Good theatrical songwriting is like tailoring a good custom suit. While it may be easier and cheaper to buy a suit off the rack at a department store, the luxury of going to a tailor is to find a perfect match for your tastes and measurements, uniquely proportioned to your every need or desire. It’s the sensation of walking out of a store with a one-of-a-kind object in your possession. The suit is an extension of yourself, created for you with only you in mind. And yet, it’s also made for other to admire as a work of artistry, perhaps even to imitate.
Musical theater should function in much the same way. The songs in a show define a specific moment in a character’s life or in their cultural setting. The key word here is specific. The lyrics expand on a set of feelings or ideas that arise at that particular moment. Think Les Miserables’ “On My Own,” Eponine’s unrequited love ballad, or “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. Or for a more cultural-historical example dealing with the show’s broader environment or situation, there’s “Tradition” from Fiddler, or “The Circle of Life.”
This rule for musical theater songwriting can be broken down somewhat. For example, in the title song from Cabaret, Sally Bowles is not necessarily referring to a specific event in her life. In fact, she’s just ostensibly performing an act for the cabaret’s patrons. But given her personal circumstances at this point, the song’s varying grotesqueness and enthusiasm make it perfect for displaying the harsh distinction between Sally’s internal struggle and external demeanor.
At the same time that all of these songs are character- and situation-specific, they also appeal to popular audiences because there’s something universal about them. How many musical theater fans have sung “Defying Gravity” to boost their own self-confidence, or “On My Own” in solidarity with Eponines across the world? We can sometimes admire these songs out of the context of their larger narratives. However, I’d argue (perhaps in a different essay) that this trait is secondary to the first. Without specificity, the song doesn’t work in the context of the show. It lacks the emotional impact and poetic exploration that should be expected of a song at this critical point in the show.
This is part of the reason why jukebox musicals (which build stories around pre-existing music) often fail to provoke the same caliber of emotion and/or thought as original pieces. The songs are not specific to the story, having found audiences elsewhere as isolated radio tracks and on albums. Rarely do the songs provide an in-depth look into the characters or their situations. Rather, they tread too far into mass generalization– here the characters are trying on the pre-made suit, not the tail0r-made one.
Bright Star, unfortunately, falls into this latter approach of non-specificity. To be frank, I by no means intend to place this new musical on the chopping block. There is much to praise about it– its cast, while strictly all white, is wonderfully talented. The direction by Walter Bobbie is wistful and endearing, uniquely portraying the American South at the turn of the century. Edie Bricknell and Steve Martin’s bluegrass music is deeply moving, while Martin’s book is a great use of his dry, Twain-esque wit.
Which is why the song lyrics stick out so upsettingly. Take the song “I Had A Vision,” which comes straight from Martin and Bricknell’s 2015 album So Familiar. At this point in the show, two ex-lovers learn a harrowing fact about the end of their relationship two decades ago. For the sake of not spoiling it, let’s just say that this revelation is extremely upsetting and casts their hopeful time apart, and their efforts to reunite happily, into despair. They share the song:
I have been blinded. I can’t see a thing.
Blinded by that day. Darkness fell on me.
I had a vision of how our life would be-
Rolling like a river: peaceful, wild, and free.
I had a vision of how our life would go-
a happy little family playing on the porch.
The next verse contains further iterations of blindness:
Blinded by sorrow and all of these tears.
Blinded for so long, all these many years.
What can we tell about these characters? Well, first off, they feel blind. Second, they had a (terribly bland and generic) picture of their future together. And now they’re blind. How does this song illuminate the characters’ emotional states? How does it provide depth to their narrative? Even if you forgive the song’s banal repetitious verses, you’re still left with a frustratingly superficial view of the characters’ complex feelings and histories. Pluck these lyrics out of Bright Star and plant them into another family-driven musical drama, and you could likely make it work in its new context.
So, dear song writers, ask yourselves: Does this song fit its context to a tee? Am I tailoring it to a unique moment in time? A nuanced depiction of characters or settings? Your musical will be better off for it.