I'm sure most of you have heard the story about the song that this post is titled after...but for those who haven't, let me quickly recant:
In the early 60's, 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' was in previews, and getting less than positive response. Ticket sales were low and people had difficulty figuring out why. The songs were good...the book was funny...the cast was wonderful...
Enter Jerome Robbins, called in by director George Abbott and producer Hal Prince to give advice and implement changes to help the show. Robbins looked at the piece as a whole, and made the suggestion to change the opening number, requiring Sondheim to scrap the original tune 'Love Is In The Air' and replace it with something that set the show up as the bawdy comedy they were going for. Thus was born the current opening to the show, 'Comedy Tonight'.
There's a lot to be learned from this story. (Whether my retelling was 100% accurate or not.) The strongest lessons are two-fold. First, your opening number MUST set the show up properly, and let the audience know what to expect. Set up the wrong expectation and they'll be confused about what you're going for. More on this to come when we discuss 'Opening Numbers'.
And two...A WELL-PLACED COMEDY SONG CAN WORK WONDERS!
What is a comedy song?
A comedy song is a number that is specifically meant to make the audience laugh. Hopefully out loud. As obvious as that logic is, the actual execution of such a song is very difficult. The music and lyrics have to work together in many ways to set up the joke, land punchlines, and proffer subtle musical hints with flares of levity. That all said, when done correctly, a comedy song is truly a thing of beauty!
Examples of wonderfully placed/executed Comedy Songs:
- "Gee, Officer Krupke" (from West Side Story) This is a great tune, and it's placement varies depending on the production. The film places the song towards the end of Act 1, just before the rumble. This positioning allows the song to break from the romance/feud story for a moment, before the big brawl where (spoiler alert) Riff and Bernardo die. The original placement is just over halfway through Act 2. This may seem an odd choice at first, but if you look closer, it makes a lot of sense. There is a gravity to the song, an extra layer following the death of the two young men. A certain desperation comes through that does not exist, in the same way, earlier in the show. So although the song is still very humorous, it is also sadder and more poignant.
- "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" (from Avenue Q) It's easy to think that every tune in this hilarious show is a Comedy Song, but that's not the case. Most of the other numbers are building relationships...are giving us necessary insight into the characters...are furthering plot. This particular song doesn't tell us any one's thoughts or desires, but functions to stretch out an event (Princeton and Kate Monster getting physical) that we needn't see, but does so in such an outrageously humorous way that we find ourselves laughing out loud at something as awkward and obscene as puppets having sex! (P.S. I absolutely saw this show with my Mother at one point...I don't recommend this.)
- "What A Game" (from Ragtime) First of all, this in one of my favorite songs in musical theatre. I have a soft spot for male ensemble numbers, and this one is so clever and wonderfully written/utilized. Father has returned, and is attempting to reconnect with his family, and re assimilate to 'home'. The problem is that nothing is like it was when he left, and this number shows us (in a hilarious way) just how much things have changed.
And now, some extra fun!!
Since a blog is nothing without it's readers, I am going to invite YOU to be part of the process!
There are a million and one examples of Comedy Songs out there that I could have chosen. I bet you know some, too!
Leave a comment below, with the title of a Comedy Song (and the show it's from), then tell us why you believe it should be considered as such!
I look forward to learning of some new ones!
Until next time...
...of 'Lee'rical Wordplay...
.....in case there was any question...