The multi-character song

An important feature of musical theatre writing (as with operatic writing) is the opportunity for a multi-character song, where several characters to speak at once, portraying different emotions or reactions to situations. Setting multi-character texts to music enables the audience to multi-task, processing different layers of information.

Here are two pieces that demonstrate multiple emotions: Master of the House from Les Misérables, and Prima Donna from Phantom of the Opera.

Master of the House (Les Miserables)

Master of the House is a comedy character duet for Thenadier and Madame Thenadier. In the musical these two characters provide important moments of light relief in an otherwise epic and moral story. This number marks Thenadier’s first appearance, and gives a very strong portrayal of the couple’s situation, their interaction and their aspirations.

Thenadier believes himself to be a good landlord, Madame Thenadier has other ideas. The audience is left in no doubt that the Thenadiers are argumentative (lyrics), basically dishonest (plot, lyrics and orchestration) and charming in their own way (melody and musical style). The simple, highly repetitive tune has the feel of a music hall number: the emotions are strong and clear, the chorus is repeated so that the audience can learn the tune quickly and feel a sense of connection with the characters (even join in the singing), and there is almost a sense of ‘crossing the footlights’ – singing directly to the audience as if the characters know that they are in a theatre.

The verse is a simple A-minor tune, and the accompaniment has a classical feel, with ‘oom-cha’ chords. But the orchestration states that there is something not quite right about the Thenadiers – clashing harmonies using a Bin the offbeat chords, a wailing saxophone in the melodic interjections, and a punchy synthesized bass giving a dirtier feel to the song. The harmonies are simple and straightforward: the verse uses tonic, dominant and subdominant, with the last four bars forming the transition into the major key; the chorus revolves around a tonic/dominant pattern, with the submediant used only in passing towards the end. Note the tempo differences as Thenadier moves between situations – slower (more ingratiating) for greeting new customers, faster for the chorus (whipping up the crowd to support him).

Madame Thenadier’s verse is slower, with a different rhythmic pattern in the accompaniment, and more of the feel of an elephantine Schubert lied. The orchestration under her first chorus is more elegant, with upper woodwind semiquaver patterns giving a slightly more feminine, more educated impression. The final chorus continues with Madame Thenadier interrupting and alternating with the ensemble, and there is an extra four bars of music inserted before the ending – the ‘repetition for emphasis’ rule.

Prima Donna (Phantom of the Opera)

‘Prima Donna’ is a typical multi-character song, a septet for opera singers Carlotta and Piangi, theatre managers Monsieur André and Monsieur Firmin, Visconte Raoul, dancer Meg and ballet mistress Madame Giry. Carlotta has been insulted once too often by the letters from the Phantom, and threatens not to sing. The other six characters react in different ways, reflected in their music.

Lloyd Webber has chosen to set this scene to a stately 19th-century Viennese waltz, such as those written by Johann Strauss II. The distinctive characteristics in this style include sweeping, arching phrases and rich harmonies. The waltz is always in 3/4 time, and the particular Viennese lilt is created in performance by bringing the second beat of the bar in slightly early and delaying the third beat slightly. This pattern in orchestral music is usually only followed for the first few bars of each musical section.

At first glance, the scene appears to be a beautiful and melodic ensemble in praise of Carlotta’s skill as a singer and the magic of opera as an art form. However, under the serene surface there are several interesting characteristics. The managers usually sing together, and Monsieur André stays within the musical style throughout, indicating his more old-fashioned values and his total focus on persuading Carlotta to sing. Monsieur Firmin’s vocal line, however, contains tiny clashes, chromatic passing notes (Bbs against Bs); Firmin is the more pragmatic and resigned of the two managers, and is reluctant to deal with Carlotta’s temperament.

Madame Giry’s line is particularly interesting as it contains several very strong harmonic clashes, including Dbagainst a G minor chord and Db against a C dominant seventh chord. In the vocal writing as in the production, Madame Giry, who knows more than she is telling, is held apart from the other characters.

In the coda, the Phantom interrupts the procedure with a spoken voiceover issuing dire warnings. The orchestration under the singers’ sustained Bb chord highlights the tension by using a church organ sound playing rising and falling chromatic triads. They end on E major, the furthest key from Bb major – in the medieval period the augmented fourth was considered the devil’s interval. The final chord has Carlotta on a high D (the third of the chord in Bb), giving a more triumphant feel, that the singers will win over adversity.

Exercise

Choose a multi-character song from a ‘blockbuster’ musical (‘Cell Block Tango’ from Chicago is a good example) and examine the relationship between the characters in their dramatic context. How much information can we discover about each character? How is this information reflected in the vocal writing and musical style? This exercise can also be used as character research in preparation for performance projects.

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