My (soon to be) First Full Musical

Dewey in the lab
Me in my “summer home” at the Lamont music-computer lab.

Hey Dewey, haven’t heard any of the music you’ve written in the past couple of months. What have you been up to?

Great question, convenient, rhetorical friend! Over a year ago, in July, I signed a contract with a Pennsylvanian writer named Ellen to help make the music for her musical titled, “The Pond: A Fairy Tale Gone Horribly Right, A Scientific Hypothesis Gone Horribly Wrong.” My role in this project has evolved over the last year from writing arrangements of existing songs, to writing new music to replace those songs.

So what have I been up? Something I’ve been training for my whole life: writing songs inspired from other music.

Back in high school…

I wrote a number of songs of questionable quality. It was a “Like this status” challenge that obligated me to write individual songs about over 40 people. To get through the high quantity of demand, I found songs I liked (that were arguably related to the person I was writing the song for), and I imitated them. My favorite example was “Hernan: The Man, The Myth, The Legend,” which was inspired by the song “Shout” by Tears for Fears. (Funnily enough, I submitted this song as part of my portfolio that successfully got me into the classical composition program at Carnegie Mellon…)

How does one imitate a song? Well, for this song, I just picked the things I loved about it. It had a looping idea that added a new layer with each phrase. The hook was a quasi-chant. And it had an instrumental bridge in the middle. So I wrote a song with those qualities.

Hernan The Man, The Myth, The Legend – The Bridge into the Final Chorus (I don’t add this to this blog lightly; nobody likes to dig up material from their high school days! But this excerpt is an example of what I’m talking about.)

Now, I’m doing this… professionally?

It’s weird that this thing I did passably in high school is now a professional gig defining an entire summer. And this summer is intense. Some background: we decided in early April that original music was the way to go for this musical. But that was in the middle of a two-term stretch that, at the University of Denver, forces me to tread water very hard to stay above water. So I looked to the summer as my opportunity to kick some life into this project. I saw the need to write 10 major songs, and I had (after a much needed break) 10 weeks to write them in.

How did I approach this fast rate of music output?

Well, I had a great framework to go off of. Ellen had already made the decision about where musical numbers should go, and what type of music fit there. All I had to do was imitate the songs she had already picked. Like I did in high school. But, this time, I’d say I had more tools to work with. And these songs also had to fit into a dramatic, musical context.

Trapped in a Mind with a Friend was my first large scale experience to take someone else’s dramatic vision and capture it musically. I decided to take what I learned there and apply it here. In this show, Ellen had written some animated characters who also had depth, a combination that’s tricky to pull off. It’s easy (especially in musicals) for characters to be caricatures more than people. And the music can swing the scale, wildly, between these two poles

Let’s Look at Rana Glosioso

A seductive frog who knows that she wants in the world. And what she wants is our protagonist, Prince. She’s not just a temptress to sway Prince from his journey’s goal, though. She’s been extremely thoughtful in her decisions that led her to be who we see: she became a frog and decided to continue being a frog; she created her own life around this decision; and she didn’t just flirt with any random frog, she saw Prince and saw why he was the one for her. (That’s all I can say without giving away any more spoilers).

So when she thinks she might not ever be with Prince, is her song grossly melodramatic? No, it’s pensive and heart-wrenching. Sondheim writes that sort of music extremely well. So I studied his score, “Not A Day Goes By,” from Merrily We Roll Along. With every. Tool. I. Have.

Without Getting Too Technical

I played the score on the piano, analyzed the chords, and analyzed the melody. One of the large-scale elements of the song is that he modulates from F-major to G-major, but then doesn’t even end the piece on a G-major chord. It’s something that, theoretically, makes little sense. But to our ears, it’s extremely expressive. Some of his chords don’t make sense in a traditional context and, therefore, are hard to make rules for. Needless to say, Sondheim is very unique. And looking at these elements, it was hard to come up with a way to imitate him without just copying him.

Still, like in high school, I set out with a few goals in mind: modulate to SOME key like Sondheim, use the types of chords as Sondheim (9th chords, suspended chords, maybe throw in an augmented chord), and add in some modal mixture (notes that don’t makes sense in the key, but make sense in a scale related to the key).

(The technical, musical mumbo jumbo is almost done, don’t worry)

Every idea came to me piece by piece. The melody should have long notes to let a countermelody shine through. And with that thought, now I’ve written 4 measures. Sondheim has these yearning triplets that define the song. I should add those, maybe incorporate some modal mixture there. There, 4 more measures I can return to throughout the song. Instrumental breaks show a breaking of emotion into the inexpressible. I should write one. 8 measures.

Well you get the idea (or maybe you don’t, so I guess you’ll have to see the musical when I’m done)

Back in June, as summer was starting, I knew that this project was intense: at least 10 original songs. And I knew that, when school started again, it would be impossible to find quality time I needed to get the product I wanted. The summer was my chance, and I would need to average about a song a week to get it done.

So what have I been doing the past couple month? A LOT of composing that amounts to at least one song a week at 3-4 hours a day, as well as keeping up with other projects (that you will hear about soon). Unfortunately, I won’t be able to share all of this music anytime soon until we get a production going. But keep an eye out for updates on “The Pond”. It’s going to be a fun show to get put on and watch.

– Dewey

Be sure to take a listen to my most recent release, Paranoia in an Illusion (the Trouble with Eyes) for wind ensemble. And add your email to my list to receive updates in the bar on the left!

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