The Dramatic Function of Songs in Musical Theater
by Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
(latest revision July 2019)
Musical theater has become one of the most popular forms of stage entertainment today. Musicals combine the full spectrum of all the arts: words, singing, dancing, stage spectacle, providing audiences with something for just about every taste. The addition of music to a standard play heightens emotion, reinforces dramatic action, and evokes atmosphere and mood in ways that words alone cannot.
Musical theater encompasses a wide range, from revues to Broadway musicals to grand opera, depending on how music functions dramatically in the work. In a revue such as “An Evening with Cole Porter” or “Side by Side by Sondheim,” popular songs by a composer are performed for their own sake without any dramatic context, whereas in opera the entire drama is conveyed through music. The critical distinction concerns how closely the different elements mesh to form a synthesis of the arts with all contributing to the development of the dramatic action. In the best musicals, songs do not exist only for their entertainment value, but develop story, mood, and theme, communicating the drama through music.
In 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! established a successful pattern for the integration of music and lyrics in a musical, setting a phenomenal precedent. The standards for the musical were now high, and all who succeeded these creative partners were expected to meet the challenge. Most Broadway musicals since that time have followed the example set by this musical team. Previously lyricists and composers wrote songs, but now they became dramatists, using songs to develop character and advance the plot. Rodgers and Hammerstein abandoned the sure-bet formulas of their day, slapstick comedy and chorus lines of scantily clad females. All elements in the musical now had to have a dramatic function. Oklahoma! demonstrates several techniques of integration that Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to use throughout their career (Spurrier 148-54).
(1) The script, often referred to as “the book,” has priority; all other elements exist only to further the dramatic needs of the book. A good book provides the narrative skeleton for a musical as well as ample opportunities to allow singing and dance to enhance the story. The book for a musical may be based on a play, novel, film, or develop from an original idea.
(2) Opening numbers help to establish the mood and setting and to prepare for the themes of the musical. The slow beginning with a lone baritone singing offstage, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” set a different tone from the usual opening spectacle of high-kicking chorus girls. Reprising this number near the end of the show also creates a sense of unity for the entire production.
(3) The collaborators worked to achieve smooth transitions from script to music. Lyrics begin as a continuation of dialogue, as when Will Parker warns his girl Ado Annie that with him it’s “All or Nuthin’” in their relationship. In this manner songs do not interrupt dramatic dialogue but develop and expand it.
(4) Songs should express the deepest thoughts and feelings of the characters at that moment. Lyrics describe specific actions and events within the story and follow the natural speech patterns of the characters in the vernacular of the play. The characters of Oklahoma! speak and sing as westerners, not opera virtuosos.
(5) The style of music relates closely to the specific lyrics, as heard in “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” with its steady, clip-clop rhythm mimicking the sound of horses’ hooves.
(6) Reprises are often used to show development of character. During “People will Say We’re in Love” Laurie and Curly caution each other that they should not stand too close or talk too long, or else people will get the wrong idea. Near the end of the show, the reprise changes the lyrics to “Let People Say We’re in Love,” revealing a shift from their initial reluctance to a mutual acceptance of their relationship.
(7) Oklahoma! featured an innovative role for dance in its dream ballet, in which Laurie imagines a deadly confrontation between Curlie and Judd at the hoedown. Rather than choreography for its own sake, Laurie’s ballet tells a story through music and movement. The ultimate expansion of this idea came with West Side Story (1957) conceived as a dramatized ballet by choreographer-director Jerome Robbins.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein’s successful career demonstrates, the key is integration, how well lyrics and music work together with the book for dramatic purposes. Songs may function dramatically in several ways, a primary one being to define character. The best type of character song fits the dramatic situation and cannot be fully appreciated if taken out of context. For instance, “Pickalittletalkalittle” from The Music Man (1957) describes the petty gossip of the ladies’ committee perfectly, but it would not work outside this play with different characters.
Ironically, many Broadway songs have become famous because they were not closely tied to the characters or their situation in the musical. They could be performed by someone like Barbra Streisand on an album without the listener needing to know anything about the musical itself. Generic songs may become popular hits, but they are not the most effective musical numbers. The best dramatic songs cannot be sung by just any character as they are not interchangeable. The number “Getting to Know You” from The King and I (1951), which Anna sings to the children, originally was written for the young lovers in South Pacific (1949). Even with its pleasant tune and lyrics, it functions less effectively as a dramatic song because it was not written for the specific character who sings in that particular situation.
“I am” songs
Director Bob Fosse (Pippin, Chicago, the film Cabaret) described character songs as “I am” or “I want” numbers depending on how they function in the show. Because musicals are by nature openly presentational (that is, not concerned with creating the illusion of real life on stage), characters may break the fourth wall and introduce themselves directly to the audience through “I am” songs; examples include “I am a Pirate King” and “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance (1879). In Man of La Mancha (1965) the hero proclaims proudly to the world, “I am I, Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha.” In Little Shop of Horrors (1982) Orin Scrivello revels in the perfect occupation for someone who enjoys inflicting pain, singing “I am your Dentist.”
In “I am” songs, characters express freely how they feel at the moment, as in Maria’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Sometimes characters discover something about themselves. In Hello, Dolly! (1964) Dolly Levi realizes while singing “Before the Parade Passes By” that she has spent enough time mourning her dead husband and promises to enjoy the rest of her life in the company of Horace Vandergelder (even though he doesn’t know it yet). In Fiddler on the Roof (1964) Tevye and Goldie recognize their true affection for each other in “Do you Love Me?” – after living with and caring for someone for twenty-five years, “If that’s not love, what is?”
Besides defining oneself and providing moments of self-revelation, through “I am” songs characters may assert themselves against a challenge. In Fiddler, each time Tevye’s daughters express their desire to marry someone not arranged by the local matchmaker, he first takes a stand upholding the importance of “Tradition” before reluctantly giving into their wishes. In Pirates of Penzance, the officers must arouse their courage to face the pirates in “A Policeman’s Lot is not a Happy One.”
“I want” songs
Whereas “I am” songs describe a present state, “I want” songs suggest a course of action for the future. Characters often express their goals and dreams through song. Don Quixote’s famous “To Dream the Impossible Dream” tells of his desire to look past this dark world and discover a better one. In “Nothing” from A Chorus Line (1975) Diana Morales declares her undying dream of becoming an actress even though failing her improvisation class; several women sing of how dance helped them escape from a dismal home life: “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.” In Fiddler, Tevye daydreams, “If I were a Rich Man,” a desire similar to Eliza’s wish for another life in “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady (1956).
Some characters may say “I don’t want” something. In Company (1970) Amy lists at breathless speed all the reasons why she objects to “Getting Married Today.” In My Fair Lady, Alfred P. Doolittle expresses similar reluctance toward matrimony in “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.”
Often a tune will occur again in the show as a reprise which can be used effectively to reveal how a character has developed during the story. If the creators are thinking as dramatists, they will avoid repeating a song simply to let the audience hear it again, which would be like Hamlet reciting “To be or not to be” one more time just because people enjoy it. Such repetition serves no dramatic purpose.
An effective reprise which functions dramatically reveals the development of character since the last time it was sung. In My Fair Lady, after a nasty confrontation with Eliza, Henry Higgins returns to the lyrics “I’ll Never Let a Woman in my Life” but immediately contradicts these sentiments when he realizes “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” (a type of “I am” recognition song).
The lyrics may reflect a change in the character’s attitude or self-awareness, or they may indicate a change in situation. In West Side Story (1957) Tony and Maria reprise their romantic ballad “Tonight,” but now its hopeful optimism is threatened by another activity planned for “tonight,” the gangs’ street fight; this time the music takes on a harsh, violent tone. In Gypsy (1959) Louise sings “Let Me Entertain You” first as a young child in an innocent vaudeville routine; years later when she has become a strip tease dancer, she reprises the number in a sultry, seductive manner, offering a different kind of entertainment to her audience. The two princes in Into the Woods (1987) reprise their song “Agony,” this time realizing the lovely damsels they could not live without earlier are not as alluring as some new prospects.
A character may express his inner thoughts directly to the audience, sentiments which other characters on stage do not hear. In A Little Night Music (1973) Fredrik contemplates various strategies to seduce his still-virginal young bride while Anne sits at her dressing table, hearing none of his plans. In another Sondheim show, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), the younger George in Act 2 describes to the audience the difficulty of raising funds for his expensive exhibitions while his potential patrons stand around talking to cardboard cut-outs representing him (“Art isn’t Easy”).
Emotional climax songs
When characters reach a point in the drama where they can’t help but explode with feelings of love or success or simply the joy of life, music serves to amplify these emotions to a level above mere words. Emotional climax songs are exuberant, celebratory, and infectious, allowing the audience to share the characters’ passion and excitement.
In My Fair Lady, once Eliza conquers her language lesson, her personal victory demands that the characters burst into song, “The Rain in Spain,” a silly number in itself but necessary to depict their elation at her success. In Fiddler, Tevye and the men of the village drink a toast “To Life!” a rare moment of happiness in their dreary existence. In Ragtime (1998), Colehouse and Sarah express hope for their son’s future in “Wheels of a Dream.” Emotional climax songs usually bring the audience to their feet cheering.
Songs that Tell Stories
Because songs take up time reserved for dialogue in a play, musicals must move quickly to establish the dramatic situation, introduce the main characters, and give audiences some reason to care about them. Exposition songs inform the audience about what has happened prior to the play and what has brought the characters to this particular point in the action. They also may preview the themes of the play.
Set at the turn of last century, Ragtime (1998) opens by presenting three groups whose stories will soon intertwine: a white, upper-middle class family, a black Ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker and his woman Sarah, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. As each group takes the stage, they challenge the assumptions of the status quo, foreshadowing the tensions that will arise in the melting pot of America during this new century. In the opening number of Fiddler, Tevye explains the importance of “Tradition” to keep his family and the Jewish people on their feet during rough times. In Evita (1976) the narrator Ché interrupts the funeral lamentations of Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina, to give his own cynical view of her accomplishments: “You let down your people, Evita. You were supposed to have been immortal.”
At the heart of every drama lies conflict. Some of the most exciting numbers in musicals involve conflict songs when characters struggle to attain differing goals. The musical 1776 depicts the frustrating challenges the founding fathers faced in writing the Declaration of Independence. As John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin argue their points of view with other members of the Continental Congress, several conflict songs arise. The first number serves as both exposition and conflict song: Adams pushes Congress to vote for independence, but the disputing delegations shout back, “Sit Down, John!” as they prefer to quarrel over whether or not to open the windows because of the heat. The song segues into a conversation between Adams and his wife Abigail, but even they cannot agree on which is more important, making saltpeter for gunpowder or supplying the women with pins.
Once Congress does approve the idea of independence, Adams must convince someone to write the declaration. Jefferson at first refuses, wanting to return home to his beautiful wife (“But Mr. Adams”). Adams brings his wife to Philadelphia, providing the inspiration he needs. Later, the southern colonies object to the condemnation of slavery in Jefferson’s early draft. In a chilling song, Mr. Rutledge depicts the horrors of slavery but points out the hypocrisy of the northerners who also profit from the “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” trade.
Not all pertinent action in a musical occurs on stage. In narration songs, characters describe events that we otherwise do not see. In a touching number in 1776, “Mama, look sharp,” a soldier tells how his best friends had fallen on the battlefield, crying for their mothers to find them before they died; his somber words give us the sense of being in the midst of the bloody chaos. In Ragtime, Evelyn relates how the murder of a former lover by her husband became the “Crime of the Century” and boosted her career in vaudeville.
Similar to narration songs, summary songs compress lengthy amounts of time into one number. In My Fair Lady, the maids and butlers pity “Poor Professor Higgins” as he spends months teaching Eliza how to speak properly. “Good Night and Thank You” describes Evita’s rise to prominence from small town girl to film actress with the help of one lover after another. Later, “Rainbow Tour” relates Evita’s promotional visit to several European countries. In a summary song from The Fantasticks (1961), “Round and Round,” El Gallo takes Louisa on a whirlwind tour of the world, showing her the wonders she has always dreamed about. Each of these songs describes more time than we see on stage.
Songs with Special Functions
Musical metaphors take advantage of the unique qualities of musical theater to portray a situation in non-literal fashion. In the example mentioned above from 1776, as John and Abigail sing to each other, we realize that in real life they were separated by hundreds of miles and must have corresponded by letter. The duet allows them to converse in a more immediate, personal manner. In Ragtime, Evelyn’s courtroom testimony before the judge concerning her husband’s murder plays like a vaudeville routine while she performs as the scantily clad girl on the swing; in metaphoric terms the “Crime of the Century” has become the hottest show in town. The narrator of Evita, Ché Guavera was an historical person, an associate of Castro during the Cuban revolution. Born in Argentina, he and Eva Peron never met, but through the magic of theater, as Eva lies dying of cancer in the hospital, she dreams of waltzing with Ché as they debate the ethical choices she has made in her career. In “We Both Reached for the Gun” from Chicago (1975), the defense attorney manipulates the witness and the press like marionettes on strings.
In comment songs a character not in the dramatic scene steps to one side and sings about the events on stage. Stephen Sondheim uses this device in several musicals (see my essay). In Company (1970) Robert, a New York bachelor, observes the lives of several couples, trying to decide whether or not relationships are truly worth the trouble. Invited to one couple’s apartment, he watches uncomfortably while they try out judo moves on each other in the living room; the other cast members not in the scene stand to one side observing and sing about the quirks of married life in “The Little Things you do Together.” In A Little Night Music, Madame Armfeldt comments disapprovingly from side stage about her daughter’s tawdry “Liaisons” while she and her lover spend time in the bedroom.
Similar to comment songs, musical narrators stand apart from the action and reflect upon the characters and dramatic situation. The narrator offers a different, often critical perspective on the character, such as Ché’s negative assessment of Evita’s accomplishments. In Assassins (1990) a banjo-picking balladeer provides the “official” view of John Wilkes Booth, calling him a madman, an interpretation which Booth challenges, claiming “I did it for my country.” Eventually the assassins collectively evict the balladeer from the stage so that they can explain their motives directly to the audience. In Sweeney Todd (1979) the chorus provides musical narration: “Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned, like a perfect machine he planned.”
Cameo songs feature a minor character in a memorable number, someone who otherwise might be forgotten. The soldier who sings about the death of his buddies in 1776 is a good example; prior to his song he appears only to deliver messages from General Washington. Staking out her territory, Evita evicts Juan Peron’s current “bit-on-the-side” from his bed, leaving the girl to ask “What happens now?” as she sings “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (in the film version Madonna took this song from the cameo actress). Giving some sage advice to Pippin (1972), Granny belts out the show-stopping number “Just No Time at all” in her only scene. A good cameo song defines a minor character quickly and effectively, as well as giving a performer in a small role time in the spotlight.
Parodies rely on audience familiarity with music not in the show, either a specific song or musical style, to evoke an appropriate mood. Associations with the original music add another layer of meaning. In Company, Bobby’s would-be girlfriends chastise his lack of commitment in a 1940s, Andrews Sisters’ style trio, “You could Drive a Person Crazy.” In Assassins, John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromm (who tried to kill Reagan and Ford respectively) sing a perverse love song to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson in the 1970s pop style of the Carpenters. In Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1969) Pharaoh appears as the “King” in an Elvis impersonation, describing his strange dreams to Joseph; this musical also features a western ballad, “Another Angel in Heaven,” and the “Benjamin Calypso.”
Spurrier, James. The Integration of Music and Lyrics with the Book in the American Musical. Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Illinois U, 1979.
A version of this article applied to film musicals can be found in my book, How Films Tell Stories, available at Amazon.