Jan 25, 2013

Suspend This (Updated)

This post has been amended to correct an error.*
Finally caught the Broadway folk phenom Once last night, and I liked it, but what impressed me most was the endearing fragility and directness of its sound; there are some well-chosen reverb effects on some of the vocals, a single moment of dance-club beats piped in, and some slight processing on the fiddle sound (an inevitable byproduct of miking them). Other than that, it doesn't sound much different from what you'd expect from a bunch of guitars and other assorted stringed instruments strumming and sawing away in a big theater. The introduction of a drum kit for precisely one song also sounds hearteningly in proportion; the sounds we hear are transparent, visible in a way even most shows with onstage bands don't quite approach. Even when it's jamming hard, it remains a refreshingly small, quiet show.

So how does it fill up the space with emotion? It's not just the big voices of Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, and the chorus. What I noticed, even more strongly than when I saw the movie, is the way composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova milk the suspensions--i.e., melody notes that are pointedly not part of the chord beneath them, in a dissonance that snags at our ear, tugs at our heart, and makes us yearn for the resolution. It's a great old musical trick, and you don't need a ton of music theory to hear what I mean. Listen to the word "time" (1:48) and "now" (2:03) and tell me that yearning sound isn't the key to whatever emotional freight the song carries (and by extension, the key to the show's emotional impact):

Crucially, it's a doubled suspension, with Kazee and Milioti hitting a B-natural and a G, respectively, over an F chord, before resolving to an A and an F.

And what's another big moment in the score, when a song positively bowls us over? (This, by the way, is a much bigger achievement than it's given credit for; in how many backstager musicals are we asked to believe that the song/performance of our lead character is stop-the-traffic amazing? The songs that are meant to do that in Once deliver.) I'd say it's the aching 5/4 jam "When Your Mind's Made Up." The burning dissonance that drives the song, on the word "mind" (:48 and :59), happens to be another B-natural, this time over an A minor chord, a particularly hard-edged suspension that beautifully illustrates and feeds the song's roiling frustration:

Hansard and Irglova didn't invent this evocative trick, of course, and while I'm reluctant to make too many claims for the power of suspensions in pop melodies, they are very often what gives a hook its sharp edge, drawing us into harmonic suspense as we wait for the resolution. One of the best examples that springs to mind is the following standard*, with the suspension that hooks the ear on the word "smile" (and later on the first syllable of "favorite"):
Paul McCartney, for one, is an inveterate suspender. I'd argue that the single note that most draws us into "Hey Jude" is the one on "song" (at 1:04), which is an F over a C7 chord:

It's not exactly the same effect, but the main melody of "Yesterday" is built on a series of suspensions that inexorably drive it forward, thus (suspended notes highlighted):
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
You probably don't need to hear it, but just to jog your memory:

Not all suspensions are quite so exalted; the chorus of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" is based on one. But lest this seem like only a contemporary pop tic, the musical Once is in good company, musical-theater-wise. What notes provide the biggest surge of feeling in the song below? I'd say the suspensions on the syllable "morning" (:30) and later "feeling" (:39) (the latter being same sweet suspension used so memorably in "Falling Slowly"):
This is part of what people mean when they talk about the dramatic character/potential of music. Songwriting, even for the theater, is not primarily about the words.
*This post initially claimed that the song "Harbor Lights" epitomized a suspension; my ears failed me; it does not.
Cross-posted on The Wicked Stage.

Jan 23, 2013

Mantua Man

Željko Lučić in Rigoletto
Years ago, when I first arrived in New York, I was up for an editorial position at the fine Met-produced magazine Opera News. I was in the running but it wasn't a perfect fit, as my taste in opera, such as it is, runs more in the City Opera direction. But now that the Met is hiring more talent from the theater, it's perhaps inevitable that our paths should cross again (though I must credit my colleague David Barbour for the link-up). The occasion: Michael Mayer's Met debut next month with a new, Vegas-styled Rigoletto. The last time I spoke to Mayer, for a Time Out piece about American Idiot, almost the last thing he said to me was that the Green Day musical was, in a sense, his "first opera." But this Rigoletto is for real:
He found the latter production, a through-sung extrapolation of the band Green Day's 2004 punk-pop concept album of the same name, to be salient preparation for directing at the Met — to a point.
"The songs needed to be at a particular tempo, so I was bound to those decisions, and while I could argue for different tempos at different times, a song wouldn't change tempo in the middle," Mayer says of Idiot. "That's definitely going to be the relationship that I have with Rigoletto. The plot is going to be ticking, and at a certain point, something will happen musically, and I'm going to have to fulfill that with the staging."
In both cases, he sees one advantage through-sung material has over traditional book musicals. "One liberating thing about doing American Idiot is that the characters weren't bursting into song — that artifice didn't exist," says Mayer. "It was a wall of sound. The scenes were all the songs. So there isn't that moment of artifice. It's the one 'buy' you have at the beginning — these people communicate with singing. As artificial as it might be to our ear initially, it's consistent throughout the evening."
RTWT here.

Jan 16, 2013

Challenging America

Photo by Carol Rosegg

I've been mostly knocked on my ass by the New York flu since my Ed Wood musical reading last week, but I managed to file this piece for Time Out before the deluge, about America Ferrera's appearance in a new play, Bethany:
“What was really enticing about this play was that it challenged me,” the actor says. “I’m a first-generation American, and a big part of why my parents left their home and came here was the American Dream; that’s what I’ve been fed from the time I was born” (after, apparently, she was given her patriotic 
first name).
But with freedom comes “the right to say, ‘The American Dream is bullshit,’ ” Ferrera adds, citing the reality-checking economic reporting of Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch). “There are all these fascinating conversations that I would love to have a part in.”
RTWT here.

Jan 4, 2013

Album Leaves

Coming out the gate into 2013 a little buried under deadlines, not least for next week's staged reading of The Passion of Ed Wood, my long-gestating musical with Justin Warner (deets here).

I haven't gone entirely silent in the blogosphere, though; about a month ago I started taking the radical step of unshuffling my iPod and listening to whole albums all the way through. I've been focusing on records that were in some way formative to me, and documenting the results on my Facebook page—and, more recently, on my other blog. Today's post is about Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera), and how a simple slide guitar made my love Kurt Weill. This album-replay journal has become in the past month almost a form of spiritual practice for me—not to mention a way to make my commute from Queens less of a grind. But it's also become another writing siren; my first post, on the Replacements' Let It Be, was barely a paragraph. The posts have gotten longer. The muse, such as it is, calls how she will.