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Essay

The American Voice: On Musicals and Modernity

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In 2005, a rather remarkable production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Grand Guignol musical Sweeney Todd appeared on Broadway. Directed by John Doyle, this extraordinary production stood out not because it featured epic effects or oceans of stage blood, but instead because it was pared down to its simplest level. Described as “psychologically astute” by critics, it uniquely featured actors who also played their own instruments. Rather than serving as a gimmick, Doyle’s stylized version of Sweeney allowed the music to act as a direct form of character development and storytelling. Form was allowed to follow function. The result was a production that demonstrated extraordinary depth of character. 

The intervening seasons have brought us a number of musicals that have followed suit. Along with Doyle’s reimaginings of other Sondheim works (Company and Merrily We Roll Along) have come a slew of originals, in which the music’s dramatic function (to aid in elucidating the story) becomes clearer through the use of onstage bands, characters playing instruments, and other methods of composition. In the current hit Once, for example, cast members also serve as the band. There, music is the only way the characters know how to express themselves. Everything about the production is simple and truthful: the movement, the songs, the staging—not your typical Broadway “spectacular.”

In Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick and Will Connolly’s new tuner, Fly By Night, music is an essential ingredient of the storytelling. Take away the music and you’re not left with just a play. Instead, you’ve taken away entire plot points. While this is often just the hallmark of a good musical, in this case, how you hear that music is as important as what you hear. 

The score for Fly By Night is comprised of many different elements. There are, of course, traditional “musical theater” moments in which story and character are advanced by the singing of a song. There are also diegetic moments, in which the song being sung is also being “performed” as a part of the context of the story (for example, when our protagonist sings a song at an open mic night). And there are moments of mundane musicality, wherein the everyday becomes a large part of a song’s form. Whether it establishes itself in the lyrics (“Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce…”) or in the sound of an aspiring writer and director’s obsessive typing, the sounds of the characters’ everyday lives tell us much about the worlds they inhabit.

Each character has a musical motif, but unlike opera, in which these motifs herald the characters’ entrances or shift our focus onto them, Fly By Night’s characters’ motifs tell us simply and directly about their struggles. Whether it’s a song sung to the stars, a song sung to transform a character into a star, a snippet of an operatic phrase never completed, or a simple tune that gets us through an everyday task, these moments build upon each other and overlap in ways that reveal not only how the characters interact, but also how their separate worlds head toward an inevitable collision.

Harold, one of our young protagonists, sets off on a musical treasure hunt after finding a guitar in his recently deceased mother’s closet. A note stuck in his head as he tries desperately to write a song becomes an aural reminder of his own inertia. And as he becomes enmeshed in the lives of Daphne and Miriam, two bright-eyed Midwestern sisters, he finds he is no longer able to spend his days in a sandwich shop with “Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce...” Harold longs for more. Elsewhere, Daphne sings of the star she is (or wants to be). With each note, it becomes clearer and clearer that her dreams may not be enough. She also “wants more.” And, counting the stars in the New York City sky, as Miriam contends with her trust of stars and what they portend, her song is suddenly stolen by a wandering fortune teller. All the while snippets of La Traviata are heard whenever Harold’s father, Mr. McClam, makes an appearance. 

The narrative structure of Fly By Night is not a linear one. Weaving back and forth over the course of a year until the very moment of the blackout of 1965, these musical moments intricately intertwine until finally they crescendo, illuminating the natural intersection of these star-crossed lovers. 

When a completed song finally reveals itself, it’s a heartrending moment made all the more suspenseful by the anticipation of the hints we’ve heard previously. And when a song ultimately transforms itself, we feel the world shift under the characters’ feet.

This is how music can function as a form of storytelling. Much more than a gauge for an audience’s emotional response, it becomes as much a part of how a story is told as the story itself. The guitar Harold has carried through the show isn’t simply a guitar, it’s a vital extension of who he is—the part he can’t discuss, the part that doesn’t reveal itself, until it does in a completed song.

More and more, musicals aren’t relying on simple song structures to tell their story. They are granting their characters access to the tools of songwriting, to help them reach their audience. Whether it’s in the twisted structure and outsider quality of a musical like The Shaggs, the simplicity of Once, or the intersection of the mundane and the sublime in Fly By Night, how composers choose to tell a story has become as important as the story itself.

Kent Nicholson
Director of Musical Theater

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