Have you ever found yourself staring blankly at a musical theatre score, intending to begin analysis, but find yourself at a loss of where to begin? Perhaps you've been cast in this particular role and hope that the music can teach you more about your character. Perhaps you're a director seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the work before diving into rehearsals. Or maybe you're just a musical theatre fan looking for a deeper connection to a work you know and love. Whatever the case, you may have found (as I often have) that the prospect of launching straight into score study can be daunting. Where do you even begin?
Well, one of the best and easiest questions to ask yourself at the start of your score study is this — why is this moment set to music? Ask yourself, why this scene? Why not that one? What is it about this particular moment that inspired the composer? With this in mind, let's take a look at a simple but revealing scene in Maury Yeston's Titanic.
Titanic is a show with many moving parts. As composer Maury Yeston and librettist Peter Stone set out to write a compelling musical surrounding the infamous disaster, they made an interesting narrative choice. Rather than choose a single character as the lens through which we, the audience, view the sinking, Yeston and Stone focused on a number of overlapping storylines. There is no single protagonist in Titanic. Instead, we are given glimpses of many different lives — first, second, and third class passengers, various crew members, the chairman of the White Star Line, even the Captain. With such a wide narrative lens, each individual scene carries even more weight since each character has a limited amount of time on stage to tell their story. The scene we're going to look at today concerns second class passengers Alice and Edgar Beane.
Victoria Clark and Bill Buell sing "I Have Danced" on the original Broadway cast recording of Titanic.
"I Have Danced" is a quiet but emotional moment between husband and wife, as social climber Alice voices her frustrations with her husband Edgar's lack of ambition. Alice yearns for the elegant life of the first class — the social graces, the carefree holidays at grand beach resorts — and finds it difficult to accept that this world is, as Edgar puts it, beyond their income. Take a look at the lyrics below.
I have danced with the first class, Edgar!
It was oh, such a dream come true!
That class isn't for our kind, Alice...
That won't do!
There are hotels on islands, Edgar!
Great resorts near a sandy beach...
That's a world that's beyond our income
and our reach...
Please don't tell me never
I'll want this forever ... ever ....
There's a new world around us Edgar
Won't you ever give up that view?
I want more than we've got now, Edgar
Why don't you?
One of the first things to note here is how short it is. That text above us? That's it. Those are all the lyrics. Also worth noting is the conversational aspect of the text. With the exception of a few rhymes, the lyrics here are natural enough that you could easily envision this as a spoken scene. In fact, although you can't hear it on the original cast recording, there's actually quite a bit of spoken dialogue in between the sung phrases above. All of which leads us back to our original question — why set this scene to music? Why bother with music if you plan to intersperse spoken dialogue among the sung text? Why take a small moment such as this and draw it out with music?
There are two compelling reasons why composer Maury Yeston may have wanted to set this scene to music — first, to transform a relatively quiet marital moment into something more significant and second, to give us a deeper understanding of character. The music here certainly accomplishes the first objective with ease. Remember, the text of the piece is remarkably conversational. Had this scene been set as dialogue, it would perhaps have felt less significant in the larger narrative of the show. Allowing the couple to play out their marital struggles with a musical underscoring elevates the moment. It also allows the audience to dwell in this particular moment a little longer. By drawing out the scene with musical scoring, Yeston is also giving us the opportunity to really focus on each line of text. It is a gift to both the actors and the audience when you are given the opportunity to really lean into a moment this way.
The second potential reason for adding music to this scene is even more intriguing, particularly for the actor or director. By setting the scene to music, Yeston provides some interesting insight into Alice's motivations. Let's take a closer look at the score to see what we can learn.
One of the first things to notice here is the time signature. "I Have Danced" is in 3/4 time — a waltz. A tempo marking at the beginning of the piece reads "With great gentleness." Combined, this is a sweet nod to Alice's state of mind. She is blissfully reliving the glorious moment when she danced with the first class, indulging her fantasies of social elevation to the backdrop of a graceful waltz. The music here is actually much more elegant than Alice herself. Let's not forget that Alice is an unsophisticated and brash mid-westerner. Such is the intensity of her desire that for a moment her musical language reflects her elegant vision of life among the social elite rather than the reality of Alice's firmly middle class life.
Another interesting aspect of "I Have Danced" is the way in which Yeston manipulates the key signature. The piece begins in C Major, but Alice modulates to B♭ Major at "There are hotels on islands" and to A minor at "Please don't tell me never." She then returns to C Major at "There's a new world around us, Edgar." A few things to note here. First, the modulations (key changes) are always triggered by Alice. Edgar never changes the key himself. Further, it's important to recognize that each key change is prompted by a specific moment in the text. When Edgar tries to persuade Alice that first class isn't for them, she refuses to listen. She pivots the key away, dodging reality as it were, and continues describing her idyllic life among the first class. Edgar will not be deterred. He reasons with Alice a second time. Alice changes the key again, but this time she modulates to a minor key. "Please don't tell me never," she sings. The minor key here clearly reflects her state of mind. The idea that this dream may be unattainable is distressing. The shift from major to minor underlines that anxiety. However, Alice will not be that easily deterred. She returns to C Major for the more hopeful "There's a new world around us, Edgar." She's still trying to convince him. But note, even though Yeston has given the impression of a continually modulating piece of music, we actually end up back right where we started in C Major. This conversation isn't going anywhere productive.
So where do Edgar and Alice stand at the end of the piece? Well, the melody might give us a hint. For this, we'll need some more music theory. The most stable note of any key is called the tonic. In C Major, that note is a C. In B♭ Major, the tonic is a B♭. You get the idea. Conventionally, at least a few of these phrases should end on the tonic as this gives the listener a satisfying sense of conclusion. However, throughout "I Have Danced," both Alice and Edgar studiously avoid the tonic. Phrases that should end on the tonic instead end on the mediant (the third note of the scale) or the dominant (the fifth note of the scale). Alice finishes the very last phrase of the piece on the dominant rather than the tonic. In theory terms we call this an imperfect authentic cadence. The piece still ends on a C Major chord, but it's not quite as satisfying with the melody up on the G rather than the tonic C.
Why does any of this matter? Because Yeston has essentially written the subtext of the scene straight into the music. The melody is just slightly off. It never resolves the way we, the listeners, want it to. In this way, Yeston reflects the reality of the situation. Alice and Edgar are unable to reach a resolution. Neither is willing to compromise their point of view. The lack of a stable tonic resolution helps us to better understand that conflict. In the end, the missing resolution is more distressing to the audience than it is to the characters. We know what Alice and Edgar do not — that the impeding disaster and the threat is holds, particularly for Edgar, may separate them before they are able to resolve their issues.
"I Have Danced" is a quiet moment in a show with an unusually wide narrative lens. It might have been easily overlooked as a spoken scene, but set to music, Yeston is able to layer the conversation with poignant subtext. Through the music we can observe Alice's initial naivety, her mulish resistance to Edgar's logical assertions, her bitter disappointment, as well as Edgar's staunch and steady commitment to reason, and perhaps most importantly we can better understand how the two relate to one another. There is a quiet tension building in this relationship, a tension that resonates throughout the music. That's the beauty of musical scoring and part of what makes musical theatre so attractive as an art form — the ability to peer into the inner lives of a character through the marriage of music and lyrics.