‘Don’t Bury The Story in a Musical’ by David Rohde

Every musical has a story for the audience to enjoy, so don’t bury it on stage.

In the musical Li’l Abner, a rousing chorus number declares the praises of “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” a legendary general whose reputation vastly outstrips his competence. A series of increasingly tricky lyrics using words that rhyme with “corn” – like horn, torn, scorn, and shorn – sets out the ensemble’s case for lionizing General Cornpone as the town hero:

“Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone / old Toot-Your-Own-Horn-pone / Jubilation T. Cornpone / A man who knew no fear!”

Great fun, isn’t it? I’ve never seen a Li’l Abner where the cast wasn’t having a ball.

Now imagine you’re the poor fella who’s stuck in the audience.

The problem is that by the time a show like this is on stage, the lyrics have often so baked themselves into the routine of the cast’s acting and movement that the words other than “Jubilation T. Cornpone” no longer come across. And that’s deadly. In this case, it means that Li’l Abner will come across as “corny” as opposed to what it really is – a send-up of corniness, and a political satire to boot.

Don’t let your show fall into this trap, whether it’s a traditional book musical, a rock opera, or anything in between. Much as many of us love music and dance, the No. 1 mission of any stage production, musical or otherwise, is character and plot – the story, in plain English.

But how do you get there? Every musical theater actor knows that he or she is supposed to pay attention to “diction.” But that’s often too general an instruction. Here are 10 perhaps unexpected ideas to get you thinking along the proper lines.

Sing every character’s line, not just your own.

Well, don’t do that on opening night! But there are many sung lines in shows that are like “jumping rope” and are hard for the audience to catch. This is not just an exercise at home, it’s for real rehearsal time. Say that five characters have individual lines in a row. In rehearsal, all five of you should sing all of the lines consecutively, together. Then break it apart and have everyone sing only his or her own line. You’ll be amazed at how much more clearly everything comes out when each actor has built the “muscle memory” of everyone else’s line into their singing delivery.

The most important harmony line is the one that stays the same.

Wait! Isn’t the most important harmony line the one that moves the most? Maybe, but don’t think like that if you don’t have that line! If your line seems to stay on the same note, take the note and “warm it up” through the line by increasing your volume or vibrato. You’ll see how it surprisingly supports the melody and actually increases comprehension by moving the entire ensemble to an especially beautiful and focused passage. Try it!

Embrace the metrical mistake.


Poor Stephen Sondheim has been kicking himself since 1957 for writing in West Side Story, “Everything free in America / For a small fee in America.” Besides being kind of a lame joke, the adjective “small” is too important to fall on a beat where only an article or preposition belongs. But this one error in an otherwise spectacular lyrical career (not to mention Sondheim’s music!) opened the floodgates for dozens of Tim Rice lyrics that don’t really “fall right” and hundreds of similar examples by other writers that have Oscar Hammerstein continuously turning over in his grave. When you have a word that “falls wrong” I often hear actors subconsciously compromise it away and the whole line washes out. Instead, pretend the meter is exactly right and sing it as if it’s a perfect lyric.

Embrace the unimportant word.

Many lines in musicals are comprehensible to the audience only from the fourth or fifth word of the sentence on, because introductory phrases like “There is a” fall on “upbeats.” Actors unconsciously swallow the beginning of sentences in musicals in a way they would never do in straight plays. Look for all the places in your part where lyrics occur before the downbeat. Fall in love with the words “there,” “the,” “in,” “but,” and “why.” Your friends in the audience who’ve heard the show a hundred times won’t need this, but the general audience member who’s unfamiliar with the show will. It prevents that momentary hesitation in the audience where they have to “go back” and figure out what you sang half a second earlier.

Know where the “T” is accented and where it’s not.

Many musical directors can help you with this. Diction is not always automatic or obvious. “T”s are often accented at the end of words but not in the middle (where they often actually sound like “D”). But even that is a generalization. If you don’t know exactly how to pronounce a word “on stage” rather than in real life, just ask.

Understand the difference between double vowels and double consonants.

Has anyone ever used the word “diphthong” at a vocal rehearsal and you felt out of place? Relax! For some reason, at least in American English, a double-vowel sound is perfectly comprehensible when you don’t emphasize both parts, but a double-consonant sound isn’t unless you separate and emphasize both sounds. “Double vowels” – okay, “diphthongs” – are often represented by one letter in English. In the word “alive” the “i” is actually an ah-ee sound, and you can linger on “ah” and the audience still knows what’s coming. But double-consonant words – think words like “smile,” “plan,” “gloat,” and so many others – benefit in rehearsal by separating them and equally emphasizing both consonants, no matter how fast the music is. Of course in performance you won’t actually sing “suh-mile,” “puh-lan,” or “guh-loat.” But if you’ve rehearsed it that way, you’ll be building vocal muscle memory until you’re pasting the word clearly to the back row of the audience!

Watch out for the descending vocal line.

This year’s rage, Legally Blonde: the Musical, has this challenge in spades right at the top of the show. The opening number describes sorority girls celebrating the expected engagement of one of their sisters in sets of four musical lines that start high and go down:

Omigod, omigod you guys / Looks like Elle’s gonna win the prize / If there ever was a perfect couple, this one qualifies / Omigod you guys.

But because each of these lines starts with a high note and then goes down, which subconsciously reduces vocal focus, it’s very easy for these lines to come across to the audience as:

“Omigod, omigod you guys / Something something something that rhymes with guys / Something something else that rhymes with guys / Omigod you guys.”

The solution is to rehearse the first occurrence of this line, and many lines with similar rhymes, the way it actually occurs once later in the song: by breathing in deeply, then whispering the first half of each line while expelling very little breath, then rising in volume and diction for words like “gonna win the prize” or “this one qualifies.” By the way, if you haven’t seen any of the 47 (or so) productions of Legally Blond in the Washington area this year, come see mine, opening October 12 in the theater at Reston Community Players in the Reston Community Center.

Use the old Gilbert & Sullivan trick of starting fast passages slightly slower than you think they should go.

The legendary Gilbert & Sullivan “patter song” actor Martyn Green (1899-1975) often told the story of how people expressed amazement about how fast he could sing. He responded that he didn’t really sing all those words that fast. It’s just that he (and the orchestra) speeded up at the end so that the audience thought the whole passage went that fast! The bonus: Everybody understood every word.

Clear the air

Each of our region’s dozens and dozens of traditional and unusual performance spaces has a unique atmosphere. Both the human voice and musical instruments have “decay,” meaning an extra split second of sound after the note stops being generated. But decay varies depending on the house. As silly as this may seem, go out in your theater’s house and sing and listen for the decay of your voice (and then double it if you’re going to have a body mike). No doubt there are times in your part where you can let that extra split second “hang” in the air to let the audience’s ear “breathe,” so to speak, before you go to the next line.

Beg, borrow or bribe Stan Harris or Kevin Garrett to do the sound design for your show.

None of the above will help much if the sound design in your house is wrong! A great sound designer understands the tripod of sound needs – how the audience hears the show, how the cast hears the orchestra, and how the orchestra hears the cast. Stan Harris has fixed multiple theaters in Virginia, and in particular has worked miracles (including rock shows!) at the tiny Industrial Strength Theater in Herndon where the Elden Street Players perform. Kevin Garrett has turned the wonderful old Armory in Old Town Kensington, where Kensington Arts Theatre performs, from one of the worst places to hear a musical into one of the best. Embrace these guys!

Granted, not every lyrical challenge can be easily conquered. If you are fated to sing the Tim Rice line from the song “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess that goes: “Tea girls, warm and sweet / Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham Suite,” nothing I or anyone else can say increases your chance of getting this ridiculously showoff-y play on words across to the average audience member. But most “story” challenges in musicals – whether frothy or serious – have solutions. Besides a few tricks, just keep hearing the show from the audience’s perspective. Trust me, you’ll see it in the audience’s eyes after the show – comprehension turns a musical from being merely “impressive” into being something that moves people. It’s all a matter of focus!

David Rohde. Photo by Stuart Hill.

BIO: David Rohde has conducted numerous musicals in the Washington area, from musical comedy classics like My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls to the dark and heavy like Jekyll & Hyde and Sweeney Todd. David enjoys vocal and instrumental arranging, piano accompaniment for solo singers, specialized keyboard work in orchestra pits, and watching young actors and musicians he’s worked with in the area’s community theaters “make it” when they pursue a performing arts career. David is a two-time recipient and five-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Musical Direction. Most recently he served as musical director for Kensington Arts Theatre’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, recipient of the 2012 Ruby Griffith Award for All-Around Production Excellence.


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