Rhythm, Rhyme, and Reason: The Artistry of Musical Theatre Composition

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Reason: The Artistry of Musical Theatre Composition

“Music is the space between the notes,” maestros like to say. But in the world of musical theatre, it’s the notes themselves – and the rhythms, rhymes, and reasons behind them – that compose the true artistry.

As a musical theatre composer myself, I’ve spent countless hours wrestling with the challenge of crafting melodies, harmonies, and lyrics that not only sound beautiful, but also drive the story forward and reveal the innermost thoughts and emotions of the characters. It’s a delicate balance, one that the incomparable Stephen Sondheim mastered like no other.

In the wake of Sondheim’s passing, I found myself reflecting on the legacy he left behind – not just in the pantheon of theatrical classics he authored, but in the meticulous craft he brought to each and every note. Sondheim once said that every song in a musical should be “a one-act play,” and truer words were never spoken. His compositions don’t just entertain; they transport us, challenge us, and change us.

So where does this artistry come from? How do composers like Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lin-Manuel Miranda create musical theatre magic? Let’s dive in and explore the rhythm, rhyme, and reason behind the craft.

The Power of Rhythm

At the heart of any memorable musical theatre score lies a driving rhythmic foundation. Whether it’s the syncopated swing of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, the percussive patter of “I Could’ve Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, or the infectious hip-hop beats of Hamilton, the rhythms of a show set the tone and propel the action forward.

As Sondheim once noted, “Rhythm is the most powerful element in music – it’s the heartbeat, the accelerator.” And he should know – his own compositions, from the intricate polyrhythms of “Send in the Clowns” to the driving gallop of “A Little Night Music,” showcase his mastery of rhythm.

But it’s not just about creating a catchy beat. The rhythms of a musical theatre score must also serve the story and the characters. Take the iconic opening of “West Side Story” – the sharp, staccato rhythms of the Jets and Sharks immediately establish the tense, combative atmosphere of the turf war playing out onstage. Or consider the lush, legato lines of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy and Bess, which perfectly capture the tender intimacy between the two title characters.

Sondheim himself was highly critical of the rhythms in his early work, particularly the “clever rhyming” and “trick rhythms” he employed in West Side Story. As he matured as a composer, he learned to align the rhythms of his music with the natural speech patterns and emotional arcs of his characters, creating a seamless integration of sound and story.

The Art of Rhyme

Of course, the rhythms of a musical theatre score would be nothing without the words that ride atop them. And when it comes to crafting those evocative, character-revealing lyrics, Sondheim was a true master.

As Sondheim himself noted, “A perfect rhyme snaps the word and with it the thought vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible.” His lyrics don’t just rhyme for the sake of rhyming – they propel the narrative, reveal the characters’ inner lives, and transport the audience.

Take, for instance, the lyrics to “Barcelona” from Company:

“In view of her penchant for something romantic,
De Sade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic,
And Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack,
As there isn’t much blue in the Red and the Black.”

In just those two lines, Sondheim manages to paint a vivid picture of the character, Fredrik Egerman, as he struggles to find the perfect book to seduce his young wife. The internal rhymes, the literary references, the military metaphor – it’s all there, woven together with such dazzling craftsmanship that it takes your breath away.

Sondheim was a true “rhyming gymnast,” as the New York Times’ Bruce Weber described him. He elevated the art of lyric-writing to a nearly mathematical level, carefully constructing rhyme schemes that went far beyond the basic “A-A-B-B” pattern. And he had no patience for lazy, half-baked rhymes – he famously complained about the “assonance” (imperfect rhymes) in pop songs, where a songwriter could have easily found the perfect rhyme but didn’t bother.

For Sondheim, the rhyme wasn’t just a surface-level device – it was a means of deepening the emotional resonance of the lyrics, of propelling the story forward, and of revealing the true essence of the characters. It’s a level of craft that few have matched, before or since.

The Reason Behind It All

Of course, the rhythms and rhymes of a musical theatre score would be nothing without the underlying reason, the driving narrative and emotional core that gives the music its purpose. And this is where Sondheim and his fellow masters of the craft truly shine.

As Sondheim himself noted, “Every song is a one-act play.” Each number in a musical theatre piece isn’t just a catchy tune – it’s a window into the character’s psyche, a pivotal moment in the story, a turning point in the emotional arc. The melodies, harmonies, and lyrics all work in service of these dramatic imperatives.

Take, for example, the haunting ballad “Losing My Mind” from Follies. On the surface, it’s a lush, achingly beautiful song. But at its core, it’s a raw, devastating portrait of a woman grappling with the painful memories of a love lost. The wavering, half-diminished harmonies and the bittersweet, poetic lyrics (“I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my mind over you”) come together to create a profoundly moving emotional experience.

Or consider the soaring, triumphant “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. The song’s stirring melody, driving rhythms, and empowering lyrics (“Something has changed within me, something is not the same…”) perfectly capture Elphaba’s journey from oppressed outsider to revolutionary icon. It’s a thrilling, cathartic moment that propels the story forward in a meaningful way.

This is the true artistry of musical theatre composition – the seamless blending of sound and story, rhythm and rhyme, to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the reason why the great musicals continue to captivate and move us, long after the final curtain falls.

So the next time you find yourself humming along to “Send in the Clowns” or tapping your foot to the beat of “One Day More,” take a moment to appreciate the sheer artistry that went into crafting those timeless melodies. Because in the world of musical theatre, the magic isn’t just in the performance – it’s in the composition.

And if you’re ever in the mood to explore this artistry for yourself, I highly recommend checking out the Musical Theater Center – a place where the rhythm, rhyme, and reason of great musical theatre composition come alive.

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