When the players arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” so he can catch the conscience of the King,” Shakespeare had a problem. Since the characters in “Hamlet” speak for the most part in iambic pentameter and the players will speak in iambic pentameter in the play within the play, the challenge was to make the “Gonzago” dialogue SOUND like dialogue while the dialogue of “Hamlet” would still sound natural.
Shakespeare’s solution to this problem was to make the dialogue of the inner play sound old fashioned and clunky relative to the speech of the “real” characters. In musical work, opera or musical comedy or whatever, most of the songs are supposed to be extensions of the spoken dialogue (as in “The Magic Flute” or “The Mikado) or as emotional highlights in a work in which all the lines are sung. But now and then, the plot requires that a “song” be sung as a song and not as dialogue. How to deal with this?
Mozart had this problem in “Le Nozze di Figaro” when Cherubino is asked to sing his ditty to the Countess. Of course, these characters do nothing but singing—so how to make the song sound like a song rather than the sung-dialogue that is the very nature of opera? The best even Mozart could do is make the orchestra sound like the guitar that Suzanna usually makes believe she is playing while Cherubino warbles away. (See picture above.)
And how familiar is Don Giovanni’s serenade to his own (usually feigned) accompaniment on a lute! And the Merry Widow’s tale of Villia! And so on down the line.
Very early into Act I of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Seviglia,” the Count must sing a serenade; and again, he is provided with a guitar that he should actually play if he can while vocalizing. In the third act, Rosina has a music lesson, and it is the context that makes it sound like the character is engaged in a song.
In Wagner, two examples “songs” that have to sound like songs and not part of the opera that contains them are the hymn to Venus and the contest songs in “Tannhauser” and the “Prize Song” in “Die Meistersinger.” The first has a lute accompaniment, while the latter example is simply more melodic than is the rest of the score.
When Brander and afterward Mephistopheles are asked to sing a song in both Gounod’s “Faust” and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust,” the former obliges with his Song of the Rat (curtailed in the Gounod version) and the devil delivers the Song of the Golden Calf in Gounod and the Song of the Flea in Berlioz. Somehow, all four do sound like songs, despite the fact that everything up to then has been sung. The same is true about the serenade that the Devil sings in both versions, as well as Gretchen’s Spinning Song. It might be psychological, but they do somehow sound different from the other numbers.
The reason, perhaps, that so many musical comedies are concerned with a troupe putting on a show is that there is lots of occasion for a song to be thrown in as part of the show within the show and therefore needing no motivation for its appearance. The question for a discerning composer is how to make the song sound as if it is not part of the framing plot but part of the show-within-the-show.
Cole Porter tried in “Kiss Me Kate” to have the “Taming of the Shrew” songs sound more like Renaissance pieces than the songs sung backstage. So “Why can’t you behave?” (a framing plot song) should not sound too much like “Tom, Dick or Harry” (a “Taming” song). In long-forgotten ‘Me and Juliet,” is quite impossible to know when heard out of context which song belongs at which level. Is “No other love have I” part of the framing plot or of the show they are rehearsing?
In “Pajama Game,” the song “Too darn hot” takes place during a show given by the pajama workers, while “Hernando’s Hideaway” is part of the main plot. I hear little difference between them. “There’s no business like show business” might be part of Buffalo Bill’s show in “Annie Get Your Gun” or might be an expression of joy or an explanation of what life is like in show business. The last choice is the true one, but out of context it is impossible to tell.
Take as a last case in point “Guys and Dolls.” “Bushel and a peck” is sung by the chorus on a stage, while “Sue me” is part of the plot. The latter is more dramatic, the former more four-square. In fact, “Bushel” and “Take back your mink” are sung in a nasal tone by the chorus girls to underline even more that this is a “song” number and not a plot number. Even one unfamiliar with the show could tell which is a main plot, which a show-in-a-show number. But this is quite rare in musical comedy—and indeed even rarer in opera.
A composer in my area wrote the music, lyrics and book to a musical. The second act began with the full cast on stage and someone saying to one of the leads, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” Well, further experience will surely have him avoid such a sledgehammer cue. On the other hand, it was the best musical moment in the work. The rest was reboiled retro.
I wonder if anyone of my readers could give me some examples of “songs” within musicals that are unquestioningly songs being sung as opposed to plot songs that the audience assumes are being spoken in singing voice with an invisible orchestra playing.