Understanding Musicals part 4 – Musical Influences

Musical influences

Even in the 1920s, the merchandise connected with a musical could bring in a large amount of money for the backers. Before cast albums caught on, sheet music of songs from the shows was available in all the large towns. Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan was a street given over to music publishers, who would sell the latest tunes to anyone who visited. Theatregoers would arrive at the offices and instruct one of the resident pianists to play whatever was popular at the time. Historically this is why sheet music songbooks are often in different keys to the ones found in the show – if the amateur pianist could play the accompaniment, it did not matter that the singer could not sing it, hence songs were transposed into keys that were easy to play and read. George Gershwin began his career as a Tin Pan Alley pianist, playing popular songs for hours each day to prospective buyers.

The classic book musical would usually begin with an overture, a medley of sections from each major song, woven into a single orchestral tapestry. This would help the audience to tune into what was about to happen, and introduce them to the new musical ideas incorporated into the show. Mel Brooks’ The Producers, written this century, has revived this tradition.

On a more commercial level, the more a song was repeated during the show, the more likely the audience would remember it and buy the merchandise afterwards. Composers would often bring a melody back in different guises throughout a show. Lady in the Dark (1941), by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, contains one particular song, ‘My Ship’, that appears throughout the show, but is only sung in its entirety once the leading lady has completed her psychoanalysis.

Since the rise of the recording industry, songs are sometimes written for the show but released as singles; occasionally the success of a song released prior to the opening of the musical will create a frenzy of anticipation, and give a new show massive publicity (‘I Know Him So Well’, from Chess, was a UK number one several months before the show opened).

Musical style

Musical theatre tends to reflect contemporary issues or stylistic trends. So, if the plot is retrospective, the perspective may well be contemporary. The music is often influenced by contemporary style. The scores of Lynn Ahrens and of Jason Robert Brown are filled with references to country music or folk rock.

(Jason Robert Brown has written The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World and Parade. Lynn Ahrens has written Seussical, Once On This Island, Lucky Stiff, Ragtime and Anastasia. When writing for the cartoon Anastasia, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens met only three of the screenwriters, and the songs were written before the screenplay had been completed.)


Occasionally a musical will use contrasting styles.

  1. Listen to a recording or DVD of the Disney cartoon Mulan. The film contains two versions of the same song, Reflection. During the story, the song is sung by Lea Salonga, a musical theatre singer and creator of the role of Miss Saigon; during the credits for the cartoon, it is sung by Christina Aguilera, a highly successful pop recording artist, who brings her own style to the song.
  2. Discuss the differences in vocal sound and musical style. What are the stylistic elements of each performance – how do the two singers move between the notes, use volume, pitch-glides (often called ‘licks’ in pop) or add extra notes? What emotions are evoked by each singer?
  3. Discuss possible reasons for Disney using two different performances of the same song. Are both performances valid?

Musical theatre songs can be written as conversational snippets or strong monologues, either talking to someone else or to yourself. The composer Stephen Sondheim is particularly good at setting words in a conversational style. Sondheim has written many musicals including A Little Night Music, Company, Into the Woods and Assassins, and wrote the lyrics for Bernstein’s music in West Side Story.


  1. Ask your students to compose a tune of 16 bars, and to create or find words that fit their melody. Why have they chosen those words? Sample briefs might include buying an item of clothing, asking for a train ticket, or ordering a meal.
  2. Take eight lines of a speech or poem. Using either standard musical or graphic notation or a graphic score, students should sketch out the basic pitch-shape of the speech. Then exaggerate the pitch peaks and troughs and add expression marks (pp, cresc. etc). Ask them to indicate where they would put emotional and/or musical peaks, and where they would place the climax of the text.
  3. Take four lines of a simple conversation that might be heard in a TV soap. Set them to music: example briefs might be gentle conversation between two lovers, an argument between friends, parent and teenager interaction. An alternative is to use phrases that students have heard on the bus, in the canteen, walking down the street.
  4. Take the same four lines of conversation and music, and ask the class to alter the music or timing to change the atmosphere or emotional content of the piece. Examples might be spikier (dotted rhythms), gentler (dynamic markings and rhythmic smoothness), more heated (bigger pitch leaps, faster tempo markings). Discuss what you have to change to create a different atmosphere.
  5. Students should describe a recent event in their life as if they were creating a news item for the TV news. They should aim to make their report factual and unemotional, with description rather than conversation. Ask them to decide how they would set their script to music. What musical style would they use – rap, reggae, waltz, march – and why? What instrumentation would reflect what they want to portray? Would the song have verse and chorus, or be through-composed? Do they want to make the music underline the emotion, or play against it (a comedy song for a serious subject)?


To find out more about how we analyse the musical influences, rhythms and phrase shapes in Musical Theatre songs, watch our Mastering Musical Theatre masterclass online

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