Visualizing the Musical Numbers: Act I
Marriage’s tunes came to me as, and when, the muses inspired. But the 18 lyrics were written in strict story sequence. By and large, each song was assembled in this order:
- concept (sometimes conceived together with, or before, the title)
- tune (often conceived together with the rhythm)
- lyrics (nearly always last).
It then fell to David to orchestrate the tune. I’d drive to David’s house, where I’d record the song a capella. To help him imagine the look and feel I was after, I’d play a similar song or two from a movie musical on VHS tape or a Broadway soundtrack on compact disk. At his Korg keyboard, David would offer me a choice of chords until I’d go, “Yes, that one!” At times I’d offer vague advice like, “In my head, I think I’m hearing a black note, too.” Failing that, I’d return to his house with a song containing exactly the chord I wanted; David would play it, then innocently ask, “Oh, you want a third fifth with a minor flat? Why didn’t you say so?”
David had free rein to devise the dance sequences, but before he’d begin, we’d watch a similar dance. For the shorter dances, he usually adapted the chorus or verse; for the three extended dances (Life On the Fringe, The Rebbe Says, and Something Strange), he composed new material.
Marriage At Work is a traditional book musical, and I expected to use a traditional Broadway overture: a potpourri based on the songs. Instead, David created an original composition designed to evoke the rhythms and character of urbane Manhattan and Hasidic Brooklyn. I agreed to use it if David would use a tune or two from Act II in the Act II Prelude.
The overture’s accompanying slide show, showing Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Columbia University, and Hasidic Brooklyn in the mid 1990s, remains to be created. (Student project, anyone?) Here’s one of many examples on the Web.
Song 1: Life On the Fringe
I conceived the title, meter, and tune while walking to my Hasidic (Lubavich)-run synagogue in 2003 on a weekend when several Lubavich men from out-of-town were visiting. Months later, I wrote the lyrics. As the establishing song, “Fringe” hints at the protagonist’s central conflict. In writing it, I channeled two of the best establishing songs I knew: “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof and “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. David composed the dance sequence, informed by the wedding dance in Fiddler.
Song 2: Hineni! (Here I Am!)
Conceived and written in 1992, “Hineni!” pre-dates Marriage. An Orthodox single friend had asked me to write a song in which a religious single Jew asks G-d to send him his bashert—his “intended” soulmate. Hearing that I needed an orchestrator, a congregant suggested David Snow. In addition to orchestrating the tune, David composed the lead-in that underscores Reuven and Rachel’s spoken openings.
After hearing the vocal recording over the telephone, a friend (Julie) responded, “I have just one question: When are you going to write that Broadway musical?” Her question became Marriage’s catalyst, and Hineni! its first completed song.
Though the audience hears and sees a duet, neither Reuven nor Rachel hears or sees the other. In musical theater, such songs are surprisingly rare. One of the best-known examples is “Goodnight, My Someone / 76 Trombones” from The Music Man:
Song 3: Marriage Is Work
This song and “Marriage Is Work—II” serve as bookends marking the rise and fall of Rachel’s hopes. This bookend shows both sides of Rabbi Brauer: stern teacher and caring parent.
David’s humorous, spare orchestration was far from what I had expected, but it serves its purpose well. If the strum of a balalaika has always evoked “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago, prepare to be imprinted with a new image.
To find a similar exchange, I had to go back to the Owl Professor in a Disney Sing-Along from 1953:
Song 4: Eight Weeks
When asked, “Which song best captures the play’s spirit?,” I answer, “Eight Weeks.” The tune will be reprised in “A World of Many Colors” and “Eight Weeks / A World of Many Colors.” But I wrote it for “Eight Weeks,” before those songs were conceived.
To help David visualize the song’s rambunctious hoedown, I showed him “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from Annie. But no number illustrates the students’ newfound resolve better than the title song from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms.
Song 5: The Rebbe Says
Act I’s only dark song is also David Snow’s orchestral tour de force. From the ominous opening bass strings to the closing spine-tingling flute trill, Marriage’s second-longest song leaves the audience with no doubt that Reuven’s work marriage will test his faith to the limits. The 1.5-minute dance duel pays homage to the Jets’ introduction at the start of West Side Story. The duel music may be too fast and intricate to be played, but the entire orchestral score is provided digitally.
The dance duel finds its closest parallel in the dance duel (choreographed by Michael Kidd) between the brothers and the city men in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (from the 2013 production by Kitsap Children’s Musical Theatre in Poulsbo, WA).
Song 6: Someone Just Like Me
After the emotionally exhausting “The Rebbe Says,” the audience would welcome the tonic of comic relief. They’ll find it in this patter song. To reinforce the students’ folly, David inserted a dissonant 15-second Jewish wedding vignette. Complete with a raucous kickline, “Someone” is about a teacher who must surrender to his students’ bedlam. And for sheer, unbridled bedlam, nothing has yet topped choreographer Onna White’s “Marian the Librarian” (The Music Man):
Song 7: A World of Many Colors
As a post-Sondheim songwriter, I find it difficult to write a simple, pure lyric, like the kind Oscar Hammerstein II routinely crafted, taking an entire week to achieve, in his words, “hard-won simplicity.” To my ears, no contemporary lyricist writes simple lyrics better than Lynn Ahrens (Anastasia, Ragtime). “A World of Many Colors” is my Lynn Ahrens lyric. Its tune was lifted note-for-note from “Eight Weeks,” but this time David used a more lyrical orchestration, one with no brass. Like “The Rain in Spain” in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the song marks a narrative inflection point in which one protagonist breaks through to change an intimate other for the better.
When Marriage was evaluated in 1998 by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, the judges predicted that “A World of Many Colors” would join the American songbook as a standard. Copyrighted in 1993, “Colors” is the first song I’m aware of to compare emotions to colors. But two years later, lyricist/composer Stephen Schwartz and Walt Disney Pictures would say it more lyrically and brilliantly in “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas):
The dance duel finds its closest parallel in the dance duel (choreographed by Michael Kidd) between the brothers and the city men in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers:
Song 8: Marriage At Work
The title song’s lyrical melody came to me in a dream as I slumbered deeply from cough medicine. I awoke fully aware that I had been granted a gift. But with a dozen tunes already in development, I felt I didn’t need another; I declined to record it and promptly forgot it. As I drove to work, the tune returned, this time with words: “He’s a different kind of man, with a different kind of plan….a different kind of marriage, at work.” Marriage At Work now had a title song, and this time it wouldn’t slip away. I sang it aloud until reaching my desk. There, I dialed home and recorded the tune and the new words into my answering machine. Then, I leaped onto my desk and shouted, for a good 8 seconds, “Y-E-E-E-E-S-S!,” to the amusement of my coworkers.
Performed by Rachel and her female classmates, this would be my “petticoat song,” a phrase I coined to describe an extended musical number in which a bevy of young women share their feelings and dance ballet as they groom for a picnic (“Many a New Day,” Oklahoma!), await a wedding (“Waitin’ For My Dearie” in Brigadoon!), or settle down to sleep (“June Bride” in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).
I often brush off plaudits for my tunes, since nearly all arose more-or-less spontaneously. But it was through hard work that I devised the recurring bridge phrase (“and when I glance into his eyes, I can almost recogni-ize…”). Those 16 humble, hard-won notes remains my proudest musical achievement of the play.
For his part, David created the 38-second instrumental dance, replaced my pedestrian, derivative bridge stanza (“If you only have one song to live…”) with a farcical variant, and composed a spare orchestration so unlike the vocal melody that on first listen, I was convinced he’d dropped off the wrong tape. Once I parsed where the sung notes were to land, David’s approach made sense.
In the song’s musical and dramatic climax, the women seat Rachel in a chair, crown her head with a tiara, and lift her, as wedding guests life a Jewish bride. Each time I hear it, I feel I’ve gone to Heaven.
The song is followed by the intermission, and while sophisticates might have preferred to see Act I end with discord or tension, I wanted the house lights to rise on smiling theater-goers dabbing their tears.
Here is “Waitin’ For My Dearie” from the 1954 Cinemascope film version of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, led by Cyd Charisse and choreographed by Gene Kelly: