Conference Handouts and Abstracts

“Meet the Blob”: Solo-to-Ensemble “Reverse Reprises” in Merrily We Roll Along

March 2018: Opera and Musical Theater in the United States (Murfreesboro, TN)

Handout [pdf]

Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and George Furth’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along is a story told in reverse order. The show begins with three estranged friends whose lives are in a shambles in 1979; it ends with their first meeting as idealistic teenagers in 1957. In this paper, I explore how the musical—itself adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same name (and concept)—uses music and lyrics to heighten the effect of the drama unfolding in reverse.

I focus on what Sondheim calls “reverse reprises…a method for holding the score together” (2010). Like traditional reprises, these are tunes that we hear more than once, gaining new dramatic meaning with each instance—only the “reprise” is performed first, and the original song second. Reverse reprises can consist of entire songs, like “Not a Day Goes By”; large-scale sections, like the refrain of “Old Friends”; or single phrases, like the opening of “Now You Know.” In most cases, Sondheim alters structural elements of both music and lyrics—harmonies, cadences, and accompanimental patterns, as well as rhyme schemes.

Each of the above tunes is performed first as a solo, and later by an ensemble. I argue that this overlooked characteristic of Merrily’s reverse reprises is dramatically significant. Rather than a traditional joyous group number reprised as a solitary reflection, reverse reprises call attention to the motives of everyone in the ensemble. Ultimately, Sondheim’s score refracts the dramatic path in Merrily from ambition, to isolation, to ruin.

Playwriting in Song: “Reprise types” in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

November 2016: Society for Music Theory/American Musicological Society Joint Meeting (Vancouver, BC)
May 2016: Putting it Together: Investigating Sources for Musical Theatre Research (Sheffield, England)

Handout [pdf]

Reprise pervades Sweeney’s score: every character recalls passages from earlier songs, altering music and lyrics according to the dramatic circumstances that bring him or her to recall an earlier tune. Analysis of reprise in musical theatre traditionally foregrounds the relationship between a song and its later recurrences. Yet in Sweeney Todd, many reprises bear striking similarities to each other—not in the music that they recall, but how recurring musical material functions within the formal, tonal, and motivic context of each new song. Seemingly disparate songs—in setting, dramatic situation, and emotional stake—can be linked when characters use the same “reprise type.” By studying the creative process behind Sweeney’s songs and numbers, as well as comparing different recordings, I argue that close reading of the music-theatrical conventions at play within Sweeney ’s reprises (1) informs the relationships between characters and (2) amplifies, supplements, or even contradicts the story unfolding on stage.

First, I compare four songs throughout the show in which either Anthony or Johanna recalls an earlier song. Both “Ah, Miss” and “Kiss Me!” oscillate between two sections before blossoming into lyrical reprises that achieve tonal closure; by contrast, both “Pretty Women” and “City on Fire!” are disrupted by reprises. Next, I examine the two songs that Todd and Mrs. Lovett sing in the Act I finale, “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest.” Opposing forces seemingly guide this scene from all sides, but each song begins similarly, building up to a “corrected” reprise of one of the show’s first songs.

Stepwise Modulation as a Dramatic Device for Tonic Return in Musical Theatre Songs

November 2015: Society for Music Theory Annual Meeting (St. Louis, MO)
May 2015: Music Theory Midwest (Rochester, MI)

Handout [pdf]

Stepwise modulation is one of the best-known ways in musical theater to heighten the intensity of a song or number. It is almost always associated with tonal departure: once a song modulates up by step, that song is not expected to return to the original key, even if the modulation is musically and dramatically sophisticated (Buchler 2008, Hoffman 2014). Occasionally, though, stepwise modulation comes at the end of a series of key changes, and the final upward shift by whole or half step brings the song back to the key in which it began—that is, stepwise modulation acts as a return. Aligning this intensifying modulation with tonic return greatly augments its rhetorical potential.

But how recognizable is this alignment, and what benefits can a listener or audience member gain from recognizing it? To answer these questions, this paper will present analyses of three songs from contemporary musicals that achieve a tonic return via stepwise modulation. The first is “What a Game,” from Ragtime (1998, Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens); the second is The Wizard and I,” from Wicked (first staged in 2003, written by Steven Schwartz); and the last is “So Much Better,” from Legally Blonde (2007, Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin). All three of these songs use an alignment of stepwise modulation and tonic return to support dramatic development, indicating that this unusual alignment is an especially significant gesture.