Today the New York Times published an excellent dialog between its classical music critic and avowed musical theater enthusiast Anthony Tommasini and its pop music critic Joe Caramanica about the musical Hamilton.
The exchange included this from Tommasini, which has rattled me:
“At its core, musical theater is about the smart, elegant and playful combination of words and music. But the mix is not 50-50: Words drive the form. And in a great musical, every element of the music supports and lifts the words. That’s what I revere about Stephen Sondheim. Every detail of his ingenious and beautiful music calls your attention to his great lyrics. Miranda’s music is very different from Sondheim’s, but I had a Sondheimesque experience at “Hamilton.” Every musical moment in that score swept me into the smart and dazzling rapping.”
Words and music are not equal players in musical theater? Words drive the form, take greater weight? This is news to me. I’ve been at several workshops and been part of many discussions comparing opera with musicals and other music theater forms. My takeaway has always been that in opera music carries the greater weight, while in musical theater words and music carry equal weight. 50/50.
But now none other than the classical music critic for the New York Times is proclaiming music subservient to words? Not an equal partner in creation but one whose place is to support and lift the words. Mind you, he doesn’t necessarily denigrate melody; in the example he gives, he praises Sondheim’s “ingenious and beautiful music”, but still puts it in service to Sondheim’s “great lyrics”.
Could it not be said that Sondheim’s great lyrics are supporting his ingenious and beautiful music?
It’s not simply a matter of perspective after the fact. Saying “words drive the music” presumes that the words were written first and the music after. That is not necessarily the case. Often the melody comes first, captures the emotion and drama of the moment with musical precision; and then the right words are found to fit the melody and the dramatic moment it describes.
I’ll just speak for my own process, since I wasn’t in the room when Sondheim or Miranda created their songs. On some projects I write music and lyrics myself, and on some projects I collaborate as composer with other writers responsible for book and lyrics. On collaborations I have sometimes composed the music after the lyrics were written, and sometimes I composed the music first and the lyrics were written next. Sometimes there is a give and take and for some parts of a song the music comes first and other parts the lyrics come first.
It’s a collaborative dialog that depends to a greater extent on the inclinations and interactions of the collaborative team as well as the particular needs of the project at hand than any general ideas about the proper way to write a musical.
I will acknowledge that although I sometimes write the lyrics first when I am responsible for both words and music, much more often the melody will come first. And in saying that I may be revealing my prejudice. Melody carries the emotional weight of the storytelling , pierces my heart, captures my soul more directly and lastingly than lyrics.
When I remember the great musicals, the great moments in those great musicals, I remember transcendent melodies first and foremost.
I also think that the great musicals couldn’t be great without great music. But they might be able to get by with an indifferent lyric or plot device or two…
But don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for the denigration of lyrics. I am passionate about the importance of great lyrics, in their storytelling and their artistic beauty. Ultimately in musical theater melody and lyrics must be equal partners. Words and music should fit hand in glove, perfectly capturing the emotion and drama of the moment together. Ideally one would not be able to tell which was created first.
I don’t believe Tommasini means to denigrate music. But I fear that his comment feeds into a perception that the quality of music is secondary to the quality of story and lyrics in musical theater. Look at Hamilton. So very much has been rightly said about the words, the rapping, the intricate lyrics. But so little is being said so far about the music. So much is rightly said about Sondheim’s genius lyrics, but sometimes it seems at the expense of not saying enough about the incredible power of his genius music. Too often I read reviews of musicals that go on at length about the book and the lyrics and have so much less to say about the music.
I understand it’s easier to write about words than about melodies. After all when one writes about lyrics one is using words to describe and analyze other words. Finding the right words to describe and analyze music – which may just be the least tangible art form – is daunting.
But just because it is harder to talk about music, let’s not neglect its power and its importance to us, as an emotional conduit, as something that burrows deep into our hearts and minds.
Let’s not treat the music in a musical as an afterthought.