Songwriting 101: A Lesson from Ahrens and Flaherty
There's such a thing as theatre magic. It's what has drawn each of us to the stage. Sometimes it feels like this intangible thing - a sort of wizardry born of imagination and ingenuity and the collective genius of playwrights, composers, actors, designers, and directors. As actors, sometimes we feel intuitively that an onstage moment works and yet we struggle to comprehend the mechanics behind the magic. Maybe we're hesitant to metaphorically reveal the man behind the curtain (to borrow an image from The Wizard of Oz) or perhaps we haven't been given the right tools to understand the craftsmanship behind those magical theatrical moments, but make no mistake, these moments are more often born of craft and not some undefinable, accidental genius. Moreover, a competent composer or playwright can often create one of these spellbinding experiences with even the smallest of gestures.
To illustrate this, let's look at the work of Ahrens and Flaherty. This lyricist/composer duo doesn't typically go for complex counterpoint or elaborate motivic development in their scores (you can read my analysis of Ragtime if you'd like a more comprehensive discussion of their work), and yet there's a certain sturdiness to any Ahrens and Flaherty collaboration. These are scores built with forethought and a great deal of what I like to call craftsmanship.
Take Once on This Island for instance. Credit where credit is due, Once on This Island is a show that hits all the right beats. We have the classic "I Want" song in just the right position in the first act ("Waiting for Life"), a balanced distribution of songs for featured roles ("Rain," "Human Heart," etc.), well-placed chorus numbers that give the audience a boost of energy at all the appropriate moments, an expressive dance break in the second act for the show's star, the list goes on and on. What all this tells us is that Ahrens and Flaherty have a keen understanding of narrative structure. They are one of those writing teams that rely on technique and an innate understanding of theatre to create those seemingly "magic" moments onstage.
For a perfect example, look no further than "Ti Moune," the heart-wrenching Act I number written for our heroine's parents, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian. Ti Moune has fallen in love with the one of the rich grand hommes of the island, but after Daniel is brought back to his own people, Ti Moune declares that she "will go to him." Her parents, understandably reluctant to allow their only child to risk everything to be with this man, urge Ti Moune to stay. This is one of those dramatic moments that lends itself beautifully to music - two opposing viewpoints, a decision that must be made, a parent's fear for their child weighed against a young girl's passion, a life that hangs in the balance. Ahrens and Flaherty understood the dramatic beats of this scene and wisely, they wrote those beats into the music.
Sheila Gibbs, Ellis E. Williams, and La Chanze in the 1990 Original Broadway Cast Recording of Once on This Island
"Your heart is young," sings Euralie, "New dreams are everywhere. Choose your dreams with care, Ti Moune." It's important to note that the "where" of "everywhere" is held for two measures - that's 8 beats - and then Euralie immediately continues with the next phrase. Got that? Okay, let's see what happens when this same musical idea is repeated later in the piece. At its second appearance Ti Moune takes up the tune, singing, "I know he's there. That's all I need to know," but this time the answering phrase is delayed. We expect to hear those same two measures before moving on to the next phrase, but instead we hear four. That's a total of sixteen beats rather than eight. We've doubled the time it takes to get to the next line.
The next phrase does eventually appear. What was once an admonishment ("choose your dreams with care") is replaced with a very different instruction: "Go and find your love." So why the extra measures? Ahrens and Flaherty have done something brilliant here. They have acknowledged an important dramatic beat - Julian and Euralie's decision to let Ti Moune go - by providing some space in the musical phrasing. They've essentially given the actors the opportunity to live into that moment. Their decision is made in the space between the music.
Not only that, but Ahrens and Flaherty further extend this moment by adding a few extra lines. At its first appearance, "Choose your dreams with care" is followed by one final word ("Ti Moune") and the verse ends. But when the phrase returns, the composers delay that final "Ti Moune" by adding some extra text. Take a look at the two verses side by side.
Phrase 1 Phrase 2
Your heart is young. I know he's there,
New dreams are everywhere. That's all I need to know.
Choose your dreams with care, Go and find your love.
Go and swim the seas.
You know where we'll be.
Always there with me,
Ti Moune. Ti Moune.
Neither of these musical gestures - the lengthening of the space between phrases or the addition of a few extra lines - is particularly earth shattering. Ahrens and Flaherty haven't exactly reinvented the wheel here. And yet, when taken as a whole, this is one of those theatrical moments that works. Ahrens and Flaherty indentified a key dramatic juncture and highlighted that theatrical tension by giving the moment some breadth.
Songwriting isn't easy, that's for sure. But sometimes the mechanics behind the magic are less complex than you would think. For a composer with an understanding of dramatic structure, sometimes recognizing those theatrical beats and giving them room to breathe is all it takes.