She Loves Me and the Musical Question Mark
What with the recent Broadway revival starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi, I feel like She Loves Me is at peak popularity right now. And with good reason! The characters are complex, the score is gorgeous, and the book is beautifully structured. (My husband likes to tease me that "structure" is my favorite buzzword and that it's only a matter of time before the "s" word comes up in one of my musical theatre lectures. But you know what, structure is IMPORTANT.) There's a reason that She Loves Me works so well as a musical play, and it's because every little moment is perfectly placed within the framework of the story. If you don't believe me, get your hands on a copy of the script and read the opening scene. There is not a single throwaway line. Every bit of dialogue is either highlighting an important character moment or establishing a relationship or setting up a potential conflict. Exposition is HARD, but She Loves Me librettist Joe Masteroff does it incredibly well. The book is succinct, intelligent, and heartfelt, and luckily Bock and Harnick's score is just as brilliant. Let's take a look at "Will He Like Me?" to find out exactly how composer Jerry Bock uses the music to complement the text.
Here's the situation: Amalia has been writing letters to "Dear Friend," a man that she met through a Lonely Hearts Club. But although they have written countless letters, they have never actually met in person. (As Amalia explains earlier in the act, "I don't know his name or what he looks like!") Well, now Amalia is finally going to meet "Dear Friend" and naturally there are a lot of thoughts running through her head, foremost among them, "Will he like me?"
It's a pretty simple set-up for a musical number, but the way in which Bock and Harnick approach the music is absolutely brilliant. You see, every note of "Will He Like Me?" is a direct translation of Amalia's conflicted thoughts.
For instance, take a look at the first few lines. Amalia sings, "Will he like me when we meet? Will the shy and quiet girl he's going to see be the girl that he's imagined me to be?" Up until the final four syllables, the melody here oscillates between just two notes: a C and a D. Limiting the number of notes Amalia can access gives this moment a tightness, a sense of strain. She's stuck repeating the same two notes over and over because she's obsessing over this idea. We see this many times throughout the number and each time it occurs in a moment when Amalia is questioning her own self worth: "Will he like the girl he sees?" "Will he like me? Who can say?" "Will he like me? I don't know."
Typically, actresses have approached the opening bars of "Will He Like Me?" with a very free sense of rhythm. This is a performance technique known as rubato. Tempo Rubato actually means "stolen time" and that's exactly what this is. You slow the tempo down in one place only to speed up in another. This give and take with the rhythm can allow greater opportunity for expression. Listen to Laura Benanti's rendition (left) to get a nice sense of how a bit of rhythmic freedom in the opening bars can enhance the performance.
Outwardly, Amalia may be a bundle of nerves, but deep within, she is a woman full of life and warmth and affection. Fittingly Bock allows Amalia's warmth to shine through as she sings, "Will he know that there's a world of love waiting to warm him?" I want you to compare this phrase to what came before. The difference is striking. Previously she was tense and bottled up, but now she has expanded her range to a full octave (a far cry from her two-note musical rut at the beginning). The music has blossomed into this gorgeous, sweeping melody that perfectly captures Amalia's great capacity for love. The music and text are in perfect accord.
And we're not done yet. Bock again demonstrates his text-painting skills in the bridge of "Will He Like Me?" Amalia sings, "When I am in my room alone and I write..." and it's as though the accompaniment has followed her train of thought. What we're hearing is not a reflection of Amalia's secret inner passion or her unrelenting self-doubt. This is Amalia becoming increasing flustered, and her anxiety is reflected in the fluttery arpeggios of the orchestra.
But wait, there's more! One of the more brilliant things that Bock has done here has to do with how he treats the harmony. Bear with me because you're about to get a crash course on chords. A melody is a series of notes all one after the other. A harmony is what you get when you play a bunch of notes all at once. And more often than not, these harmonies are organized into chords. A standard chord has three notes, all roughly a third apart. Well, at crucial moments in "Will He Like Me?" Bock chooses to highlight notes that are outside the harmony. For example, take a look at the opening phrases again. "Will he like me when we meet? Will the shy and quiet girl he's going to see be the girl that he's imagined me to be? Will he like me?" That final "me" ends on a C, but it's a C played against a Gm7 chord. A G minor chord has a G, B♭, and D (and here we also have an F thrown on top for fun). G, B♭, D, F. Do you see any C's in there? No? That's exactly the point. Amalia has landed on a note that doesn't belong in the chord. This is the musical equivalent of a question mark. And it happens over and over again throughout the piece. It's a fantastic example of a composer that's really paying attention to the relationship between text and music.
True to form, "Will He Like Me?" finishes on another musical question mark. Only this time, it involves a Major 7th chord and they way Bock has treated the tonic. What is the tonic, you ask? Well, when you're listening to a piece of music, I bet you can instinctively tell when you've come to the end of a phrase. It probably sounds more "complete" to you. Congrats! You have recognized the tonic. All the notes in a key have various degrees of importance, but the tonic is the most important note. Well, "Will He Like Me?" is written in F major so its tonic is an F. HOWEVER, not a single phrase in this number ends on a F. That's not a coincidence. It's an intentional evasion of the most important note in the key. In a text dominated by questions, it's appropriate that we are denied the aural satisfaction of actually landing on the tonic.
At the very end of the piece, Bock takes this one step further. We are left with an F major seventh chord (itself not as stable as a plain ol' F major chord) and Amalia actually ends up singing the 7th of the chord instead of the tonic. So she ends on an E when according to the rulebook she should be singing an F. It's a gorgeous musical moment. But more than that, it's a perfect snapshot of this moment in time. This is a composer that knows what he's doing. Couple that with an actress who understands the implications of the music, and you get theatre magic.
Laura Benanti sings the final measures of "Will He Like Me?" in the 2016 Broadway revival.