cheat.” His words make organic sense without requiring a clever performer, corresponding visuals, a catchy melody, or poetic license supplied by the audience. The lyrics to his songs often advance the plot instead of merely decorating it. Shows like Gypsy, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Company, and Assassins make satisfying reading, and you may even catch nuggets that get lost as songs speed by on the stage.
If you read the book of a musical in your group, should you skip listening to the cast album, watching film clips, or even attending a local production? Probably not: these are great chances to bring variety to your group and enhance the experience. Still, consider asking your readers to think about the words on the page first. They’ll get more insight into how the interpretations of directors and actors, the use of sets and costumes, or the experience of live performance can contribute to or detract from the power generated by language itself. The resulting discussion will be more fruitful than if you simply talk about which actor was your favorite or which song was stuck in your head.