Sunday, June 7, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Music! (Part 2)

While I don’t think there is anything revolutionary about how music is used in Legally Blonde, I’ve learned immensely from the show through repeated viewings of the MTV broadcast and the Original Broadway Cast Recording. As mentioned in my last column, there are some perfectly placed songs in the score, courtesy of songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (plus, no doubt, bookwriter Heather Hach and director Jerry Mitchell), but it is how several songs inform scenes and sentiments that is also impressive.

Song/Scene Structure
One of my great weaknesses as a librettist is song placement. I’ve been aware of this for years, and the few knowledgeable people who’ve read my libretti have readily pointed this out. Of course, this happens because I don’t have musical collaborators, so my writing team—being me—is sorely lacking in balance.

I’ve been in a position for most of my life to need to teach myself many things, from tying my shoelaces (long story) to using symbols in fiction. I never took a class on writing musicals; I’ve just avidly studied the form for over a decade and learned the hard way. Watching Legally Blonde a number of times now (once on stage, multiple times from the MTV broadcast), has illustrated why writers need access to libretti of well-written Broadway musicals to study. Legally Blonde has provided me with another level of understanding of how music can be used in a musical (not that this will necessarily do me any good until I start working in the same room as collaborators, but still, it’s valuable).

You see many musicals with very effective song/scene structures where a song takes the place of what otherwise would be dialogue (and you see this in Legally Blonde as well). Lilli is left longing for Fred and sings “So in Love” to express it in Kiss Me, Kate. Glinda is torn between trying to earn rank with the Wizard and trying not to betray her friendship with Elphaba, so she masks it with “Thank Goodness” in Wicked. Tracy finally gets Edna out of the house and introduces her to a whole new world in “Welcome to the 60’s” in Hairspray.

There are several songs in Legally Blonde, however, that really highlight other ways of using songs (not that there is anything wrong with using songs in the ways described above—Kiss Me, Kate; Hairspray; and Wicked are all masterpieces).

“What You Want”Lyrically, “What You Want” is pretty straightforward (which is fitting because Elle, at the point, is a pretty straightforward woman). What I love about it, though, is how it encompasses (and compacts) a number of key events—events that need to happen in order for the plot to move forward and to develop Elle as a determined, intelligent, and resourceful flaky chick. The setting spans Elle’s sorority house, a golf course, her room, and Harvard admissions. We are not just told about events happening, but because of the scope of the song, we see it all happening in a compact song (with great choreography). The fact that these are short scenes doesn’t matter; the song connects them into one longer segment that unifies the disjointed nature of her quest.

“Chip On My Shoulder”
Packed with character development and interspersed with important dialogue scenes, “Chip On My Shoulder” is another song that beautifully compacts scenes into a cohesive single number. Look at the span of this song—Emmett mocks Elle after the party, follows her to her room where he goads her into studying, spends large portions of his time over several months to help her, and then Elle actually starts to show promise in class. “Chip On My Shoulder” not only develops the plot, it also establishes Emmett’s character, Emmett’s and Elle’s relationship, and Elle’s friendship with Paulette. This is sixty pages of a novel condensed into one delightful song.

“Take It Like a Man”
As addressed in an earlier column, “Take It Like a Man” is a strong example of a subtext-laden song. Stephen Sondheim has talked about how “Finishing the Hat” in Sunday in the Park with George isn’t about the hat; it’s about the obsessive nature of George’s art (and art in general). “Take It Like a Man” is the populist version of the subtext-laden song. There are funny references to love and subtext in the song, but lyrically, it’s about Elle shopping for Emmett. Under the surface, though, it’s about this beautiful friendship that has blossomed into love. It’s a very romantic and well-written scene.

There are a lot of great moments musically in Legally Blonde, but as an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist, I can’t help but admire the show and its creators for their perfect song placement, their use of songs to compact the storytelling, and for their populist use of subtext in a satisfying way. Plus, it’s just really fun music.

the Broadway Mouth
June 7, 2009

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