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Topic: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

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  1. #1

    A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    I am chugging away at the orchestrations for Rivertown. Most of the songs are completely written out, so I am writing in the singers parts as I go - at least the main melody line).

    It seems to my 57-year old memory, that most of the musicals I have seen have the chorus singing a lot in unison with some 2 (S/A & T/B) and 3 ( S - A - T/B) part singing. I realize that this is my show and I can do what I want, but am I correct in my recollection of chorus singing in most standard musicals?

    I would rather have well-sung unison and 2-part chorus singing than weak 3 & 4 part singing. I will probably lean more toward unison and 3 part chorus sections.

    Any thoughts - pearls of wisdom?

    Charles
    MacPro 2.66 - Tiger & Snow Leopard / 16GB RAM / several TB of HD space/ Garritan Libraries / EWQLSO Platinum PLAY / Omnisphere/ Kontakt 2 & 3 / Finale 2010 /DP5/ a VERY patient wife!

  2. #2

    Re: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    I am an actor (and almost your age). I haven't done many musicals since I started working professionally (I've said many times that theater is for performers who are very rich or very poor) but in high school and college it was nearly all musicals, all the time. So, I've seen quite a few scores and, believe me, there are no set rules. You can do whatever you like and whatever your cast can handle.

    I have the chorus book for "The Three Penny Opera" in front of me. There are an awful lot of numbers and almost no harmony. I also have the piano/vocal (i.e. "Conductor's") scores for "Company" and "Godspell" - each of which has some very intricate choral parts - each very different. The same holds true of older, more traditional shows. (Listen to "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" or "Fugue for Tinhorns" in "Guys and Dolls". Lots of harmony in that show. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", if I remember correctly had virtually none, except for the funeral scene.)

    I am just finishing orchestraing the score for a musical that I composed. Since my chorus is small (3 girls, 3 boys) I usually have them singing in unison, in octaves. (Girls singing the same melody as the boys, an octave higher). For variety I sometimes had the girls singing a countermelody to the boys, or vice versa. I also did verses with just the men singing or just the women. I only tried harmonizing the vocals in a couple of places, where I had more voices to work with. For example, there is a number for the three male leads, the three chorus boys, and two character men. With all those voices in the same register, I found the harmony was necessary to keep it from getting too heavy. (I made the accompaniment lighter to compensate.)

    I'd say go with what works for your music and the style of your show. If there are few set rules in music - there are even less for musicals. Where you really need to follow the "rules" is in the book. That's where most shows fail. It's very hard to write a good libberetto for a musical and few that succeed deviate very much from the formula. For more on that, follow this link http://www.musicalwriters.com/index.htm . I know this sounds very rigid, but musicals really do live or die by their structure. I've been in quite a few shows and, living in NYC, seeing lots of stuff on Broadway (including shows that are never done regionally) I'd say that, though there are of course exceptions, by and large shows that deviate too much from the established formula don't succeed. The form is what makes it a musical and not an opera or an oratorio (or a straight play with music.) I really take that to heart. The people that post here really know what they are doing and the books they recommend are solid.

  3. #3

    Re: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    Hi, Charles - It's great to get an update on how your show is going!

    I am basically here to echo ejr's response. The older shows tend to have more complex harmonies and the newer ones tend to be as you described - unison parts and an occasional second harmony line. I just got through listening to "Urinetown"--very modern, purposely an homage to the spare Kurt Weill style, and harmony is scarce in it.

    I am so with you when you said you'd rather have strong unisons than weak 3 and 4 part vocals. Harmonies can be really difficult for a lot of people, even some otherwise good singers. My original cast of "Dorian" had a Heck of a time trying to master the complex vocal parts I'd written. Besides harmonies, that show features a lot of rhythmic counterpoint, which the cast found just as difficult.

    Go with the simplified modern sound. The singers will be able to belt it out, sound confident, and sound great.

    Randy B.

  4. #4

    Re: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    Remember that the performers have to sing, dance AND act (and be loud enough to be heard, to find their light, to make their costume changes, etc. ...) The less you give them to worry about, the better their performances will be - especially if you are working with non-professionals who don't do this all the time.

  5. #5

    Re: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    Totally agree! I was in musicals in high school, so I know all about that!
    The pit musicians will not be high school students, but I am not writing a complex score anyway.

    Today I am working on "Only the Irish" - a small production number with plenty 'o dancing - Irish style. The Irish in the town are singing and bragging about being Irish and bringing the railroad to Madison, Indiana. A fun number.

    "Only the Irish could pull off such a job. Only the Irish are humble to a fault. Only the Irish, not German, Scot or French. Without the Irish (without the Irish), without the Irish you'd be sitting on a bench!"
    MacPro 2.66 - Tiger & Snow Leopard / 16GB RAM / several TB of HD space/ Garritan Libraries / EWQLSO Platinum PLAY / Omnisphere/ Kontakt 2 & 3 / Finale 2010 /DP5/ a VERY patient wife!

  6. #6

  7. #7

    Re: A question about writing for choruses in musicals

    Let me get a few more worked up and then I will record the vocals and post them on my Broadjam site. Hopefully in a few weeks - right now I just have to keep working on the orchestrations before making the demos with vocals.

    I like what I have so far and hopefully my audiences will too in October!
    Thanks for your interest Randy and congratulations on the journey "Dorian" is taking you on!

    Charles
    MacPro 2.66 - Tiger & Snow Leopard / 16GB RAM / several TB of HD space/ Garritan Libraries / EWQLSO Platinum PLAY / Omnisphere/ Kontakt 2 & 3 / Finale 2010 /DP5/ a VERY patient wife!

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