The mission of music in a musical is . . .

I went to see a show the other night and found myself sitting right next to an old fuddy-duddy (I do realize that by using the term “fuddy-duddy,” I am probably now one myself).  He was buttoned-up and scowling from the moment he walked into the hallowed halls of the theater.

He was absolutely silent during Act I.  He didn’t laugh.  Didn’t slump.  Just kind of stared ahead like he was preparing for a role in the musical version of Awakenings.

And then, during the middle of the first act finale, Mr. Duddy started shifting around in his seat a bit.  At first I thought he was preparing for an early exit to the bathroom and to secure a place in the front of the line for a $9 coke.  But then I realized he wasn’t shifting at all.

He was tapping his foot.

Yep, like Robert De Niro in Awakenings, Mr. Duddy started to wake up slowly.  You see, the music was rockin’ at this point . . . more than it had the entire first act, and the musical was starting to really take off (a little late, of course).  And somehow it had melted Mr. Duddy’s wax figure state, and his foot was moving to the beat.  I stopped watching the show for a moment, as I watched Duddy’s foot move, and then slowly but surely that energy crept up his entire body, practically loosened his tie for him and then . . . well would you look at that . . . a smile.

The music literally got into his body.  It moved him.  And that, my friends, is the mission of music in a musical.

It has to move you.  Obviously it doesn’t have to physically move you all the time . . . but when it gets you tapping your feet, bobbing your head, or moves you to tears, you know that you are literally synced up with what is happening on that stage.

And of course there is a way to emotionally move you as well . . . when the sound of what is being sung has you moving like a tornado, but it’s all happening inside the audience member.  When actually they are moved so much . . . they can’t physically move.  You know what I’m talking about, right?

I read and listen to too many musicals where the music doesn’t move me at all.  It’s just there, trying to tell a story, but falling short because it doesn’t reach out and grab me and pull me in.  And worse than that?  When the music is trying to “teach” . . . or be smart.  The Sondheim Syndrome, I call it.  You can’t be smart.  And you can’t try to teach.  You can just tell your story and move your audience, and if you’re Sondheim, great . . . but I’d rather you just be you.  (Rent is one of the simplest musicals written in the last two decades, and one of the best and most moving.)

I’ve said this before, but I will say it again . . . It’s called a musical.  It’s not a book-ical or even a lyric-ical.  It’s a MUSIC-al.  And that means that your music just may be the biggest weapon you have to snare that audience and make them fall in love with your story.

But if you’re not moving them . . . they’ll move on to something else.


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  • Khiyon Hursey says:

    my favorite blog you’ve written in a while- i love all of them of course!

  • Jenny S. says:

    Great article, but it was Robert De Niro, not Robin Williams, who woke up in “Awakenings”! Robin Williams played the doctor.

  • Paul Gordon says:

    Great article, Ken. I think we forget this all too often when we see musicals. Extremely well said.

  • Hear, hear Ken! That’s why I think musicals are often more powerful vehicles for story than plays, because the music tells you something even without a word being sung. Storytelling through song is like nothing else on earth!

  • Jim Brown says:

    Great point and example Ken. Reminds me of the feeling Lou Adler described while producing Carole King.

  • Fran says:

    In a musical, I believe the book is the brain and the music/lyrics is the heart.

    When a show has the right mix of brain and heart, it’s moving and memorable.

  • J says:

    Mr. Davenport, you are an idiot.

  • William says:

    Love 90% of what you said, but totally disagree with “the Sondheim syndrome” slam. Musical music can be smart AND move the audience. Parts of his “Passion” music make me cry, the depth and beauty of “Little Night Music” … I could go on. There are different ways to get at the audience member’s gut is not just with songs that Infoot-tap and sway to… tho that is great, too.

  • Jonathan Mann says:

    Well said Ken!

    I look for the greatest, most infectious music that would work in any venue (radio, concert, club, etc.) to be included in new musicals. The airplay and popularity of truly worthy music from musicals proves that potential. However, the run of the mill shlock that far too often is slapped into new musicals is so disappointing — and I think ultimately drives audiences away from coming to theater. After all, why should the quality of songwriting, composition and production be less in a musical then in popular music?

    There, I said my piece!

  • Mary M says:

    Too true. I’ve seen too many musical with OK-terrible music. Storytelling does matter, though without the music, it’s a failure.

  • PattyK says:

    I absolutely agree! I live in Vegas, and the musicals here, that lasted, were Phantom, The Lion King,MAMMA MIA, and Jersey Boys (still here).They are all music-driven, and the audience could relate, and was familiar with the songs. Hairspray, The Producers, Avenue Q, and We Will Rock You did NOT last, possibly because there were not enough memorable songs.

  • janis says:

    Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. — Indian Proverb

    Words address the mind, but music opens the heart for the message. Greg Gray

  • Aaron says:

    On the whole, I agree.

    With Sondheim, however, I think perhaps you have not been properly acquainted. As I’m sure others have and will continue to point out, there is a plethora of examples of his music being absolutely moving (the resolution of Sunday In The Park is the passage that presents itself first in my mind).

    You hold up Rent as an example; without the influence of Sondheim, Larson could have turned out a very different work.

    How did those musicals you think of as “moving” get written? They got written because someone, Mr. Composer, was once a young person listening to and watching musicals- musicals written in another time for a different audience. I can’t imagine Mr. Composer would have the same definition of “moving” as you or I (Some of the operettas of the turn of the century are woefully repetitive and severely lacking in percussion in my opinion; I do not find them terribly moving, but audiences of the day couldn’t get enough). The standard moves forward; and if it weren’t for those musicals that might get termed “un-moving”-possibly called “confusing” or “atonal” “non-melodic” etc etc, the newer “more moving” musicals may have never existed.

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