Photo of Titanic by Michael McMath, The Hartt School of Music, Dance, and Theatre, March 2016, Directed by Kyle Brand.
When preparing a piece of musical theater for performance, most actors and directors place more emphasis on the lyrics and spoken text (dialogue) than on the music when it comes to characterization, relationship and other acting and staging choices. Rehearsal practices commonly include a thorough dissection of the verbal text (“table work”), while music analysis receives comparatively less attention. Further, the separation of singing and acting into separate classes and rehearsals, a practice found both in the industry and at training institutions, can prevent a holistic, combinatory approach to verbal and musical texts on the part of the actor (de Mallet Burgess & Skilbeck 9-11, 111-112). Through nearly two decades of professional practice as a director, actor, and vocal coach of musical theater, and more recently in my research as a PhD candidate, I have consistently found that when actors pay attention to the music elements of a songs when making character choices, they uncover hitherto unnoticed dramatic insights and, most importantly, use this awareness to create another layer of characterization and complexity.
Any reference to the text of a musical usually denotes the scripted words: those that are to be spoken and/or sung during performance (see Stanislavski and Rumyantsev; Burgess and Skilbeck; Kayes; Ostwald; Bond; and Hamilton). It is acknowledged that focusing on the text as a source for acting choices in musical theater is beneficial (see Thomas; Purdy), and “monologuing the lyrics” (divorcing the lyrics of a song from its music) is frequently employed as a technique (see Clark 84; Craig 1; Dunbar 66-67; Henson and Pickering 55-56; Kayes 175; Lucca 42; McWaters 49-50; Moore 160-164; Richardson 12-13), but seldom the reverse. If we consider musical elements to be defined as information notated in a musical’s score to be either sung by actors or played by instrumentalists, the extent to which actors draw upon these elements is often restricted to learning which notes to sing, when, in
what order, for how long and, at most, what style to sing them in, something that renowned actor and teacher Constantin Stanislavski referred to as “academic singing” (Stanislavski & Rumyantsev 21). I posit that a failure to balance text exploration with a comparable musical investigation can lead to an over-reliance on “What am I saying?” at the expense of “How am I saying it?”
Music theatre composers, like lyricists and book writers, specifically choose what goes into their music and what does not (see Clark 82; de Mallet Burgess and Skilbeck 150-151; Ostwald; Major and Laing; Henson and Pickering; Deer and Dal Vera 55-56; Moore 96-99). Increasingly, music specialists are advocating that actors need to pay more attention to the clues offered them by composers in the score in order to make characterization choices. For example, musical director Kristof Van Grysperre strongly argues that “[d]iscovering and shaping a character begins with the opening of the score. The more we explore the [verbal] text and music, the more the character will grow” (Lucca 108). Conductor Stephen Purdy asks actors to pay attention to the music when they are acting because “[m]usic can be, in and of itself and by its nature, both affirmative of the [verbal] text and sometimes contradictory of it” (174). In the UK, composer and musical director Paul Harvard encourages actors “to look at the music separately from, and as thoroughly as, the lyrics” when undertaking acting processes (91). Theatre professor David Roesner, known for his research in the musicality of theatrical performance, reminds us that for actors today, using a play’s musicality can become an important component of the acting toolkit (229). This is true whether they are working on a classical script, such as one by an Elizabethan playwright, or on a new piece of contemporary writing. In fact, the renowned Peter Kivy, together with many other musicologists, have argued that since the Renaissance period, composers of vocal songs have been using music to express intense emotional qualities that words alone are unable to convey (chapter 3). Because of music’s ability to express character, emotion, and other dramatic elements, actors who are preparing a role overlook it at their peril. My experience as a professional director confirms that music analysis of this type is skipped entirely in dramaturgical processes—likely due, in some part, to the discomfort that many directors, who are untrained in musical analysis, feel about their skills in this area.
I have developed a process and repertoire of activities that can assist actors to easily and consistently access and utilize the music to make character choices. This method is designed to be versatile and works well for any style of musical theater, with actors, directors and vocal coaches, with those who have music literacy and those who do not, whether in the USA, UK, Singapore, or Australia, and with professionals and students alike. My approach includes exercises such as “A Shakespearean Approach” (transferring the terminology used when analyzing heightened spoken language to musical theater works), “Putting the Beat in your Feet” (a physical approach to analyzing meter and rhythm) and “Speaking Music” (adopting non-traditional musical terminology to reflect on and discuss music).
A fourth activity, which is the topic of this article, is what I call “Monologuing the Music.” It focuses on actors making their own creative acting decisions using not only what they have been given to say (the words), but also how they have been tasked with communicating them (the music). It offers a method for actors to question how they themselves might interpret the use of a particular musical element, irrespective of how consciously a composer, lyricist or book writer might have inbuilt character or other dramatic information into the text/words/lyrics.
The basic premise of music-monologuing as part of the rehearsal acting process is that the actor removes one component of the song in order to fully explore another. They do so in the belief that once exposed, the latter will yield information useful to building character or exploring the character’s situation. To monologue the music the actor sheds the lyrics of their song and communicates instead solely through the music.
A first step is to have the actor sing the melody aloud to a sound of their choice, such as “ma,” “dah,” or an open vowel such as “ah.” Concentrating on the music in this way is a reversal of the already popular acting practice of monologuing the lyrics mentioned earlier. By applying this monologuing principle to the music, instead of the lyrics, the composer’s offer of musical devices becomes much more evident to the actor, including not only meter, rhythm, pause and phrasing, but also pitch. Such musical conventions that were previously masked by the lyrics are suddenly more easily able to be heard. Compositional choices that are subtle or hidden among rich texture (such as diverse instrumentation) become clearer.
In my own work, I have found that monologuing the music is not merely likely to yield information helpful to the acting process, it frequently uncovers information that is not highlighted until the lyrics are taken away. Once the music is exposed, it becomes far more accessible to actors, particularly to those who are music theory novices. As composer and musical director Rob Kapilow has said, “[a]ll you have to do is listen,” for once the actor is listening well and noticing the musical components, they
are far more likely to be confident and effective in their ability to dissect the music in the first place.
A next step is for the actor to reflect on, discuss, or write about their discoveries in whatever way they choose. For those actors who are fluent in music literacy, I encourage them to interpret the music drawing on music theory knowledge and terminology. For those that are not, however, or if their classmates or company peers with whom they are rehearsing are not, then I encourage the actors to use any descriptors they are comfortable with. Usually after a monologuing the music exercise, I will ask the actor what stands out to them from the process they just completed. If, for example, they reply describing that the music goes “up in jumps” and “down in steps,” then I will use this same vocabulary to ask them what the “up jumps” and “down steps” might reveal about their character. If the actor focuses on a “vast succession of quick notes that are interrupted by a long pause,” then I might provoke them to consider why the composer has chosen both to “interrupt” and to “pause.” This step of monologuing the music need not rely on an actor needing to read music, to have a lexicon of music terminology at hand, nor to apply theoretical knowledge of intervals, rhythmic notation, tonality, etc. It can be successfully undertaken by an individual at any music theory level.
In a recent workshop, a group of actors were asked to prepare “For Forever” from Dear Evan Hansen by Pasek and Paul for performance, paying particular attention to character journey and dramatic action. Although the actors were in-character and purposeful during their presentations, those observing agreed that all performers lacked specificity and spontaneity. The acting participants then applied three music-
monologuing exercises, sometimes using rhythmic clapping and at other times nonlexical vocables (such as “ma” or “da”), to explore the excerpt’s beats, pauses and rhythms. After vastly slowing down the tempo (speed) to repeatedly monologue these three, unpitched musical elements on short sections of the musical text, the actors were largely unanimous regarding what they discovered.
Initially, they hadn’t identified the music’s significant dramatic contributions, nor had they felt or expressed their impact. After monologuing the music, many clues emerged, including an awareness that the character Evan had to wait fractionally before vocalizing the first notes of many phrases, by beginning on either the second semi-quaver or quaver of beat one. That is, the character started singing such phrases after an unexpected, very short, pause. The actors also had not consciously responded to the syncopated (off-beat) rhythm across the phrases (the unusual strong off-beats are bolded below), nor had they been aware that these were continuously broken mid-singing with gaps (pauses).
[Pause] End of May [pause] or Early June
This [pause] picture perfect [pause] afternoon we share
Drive the winding country road
[Pause] Grab a scoop at [pause] “A La Mode”
And then we’re there [pause]
[Pause] An open field that’s framed with trees
We pick a spot and [pause] shoot the breeze
Like buddies do
Quoting songs by our favorite bands [pause]
Telling jokes no one understands
Except us two [pause]
And we [pause] talk [pause] and take in the view...
(Pasek & Paul, 2015)
Some actors interpreted the delayed starts, syncopation and broken phrases as indicators of Evan’s anxiety disorder, using each instance to reveal an aspect of his agitation, nervousness and trepidation. Others consciously used these pauses and syncopated trip-ups by Evan to improvise, in a step-by-step sequence, the fabricated
tale of the supposed friendship between Evan and suicide victim Connor. Yet other actors focused on using the pauses for their Evans to take deep, quick abdominal breaths, coupled with clear mental determination, to draw on previously repressed tenacity and battered inner courage to reach out to Connor’s listening parents.
These choices enabled the actors to be more in-the-moment during performance, to have more variation as they sang and began to reveal more layers of complexity than they had in their first presentations of the song. These revelations also helped the actors to establish the given circumstances and Evan’s relationship with the parents. In other words, the interpretation of the musical dramaturgy caused the actors to reflect upon the larger dramaturgy, and to consider ways to integrate it into a more holistic, forward-moving interpretation across the song. Those watching commented that the actors seemed far less generalized and ambiguous in their character choices and that actors appeared to be seeing various images in their minds-eyes. Observers felt this final interpretation was “realistic,” and many claimed that they became so involved in the character’s experience that they “forgot they were watching a play.”
Next, let us consider a potential interpretation of the character of Clara Johnson in The Light in the Piazza. (Please note that the reading below is not intended to be definitive; rather, it provides one example of the kind of material revealed to actors in workshops.) If the actor playing Clara were to only monologue the lyrics for the title song by Adam Guettel, she may easily identify that the first key word in each line is that which would naturally be accented in speech (bolded below), and thus focus on using these words to reveal characterization and situation insights:
I don’t see a miracle shining from the sky
I’m no good at statues and stories OR I’m no good at statues and stories
That’s not what I think about
That’s not what I see
I know what the sunlight can be
The light, the light in the Piazza...
This vocabulary indicates that Clara is aware of her underdeveloped cognition levels and also suggests from a psychological perspective that the character focuses more on negative, at the expense of her positive, attributes. Such insights are no doubt helpful to the actor when creating the character. However, there are also key indicators in the music that could be seen to challenge this verbal interpretation. Instead of accenting words typically emphasized in speech, Guettel often places the aforementioned important words on off-beats and therefore unaccented pulses (now italicized below). Furthermore, the writer most often places these directly after the first and strongest beat of each bar (bolded below). The result is that pronouns such as “I”, and definite articles such as “that” and “the,” words that are not typically considered important, receive our attention:
I don’t see a miracle shining from the sky
I’m no good at statues and stories
That’s not what I think about
That’s not what I see
I know what the sunlight can be
The light, the light in the Piazza
It would be unusual for an actor monologuing the text to emphasize “That” in the fourth and fifth lines, and it would be extremely rare for participants to naturally accent “the” in the last line. Yet, Guettel’s music calls for just this. By monologuing the music (vocalizing only with an open vowel sound or non-lexical vocables) the musical emphasis given to “the” in “the light” is highlighted. From that exploration, the actor might deduce that there is a solidness (THE light) in the quality of Clara’s light. It could be that the actor identifies that the stress on simplistic words reveals Clara’s underdeveloped cognitive level and her child-like nature. The shifting of typical keywords to a position after the naturally stressed downbeat could suggest that Clara’s perception of the world is different than everyone else’s.
The songs in a jukebox musical often feature music and lyrics not written for a theatrical purpose. Yet, the actor is still required to discover character through the music and lyrics, and monologuing the music can provide some clues. When speaking the words “Mamma mia,” from the jukebox musical of the same name (Andersson, Ulvaeus & Johnson, 5256), we discover an Italian accent rhythm which naturally swings the words, with the first and third syllables having longer durations than the second and fourth: MAA-ma MEE-ah. But when these two words are sung in the show, they are evenly spaced across time, and each syllable receives the same duration: ma-ma-me-ah. Monologuing the music would make this contrast starkly apparent. If we interpret the composer’s choice as an effort to create a more heightened sense of urgency or indicate negative subtext of some kind, then the pause (two-beat rest) that occurs directly afterwards can be seen to extend the dramatic tension, which is then further developed through the on-beat double emphasis of the next “My, my. “
When actors listen to and experiment with the musical elements of their songs as a part of the acting process, they uncover previously unnoticed components that offer dramatic insights, prompt further dramaturgical questioning, and assist in characterization. The process leads towards a more holistic interpretation of the song, producing links and resonances between music and text, scenarios and rhythmic pacing. Justifying every component of the texts provided them by both authors—lyricist and the composerenables the actor to synchronize what they say with how they say it, at all times. It enables them to avoid acting generalizations, and to endow the same specificity to their music as they give to their words. This is key to creating authentic, multi-layered characters that the audience can believe in.
Pickering, Kenneth, and David Henson. Musical Theatre: A Workbook. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Kapilow, Rob. All You Have to Do Is Listen: Music from the inside Out. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
Kayes, Gillian. Singing and the Actor. A & C Black, 2004.
Kivy, Peter. The Corded Shell: Reflections on Musical Expression. Princeton University Press, 1980.
Lucca, LizBeth Abeyta. Acting Techniques for Opera. Vivace Opera, 2008.
McWaters, Debra. Musical Theatre Training: The Broadway Theatre Project Handbook. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Moore, Tracey. Acting the Song: Performance Skills for the Musical Theatre, 2nd edition, with Allison Bergman. Allworth Press, 2017.
Ostwald, David. Acting for Singers. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Pasek, Benj, and Justin Paul. “For Forever.” Dear Evan Hansen: Pick In A Pinch Music (ASCAP) and Breathelike (ACAP), 2015. www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0174510. Accessed 8 October 2017.
Purdy, Stephen. Musical Theatre Song: A Comprehensive Course in Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Modern Performer. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016.
Richardson, Neal. “Excavating the Song: A Practical Guide for the Singing Actor.” (2009). http://excavatingthesong.org/home/Audio_Files_files/Excavating%20the%20Song%202013.pdf. Accessed 24 May 17.
Stanislavski, Constantin, and Pavel Rumyantsev. Stanislavski on Opera. Trans. Hapgood, Elizabeth Reynolds. Routledge, 1975.
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