Introduction to Musical Theatre

Introduction to Musical Theatre, Fall 2016

Neal Richardson     314-825-4443

Washington University

Introduction to Musical Theatre

Fall 2015

Welcome to Musical Theatre class! Some of my goals are to inspire, stimulate and excite you as you explore this fascinating and rich field. The class structure is very straight-forward. You’ll be doing a lot of listening and we’ll discuss what you’ve heard. Listen very carefully. It’s sometimes helpful to listen in small groups to discuss what you’ve heard. How are the songs similar and how do they differ? Listen as an actor. What does the music tell us about the dramatic situation? What other information does it give the audience? Enjoy this great music. Soak it in. Have fun.


Moments of Exposition (discussion, week 2) and discussion of the reading (see below)

Moments of Romance  (discussion, week 3)

Moments of Comedy (discussion, week 4)

Moments of Disclosure  (discussion, week 5)

Moments of Song and Dance  (discussion, week 6)

Moments of Extravagance  (discussion, week 7)

The Midterm exam will consist of Listening identification (identifying song and show), knowing the composers of the songs, and a critical listening essay.


For September 1, also do the following reading.

Secrets to Musical Structure and choose a book or movie to create a musical from. We will use your title as we discuss each of the “Moments” throughout the semester.

For September 8 read

Expectations of Musical Theatre Singers.

You will be hearing a lot about the meaning of ensemble. Here’s a quick letter from a recent graduate about that idea.

Anonymous Letter from a Graduate

September 15 read

Read Like the Movie, Only Different. This reading is in preparation for the class assignment to discuss the creative aspect of writing an original musical adapted from a movie. As a class, you will choose a movie to adapt. Last year the movie was The Help.

Acting/Directing Majors, read:

Critical Listening

When listening to music, it's very easy to turn your mind off and let the sensuality of the music sweep you away. I encourage you not to do that, at least when you are studying the music and not just listening to it for pleasure.

Theatre music is different from most all other forms of music in this important regard: it must be comprehended and understood the first time it's heard. Pop music can be listened to again and again and in fact, it's most often written in such a way that you want to listen again and again.  Theatre music conveys subtext, character, mood–a wide variety of things that go beyond what the character(s) are singing and doing. Music can underscore and enrich a song like "I Dreamed a Dream" (with the string's syncopation echoing Fantine's heartbeat and her rising passion echoed in the modulation. It can also tell the truth when the character is lying. Mrs. Lovett's portion of "Not While I'm around" is supported by a dissonant violin line that tells us that she wants Toby to believe is not true.

Some musical components that add meaning:

Melody-a slow melody with a balanced contour can communicate deep emotions or passion while a quick melody with many repeated pitches can communicate worry, anger or some other more negative emotion.

Harmony - First let me say that not all composers of theatre music are equally adept at using the various components of their music to communicate. Some have limited harmonic language, melodic variety or stylistically diversity.

Harmony - listen for the harmonic rhythm  (the rate of speed at which the chords change), the ratio of dissonance to consonance, etc.

Rhythm - What does the rhythm tell us about the character or situation?

Orchestration - In theatre, most composers do not orchestrate their own music. Often they have a close working connection with the orchestrators who help them realize their sonic ideas about the music. The orchestration, however, can tell us about the character and situation. A full string section can communicate a depth of love or sorrow. Fast woodwinds can communicate nervousness.

When you listen to music, do it in a quiet place and preferably alone. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. 1.What is being communicated through the music (without the lyrics)? Don't try to be too scientific. You can use emotional terms like anger, joy, romantic love, or longing for something that is just out of reach. You should do some thinking about how the composer is achieving that. Is it through rhythm? melody? harmony? or some combination? While listening to a song for the first time, make a list of adjectives describing the music and what it made you think and feel.

  2. 2.If this is your first time hearing a song, what is your general sense of what is being communicated through the lyric? What is happening? Is the plot being furthered through this song or is this a chance for the character to reflect on the situation?

  3. 3.Musical Style - American Musical theatre styles have changed dramatically in it's 160 year history. It is the job of every serious musical theatre student and professional to be knowledgable in the most common styles which might include:

  4. Vaudeville

  5. Early Musical Comedy (Good News, Harrigan and Hart show, etc)

  6. Mature Musical Comedy (Of Thee I Sing, Pal Joey, etc)

  7. 1920s and 30s jazz

  8. The Golden Age of Musical Theatre (Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, etc.)

  9. The great movie musicals

  10. and then finally the many, many variety of styles and stylistic amalgamations from 1970 to the present.

My goal for you by the end of the semester is to be able to identify nearly any musical theatre song by style (not necessarily by composer or show).


Week One (August 26) Introductions/Syllabus

Week Two (September 2) Moments of Exposition

Week Three (September 9) Moments of Romance

Week Four (September 16) Moments of Comedy

Week Five (September 23) Moments of Song & Dance

Week Six (September 30) Moments of Disclosure

Week Seven (October 7) Moments of Extravagance

Week Eight (October 14) Midterm exam


Week Nine (October 29) Musical Theatre Styles (Operetta, Vaudeville and Early Musical Theatre)

Week Ten (November 5) Musical Theatre Styles (Golden Age)

Week Eleven (November 12) Musical Theatre Styles (Modern Musical Theatre)

Week Twelve (November 19) Lyric analysis & Musicals presentation part 1

Week Thirteen (November 26) Musicals presentation part 2, conclusion

Week Fourteen (December 3) Lyric analysis (continued) and Excavating the Song & Final exam review

Week Fifteen (December 10) Final exam

For the second half of the semester, here are the appropriate links.

Musical Theatre Styles (part 1) – a survey of the styles of the major musical theatre composers before 1943. Listen for Class discussion on October 30.

Musical Theatre Styles (part 2) - Golden Age of Musical Theatre. Listen for class discussion on November 6.

Musical Theatre Styles (part 3) - Post-Golden Age of Musical Theatre. Listen for class discussion for November 13.

Lyric Analysis Paper

Lyric Analysis Paper is due December 9. Choose one of the songs on this page for your paper.

Here’s how I’d like for you to choose your song. First make sure you’re choosing a song appropriate for your gender. Next pull up a song and read the lyric. Does it resonate with you? Do you like it? Do you not like it? Write the titles of the songs you like and gradually narrow your choice down to your perfect song. You will not sing these songs in class.

To prepare for you paper, please read chapter 1 of Excavating the Song. Excavating the Song Chapter 1.pdf

Creating an Original Situation for a Song

Think of a musical . . . any musical that tells a linear story. Now think of a song within that musical. That song has a life. It has a dramatic function in the show that either carries the action forward or helps us understand a character more fully.

Can you think of examples where a song carries the action forward or advances plot?

Can you think of examples where a song helps us understand a character more fully?

In creating an original situation for a song, you are giving a song a new dramatic context. The hope is that in doing this kind of work, you will be able to personalize material more fully as well as be able to excavate more deeply material where the dramatic situation is given to you.

Components for a great musical theatre situation

1. A strong objective

2. A conflict with high stakes 

3. A clear "other"

4. Opportunities for beat changes

5. A strong story arc

  1. Winning

  2. Losing

  3. Spiral, or ending where you started

  4. Serendipity

For this opportunity, please choose a winning arc. The other arcs are too complicated until you’ve mastered the winning arc.

In musicals, songs are extraordinary events. People stop simply talking and start singing. What is so powerful about the extraordinary event of singing?

Paper Format

Your name and song title_______________

The Actor’s Homework: Worksheet

Song title:


Show title:

Type the lyrics below in prose form, carefully observing punctuation marks.

Objective Interpretation

What is this song about objectively? Looking at the lyrics, and without adding your interpretation, what is the song about and what happens? One or two sentences.

Subjective Interpretation

A. Who is the singer? Describe the singer using clear, definite statements.

B. Who are you singing to? Choose a person or persons that will create interest and conflict.

C.When is it?

D.Where are you? The more specific your location, the more real it will be for you.

E.Why do you need to say these words? Obviously, the stronger the need, the better.

F.What changes during the song?

G.What do you want? What will happen if you don’t get it?

H.Why sing this song now, and not yesterday or tomorrow?

Your Created Situation

Write the details of the situation you have created. This is where you write the details of your song’s story.

Defining Sentence

This is a song about_____________________, me, that (continue the sentence below)

Song Analysis

What is the arc of your song? Winning, losing, “spiral arc”, or a serendipity arc? N.B. Please choose a WINNING arc for this opportunity.

Read the lyric from the first page of this worksheet and make decisions as to where beat changes are to occur. Deciding where beat changes happen is a delicate balance between musical understanding, dramatic understanding and intuition. Summarize the beats below. You may want to include a few lyrics that indicate beat changes. Choose a strong, active verb for each beat.

Describe the three “moment before” events: seeing the event (what do you see?), taking it in (what effect does it have on you?) and responding to it (what is your response?).


For the final exam, you will be asked to identify songs and their composers from the Composer Styles surveys. In addition, you will be asked questions about style discussed in the short essays on the pages and from class discussion.

Spring Semester

Welcome to the start of Song Study. Please don’t be nervous if you don’t consider yourself a singer. While we will be singing, we will be looking primarily at the acting of a song rather than singing technique. I want you to feel supported as you sing. I will never critique your singing in this class and I ask that you behave generously to your classmates.

Great Article about Success Please Read

Please listen to this short interview with a writer talking about “classics”. It says a lot about our work as we sing “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Lonely Town.” 



Click this link

I reorganized this so things are easier to find. Let me know if you can’t find something.

Please re-read this chapter for the second week of class, 1/22. (Sorry, I forgot to mention this in class.)

Excavating the Song Chapter 1.pdf

Two songs are discussed in this chapter. You can find the sound files here:

Dancing Through Life.mp3

I Had A Dream About You.mp3

The videos I refer to in the chapter can be found here.

Monologue Steps

Steps 1 and 2 with Bernell. Part 1 and Part 2

Steps 3 and 4 with Bernell. Video

Steps 1-6 with Ari. Part 1 and Part 2

Steps 4-6 with Jocelyn (Standard Ballad). Part 1 and Part 2

Steps 4-6 with Michael (Contemporary). Part 1 and Part 2

First Song

We will begin with everyone singing the same songs. Please download them and have them for the second week.

Women: It Might As Well Be Spring

Men: Lonely Town

Related Sound Files. Download and use them to prepare the song or just listen to them online. Right-click or option-click to download.

It Might As Well Be Spring (Melody)

It Might As Well Be Spring (Accompaniment)

Lonely Town (Melody)

Lonely Town (Accompaniment)

I have two goals for this class. The first is to begin learning to develop your process when singing songs. I have a very specific set of activities for you to do but ultimately, I want you to eventually develop the process that works for you. The second goal is to continue exploring what it means to be a professional. I will treat class as if we are in rehearsal and as such, I will expect good rehearsal skills. More about that throughout the semester. As a professional, you will need to know what is happening currently in professional theatre. Reading theatre news is where you learn. Visit Theatre News and bookmark these sites. Visit them regularly.

Classroom activities:

The class will be made up of the study of three songs—the one discussed above, a Standard Ballad, and a song of your choosing. If we have time, we will look at doing more songs.

Second Song

Our second song will be a standard ballad. You may use the song you used for you final project last semester or a new one. I will ask that you choose songs from this page that you’ve used before.

Please read this chapter as you prepare your song. Excavating the Song chapter 2

The song, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is discussed in the chapter. You can listen to the song here. Neither has the verse. Lennox) (Tony Bennett)