- We like people who sing well. So if a character sings on stage, the audience is almost predisposed to like that character, or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. I think we like characters who sing well because when they sing, we don’t question their intensions. Which leads me to:
- Songs don’t lie. We accept music and songs and singers at face value, because we know it’s virtually impossible to lie in a song without also revealing the lie. If a character sings, “I love you,” we buy it. We don’t question it. In Oklahoma!, Laurey and Curly sing, “People Will Say We’re In Love,” a laundry list of things the other mustn’t do to avoid the gossipy rumors that they’re a couple. Protest all they want, we know those crazy kids are goofy for each other from the first measure, because songs don’t lie. Even ironic musicals like Chicago have trouble lying in song. In “Funny Honey,” Roxy espouses all the reasons she’s fond of her husband Amos. We know that normally Roxy doesn’t give two figs for Amos, but in that song, in that moment, she does. Why? Because he’s taking the rap for her crime. And then when he gets wise to her manipulations and rats her out mid-song, the music reflects and communicates her change of heart with perfect precision.
- Songs propagate the paradox of the stage. Songs in plays, except for special occasions, are generally not naturalistic. If a play is naturalistic, it feels like a straightforward representation of real life, and if a play is theatrical, it feels like an artificial or heightened representation (exploration?) of real life. Theatricality is inherently false. Therein lies its power. Theatre is metaphor. Everything on stage is representative of something else. The power of theatre is the power of metaphor, which is the power of a lie that tells the truth. And the paradox of theatre is the more it lies (the more false, the more artificial, the more incredible), the greater its potential to tell truths. People don’t burst into song in real life – or if they do, they’re not usually backed by a full orchestra. It’s false, unrealistic, theatrical. It’s one of the most theatrical things an actor can do on a stage without the help of spectacle. Which is why it’s so compelling to watch, and why an audience is so willing to trust its honesty. Because a song distances us from the naturalism of a moment, it paradoxically draws us closer into that moment’s honesty and emotional reality. It’s an extremely powerful tool for theatre artists.
- Sung text carries more weight than spoken text. If a character says, “I hate you,” and then sings, “I love you,” we’ll believe the song. Songs don’t lie; speeches are riddled with lies. So in terms of truth telling, of which conveyors an audience will believe, the formula breaks down like this: sung text > spoken text. Anyone can lie in a speech, but somehow a song feels truer, more pure. Because:
- Music carries tone, and we react to tone emotionally. Music (and I’m talking Western, popular forms – for theories on atonal experimental pieces, ask a music scholar) works like a cable: it plugs directly into the listener’s brain and conveys huge amounts of information very quickly. Music gives cues to the listener about how to feel, how to interpret images, what the lyrics mean, etc. On stage, music tells the audience, in no uncertain terms, what the tone of the play is. Listen to “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, and we know exactly how those taxi dancers feel about taxi dancing. The lyrics are lies (and we know they are lies – see above) and the music tells us the truth. They hate their jobs. And we sympathize with them for hating their jobs and also maybe respect them a little because they’re revealed to be con artists, and America loves a con artist. (Aside: the first act of Sweet Charity is so brilliant and daring and thrilling in how it wrestles with thorny second wave feminism issues, and so in the second act, when the play is shoehorned into a love story, it’s one of the more disappointing missed opportunities in the history of the American musical. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” is so resonant with rage and longing and frustration! But no: she really wants to settle down in a little house with Oscar. Bleah. End of aside.) So now our formula is updated this way: instrumental music > sung text > spoken text. Filmmakers have been using music to convey tone since the beginning: scary music, chipper music. In that first scene of Punch Drunk Love where Adam Sandler’s character discovers the harmonium, there’s no musical underscore at all, and it’s completely disturbing: is this a comedy? Is something bad going to happen? Tell us how to feel, P.T. Anderson! Which brings me to my last point:
- Music is weirdly comforting. Even scary music is kind of comforting, because at least we know where we are tonally. As any Pinter scholar will attest, silence breeds tension. Music calms us, or at least gives us something to latch onto that we trust, that won’t betray us in the end (because music doesn’t lie), something that will lead us through the wilderness and deposit us on the other side, safe but maybe also, if we’re lucky, changed. That’s one of the reasons the Brecht/Weill musicals can be so creepy and so fun at the same time. The music distances us from the creepiness, allowing us to examine it safely at arm’s length.
We should take these ideas about music and use them, exploit them, in our plays. We should craft some experiments out of these theories by turning them inside out, applying them or undermining them as we see fit. We shouldn’t let “but then we have to pay a piano player to come to rehearsals” be the excuse that keeps us from embracing a fundamental and extremely powerful tool of theatricality. Sing out, Louise!