Songwriting for musical theatre – advice from Jason Robert Brown

Jason_Robert_BrownThe following notes are extended quotations from the 1.5 hour YouTube video of the Jason Robert Brown Songwriting Masterclass, published on 22 Feb 2013 by the The Dramatists Guild of America.

“Jason Robert Brown (born June 20, 1970) is an American musical theatre composer, lyricist, and playwright. Brown’s music sensibility fuses pop-rock stylings with theatrical lyrics. An accomplished pianist, Brown has often served as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions.” (Wikipedia entry) His most well known musical theatre works include ‘Songs for a New World’, ‘Parade’, ‘The Last Five Years’, and ‘The Bridges of Madison County’.

Titles – 3:20-4:07

“The best thing you can ever offer a composer is a title. The best thing you can say is ‘the song is called this’. The minute I know what a song is called, even if that doesn’t end up being what I call the song ultimately, the minute I know how to encapsulate the song, in a couple of words, I can start my work. … I have to title the moment. I have to give it a heading. I have to say, ‘this is what it is’. And I try to make it a title that sounds like a title. [Laughs] I don’t know what that means, except you sort of do. You know when a title rings and you want to sing it. And you know when a title sort of sucks, and you don’t. And I think you have to be willing to play around with that.”

Purpose of a song – 4:58-7:04

“Of course, when I say ‘title’, as you have already now gathered, what I’m talking about [is] an understanding of what the theatrical moment is. What is this theatrical moment. How do I condense that. And the reason why they are songs is because a song is about a thing. A song is really a single idea. And it’s important to trust the song is a single idea. A song is one moment for a character. There used to be … it must have been a misquoted idea, that the song should move the plot forward. But they [songs] don’t. The songs move the story forward, because the songs move the characters forward. And that’s the most important thing that can happen … that at the end of the song, a character has begun it in one place, and ends, whether emotionally or spiritually, or by vicissitudes of the plot, somewhere else. Then the song has accomplished something. That’s what songs can do. You’re going to be sitting in them for 3 minutes, 4 minutes (or in my case 27 minutes!) – you’re going to be sitting there for a long time. Why did you stop the show to let this person sing? And the answer is because something is going to change. We’re going to understand something. The audience may understand something they didn’t beforehand. Something, that moment, needed to be crystallised for those 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 27 minutes. That all needed to happen there. And I think, knowing that you’re driving a plot, a plot, a plot – that plot then has to open up to let this song exist. The plot does stop. There’s no question about that. You can’t have music playing and the action keeps going through it. I mean, I’ve pulled it off a couple of times, but it’s not why any of started writing songs in the first place. We didn’t write songs so that we could write action. That’s not the point. We write songs to explore something in here [points to chest]. And trusting that everything’s going to stop so that we can get inside somebody’s head, so that we can watch something need to occur, that’s very valuable.”

The song’s purpose drives its structure – 21:24

“What I always ask, the main question is: ‘What does one character want from the other character? Why does the song happen?’ And then understanding what that is helps the structure of the song to understand itself. Structure is our whole deal. Structure’s the whole game. That’s all we’ve got really as composers. I mean, everybody’s got notes, and all we can do is arrange those notes within a certain structure and understand it.”

Song structure – 41:45-44:21

“When an actor is singing a soliloquy, I put another actor, another character in front of them. Want something from them. And when you get to the end of that first chunk of that structure, you check in, and find out if you got what you wanted. And that’s how we build a song. That’s the basic tenet of how a song is built. ‘I want a thing. And I’m going to try to get it this way.’ And that’s my first verse and chorus. And at the end of that first verse and chorus, the answer has to be ‘no’. If the answer is ‘yes’, the song is over. … So … the first verse and chorus is: ‘I want this thing from you.’ And you say ‘no’. So now we get the second verse and chorus, which is: ‘Alright, let me try this another way. I want this thing from you. [Pause]’ Doesn’t work; [it] can’t work [for the purposes of creating a song]. So now we get to what I’ll call the B section … not every song is an AABA, but let’s think of them all that way right now, after all, why not? We get that B section, and that B section is going to be: ‘Alright. I’m going to re-contextualise all of this. I’m going to go deeper.’ Or ‘I’m going to explain something that I haven’t had the guts to say the first two times I said it.’ The B section is there musically for a really good reason. Anybody who’s a composer knows, ‘I can’t say the same thing three times.’ And logically, as people who speak words, we can’t say the same thing three times either. Because we sound like an idiot the third time. We can say it once. ‘What?’ ‘No, what I said was this.’ ‘What?!’ ‘Alright. Let me try this another way.’ And that’s what the B section is. We’re going to contextualise it. And that transition out of the B section into the final A – that is the most important point of the song. That is the joint on which the whole song rests. Because that is the point at which a character opens in some way – whether they grow, they learn something, they move forward in some plot moment, something like that. But it’s right there. You can delay that point for a fairly long time. But if you don’t deliver it, then the song doesn’t really happen. I’m waiting for the moment when the song opens. And that leads me in to this last beautiful chorus, where I say, ‘Now, for the last time, please can I have what I want?’ And whether the answer to that is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is really up to the demands of the play and the demands of the characters in front of you. But it is important that the answer be ‘no’ up until then. And this our nice basic architecture to sit on.”

Should music be whistleable? 1:16:40-1:17:45

“Whistling [ie being able to whistle a tune from a show] doesn’t make a show good. [In a show] what matters is how the storytelling and the music telling all go together. And I get very defensive about the whole ‘I can’t whistle the tune’ thing, because just because you’re a shitty musician doesn’t mean I have to write my songs differently. But I understand that the structure of the piece of music is going to lend itself, if it’s done right, there should be enough repetition in the structure of a song that an audience can grab onto it. … And I miss that in most shows. But would always miss that in most shows, because most shows are bad.”

Working with a writer / librettist – 1:23:55-1:26:11

“What [a librettist has to] know is that I’m going to look at that [the book or libretto], and that is something I am now going to rip up, tear apart, and start from page one. None of what you wrote matters any more. You showed it to me to get me involved in the project. I may have responded to it. And now, we are writing this show together. And we write every line of it together, and every note of it is something we write together. Clearly I’m going to be handling the music, and I’m going to be handling the lyrics, and you’re going to be handling the dialogue. But everything about how this show moves has to go through both of us. Because giving it a musical momentum, a musical energy has to come from me. Only I know when I feel like a character should sing. That’s a thing that I’ve got. I’m working through a scene, and I say, ‘Wait – there’s the song.’ And a different composer is going to find that in a different place. And every composer’s individual voice comes out because they respond to a certain moment musically. Suddenly music shows up. It does. I read something, and all of a sudden I hear something. And … whenever that happens, that’s when I want to go with it. And then the minute that I have set something to music, I have changed the molecules in the room so substantially that everything that came after is going to be affected by it. And so it’s awfully good to have an outline; it’s awfully good to know what you want to accomplish. .. The more I feel like you’re saying, ‘no, here’s the song, you just have to write 6 songs and then we’re done’ – well you don’t need me. There’s lots of people who can write songs. That’s what I as a composer want if someone comes to me with a libretto, is the knowledge that ‘this is something I’ve written so that we can start tearing it apart and finding the music in it’. … And honestly I prefer to work from less. I prefer to have a two page outline than to have a 45 page treatment. I prefer to [have a writer say to me] ‘this is the piece [of theatre] I want to write – and I can’t even get started until I know what the music is. I need the music to have a certain energy to it so that I know how this goes.’ That’s my preference. Not every writer is the same.”