Sondheim and Hamilton
Updated: Jan 22, 2022
Note: this blog article was originally published on 15 August 2016 on the Mezzo, Legato! WordPress blog.
Recently I managed to get a hold of the script to the new Broadway hit Hamilton (this included some background to all the ideas that went into it), and watched a documentary-type film about Stephen Sondheim. And to start off with, to say that both of these guys are lyrical geniuses would be an understatement completely. And I had to piece these two together by looking at them side by side.
First of all, Stephen Sondheim prides conversational lyrics, because it in a way lets you know how the character thinks (the lyrics and the way they are delivered indicate this). After discussing this with my family, I immediately thought of Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods in the intro where she sings her part while stealing bread from the bakers. (I’m kind of guilty to say this, but we never stop laughing at that part.) At that part she does sound kind of conversational because she’s addressing the audience (at least in the Broadway version she is) in regular patterns of speech, but then it’s just grouped together with a melody.
Another example that came to mind was the song “God, That’s Good” from Sweeney Todd (thank you, Jersey Girl) where Toby tries to get the attention of the audience by telling us how good the pies are, and we get a sense of Mrs Lovett’s hospitality to the customers by her use of the phrases “dearie” and “I beg your pardon” and the fact that she’s the boss because of how she orders Toby to perform a certain task. Also the customers sing a sort of chant almost like they’re hypnotized by how tasty her pies are, and they talk over each other as is normal in conversation.
And then, I mean, seriously. Who else would have ever thought to put rap in a musical?? Firstly, I cannot thank my host and her friends enough that weekend I visited Gordon College during the stage where I was still looking for colleges for introducing me to the Hamilton soundtrack while painting each other’s nails. As far as I was told, the hip-hop and rap was integrated so that modern audiences can relate to it. What struck me as I put the pieces together is that the lyrics in Hamilton are also sort of like a conversation, because a lot of the male characters rap and a lot of the female ones don’t, which lets you know what kind of personalities the characters have. Like when the characters of Hamilton and Jefferson rap in a song, it makes them seem more powerful, dominant and sure of themselves, because they’re fighting for power and constantly assert themselves throughout the play. Whereas the character of Eliza never raps and sings more softly and fluidly, which indicates that she’s more motherly and kind and gentle.
Okay, I just analyzed some of the components that are absolutely vital if you ever decide to be bold enough to do a musical theater piece for an audition or a Drama assignment or such. Especially if it’s your own song, and the song doesn’t belong to any musical whatsoever. Sometime in the middle of my senior year of high school, our Drama practical assessments consisted of a monologue, scene and then what they called an “Own Choice”, which technically meant you could do absolutely anything you wanted for the third category. Anyway, my teacher said you could even do a musical theater piece for your Own Choice piece as long as it had a narrative, and so I jumped at the chance to do one. And of course I did one of my own songs (which is a kind of I-miss-you kind of deal, written in the form of a letter), tried to give it a narrative by pairing it with a badly designed Victorian-looking set that consisted of a bed-sheet as a tablecloth and a fake plant, and practiced towards infinity for this thing much more than I had for any other singing performance I had ever given in my life. I put my set together in front of a disinterested audience that eyeballed their phones much more than they did me, and the second I opened my mouth, the air inside the room seemed dead. My teacher stared at me with this frozen expressionless face as I staggered my way through the song (without standing up or looking like I was at least singing to someone either, but gazing around the room like a lost sheep), and thankfully, unsurprisingly, she suggested I change my choice.
Anyways, what I learned was that not only does musical theater have a specific vocal sound to it (or so I’ve been told because it’s meant to be conversational), and at the time my indie bluesy soulful voice (if there is even such a genre; if not, let’s create a new one then) was less developed than it is now, but at the same time school restricts you from doing anything unusual and new anyway. It’s like you try to break the mould once, and even if it is good enough, you’ll fail. Thinking through it now, I probably could have gotten away with doing one of my songs (even the one I initially did), given the fact that there are one-person-singing songs spewed all over Broadway everywhere, and they address the audience. I don’t know. Maybe it just needed more emotion at that time.
To cut a long story short, I ended up dramatizing a prose extract from The Hobbit that included the “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song (of course I wasn’t gonna throw away my shot at doing something musical), did it well enough for it to contribute to the A that I got in Drama at the end of the year. And I should remember all the stuff I just wrote here since I’ve been drafting musicals for years because I love being on stage, but at the same time can’t get away from singing.
So there you have it.
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