I've been doing a lot of improvised musical theater lately, and I'm noticing a weird bent we improvisors have towards 'argument songs'.
What's an argument song?
Let me explain what I mean by an argument song.
Say your troupe has started in on "Lost Puppy: the Musical." You have a scene between Katherine and Thomas. Katherine starts a song about puppies. Katherine sings a verse about how wonderful puppies are. She finishes verse one. Then Thomas steps forward, gets Katherine's attention, and delivers the next verse -- something to the effect of: "Oh, yeah? I think puppies are awful!" Maybe they hit a chorus after that, do another verse each, a chorus repeat, and then song is done.
In my experience, this sort of duet happens all the time in improvised musicals, but only infrequently in scripted musicals. And it always feels 'off' to me, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. So, I write an essay, because that's how I think.
The Paucity of Argument Songs in Scripted Musicals
People on my friendslist know more about musicals than I am. Heck, a dozen of them are *appearing* in musicals in the coming month. So I'm sure they can think of examples of scripted numbers that are 'argument songs' as described above.
But me, I can't come up with any.
If you want to track down such songs in the repertoire, it turns into this big musical Drake equation as you gradually winnow down what you're looking for to nothing.
Let's start with all the musical-theater songs in the world, and try to figure out which ones match the 'argument songs' we see all the time in improvised musicals.
Okay, for starters, most numbers aren't duets. Most songs in musical theater are solo songs: one person, expressing one feeling, in one moment. Maybe they have a chorus backing them up, but it's still just that one person commanding our attention.
Of the duets, most of those duets concern characters who are in accord. Two lovers sing about how in love they are. Two rapscallions sing about all the trouble they'll cause. Most duets are about joining. (See also: "Money" from Cabaret.)
Alright -- let's look at that small remaining fraction of songs that are duets, and that are *not* about joining.
First off, many of those non-joining songs are not really about *conflicting*, either. Some are songs like "Barcelona" (from Company), which sets natural conversation to music without either side declaiming verses about how they disagree with the other. There are also songs where multiple characters simultaneously sing their state of mind, again without declaiming their differing attitudes at each other. I've read that "Bella figlia dell'amore" from Rigoletto is a notable example of this.
So, okay, now we've narrowed the search down to the songs that should be exactly what we're looking for: songs that depict arguments, songs like "Therapy" from Tick, Tick... Boom! or "Confrontation" from Les Misérables
Now I shall say something that sounds crazy and stupid: those few songs in scripted theater that *do* depict arguments are fundamentally different from these 'argument scenes' I see (and, yes, often do) in improvised musicals.
Here's the thing: a song that depicts an argument in a scripted musical actually *feels like an argument.* You look at "Therapy" and get this sinking feeling in your gut that you've had that conversation with someone. The lyrics of "The Confrontation" would, but for the rhyming, feel at home in the script for a melodrama.
These are songs where the characters are (1) addressing each other directly, (2) singing about each *other* and not some abstract feeling, and (3) reacting to each other (instead of extemporizing on some abstract feeling). They also have a very conversational rhythm in the way they go back and forth. Even though both "Therapy" and "The Confrontation" start out trading verses, they quickly go into counterpoint, unlike the strict verse-trading of 'argument songs'.
Why don't we see 'argument songs' in scripted musicals?
First, let me back up a moment and talk about recitiative versus aria. These are the two types of vocal music you'll hear in an opera.
Recitative is like dialog. It's not very melodic. It's typically unrhymed. It's loosely structured (if it's structured at all). Lines fly back and forth between characters, in fits and starts. Time moves forward, and plot churns along.
Arias are the opposite of all of this. Time stops. Plot stops. A single moment expands, and a singer takes several minutes to explore one attitude, one emotion, one sensation. Arias are much more melodic, much more structured... much more song-y. If you can hum a melody from an opera, it's probably from an aria.
In musical theater, we can find songs that are analogs of both types. We can have a song like "Barcelona", where time passes, plot moves, multiple characters sing, and their singing is actually dialog. These are closer to recititive. And we can have a song like "Finishing the Hat", where it explores one moment in one person's head. These are closer to arias.
What you don't see are songs that split the difference. If you improvise a song that falls between two stools -- if it feels kind of like recitative and kind of like an aria but not really either -- it won't match up to anything in the repertoire. It'll feel 'off' -- like it's more of an improv game than a song from a real musical.
Why don't 'argument songs' work?
"But," you could say, "just because it's unprecedented in the repertoire doesn't mean it's bad."
I would stop you there, and point out that no, mismatching your chosen genre is bad in and of itself. But I would understand your point: maybe the 'argument song' *is* a little weird and off-putting to the audience, but hey, maybe it works anyway.
But I don't think that's the case, either.
See, I think scripted musicals never split the difference between recitative and aria for *good reason*.
To get to what that 'good reason' is, let me talk about 'aria songs' again. I think the default song-type for a musical-theater number is the 'aria song'. Why? Because a performer takes that aria song out to the audience. You stop the plot churn for a moment, and you direct the fullest expression of your feeling out to the paying theatergoers. Katherine sings about puppies, and she gives herself completely to that emotion, and she gets every person in the house thinking about puppies they love.
A 'recititative song' is a different beast. The characters direct their energy not towards the audience, but to each other. You lose audience *inclusion*. So there had better be something really, really good to replace it. You'd better have something like the crackling tension of "The Confrontation" or the slow, beautiful conversational rhythms of "Barcelona" to make up for it.
"Recititative songs" are relatively rare in musical theater, possibly for that very reason: it's just damned hard to get the audience to buy into a song where they're not allowed to share it. There has to be something dazzling there. I don't know if I've ever seen one done well in improv. (This may be why improvisors are told never to do them.)
So how does an audience respond to an 'argument song'?
Well, it's not an 'aria song' -- it's not directed out at the audience, and it's not devoted to exploring one single emotion in detail. So you've lost that audience *inclusion*. But have you found anything to replace it with? There's no high-intensity confrontation, or rapid interplay. Both singers just proffer explanations of different attitudes, like polite debaters. There's no attempt to simulate conversational rhythm. They just get this vague song that doesn't commit to conveying a feeling to the audience, and doesn't commit to showing sharp interplay between characters.
I posit that the audience is kind of bored.
But the audience exclusion isn't the only problem here -- there are structural problems, as well.
Consider the following: Katherine sings a verse about how much she loves puppies; then, Thomas sings a verse about how much he hates puppies. If Katherine and Thomas know anything about song structure, verse one and verse two will have the same structure, the same harmonies, the same melody, the same tempo... do you see the problem yet?
The problem is that identical music won't support opposite feelings.
Okay, maybe you think you're a genius, and you can *make* it work ("Hey, love is really similar to hate, deep down, right?") -- all I can say is, this structural flaw has hobbled every 'argument song' I've heard. If verse one works, then verse two, attempting the opposite emotion, will fail. Or maybe all the musical choices are bland, and hooray, you get a verse that kinda-sorta supports both attitudes. But ye gods, who wants to sing *that* song? (Hint: not me.)
Side note: this may be why the argument songs I've heard in scripted musicals are so much about the characters' attitudes towards *each other*. If both Katherine and Thomas are singing "I hate you I hate you I hate you", then the same verse underpinnings can support both statements.
The last problem I want to point out is that an 'argument song' invariably feels like a block. When Katherine starts her song about puppies, I-as-an-audience-member understand what I'm seeing and hearing in the context of what I know about musicals. I've heard plenty of 'aria songs' before. So I settle in for a good three-minute number about the general cuteness of tiny little doglets.
When Thomas comes in for verse two, even if the two players are totally on the same wavelength, it *feels* to me like a block. It feels like Thomas has muscled in on Katherine's song, and said, "No, we're not doing what you had wanted to do." It feels like a song that started out as an ordinary 'aria song' is now something different, an 'argument song'.
The song changed midway.
I would argue that this structural shift is analogous to making verse two sharply different from verse one, or singing a chorus and never bringing it back. It makes the song feel like it's no longer of a single, solid piece. It doesn't feel the way composed songs do, with a regular structure applying throughout. Instead, it's a little more chaotic and fumbly -- a quality that makes the audience focus more on your effort and less on your song.
So why do we keep doing them?
I've started becoming uncomfortable, myself, with these 'argument songs'. If I'm Thomas (in our running example), and Katherine just finished her first verse, I'll just sit back, mouth firmly closed, and let Katherine sing the rest of "Puppy Love". But the expectation for an argument-song is so great among improvisors that there's this weird lurch after verse one, a slack moment where the Katherine expects me to step in with contradiction.
Why do we keep improvising 'argument songs' if they don't quite work?
I think part of it is how we're trained. There are a lot of improv-singing warmups and exercises where each person onstage will contribute a verse. So it's natural that we'd have an instinct to carry this didactic structure into performance.
But I don't think that's the whole picture.
I think it starts with fear. More specifically, it's fear of the audience. Even more specifically, it's a fear of directing all of a song's energy to the audience. And just one bit more specifically, it's a fear of directing all of a song's energy to the audience in a sustained way, from the start of the song to the end of it.
The audience is scary. Throwing yourself out there and singing every note out at the audience is scarier. And sustaining that attitude for one verse, and then another, and then another... people, this is hard work. It's a serious challenge.
Your troupe is less scary. Given a choice, you'd rather interact with your troupemates than the rowdy, mutinous proles in the seats. Often I'll see a song start out directed, not at the audience, but to another player. Just as often, I'll see a player successfully sing to the audience for one verse, and then lose their nerve, retreat, and catch the eye of another player.
Once you do that, you've broken the 'aria spell'. You're out of that moment, and you're in that plotty, churny zone of recitative. And at that point, I think our instincts as improvisors lead us further astray.
Actually, let me step back a moment: our instincts as improvisors are *always* trying to lead us astray during musical numbers. As improvisors, we want to move the plot along. We want to affect the other characters onstage. We want to exchange dialog.
A typical musical-theater number -- an 'aria song' -- does *none* of those.
Side note: if you want to have some fun, try and get an improvisor to sing a purely *thematic* song -- just a song about rain, or sadness, or a deserted street, all *without mentioning any characters, including themselves*. It will drive them bat-guano-insane. The times I've tried to do this, I've had to consciously turn off the part of my brain that does improv, and try to access the part of my brain that writes essays. The improv brain strays resolutely into action-y, "And now take my friend to the grocery" territory. (For the record, I still botch the exercise horribly.)
So basically, all of us improvisors are primed for *ruining* an aria song. We're like a hand-cranked jack-in-the-box on its penultimate note. That eye contact from the aria singer is enough to send us into improv-mode. "OMG Katherine is singing at me I must respond and I must respond with conflict and I must try to change Katherine's mind about puppies and I must tell her how much I hate them."
Then, we get into an argument, verse by verse.
So what do we do about this?
... and this 'we' includes me. I'm as guilty as anyone I know of every problem I've listed above.
I suppose the first step to address this is what I'm doing here: describing the problem and seeing if I'm not on crack. I suspect much of my above blathering is dead wrong. Fortunately, I have a slew of friends who know far more about musical theater than I ever will, so maybe they can sanity-check me.
If what I'm saying makes sense, it might be that making improvisors aware of the issue is enough.
If it's not enough, then we can probably fix the problem by directing more songs out to the audience, or perhaps by practicing those fiendishly-difficult impersonal/thematic songs. It might also be interesting to try practicing full-on recititative-style numbers, songs that fully commit to conversational rhythms and/or bitter, interpersonal conflict. ("See? If you're going to interact with other players during a song, do it like *that*.")
Maybe 'recititative songs' are just too difficult to improvise. If they *are* too difficult, then we won't do them. And ideally, we won't halfway-do them, either.
 I'm picking names of siblings, not improvisors. :)
 I don't know how Sondheim wrote "Barcelona", but I suspect it involved a deal with Satan.
 For non-improv friends: "blocking" is when one performer denies something that another character has set up. A very simple example would be, "Here's an apple, Dave." / "That's not an apple! It's a penguin!" But blocking can be more subtle, like refusing to play along with a scene's genre, or not letting an insult have any effect on your character.
 This almost always happens when the singer has crept way upstage, as far from the audience as possible.
 Side note: how often do you see legit, full-length monologs in an improvised narrative longform? I don't recall too many. I suspect it's because we all have a strong instinct towards, "I'm onstage, I'd better be saying something," rather than, "I'll just let this person go for a few minutes."
 In any case, it would be interesting to find out.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none