Writing for Musical Theatre and cabaret with Sam Carner
Sam Carner, lyricist of the award-winning new musical theatre writers Carner and GregorJeremy Fisher interviews lyricist Sam Carner, one half of the award-winning new Musical Theatre writers Carner and Gregor (creators of Unlock’d, Island Song and Sing But Don’t Tell).
Is there a difference between Musical Theater and cabaret?
Sam: I think that the big difference is that the relationship with the audience is different. We touched on this in our emails. In cabaret the audience understands that it is part of the equation. That it is either overhearing a private thought, or I should say that it is being allowed to overhear a private thought, or often being spoken directly to.
And I think that’s where the humour in Sing But Don’t Tell [a song about a singer’s desired relationship with her pianist] comes from. Whereas in Musical Theater the fourth wall is up. Unless it’s not.
Jeremy: So what you’re doing essentially is overhearing or eavesdropping, and the performer doesn’t officially know that you’re there. Unless they do!
S: Right. So in our show Unlock’d we play with that dynamic. Certain characters have more access to the audience than others. Though what we’re actually playing with in Unlock’d is creating verse monologues a la Shakespeare in which the actress who delivers them is talking to the audience and has a more intimate relationship with the audience than the other characters.
And there’s one other character with a song which is ostensibly directly to the audience. But then the other internal moments are overheard thoughts. You can always create whatever rules you want in a musical, as long as you’re consistent.
S: In a cabaret I think the audience would feel strange if the performer never acknowledged them. I think that would be deeply alienating.
J: You have a really nice description [on the Carner and Gregor blog] of the idea that you could move between direct contact and self-thought.
S: I think that’s the way it works. As long as the performer is clear on what they’re doing I think we’ll follow. It’s part of the makeup of cabaret.
J: That’s a very good point.
S: I would also say that what makes something into a fully musical world is the combination of interaction. Song is very self conscious, in that there is a moment when everyone is conscious that a song is happening.
There are moments in a musical when only the audience is conscious that a song is happening, everyone [in the musical] hears it as speech. And there are moments in a musical that are totally internal, so the audience hears the song but no-one else on stage hears it except for the character who’s singing it inside their own head.
And I would also add that what really makes a fully musical world is when those barriers between modes of musical communication break down, so you’re not quite sure at certain moments if something is overheard thought or dialogue or the “prop” song where everyone hears the song.
In certain shows someone will be singing a certain song to another character that sounds like dialogue – “I’m just telling you I love you” – and another character will come in and start singing that song or even reference the fact that it is a song they are familiar with. You get those kind of breakdowns, and I think that’s what creates a fully musical world when the barriers are a little hazy.
S: One of the big things I’ve been thinking about recently is as a writer and as a vocal coach is transitions, and how you get from one moment to another. Because it’s fairly easy to sit down in a moment or in an emotion, but where you lose an audience, and where you keep them riveted, is in getting from one moment to another. And that’s why I say that conjunctions are so important. I know that as a writer I can sometimes sit down and write out stanza after stanza of one idea, and the next idea, but I’ll spend sometimes days working on how to get from idea to the other. That’s what takes the most thought.
J: It’s also where you see the most skill as a performer. To understand what the writer has said and why that particular change happens there, then make it work.
S: Right. And sometimes it’s just in the shift, sometimes it’s to colour the moment before so the change is inevitable, sometimes it’s in the moment after, sometimes it’s being willing to take the “hard left” and making that hard left so sharp that it’s unmistakeable.
J: Do you have any pet hates with singers? Anything they do that really annoys you?
S: Sure. I don’t love it when they swap conjunctions. I don’t really like it when singers aren’t thinking about what they’re singing. When it just becomes notes and riffs and gratuitous singing.
J: Yes. Sound without thought.
S: Sound without thought. We try to write in moments for big singing, chances for singers to go their vocal limits if they want to, but we write them in specific moments, and we don’t love riffing just for the sake of riffing. For me that’s just creating a fake emotion.
J: It’s a sin.
S: I understand why people do it. What really bothers me about it is that I think audiences aren’t paying attention either, and they’ll applaud the big note no matter where it comes. So singers get a lot of encouragement to do that. The challenge then is for them to realise that they’ll get a more powerful response if they really think about the story they’re telling.
J: You’re right, it’s about response. A string of powerful or high notes gives a particular emotional response, and the thing I play with with my clients is “that’s great, now what’s the emotion behind it, what’s the thought, what’s the shape, what’s the story?” Because when you experience it with more of those things in you get a much deeper emotional reaction to it. So you still get an emotional reaction but it’s on a different level.
S: And as a writer it’s similar. You have to look carefully at the response you’re getting. Sometimes something will get a big response but it won’t be the thing that sticks with an audience. Sometimes something will get a big laugh but they’ll find the thing they didn’t laugh at as hard is funnier. So I feel as an artist in general you constantly have to be shifting between “what was the response we got” (which is incontrovertible – we can measure that), talking to people afterwards and getting their response, running it through our own processor and trying to place ourselves in the position of audience member, and then moving back to creator. I think when you’re developing something there’s a dialogue going between all these experiences.
J: Slightly odd question for you. What is truth for you in your work?
S: That’s a very difficult question. People don’t actually experience life in song in the way that they do in musicals…
J: They do in my house!
S: Truth in theater is real theater, and what I mean is truth is translation of experience into a form. So that the experience in theater feels consistent with the theatrical context and provides an analogy for an experience outside of that context.
J: That’s very clear.
S: It reminds me of the art historian Gombrich wrote an article called “Meditations on a Hobby Horse” in which he asks whether a hobby horse is a real horse or a head on a stick. Because if you ask a child why they aren’t feeding their horse, they’ll tell you it’s because it’s not a real horse. And if you ask a child why they are riding around on that stick, they’ll tell you because it’s a horse. And the answer is it’s a real hobby horse.
So I think that in art, in theater, we’re always aware that it’s theater, and then the question is how consistent is it within its own rules, and to what extent can we find a metaphor for taking that outside of the theater.
J: So it’s like you suspend your disbelief when you go into a theatre, and it’s which disbelief do you suspend, and does everything in the show from then on match the disbelief that you’ve suspended.
S: I think that’s exactly right. Humour comes often from surprise, but it’s a surprise consistent with everything you’ve been seeing. And the moment that those rules are really broken is when the theater stops seeming truthful. So rules that you think have been established can be broken as long as it’s actually following a different set of rules that you didn’t realise was the set in play. Comedy is to me the shifting from the pattern you think you’re on to the pattern you’re actually on.
J: Yes. And also with a journey that makes sense. So if you took a French farce and you put in scene 2 what happens at the very end, it would be too much because it would be too sudden. The whole situation needs to build and it’s not until you get halfway through Act 2 and you go “hang on, where did we start?” So you’ve been carried along on the journey.
S: Because if the audience doesn’t understand the action that’s going on, it’s meaningless. As a writer, you can in theory explain everything that’s happening, and everything that’s happening can be consistent, but if you haven’t explained it in a way that an audience can understand, then it’s not going to be effective.
Or if it’s so abstract that an audience has to think about it and by the time they’ve thought it through they’ve missed the next scene, you have a problem because you’re still not giving them all the information that they need.
As a performer I think one of the dangers, in addition to keeping things so much on the surface that they aren’t exploring all the layers of truth of the moment, is sometimes that performers will go so internal that they themselves will be experiencing all the emotions but it’s not broadcasting out, it’s not translating to an audience.
Writing a song
J: When you’re writing a song do you have a particular character in mind, do you have a singer in mind, do you have a situation, do you have a line that you go “I’ve just got to build something around that” – how does it work?
S: For me, every song starts with a problem to solve. And you can start with any problem. The more problems to solve, in some sense, the better. So sometimes it’s this singer has asked for a song, that singer has a killer belt and is not great with patter, so where do we go from there? Sometimes I’ve heard a singer’s voice and I would love to write for that particular thing that singer does.
Or sometimes it’s a situation in a show – we need to get a character from point A to point B, and there’s a theme hanging around that we’d like to touch on. Sometimes Derek has a great melody, what are we going to do with it? So for example we just wrote a song recently called What Do You Do With Your Arms.
J: I’ve just seen it, I love it.
S: Well thank you. It actually came up in conversation with a friend. She was talking about her anxiety in crossing a room at a party. And I said “Sure, the problem is what do you do with your arms”. And we realised that we both had that same kind of fear. It was clear that there was a song.
And I talked earlier about repetition… the repetition in that song is inherent because you go through a possible list of what you can do with your arms, you go through the list of other body parts that you know what to do with, but you always keep coming back to the problem of what do you do with your arms.
So the repetition is very clear, and it lays itself out as a song in which you’re going to state the problem, move away from it, explore this possibility and come back to the problem.
J: As a lyricist how do you feel when your lyrics are set to a particular rhythm?
S: I think that rhythm is really the meeting ground between lyrics and music. It’s the thing that Derek and I spend probably the most time on – we both need to sign off on a rhythm before the song can move forward. So I would say the lyrics AND the music can’t get too far before we’ve figured out what the rhythm’s going to be.
J: I’m curious because – when you’re working with actors who sing, rather than musical theatre singers, one of the biggest problems they have is that they want to do the script in their own timing, and I have to tell them they can’t. Because there is a melody there, there’s a rhythm there, there is a speed there, and there are gaps there that have been put in.
S: And we write a lot of that stuff into our songs. I think there are a lot of songs that have flexibility in terms of rhythm and there are a lot of songs that don’t. I think a lot of what we do is almost operatic in that respect. In a lot of our songs there’s almost always a dialogue with the piano or orchestra which provides another voice. And that makes it difficult to alter rhythms and phrasing too much, although sometimes it works. My attitude is we know that we have makes sense, and if people want to alter it, they should at least know what we have and make a conscious choice to alter it, and if it works better, or as well, that’s great.
J: How accurate do your singers need to be? How much leeway do you allow them and how finicky are you about people doing exactly what you’ve written?
S: It really varies from song to song and moment to moment. We’re always on the lookout to make discoveries about interpreting our songs. And in fact things that singers have done quite frequently make their way into the actual score. There are a lot of things we’ve heard work, a lot of different things. We’re very open to that.
In groove-based and rhythm-based passages it’s hard to alter the rhythms too much, There are a lot of places where I think singers ultimately can find more freedom if they stick to certain rhythms than if they don’t. But I also think there are lots of place for melodic exploration, even rhythmic exploration. So I’m afraid my answer’s a little bit hazy, but it really depends on the situation.
J: I’m now going to press you on lyrics. Can people change lyrics?
S: Oh. Yes, if it works.
J: If it works.
S: So for instance I don’t think it would be strange if we mention a specific New York location and someone who’s in a different town or a different country wants to change the location. If it’s a funny location or if it makes sense, if it’s a real translation then sure. Usually in my experience people change lyrics when they don’t remember the correct ones!
I’m a stickler for conjunctions. Don’t change an “and” for a “but”, or an “or” to an “and”. There’s a specific reason that conjunction is there.
J: OK, what’s the difference between “and” and “but”?
S: “And” is tough because it can have a lot of different meanings. “But” means although I’ve said this, there’s this other side.
S: And “And” is often adding on oh I forgot to tell you this, it’s plus things are even worse… it takes things a step further in a different way. “But” is the counter.
J: Well the implication of “but” for me is whatever I’ve just said isn’t quite true.
S: Yes, right. Or it’s part of the truth.
J: But not the important bit! The important bit comes after the “but”.
S: Often what I’m telling myself is the first part. And what is actually happening is the second part. And “so” implies what I’ve told you is the reason that I’m going to say or do what follows. They’re all very different things, and sometimes it can totally change the meaning of a song, sometimes it fuzzes over the meaning of a moment. Those conjunctions are to me very important and very carefully arrived at. And occasionally if you want to change a “yet” to a “but” I’m not going to quibble, but usually it’s because people aren’t paying attention, or not being fully absorbed in the song.
J: So you’ve written a song, you put it on its feet with a singer, and they go “that vowel sound, that consonant cluster, is really hard on that note”. Would you change it?
S: Absolutely. When we’re developing a new song, and development for us is really a 6-month to a year-long process, we’ll make little changes in songs. Sure, we’ll present them, we’ll perform them, but we’ll be making little changes for a long time. And if it’s a new song that’s only been sung a few times, and a singer is having trouble with a vowel, we appreciate them letting us know that’s hard to sing. Or a consonant cluster. And we’ll absolutely look at that and change the note, or the rhythm, or the words. Singers are usually right about that. It’s definitely an important part of the development process. The singer is maybe the most important collaborator in a song.
J: That’s been great – thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with us.
S: Thank you so much for helping us spread the word about our trip and featuring us.
Sam Carner and Derek Gregor will be in the UK March 24 2013 for their show Sing But Don’t Tell at the London Hippodrome, organised by Jeremy’s client Mark Rice-Oxley
You can find our more about the music and lyrics of Carner and Gregor on their webinar www.carnerandgregor.com
Sections of this transcript were first published in Vocal Process eZINE 60. Remember to register for the Vocal Process eZINE to stay up to date.