Friday, September 7, 2012

A Charming Notion (Part I)

Hello All!

It's a lovely day to learn about musical theatre writing, isn't it?  It's warm out.  The sky is clear, as I'd imagine it is in most musicals (save Sweeney Todd, or Assassins...Company...ok, let's just avoid Sondheim if we want sunny...) and I'm very excited to discuss with you a particular song type that has led to a bit of controversy...

The Charm Song.

"But Lee, I know what a charm song is!  It's a song in a musical that's fun, likable...charming."

It's true that these are characteristics that are often attributed to Charm Songs, but they are not absolutely necessary.  (It's pretty much like the whole 'a square is a parallelogram, but a parallelogram is not necessarily a square' kinda thing.)

There are many definitions floating around on these here interwebz.  John Kenrick, of, stated in the past that a Charm Song is used by the main character to beguile the audience.  Meanwhile, Adam Steinberg presents a few 'charm songs' in his song list, defining them as (paraphrased)  'I Am/I Want' songs that have a touch of comedy, (though not as much as a 'Comedy' song), used to define character for our principals, or even a group.  Both of these sites have some very insightful viewpoints, and/or present some fun material...however, I happen to differ in my opinion of the purpose of a Charm Song.

Sure, Charm Songs are often beguiling.  Absolutely, they can assist in informing our audience about the characters.  But why are we defining a type of song with other song types?  To say "Charm Songs are often 'I Want' or 'I Am' songs for the main characters..." gives the impression that we don't really NEED a new category.  If a song is showing us the desires of the character, well then it's NOT a Charm's doing the work of an 'I Want' song.  (By the way, the terms 'I Want'/'I Am' Song seem to be a bit outdated at this point as well.  More to come on that when we get there...)

And to say that a Charm Song is used to "...beguile the audience..." gives us the impression that it's only purpose is to win over the crowd.  I don't believe this to be the case, either.

"So then, what is a Charm Song?  What is it's function?"

After hearing and reading many different takes on the matter, I find myself most in agreement with the definition put forth, originally by Lehman Engel, and perpetuated by the moderators of the BMI Musical Theatre workshop.  Their definition, if I may paraphrase, is that a Charm Song is a song in a musical that intentionally does not directly progress the plot for the main character(s).

Let me American musical theatre, the overall attempt has been to assist the movement of the story through the music.  This means that each song should be necessary for the progression of plot, circumstances, and character, and those singing should end up in a different place (mentally or emotionally) than they were when the tune began.  A song can be used to come to a decision.  To relay character/events.  To build relationships...etc...  Well, a charm song intentionally breaks that rule.

Why?  For what purpose would we want a song that is not helping to further the story? 

Well, a Charm Song is a break.  It's there to give the audience a bit of a mental pause from the story, to allow them to not have to work so hard piecing things together for a bit.  So...did we just see/hear 45 minutes of introduction and exposition...well, that seems like a good time for a Charm Song!  Has something devastating just happened?  Let's cut the tension with a Charm Song.  (They're better than a Ginsu!)  If the whole musical is a feast, the Charm Song is the palate-cleansing sorbet between courses, helping to purge away the strong flavors of the previous course, so that the next can be enjoyed as fully.

As an added bonus, a Charm Song can often do a little something extra.  As we are taking a break from progressing the story, and enjoying a moment that is usually a bit 'lighter' and less specific to one character, the Charm Song can often be used to allude to an all-encompassing theme that fits the musical.  So, rather than tell us about the moment we are seeing, it may help give us an idea about the overall argument of the piece.  Neat, huh?

Examples of wonderfully placed/executed Charm Songs:

-  "Guys & Dolls"  (from Guys & Dolls)  At the moment when all the main characters have been introduced, and all the circumstances have been set up, Nicely and Benny give us an idea about themselves, and the world of the show in this 'charming' and upbeat number.  They sing about how every man has his weakness, and it is usually going to be for a woman.  The lyrics not only give us a sense of the era we are in, and how the characters speak/think, but it also hints at events to come in both the relationship between Sky and Sarah, as well as the long overcooked relationship between Nathan and Adelaide.  The song is about men as a whole, but encompasses the journey of our two leads perfectly.

-  "I Feel Pretty"  (from West Side Story)  There's something so great about having a character sing such a lilting, vapid/happy tune just after a murder has been committed.  It gives the audience a breather from the tense events that just occurred, but simultaneously breaks their hearts, as they know that she will learn of the death of her brother soon.  Incidentally, before the act break we saw Tony run after the murder, so this light-hearted song seemingly contradicts the previous scene, and catches us a bit off guard at the top of act two.

-  "Turn It Off"  (from The Book of Mormon)  Once again, we have a song that comes once the characters have been defined and their circumstances laid out.  Upon first encounter, this seems like it was written specifically as an excuse to have a group of Mormon boys tap dancing.  (Quite a sight...)  But when you take the time to analyze it, there is something special about this song.  It not only serves to smooth out the awkwardness (and perhaps horrific shock) that the audience just experienced as they listened to a bunch of Africans cursing also tells us something about the writers' intention with the show.  These boys are turning a blind eye to any part of themselves that is considered uncouth by their religion.  The insinuation is that the facets of ones personality are easy to brush aside, or decide to change.  By poking fun with characters that are not our main focus, we can laugh at the absurdity of this aspect of organized religion.  This also gives a hint as to what conclusion our principal characters will eventually come to...that organized religion can and should be what you need it to be, not the other way around.

So, I'm not saying that anyone is wrong.  It just seems that if we are going to have a different category of song, we should be specific with what the category is, how it's different, and why it exists!

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 Charm Songs out there that I could have chosen.  I bet you know some, too!

Leave a comment below, with the title of a Charm Song (and the show it's from), then tell us why you believe it should be considered as such!

Who knows, maybe you'll even change my definition!

Until next time...

...of 'Lee'rical Wordplay... case there was any question...

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