Understanding Musicals Part 2 – Song & Subtext

Song and subtext

Musical theatre, more than any other genre, relies on a moment-by-moment portrayal of the character’s thoughts and actions. Every successful performance of a musical theatre song has a subtext – the thoughts and emotions that lie behind the character’s words. Singing the same words but changing the subtext can alter the emotion, atmosphere, and even the purpose of the song. Follow the instructions in these next two exercises to experience changing the subtext to change the song:

Exercise 1

Experiment with changing the character’s underlying thought. Sing the following sentences (from Chicago and Les Misérables respectively) using the following subtexts.

“Come on babe, why don’t we paint the town, and all that jazz.”

  1. ‘I’m very experienced, and I can give you a great time’ (assertive, inviting).
  2. ‘Don’t keep me waiting, I get angry if I’m kept waiting’ (aggressive, bullying).
  3. ‘I need to score right now, can’t you just let me have a little till payday?’ (desperate, anxious)

or use this song, set in a café,

“Empty chairs at empty tables”

  1. ‘I’m a waiter and I won’t get any tips. Again’ (resigned).
  2. ‘I’m late for the match, and they’ve gone off without me’ (stressed).
  3. ‘The café is strewn with the dead bodies of my friends, and I’m the only one left alive’ (shocked, numb).

Notice the differences between the three versions in each case. What did you have to do to portray the differences – tempo, tonal colour, dynamic range? Did you change the way you moved between the words or notes – more slides, more clipped, lazier?

Exercise 2

What happens if you change the words of a song but keep the general meaning of the sentence?

In the Phantom duet “All I Ask of You”, Christine sings the following: “Say you love me every waking moment, turn my head with thoughts of summertime”.

  1. Discuss the phrases chosen by the lyricist – what is special about ‘turn my head’, and why does Christine want ‘thoughts of summertime?’
  2. Discuss whether the language suits the period (19th-century Paris) and the situation (lovers’ meeting).
  3. How would you express this in your own words? Find a modern-day situation where this might happen. For example, texting a boyfriend: “Tell me you think about me all the time – I would love you if you shared your feelings with me.”
  4. Sing the musical phrase, inserting your own version of the words (the rhythms will change).
  5. Go through the same four points using Raoul’s words to the same music: “Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime. Let me lead you from your solitude.”


The world of musical theatre

The world of musical theatre contains a wide range of styles, both musical and vocal. It is text-based and strong on plot. The composition style is closely aligned with the shape of the spoken word, and is often monosyllabic (long phrases on one word are far less common in musicals than in opera or oratorio). Dramatically, the musical can cover any theatrical genre from frothy comedy to dark tragedy. Themes are often contentious, and the plot will often include contemporary issues. Harmonically, the musical tends to reflect current popular trends, although there are exceptions that hark back to previous musical styles.

Prevalent vocal styles have arisen from two directions. Since the vast majority of performers who work in the genre have trained first as actors, the emphasis is on text and character (unlike opera, where the emphasis is on voice and musicianship). Therefore the singing style has developed from the desire for textual comprehension rather than beauty of tone. In addition, composers of musicals have embraced popular music genres, and songs can contain a number of different influences including rap, fusion and rock, as well as classical.

Marketing and finance are an essential part of the equation, and creators of musicals will often seek out ways of increasing their revenue – writing songs that can be released as singles, or engaging celebrities to appear in key roles. It is a young genre, but one that has developed extremely quickly, with a vast body of work created within the last 80 years.

If you’re a working actor/singer needing an audition song for a specific show in a hurry, it’s possible to change the subtext of your current favourite song to fit the context of the show you’re auditioning for. If you’re not sure how to get the most out of your songs book a coaching session with me – it’s one of my favourite things to do here

Or to find out more about how we help actors explore and change subtext in a Musical Theatre song, watch our Mastering Musical Theatre masterclass in the Learning Lounge online