Inspirations: Leonard Bernstein by Ben Frost

Who are you if you are not the sum of everything that’s happened before?
— Leonard Bernstein

Imagine you’re the assistant to one of the most famed conductors in the United States. He is performing a concert this evening and has suddenly taken ill. There’s no time for rehearsal, there’s no option to cancel and the concert is going to be broadcast live on radio to the nation. There’s no choice: you’re on to conduct this evening.

This is exactly what happened to Leonard Bernstein in 1943 when he stood in front of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to make his professional conducting debut thus becoming a national treasure overnight. What a way to start a career!

Leonard Bernstein, or Lenny to his friends, was one of the giants of 20th Century American music. He first entered the nation’s consciousness as a conductor but unusually he was an equally talented composer, author, lecturer and pianist. Not a polymath in the wider sense, but someone with an extraordinary grasp of every aspect of music-making, and who was set apart by his enthusiasm and desire to share music with others.

My first experience of Bernstein’s music, along with most people, was West Side Story. I bought the CD of the original Broadway recording on a whim in a music shop in France whilst on holiday. It didn’t leave my Sony Discman for weeks. From the moment I pressed play and the Prologue exploded into my ears, I became a lifelong worshipper of Leonard Bernstein. The addictive rhythms, the lush melodies and abundant amount of fun contained in those notes are all signatures of his music. Indeed, it is those very same traits that brought him criticism in the serious music circles that he moved in.

Bernstein stepped (seemingly) effortlessly from the world of classical music* to the giddy maelstrom of Broadway and popular song which was and is very unusual. At one end of the spectrum, he had a deep and profound understanding of some of the most extraordinary pieces of art ever created: the works of Mahler, Wagner, Stravinsky and countless other giants of the music world were at his fingertips. Yet he, uniquely, was able to draw on those influences and transmute them into the more popular form of musical theatre. What else is the West Side Story prologue than a bluesy riff on early 20th century classical music?

I am a sucker for a tune, that’s for sure, and Bernstein always wins me over with an infectious melody. What always gets me is that his melodies aren’t predictable. Take the 7/4 tune in the first movement of the Chichester Psalms, heard here ( at 1:10. Or Tonight from West Side Story (**. His melodies are wide-ranging, tricky, yet wonderfully memorable. On paper they look challenging but music doesn’t live on paper, and when liberated as sound it becomes beguiling and catchy. 

The other thing that grabs you about Bernstein’s music are his chords, and by that I mean his use of harmony. If you’ve ever tried to play his music on the piano you’ll have struggled to get your fingers around the keys: they’re like tongue-twisters for your hands. They brought a new sound to musical theatre - just listen to the stabbing chords at the beginning of the West Side Story Mambo. They’re thrilling because they’re unexpected - they are notes in there that shouldn’t be there and that’s fun. In his classical writing he pushed to the point where conventional harmony rules break down completely - this is most clearly explored in his 3rd Symphony, the ‘Kaddish’ ( Nothing is predictable and there are no conventional tunes but it’s a great way to see how far Bernstein drove himself in the pursuit of true music-making. By exploring this kind of music, he broadened his own theatrical vocabulary. 

Bernstein used his prominent position as conductor of the New York Philharmonic to launch a series of televised lectures about music. They are one of his greatest legacies and set the standard for musical education on both the screen and the classroom. Here’s a fantastic clip with Bernstein looking at fragments of music that Beethoven discarded whilst writing his 5th Symphony. 


I suppose the largest imprint that Bernstein leaves on my consciousness is his fearlessness. He pushed the boundaries in every field of his music-making and was unafraid of experimenting. Some of these were disasters but his masterpieces would not have been achieved without these mistakes on the way. He famously conducted Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the slowest tempo you have ever heard ( For a movement usually performed in 4 minutes, he stretches it out a further minute and a half. Extraordinary stuff.

If you don’t already know his work outside West Side Story, I thoroughly recommend investigating Leonard Bernstein a little further. It’s an exploration that’ll have you in turn tapping your toe, weeping, skipping to the next track then singing along. You’ll love half and hate the other half. The one thing it’ll never be is boring.

Ben Frost

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Christopher Street from WONDERFUL TOWN
Times Square, Finale Act One from ON THE TOWN
Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety”

* Interestingly, Bernstein didn’t differentiate between serious music and popular music, only what he called good music and bad music. 

** Incidentally, dubbed by the extraordinary Marni Nixon who also voiced Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She also turned up as a nun in the How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria sequence of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. 

Musings on... Omission by Ben Frost

Look for what’s missing. Many advisors can tell a President how to improve what’s proposed or what’s gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn’t there.
— Donald Rumsfeld
’Darling, I missed you!’ she said as she fired again.
— Me

This sentence has been left intentionally blank. As has this one. Furthermore (and I use the word “furthermore” quite inaccurately), this next sentence contains nothing of interest, absolutely nothing of value and, before you can make some cruel joke about how “absolutely nothing of value” is more or less par for the course with these articles, let me tell you that my fourth sentence will also be supplied without meaning, significance or subtext: Curious isn’t it? In truth, I am deliberately spending the whole of my opening gambit saying nothing. I am speaking to you, certainly, but the only thing you can take from my words is that I have nothing whatsoever to say…

…Until now: after several weeks of me waxing lyrical about, well… waxing lyrical, I thought that, today, we might spend a little time talking about the power of saying nothing at all. Which isn’t to say we’re talking politics. Or rather, not talking politics in the way the all politicians are wont to do. We’re not talking talking for the sake of talking, the art of speaking as an act of circumvention, answering questions with abstract sounds rather than words in the belief that our audience will be mollified or reassured simply by the fact that we’re speaking at all. No, no. We’re talking about talking about something else entirely, or else nothing whatsoever at all, as a disguise for our real intentions, or as carefully wrought mask for our own beliefs.

A character is defined by what she or he says, and what they don’t say. How they say it, and how they don’t say it. How they sing it, and why sometimes they don’t sing – even when the music’s playing, even when everyone else is singing along, because for some reason, the lyrics turn to ashes on their lips and they’d rather keep their mouths shut. Ben and I are in the middle of writing an “Electric Opera” called NEON. Over the coming months, you’ll be able to find our more about it, and hear songs from the show, on this here very website. Until then, all I can tell you is that NEON is the story of a powerful woman, in the autumn of her life, finding love and losing love and proving to herself that love is too great a price to pay, and that power is better and business is everything. Her name is Louisa McAdams and she is introduced in an extended opening sequence as the Designer of a exciting range of Winter Couture, on display at London Fashion Week. The opening sequence is a ten-minute fashion show followed by a glitzy, sexy, backstage party. And throughout, as the models and the VIP guests dance about her, our protagonist, Louisa McAdams, says nothing. All eyes are on her, the world revolves around her, but she keeps schtum.  

Well, not entirely schtum. She does say, “Hi.” Twice. To the same gorgeous model, thirty-years her junior, who will one day have such an impact on her life, but other than that she remains silent. And the effect is powerful, as powerful and enigmatic as our lead. The fact that she refuses to speak or doesn’t need to speak, or perhaps, hardly dares to speak, invites so many questions from the audience. Both audiences – her invited guests and ours. A mystery is created, artificially by the writers but quite deliberately by Louisa McAdams, a mystery to be resolved on her own terms over the course of the drama.

Not that Louisa is wholly mysterious. The situation tells us a great deal about her, her status and her attitude to the world (even if that attitude is the mask she wears only in public). The music tells us even more, it speaks of power and practice, of confidence and competence, of boredom, perhaps, and of desire. The fact that Louisa ends the sequence by slipping our of her own party in the arms of the young model, a fact that does not go unnoticed by many of her guests, speaks volumes as to her character. Indeed, by the end of the opening sequence, we know a lot about a woman who hasn’t said a word and we want to know more.

Somebody somewhere said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about – which is balls; obviously, whoever said that had never been to Kettering. However, it’s true that a person exists as much in the minds of her or his friends and colleagues as she or he does in their own psychology. To be talked about is to be kept alive, and to be defined. In the opening sequence for NEON, Louisa is talked about almost continuously, variously in words of praise and of censure. In this way, once again, the character doesn’t have to utter a word for us to know all we need to know about her. Of course, there’s nothing particularly new or innovative in these story-telling gimmicks. They’ve been around in other media for decades. But in a field where character can sometimes be delivered for you wholesale in a clunky “I Want” song, a more subtle mechanism for introducing a protagonist is immediately attractive. Musical Theatre has the unique advantage of having music to do at least half the story-telling work for you, half the heavy-lifting and fifty per cent of the characterisation. And therefore, although I love a spot of idiomatic verisimilitude and a vibrantly verbose lyric or two, of course I do, I’m also fond of the times when a character does it all through music and song. The times when I get to write something like: 

She tries not to cry.

And Ben does the rest.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Musings on... Verisimilitude by Ben Frost

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
— Abraham Lincoln
…Unless you work in Musical Theatre.
— Me

When is a yoghurt not a yoghurt? When it’s a Marks and Spencer’s yogurt. When it’s a Greco-Roman Mega-Posset raddled by citrus blossom, tempered with essential oils and studded with the crystalized remains of sixty-seven sun-blushed Mediterranean Lemons. An M&S yogurt is more that a yogurt, is better than a yoghurt, is somehow more desirable and damn sight more appetising than a plain old “yogurt” because it conjures up images in our minds and tastes on our tongues; it is an altogether more acceptable and convincing proposition. Bottom line: I believe in it and, I’m guessing, given our mutual fondness for Musical Theatre, you believe in it too. M&S knows a thing or six about gentle persuasion; St Michael wields the power of verisimilitude. 

Drama is a bunch of ugly lies dressed up pretty to look like the truth. How convincing any piece of drama is depends upon the performance of the actors, the insight of the directors, the budget, the subject, the venue, and (of course) the wit and wisdom of the writing team. As a humble writer (and I use the word “humble” quite wrongly), I am in control only of the very first sheen of truth applied to the myriad fibs of a brand new story. I do the words but, although they come out of my head, they’re destined to reach the audience from the mouths of other people entirely. I therefore have my work cut out for me to convince anyone at all that I mean what I say. Fortunately for me (and others like me [there are no others like me]), there are little tricks I can use to add verisimilitude, the illusion of truth and reality, to my work. Which is to say, things I can do to help you believe in the unutterably illusory world that I’m creating.

Names are important. Shakespeare said, something along the lines of, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would it? Really? Even if it was called a Bum Flower or a Rotten-Guts Weed? Far be it from me to disagree with the Bard of Avon, but I ain’t convinced. A name should fit the character, because that just makes life easier for everyone. A bouncer outside a nightclub should be called Massive Craig, say, and not Lionel St John Ffolkes-Coupling. Unless the whole point of the character was that he was playing against type, in which case, I can’t think of a better name for him. (“You can’t come in with those shoes, sir. No trainers, no sandals, no Giuseppe Zanotti.”) More importantly, a name should sound like it was given to the character by her or his parents at her or his birth. A forename should fit with a surname, and both should be relatively interesting in their own right (and, as far as my particular job is concerned, both should rhyme with practically anything I want them to). 

Proper nouns are the liar’s best friend. (A liar is also chummy with verbs, participles, prepositions and conjunctions, but they’re more like Facebook Friends than bosom buddies.) Using brand names, nicknames, obscure county towns, trademarks etc. all help to convince the listener that you know what you’re talking about. In drama, the prodigious use of proper nouns (real or imaginary) can be the difference between a clichéd line of dialogue, muttered by a character in a third-rate soap, and a quotable sound-bite of gospel truth, delivered by a three-dimensional human being, standing under a proscenium arch but living and breathing in the fragile frame of a two-hour window on the world. Here’s a little something from Doctor Who (just because, and also because if anything is a difficult sell, it’s the wacky work of the good Doctor)…

An evil scientist from the 51st Century has travelled back to the 19th to escape justice. His method of transport: a rickety time machine based on a dangerously unstable technology. The Doctor explains how the experiments which led its construction were (or rather, will be) an abject failure, and he does so with a lot of proper nouns:

“[correcting his friend] Unsuccessful time travel, Professor. Findecker's discovery of the double nexus particle sent human science up a technological cul-de-sac.”

(from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1977)

He goes on to identify the scientist as one Magnus Greel, “the infamous Minister of Justice, the Butcher of Brisbane,” a Mengele-type figure from a future World War, forced to flee after the “Filipino Army” made its “final advance on Reykjavik.” Sure, it’s all nonsense, but it’s richly textured and well-written nonsense, peppered with proper nouns all of which serve to conjure up in our minds images of exotic locations, horrific atrocities, and infinite scientific possibilities. These words have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, or even the plot. Both of which can roughly be summed up by: evil bloke with a laser gun wreaks havoc in Victorian London until  someone with the balls and the brawn steps up to stop him. The words are there only to make this ludicrous story more palatable, in much the same way as M&S might advertise their pots of rotten cow’s milk with a list of romantic ingredients similar to those spelled out at the top of this article. The proper nouns somehow make the lies more believable. And, I would argue, that nobody knew this better than one of my favourite writers of the last 100 years, Robert Holmes (author of a number of Doctor Who stories and a plethora of other television show in the 1960s, 70s and 80s) –more about him another time. For now, back to product placement… 

People don’t eat “chocolate bars” they might, “go for a Snickers” or “fancy a Mars Bar.” People don’t run out of “bubble bath”, they run out of Radox (or, in this house: Matey.) Proper nouns, when it comes to comestibles and consumables, lend not only verisimilitude to dialogue, but they tell us about the character, her or his likes and prejudices. Last year, Ben and I put together a rehearsed reading of one of out shows at the Dominion Theatre. The biggest laugh came not from any of my carefully wrought gags, or any one of Ben’s many musical flourishes, but from a proper noun. It’s unlikely to work out of context, but I’m getting to the end of this article, I’ve got to stop somewhere, and I’m off to Fitness First in a minute. So, picture the scene, an old woman, matriarch of a decaying household has struck the gong for dinner. Tonight, a young man is in attendance, a very special guest. Grandma has this to say to him:

GRANDMA:                  Dinner is served! In fifteen minutes. I suggest, Mr Austin, that you go and wash your hands. Straight down the hall, second on your left. 

Somewhat taken aback, SAM squares his shoulders and makes for the exit.

SAM:                             Right, yeah. OK. Thanks.

GRANDMA stops him at the door.

GRANDMA:                  Was my daughter telling you about her “shotgun wedding”?

SAM:                             Yes. Well, almost-wedding. There wasn’t a ceremony.

GRANDMA:                  But there was a shotgun... Feel free to use the Molton Brown

[Cue Riotous Laughter!]

SAM:                             Thanks.

SAM, unnerved, wanders off to find the loo.

NB: If any of the manufacturers of any of the products mentioned in this article want to give me free stuff, I can be contacted at the usual address, or emailed on the link above. Thank you kindly in advance.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Spotlight on... Orchestrators by Ben Frost

Musical Theatre has often been described as the most collaborative art form. It succeeds when every member of the team, from the creatives to the cast, all have the same vision, the same electric idea and the same passion for expressing that through music, words and visuals. But any team is made of individuals, and success relies wholly on how those unique talents and strengths blend together to form a cohesive whole. This week, we’re looking at another under-appreciated yet vital role in the music department, and another transformative step in the journey from the composer’s pen to your ear: The Orchestrator!

Think of orchestration as the final part of the long process of writing a song. The composer writes a song, usually at the piano; the arranger helps turn it into a longer musical sequence, possibly with ensemble vocal parts and dance routines; and the final step is to devise how it will sound played by an entire orchestra. Somebody has to decide who in the orchestra will play what note, and that is the role of the Orchestrator. It’s the final layer of sheen on the music.

He or she has to be a musical magician, a veritable wizard of the octave: the arranger will have provided a certain amount of detail, but the orchestrator uses their musical imagination to take that black-and-white pencil drawing and flesh it out into a fully-realised technicolor canvas. An orchestrator will have at their fingertips a working knowledge of most musical instruments, including their weak points. Every instrument has a place in its register where it sounds the best, just like there is a place in your singing voice where you sound best - go too low and no-one can hear you; too high and it sounds strained and uncomfortable (and neighbourhood dogs panic). A good orchestrator knows these details instinctively and will write so that instruments sound their best. 

An orchestrator will decide what the orchestra is doing to support the singer, and will use the orchestra to help create the atmosphere and to tell the story. What would Fiddler on the Roof be without those orchestral flavours that conjure up a turn-of-the-century Russian shtetl? Or A Little Night Music without the European chamber orchestra, and Miss Saigon without all that extraordinary Asian percussion? On The Town explodes off the stage because of the energy of its dancing, its rhythms and because of the orchestra pit crammed full of brass instruments (8 of them if you’re interested. Some current shows only have 8 players total in the pit, let alone 8 of one section. GodI wish I’d been alive in the 50s.) 

Chicago was written in the mid-70s yet manages to sound like a 1920s prohibition jazz band. The orchestrator, Ralph Burns, was chosen because he had that style in his blood. On the trumpet part for 'All That Jazz', Burns wrote, “Growl plunger solo, give it all hot; quasi Cootie Williams.” He knew who to reference and what to write to make the players in the orchestra pit make the sounds he wanted. 

The orchestrator also has a hand in the overture, a place where he or she can really go to town with the orchestral fireworks. Listen to ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy, and then listen to how Ramin and Ginzler treated the same tune in the overture - the latter is a riot of woodwind runs and excitement. To do the same thing during the song would perhaps have obscured Ethel Merman’s voice (is that even possible?) but certainly distracted from the song, whereas in the overture they can really let the orchestra off the leash and simply have fun. The overture to Mame is another great example of both the arranger (Don Pippin) and the orchestrator (Phil Lang) really going to town with the material. Who can possibly resist that level of exuberance spilling over the pit rail?

The downside to being the orchestrator is that you can only begin your work when all the musical decisions have been settled. On a new production the music changes daily in rehearsal, with songs going in and coming out, dances being added, extended and rearranged. New songs are written at the last minute, keys changed to suit vocalists, what was a waltz becomes a march. The orchestrator has to play chicken with opening night, trying to start work as late as possible in order to capture all the changes whilst still allowing time to get the work done. Inevitably, tweaks and fixes will always have to happen and numbers rewritten up until press night. The orchestrator works non-stop during those final few weeks, churning out new pages as fast as the old ones get torn up*. Ralph Burns used to squirrel himself away in his apartment, and when a page was done he would slide it under his door to the copyist. In exchange, the copyist would slide through the next batch of pages that needed his attention. Sometimes he wasn’t seen for days. Now that’s dedication.

There are way too many incredible orchestrators to examine in detail here, but if you were to listen to the work of Ralph Burns, Robert ‘Red’ Ginzler, Don Walker, Robert Russell Bennett, David Cullen, Jonathan Tunick and William David Brohn you’d be hearing the best orchestration in musical theatre that’s ever happened. Sadly there’s only been a Tony Award for Best Orchestration since 1997 and there has never been an Olivier which is a enormous pity, and means that the extraordinary efforts of this small group people often remain behind the scenes. If this article has helped you appreciate them even a tiny fraction more, then my job is done! 

Ben Frost

* Not literally torn up: every page is kept in case you need to go back to an old version!

Further listening
So here are some more people whose work you should seek out immediately: (in no particular order)
Phil Lang (all of Jerry Herman’s work)
Sid Ramin (West Side Story and Gypsy)
Irwin Kostal (Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on film, Fiorello in the theatre)

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Musings on... Verbosity by Richard Hough

Ah, but if less is more, just think of how much more “more” will be!
— (Frasier Crane, Frasier)

Charles Dickens was paid by the word. Which is why he would often use 70 of them when just the one or two would do. In A Christmas Carol (picking a story at random), his first description of the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, uses no less than eight adjectives, in rapid sequence in the space of the same fruity sentence:

“But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”

He probably got sixpence for that little lot. In the opinion of this writer, if he dares to write it down, and he does: that was sixpence well earned. Sure, many of those words share the same definition or, at least, describe the same flaw in the character of wicked old Scrooge. One might argue therefore that most of them are redundant. But that’s kind of missing the point. Here Dickens has written an elongated but consequently elegant introduction to his antihero, where the words combine in a rhythm and a meter to hammer home a entirely specific impression in the mind of the reader. This is not over-writing. I wouldn’t even call it verbose (because I don’t fully understand what that words means). It is, if anything, lyrical, metaphorical and highly imaginative. Note how most of the adjectives describe a motion of the hands – squeezing, wrenching, grasping etc. – giving us a visual metaphor to fasten to our first impressions and gathering mistrust of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Again, Dickens was earning his money when he wrote that sentence – which was handy, in retrospect, as he had a mistress who was bleeding him dry.

The business of song writing is an art of finding rhyme and reason for the inclusion of far too many words. It is the practice of describing the simplest of things in the most agonising detail, and it is justified when the simplest of things include emotions like love and hate. Sure, love is simple, and simply expressed: I love you. But the expression alone has no meaning, and little understanding. What do I mean when I tell you I love you? The answer to that question is incredibly complex and it changes almost every moment of every day. A song about my feelings for you requires a hell of a lot of words, adjectives, occasional expletives and, dare I say it? metaphors…

If you believe that the best James Bond was Sean Connery, you are wrong. No, no – this isn’t at metaphor, but I’ll be coming back to my point in a minute. For now, let me repeat: Sean Connery was not the best James Bond. The best James Bond was Roger Moore. (And in that sentence you will find everything you need to know about me and about all I’m willing to admit.) His best films were probably the two directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Christopher Wood. Now, here was a man powerfully unafraid of the colourful metaphor. In Moonraker, the villainous Hugo Drax is at his wits’ end. He tells James: “You persist in defying my efforts to plan an amusing death for you.” In the last act of the film, when Bond appears wryly unscathed from yet another botched execution, this time on board an orbiting space station, Hugo Drax says (and here’s the brilliant metaphor, wait for it):

“James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”

And, what is more, he says it in a French accent. I adore this line, and I appreciate the efforts writer Christopher Wood must have gone to when he conjured it up and wrote it down; not only did he decorate the sentiment with a coruscating metaphor, he managed to think up an entirely new one in order to avoid the dreaded pitfalls of cliché. After all, Hugo Drax might have instead accused Bond of resembling, I don’t know, “a bad penny” or “a cheap suit” or any one of those hackneyed phrases lazier writers employ to describe an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times… My God, “an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times”?! OK, that’s an unattractive sentence. It’s verbose (probably, whatever “verbose” means) but it’s also a good example of how hard it is to be interesting and original, and why the cliché is so often the first resort.

Lyricists (all of us really, but lyricists especially) have to try harder. Songwriters need words in vast quantities, original metaphors in attractive constructions and an ability to identify and avoid the cliché like a Hemsworth Brother avoids carbohydrates. They also need to think harder, to mine the most simple ideas for hidden depths and lost complexities. Not so long ago, Ben and I wrote a musical about a mother and her daughter and the mother sang a song called, You Don’t Need a Man:





She could have said, “All men are useless,” because that was the sentiment, but she didn’t because this is a musical, and the writers were working their butts off.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Musings on... Overtures by Ben Frost


Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Not so long ago, before all of that, in the stories of Musical Theatre, there was also an Overture to kick things off. Not so often these days, I know, but there was a time when a proper musical introduction was considered an essential part of the evening’s entertainment. The Overture: when the houselights went to half and the orchestra struck up its own five minute showcase of the evening’s musical highlights, with melodies zinging hither and yon, one after the other - some immediately familiar, others new and exciting, and all of them gone in a moment, each quickly replaced with the next tantalising snippet before anyone has even a chance to hum along. In musical theatre of a certain vintage, the Overture is one of my favourite parts of the night. In the musical theatre of today, they’re something of a rarity. And, do you know what? There are times when I miss them. 

You see, the overture became rather unfashionable in the second half of the 20th Century. As the boundaries of musical theatre began to be broken down and the traditional rules were being tossed aside like so many Swatch watches from an Oscars party-bag, the overture was often abandoned as the creative team sought different and more inventive ways to begin their shows.

The Overture is defined as the piece of music that’s played at the beginning of a show, the first bit of the musical that you hear. Often a medley of the best music from the show, and a chance for the composer, arranger (see my earlier article!) and orchestrator to show off. It’s also a chance for the audience to settle into their seats, get comfortable and to begin to zone out the real world and to enter into the spirit of the evening. When the creators get it right the overture leaves you titillated, giddy with melody, and desperate to get to the story. Although if they get it wrong it can leave you rather bored, staring at a closed curtain, and desperate to get to the story for entirely different reasons.

In the days of musical comedy, really up until Showboat changed everything forever, the overture was only there as a signal for people to take their seats. The audience would come in from the bars, stub out their cigarettes and settle down, all the while continuing their conversations. In fact, shows used to be written that NO plot happened during the opening number in order to cater for latecomers: you could still catch up if you arrived ten minutes after the show started as nothing would have happened yet!

In ditching the overture, today’s creative teams have been forced to come up with a multitude of alternative ways to begin their shows. Their solutions are many and varied, and personal to the writers, but all of them have an immediate sense of the dramatic.

Take a look at the opening of A Chorus Line. The very first thing you hear is the familiar ‘da dah da da da da’ on the ‘rehearsal’ piano and the show starts immediately. They are dancing within five seconds and the story has started. We are paying attention straightaway.

How about Into The Woods? The houselights go down, we hear ‘Once upon a time’, and then the words, ‘I wish’. We’ve instantly got the ball rolling. 

Or The Phantom of the Opera. Not only does it not have an overture, it doesn’t even have an opening number! It opens cold on a dialogue scene at an auction, breaking every rule in musical theatre. But what it does do is draw you into the world immediately. You concentrate, you don’t know what’s going on, there is some mystical music.

A large number of shows from the last fifty years have one thing in common: a bold and quirky introduction. A dramatic start. Something that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for two hours.

In many ways, this is Musical Theatre taking its lead from the “new” media of film and television. It’s no surprise, and eminently sensible, that, as TV and film have become the dominant ways of storytelling and entertainment, musical theatre has had to adjust its methods. Both TV and film are visual media and audiences have become used to always having something to look at. It’s no longer possible to just play music and to keep the audience’s attention. Where’s the storytelling? It’s interesting that over in the opera world, modern productions often now stage the overture and the interludes, meaning that there is action on stage during the music. These were pieces of music that were written to be played while the curtain was in, and for the audience solely to listen to. Cop out? No, just having to try harder to keep an audience’s attention.

Does this mean that Overtures are firmly an artefact of the past, obsolete in the mechanisms of modern story-telling? I don’t think so. Who knows what the future holds but, taking a look at our recent history, it seems like 21st century musicals are turning to face backwards somewhat: they are increasingly embracing older forms, and the Overture has made a minor comeback. Take The Producers, Spamalot, A Christmas Story, or Honeymoon in Vegas: they all have spell-binding old-fashioned overtures. On the other hand Parade, Dogfight, Road Show/Gold!, Sister Act, or Wicked: they just crack on with the story. Sondheim himself has Into The Woods start with a chord, yet has Merrily We Roll Along begin with the most traditional of overtures.

Either way, they all start with a bang and don’t let up. And that’s what we want from the theatre, right? So although I miss the grand-standing Overture, it doesn’t mean I want every show to begin with one - as long as the story grabs my attention, I’m in.

Ben Frost

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Inspirations: Douglas Adam by Richard Hough

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.
— (from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, 1987)


Douglas Adams was a genius, one of the most gifted writers of his generation. When he died in 2001 aged only 49, he was at the peak of his powers, with so much still to say. But he left such a legacy behind him that his voice continues to influence writers and dramatists and, I would suggest, lyricists, across the world. Ben and I owe him as profound a debt as any of them. Douglas understood people. He knew their flaws as keenly as any psychologist, and their virtues as well as any philosopher. And he condensed his observations on life, the universe and everything into his writing.

Douglas wrote comedy and drama, initially for the BBC. What made him so special was that he wrote dialogue as if it was poetry, with a rhythm and a texture all his own. Every one of his lines is beautifully constructed, created with no regard for naturalism, but with an undeniable truth all the same. His characters are concisely sketched and instantly recognisable, no matter how outlandish or grotesque. And his stories are told with such a pace, and they include so many impossibly original ideas, that to experience the work of Douglas Adams is to be left breathless, and just a bit bemused, but at the same time feeling that the world outside makes a little more sense. And that’s a wonderful feeling to have. But don’t take my word for it. If his name is unfamiliar, I urge you, dear reader, to seek him out; pick up one of his books or TV or radio series today, and then thank me afterwards in the comments section. 

His earliest success (and the show for which he is still best remembered), was a radio comedy entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, later adapted into a television serial for BBC 2. Here’s a piece from the second instalment, a treatise on language, miscommunication and the miraculous “Babel Fish.” (The narration comes from an inter-galactic talking book, the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide, brought to life in the adjacent clip by the voice of Peter Jones.)

At the same time Douglas was working on Hitchhiker’s Guide, he was employed by BBC Drama as Script Editor on the 1979 series of Doctor Who. Before the days of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, Douglas Adams was show-running an altogether more outlandish series, in his own inimitable style. This clip is taken from a story called “City of Death” (which is a terrible title, but a terrific yarn, available on DVD). It is quite simply the wittiest thing every to happen in 1970s family adventure fiction. 


Richard Hough

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Spotlight on... Arrangers by Ben Frost

You know that doo-do-doo-doo doo-da doo-do-doo-doody-doo-doo tune that Gene Kelly sings at the beginning of Singin’ In The Rain? How about that amazing overture to Gypsy that blows the roof off the theatre and gets the ball rolling for a hell of an evening’s entertainment? Or even the extraordinary Do-Re-Mi sequence in The Sound of Music which takes the simplest of tunes and stretches it out into one of the most iconic sequences in musical film?* 

What may surprise you is that none of these were put together by the person credited as the composer. 

Instead they are almost entirely the work of the talented music arrangers that are part of the production team yet rarely get any spotlight or public acknowledge for their work.

So who are these people and what are they doing contributing music? Why is the composer letting them do this?

What is Arrangement?

Firstly, on a musical there often isn’t a person credited as the Arranger. However, that doesn’t mean that the role of Arrangement isn’t happening, it’s just been divided up amongst the music department of the show. It’s not unusual for the Musical Director, the Orchestrator and even the Rehearsal Pianist to contribute to this task.

When a brand new musical is created, what is performed on day 1 of rehearsal bears only a scant resemblance to what’s performed on opening night. Sure, the big tunes are there, and the funniest jokes. But the dance sequences won’t be there, nor will the scene change music or the big key change for the star at the end of Act 1. A lot of this usually happens during the rehearsal period, although obviously different composers arrive with differing amounts of work done. 

Music arrangement is the art of taking the composer’s source material: the tunes, the harmony, the intention; and helping engineer it into a cohesive piece of music. Think of it as the same relationship as a structural engineer to an architect: the architect has the Big Plan with the colours and the shapes, and the structural engineer is involved in making those ideas a reality that can stand up. 

So like a structural engineer, an Arranger will take a tune such as Do-Re-Mi and will help sew (a needle pulling thread? Couldn’t resist.) that into a longer number. When rehearsing that song, the choreographer wanted Maria to teach a tune onstage. The arranger Trude Rittmann called up Rodgers and Hammerstein who then provided the tune and lyrics, ‘When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.’ Miss Rittmann then used that new theme as a building block for the next part of the song. The resulting number is 5 1/2 minutes long, but the source material from Rodgers and Hammerstein is only 45 seconds long. This is not intended to detract from the genius of their contribution, but to highlight the additional contribution of those working with them.

Doesn’t the composer mind?

Who knows? Obviously Mr Rodgers trusted Trude Rittmann enough to do this, having worked with her since Carousel. (She also composed the ballet Small House Of Uncle Thomas from The King and I, and arranged the ballet in Carousel).

Rather splendidly, on the cast album for Wicked, Stephen Schwartz explicitly acknowledges the contributions of the music department on his show, highlighting the first 45 seconds of the track ‘Wonderful’ which he states they contributed. That doesn't happen too often.

Isn’t the composer being lazy?

Quite the opposite! As is often the case in musicals, there simply isn’t time for the composer to create and fix everything. A small change to the order of scenes during rehearsal, for example, can result in whole sequences of appropriate new scene change music being needed, and if the show is in previews, very often required for that evening’s performance. The composer is usually fixing something more important so another member of the music team will very often use the composer’s themes to paper over the cracks. You know how you hear familiar bits of song at the end of scenes, but often in a different mood or version than they appeared earlier? You can bet they were put there by the rehearsal pianist, the musical director or the orchestrator!

I think I appreciate the Arranger an awful lot more now!

And you should! An unsung hero of the production team on a musical, but an absolutely vital one. Any musical theatre composer worth their salt will love and cherish their arranger since they are the people who make the songs fly, who lift them off the page and who help make these composers’ crazy ideas come to life on stage.

Ben Frost

*In the examples above, the doo-do-doos were contributed by Roger Edens who headed up the music department at MGM; the Gypsy overture was put together by the orchestrators Sid Ramin and Robert ‘Red’ Ginzler; Trude Rittmann (pronounced Trudy) engineered the Do-Re-Mi sequence in the rehearsal room.

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Musings on... Punctuation by Richard Hough

As the late, great Roy Castle sang at the end of every Record Breakers: “Punctuation’s what you need!” At least, I think that’s what he sang. The memory’s a little hazy. But they say that, don’t they? - If you can remember the 1980s, you weren’t there. Or, if you were there, you weren’t paying enough attention. And who could blame you? It was a bloody awful decade. Anyway, all of this is beside the point. (I’m getting bogged down in my childhood, and I shouldn’t be. Not here, anyway. I save all of my most painful reminiscences for my day job.) The point I’m trying to make is that Punctuation is vitally important, an essential tool of the playwright and lyricist. Of the Ballet Dancer or the Spectacled Bear, less so. But to me, it’s indispensable - at least as important as any other key stroke. There seems to be, however, a difference of opinion…

I have found a tendency among lyricists, my contemporaries and my ancestors, to avoid or omit punctuation altogether, believing that the rhythm and the melody does the job for them. They ignore the comma, and the colon (semi and standing proud), and only ever bother with the full stop in extremis. Well, a good lyric should obviously fit the melody like a glove (fits a hand, not a foot), and work its implied punctuation along the structure of the music. Nevertheless, when considering the finer details, in order to order the thoughts of the singer and to expose every facet of a character’s internal struggle, a little extra direction in the lyric can be very useful. Consider the following:


A few lines taken from a new project currently fermenting in the brewery of Frost & Hough. Without the multitude of commas and colons, the reading of the lyric is almost unchanged, but not quite - and that means, without it, we’d be missing something. Something the writers intended, something they thought about to inform the characterisation. Without the punctuation, perhaps the character’s self-description as someone alone and lonely who, in addition to that, wears an ersatz smile to fool herself and the world, would be mistaken for simply a list of cold attributes. The fact that she (for she is a she, and her name is Louisa - but that’s all you’re getting out of me for now) is angry because someone took her to task, and then felt too afraid to confront them is only really specified by the semi-colon. And the actress, of course. To interpret as she will. I mean, maybe she’ll disagree with that line-reading - but at least the punctuation has made the writers’ intentions clear, and given us all something to argue about. And we call love a good fight, don’t we? That’s what drew so many of us to MT in the first place. The bloodshed. And the French Horns. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that punctuation should be used accurately. God knows, none of us went to a decent school, and Grammar, for me and for everyone else in my family, was not so much a rule of law as the name we gave to my Grandfather’s wife (who was, incidentally, an awful lot more demanding and complex than word order and the perfect tense). As playwrights and lyricists, we’re writing our sentences to be spoken aloud and should be free to use punctuation to excess if it helps to better communicate to the reader, or the actor, or the singer, how best to present the line. I’m writing this as if I expect it to be read aloud. Which is kinda silly, I know. I’m sure you won’t be reading this out loud, unless you’re on a bus, hoping to make conversation with the blue-eyed boy sitting next to you and figuring that the best way to test to see if he’s up for it is to try him on musical theatre. Nevertheless, I’m punctuating the hell out of this blog post because that’s all I know how to do. And I hope it makes sense for all this punctuation, because the words alone are, frankly, impenetrable. Still, if it wins you old blue-eyes, it’s been worth it. Let me know how it goes, you scamp!

Rich Hough

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