My Complicated Relationship With Musicals

So, I write plays. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about it much, having, it would appear, so much to say about media and whatnot and no apparent drive to just start a podcast about it my friends can pretend to have heard, but I write plays. Sure I had a dalliance with Sweet Lady Film, but the stage still has that certain magic… and lower start-up capital. Turns out modernizations of Robin Hood aren’t free.

(And also once you’ve had that idea four movie studios might greenlight Robin Hood projects that fail or go nowhere and now you’ll never get yours into Slamdance.)

(Turns out that writing plays is no defense from someone else having an annoyingly similar idea and being first to print, as it were, but that’s another topic.)

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve ever considered writing a musical. They’re fun and popular and I do like them. Musicals are super lucrative. Why wouldn’t I want to write one? Well… it’s actually a simple answer.

I cannot write songs.

No, really, I can’t do it.

It’s not for lack of interest in music as a storytelling tool. I love a subtle manipulation of leitmotifs to use the score to enhance a story. Blake Neely, the composer for the Arrowverse, excels at this. Look at how he scores this fight between the Arrowverse Superman and Brandon Routh’s Superman, blending his own Superman theme with John Williams’. And that doesn’t even include the violins of “Can You Read My Mind,” the love song from Richard Donner’s Superman, playing when Routh’s Superman sees the Arrowverse Lois Lane.

Look this is going to be a topic where I get distracted a lot, and I’m sorry, but oh better example! This scene, where the Twelfth Doctor is about to wipe Bill Potts’ memory. She asks how he’d feel if it happened to him (it did, in the previous series finale), and composer Murray Gold tells us everything we need to know about the Doctor’s inner struggle by reminding us which exact memories he lost, through a sad, quiet, and slightly out-of-tune reprise of Clara’s Theme.

The point is… I really love music as a storytelling tool, buuuut… I can’t write it. I cannot create melodies. Nothing in my brain knows how to do that, certainly not with anything resembling reliability. We can all hum an ad-libbed tune, sure, but coming up with a precise melody that says “They love each other but life won’t let them be together,” and definitely isn’t accidentally from A Nightmare Before Christmas, that’s a whole other thing, and it’s not a thing I can do.

Not that I’m much better at lyrics. A recent show of mine had two musical numbers, one of which was directly modelled off of a specific song. (With stage directions reading “Similar to but legally distinct from [title].”) That one wasn’t so hard, I’m occasionally a B-grade parody lyricist, because if I have a specific meter and rhyme scheme to work from, I do okay. But without that, you probably just get a couple of stanzas of iambic tetrameter, because I don’t know, Willy Shakespeare, sometimes pentameter feels just a hint too long. So when it came time to write the other one, sure I came up with lyrics, but writing a tune for them took five years off the composer’s life.

Which… okay, that was mostly about me saying “I need an Elizabethan love duet, a song that is in no way suitable for a rap breakdown so that when it does have a rap breakdown, it’s hilarious.” That’s probably what did it. More than there being a disconnect in meter between the verses and the chorus.

It was funny, though.

So I can’t write songs. I can, at best, come up with a framework for a song that has in no way considered what a composer might have to do to make it work. That said… like Dinosaur Comics proved that you can make a popular, long-running comic despite no ability to draw, there is a genre of musical that requires no songwriting ability whatsoever.

Next Page: Jukebox “Heroes,” Question Mark?

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