Wednesday, 27 February 2013

So much to do in so little time

For somebody who is doing this while holding a pretty busy daytime job, I have far too many projects in progress.

First there is The exile. This is my main project which we are now in the process of pitching to producers.

Next there is Ghost town, a rock concert musical in development.

Then I have Wake not the dead, the horror musical. This is a musical propper, and if all goes well, I will record the songs by sometimes middel of this year.

Last on the list of musicals is A story of a nightingale. Many of the songs are written.

For all of these musicals, at least one, and sometimes many, demo songs are recorded.

Next in progress, on the production side is the farce, Bottoms up, by the Protea Stage Productions. My involvement here is more on the hand-of-all-trades and whatever-I-can-find-to-do-to-look-like-I-am-helping nature. The show will go on stage in May 2013. Later this year, around October, we will put a musical up, so watch this space. I will be much more involved in that production.

On the songwriting side, I am pitching songs for 2 projects. One I am especially keen for. This will probably turn into a 50's /Jim Steinman style rock show. The other project is pure adapting of some of my songs for a singer who plan to record an album this year.

So, if all these projects just keep moving forward and if my work gets accepted, then this year will be a very busy year. Keep watching this space.


Sunday, 24 February 2013

Will you forever sleep

Last year (2012) James Fraser (on vocals) and I recorded a song from one of my musicals-in-progress for halloween.

You can isten to this recording on soundcloud.

This song is from the opening scene for the musical, Wake not the dead (a working title). It is a horror musical, based on the work with the same title by Johann Ludwig Tieck.

The first scene in act 1 starts with Walter bemoaning the death of his childhood lover. Brunhilda has been dead for about ten years. After her death, Walter married Swanhilda, with whom he has two wonderful little kiddies, but Walter is not happily married. Every night, he is crying and moaning next to the grave of Brunhilda.

We will not yet give the whole story away. For a teaser, you can find the original story by using google. What I can tell you now, is that this stage play will scare the wits out of most. For our musical, many small changes will be made to the plot to keep it more interesting.

The idea of horror musicals is nothing new. Probably the most famous one is Richard O'Brien's Rocky horror picture show, which became much more than just a cult classic. More recently, Stephen Sondheim had a huge success with Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Both these musicals have really, really great scores to carry them. While Rocky Horror is a hit for its bizare and amusing, Sweeney Todd is mixed with a fair amount of humor, as illustrated in the great performance of Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in the clip below.


Off course, Phantom of the opera can also be regarded as a horror, but most fans will rather put it in the drame / romance bin. I am sure you will be able to name many, many more, like e.g. Dracula that made it to the Broadway stages, and probably a few thousand more lurking in theaters all over. Then there are some more direct-to-movie horrors, like Hard rock zombies. Some would put Mama Mia also in this group, but now we are just confusing horror musicals with horrible musicals.


Friday, 22 February 2013

Strength to carry on

Today's song is a love song. Tyler, a young man who grew up in a poor family, has never travelled outside the borders of his own town. Suddenly, he was taken out of his world and had to travel into the wide world in search of his father.

All the time Melissa encouraged him and stood by him. She was the one who took him to Neil and then Manual to search for leads. Without her support, he would not have found his father. Now that they found him, Tyler thanks Melissa for all the support.

Statistics have shown that more than 50% of all popular songs are love songs (Don't ask, 50% of all statistics are made up on the spot). This however does not mean that a love song will be an automatic winner. There are many pitfalls to watch out for when writing a love song.

This song follows a standard popular song format of verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, with repeat of altered chorus (ABCABCC).

On the subject of love songs (or songwriting in general), there is few who can teach us more than Sheila Davis. In her book, Songwriters idea book, she warns us not to confuse the subjects of sex and love. For a love song to work, the songwriter has to choose which one to write about and stick to it. In this case, I have chosen to stick to the emotional variation.

With millions of love songs in the world, it is difficult to find something new to say on the topic. When one choose love as the plot, the plot should therefore have some added ingredient to carry the plot and make the song interesting. Without any added plot item, a love song will be just boring and cheesy. In this song, I have choosen Melissa's support to Tyler as the main plot ingredient.

Pamela Phillips Orland is one of my favourite writers on the topic of songwriting. She teaches us in her excellent book, The art of writing love songs, when writing a love song, one must choose a single plot item and stick to that. A song that tries to deal with every possible aspect of love will be doomed to failure.

Track: Strength to carry on

Album: The Exile, concept album recording

Artist: Eric Swardt



This all would be nothing without you

and your strength to help me carry on

I would be lost without you by my side

At times when there was no hope for victory

and I need a friend, then you were the one

who gave me strength to carry on



Take my hand and make all my troubles disappear

Stay with me and I'll never loose when you are near

Don't you know I love you so



When it is dark and it looks like raining

you will bring back the sun

I know you are my angel

You give me wings to carry on

You will be there when the sun stops shining

and when all hope is gone

Every time I feel I'm falling

you give me wings to carry on



You came to me when I needed someone

to show me the way how to make a change

You stood by me when no one else would be

Every day I have to face a world of strangers

then I need someone, then you are the one

who give me strength to carry on



Won't you stay with me for the rest of my days

Take my hand and together we'll fly away

My darling I love you so



When it is dark and it looks like raining

you will bring back the sun

I know you are my angel

You give me wings to carry on

You will be there when the sun stops shining

and when all hope is gone

Every time I feel I'm falling

you give me wings to carry on



Oh, please stand by me when the sun stop shining

Please give me strength when all hope is gone

Every time when you see me falling

please give me wings to carry on

You give me strength to carry on

You are my wings to carry on.



Wednesday, 20 February 2013

I have never

The first thing that can be said about this song is that it is a blues song. Now, that is not very difficult to figure out when you listen to it - yup, it is a blues song. What makes this one special is the wonderful performance by Gabriel, who is playing the role of Cathy on this album.

It is a standard 12 bar blues with the standard 12 bar blues chord progression, and as a standard, somebody feeling sad and blue. And like most blues songs, it is a standard AAAA song form.

There is a saying in the musical writing world that goes round, that you must never make your character sound sorry for herself, but if you absolutely have to, make it a blues song.

This song can be classified as a love song. Cathy is singing about her love for Hugo. She is however not talking to Hugo. She is talking to Melissa. Woman to woman, she is talking about her deepest feelings.

Track: I have never

(Click song name to listen on soundcloud)

Album: The Exile, concept album recording

Artist: Eric Swardt


I have never loved another man

so much that my soul trembles with pain

I have never loved another man

with all of my bones, body and soul

and never has any other man

made me loose so much control


For many long years he was alone

with no woman, family or home

For all these long years years I gave him a home

and for all those long years he belonged to me alone

but all that time I dreaded this day

when he would turn back home again


I found this man afraid and alone

when he came to take on the world

I found him when he was just alone

I loved him without complaint

and all that time I hoped

that he would love me in return


I was just an innocent girl

looking for love from a man

I was just a young and innocent girl

when I stumbled upon this lovely man

I was looking a friend I could trust

in this cruel and foreign world


I have never loved another man

so much that my soul trembles with pain

I have never loved another man

with all of my bones, body and soul

and never has any other man

made me loose so much control



Sunday, 17 February 2013

A prisoner of your spell

While Tyler and his father catch up on years lost, Melissa and Cathy is talking in another room. Cathy is not somebody who gives anybody much time to explain anything. If Melissa sounds like she is getting tired of repeating herself, it is for good reason.

Melissa pleads with Cathy to let Hugo return to South Africa. Cathy does not give in that easilly, but eventually concedes that it is Hugo's choice, and if he wants to go, she will not stand in his way.

In Talk about democracy we discussed the conflict and dialogue song format. Here we have yet another example of a dialogue song. Is essence, the dialogue song is a form of a duet. This simply means 2 persons are singing in the song. Duets can come in many forms, most comonly, where one person sing one part and another person sings a different part, but not at the same time, i.e. taking turns.

Musicals have many examples of different forms of duets, e.g. where the persons sing different lines, but at the same time. That is a technique liberally employed by Schonberg in the musical Les Miserable. A third and much more common form of duet is where the two persons sing at the same time, but they sing basically the same words, but different notes. This is simply refered to as harmonizing.


Track: A prisoner of your spell

(Click song name to listen on soundloud)

Album: The Exile, concept album recording

Artist: Eric Swardt




You ask me why I am here today

I will tell you once and once more again

Why do you think I'd come all the way

if I had nothing of import to say



I can't bear to see the suffering man

denied the freedom of his land

Freedom for which he dedicated is life

and for which he abandoned a wife



You know he is suffering the cruelest pain

while you're keeping him in this living hell

He is confined by an unbreakable chain

He's a prisoner of your spell




You ought to be sorry and ashamed

It is out of jealousy that you blamed

A woman who take a fancy to another man

and live with him as she can




It is not fair

that he shall die here

Far from his home, far from his child

Please release him from your spell




And now you put me to blame

because I love him unashamed

I cared for him and his tears I dried

when there was no one by his side




Please relieve his suffering of cruelest pain

Why are you keeping him in this living hell

I ask of you to release this unbreakable chain

release this prisoner from your spell




It is not fair

I can not fight my fate

If he insist he wants to go

I'll release him from my spell

Check out Peter Gabriel's Don't give up, which is one of my favorite conversation songs employing this same song format.



Saturday, 16 February 2013

When no service is better than poor service

We all have been there. When you get poor service, you do not feel happy. You do not walk away with a positive image of a company. It makes you wonder then why organizations then bother.

We can safely assume that organizations do not give poor service with the predetermined objective of pissing off customers. Then, why do they do it. The sad thing is that they honestly were trying to do good, but they just screw it up.

The age old business teaching goes that "vision is nothing without execution".


Let's look at one specific example. I am sure you can come up with thousands of examples similar to this one.

I like listening to internet radio. My favorite internet radio service is Live365. There is probably hundred similar services around. It does not matter. That is not the point. Generally they give a great service. You search for a radio station or genre. I like searching for "showtunes" and they will come up with long lists of stations to choose from. That is great. Then I listen until I hear a tune that sounds good and if I want to buy the mp3 or album, I click on the email button and patiently wait for more information about the tune to arrive in my inbox.

Well, fact is I was listening to the Mostly Harmless station with a tune of Daughtry, It's not over, at the time, when I heard something in the tune that interested me. It was the way the song uses dynamics of the guitars to control the dynamics and flow of mood in the song. Now, Daughtry is not unique in this and not inventing anything new, but credit must be given for doing it effectively. I just wanted an email in my inbox to remind me so I can go back later, buy the mp3 and listen to the song again, and maybe analyze the song structure when I have time.

To get to the moral of the story. The email that arrived in my inbox was a standard advertisement of songs and albums that most likely paid for advertising. It had absolutely no information about the tune that was playing at the time (see screenshot above).

For starter. They ruined the moment. They lost my trust. I trusted that I would get the information requested and there should have been no need for me to whip out any notebook and make notes. Now I feel a little foolish for having trusted in them and not kept my own notes. Lesson to be learned: Do not break the trust of your customers. Never make your customer feel like a fool. Next time you try to sell that customer something, that customer will think twice about spending his money.

The second lesson to be learned here lies a little deeper. I am not sure where the process has gone wrong, but I wonder if anybody at Live365 actually test their services. Has anybody up there tried that email button themselves and actually realized that it does not deliver on a promise? The lesson here is: never try to sell your customer something that you will not buy yourself. And going with this, test, test and test your service yourself. Check that those buttons actually does what your customer expect it to do.

The third and last lesson here is: never address your customer as member_157644whatever. It sound stupid, silly and just plain lazy. It takes just a few seconds of programming time to actually retrieve the first name of your customer from the database.

I'm pretty sure these lessons apply to producers of shows, just as much as it applies to online radio stations.


Friday, 15 February 2013

Sons and fathers

We are left with many questions after the previous scene where Hugo met Tyler. Why did Hugo leave his country? Why was he not aware of the existence of his child? Why did he not return to his country after democratic elections?

Even though we have heard many talk about him in scenes like Talk about democracy, I recall and Into exile, we do not really know very much about him.

In the scene that follows, we finally hear the story from Hugo's viewpoint. Here Hugo give us answers to those questions.


Track: Sons and fathers

(Click on song name to listen on soundcloud)

Album: The Exile, concept album recording

Artist: Eric Swardt


I was just a teenage boy

not much younger than you are now

when I fell in love with her,

a love doomed from the start

In those days when I was still at school

our love was against the law

my parents would not accept

for a white boy to date a maid



When I told her about the plan

She did not want to join

She told me that she expect a child

and she said the child belonged to another man

I guess I was furious and confused

I did not know what to do

so I did what I thought best

I took off and made my escaped



That place was heading for disaster

where the government told you who to love

Apartheid was an evil

and those who were against it

would be locked away

I don't know how could they not see the light

with sanctions from all around

I knew it was time to unite

I joined the fight against them

I made it my only goal

to get the world to join the fight


In the first verse, Hugo fills us in about his love affair with Pamela. They were from difference worlds. She was a poor worker and he was a richman's son. However, that is not the reason why he left. He makes a revelation. He had some plans to stand up against the regime at the time, but Pamela did not want to join. According to Hugo, Pamela told him that she was pregnant, but she told him that it was not his child.


Now we understand his actions a little bit better, but this raises many new questions about Pamela's motives. Why did she tell Tyler a completely different version of events? With all these questions in their minds, Tyler and Melissa will have to confront Pamela again when they return.


In the third verse, Hugo tells us about his fight for freedom. The country was n a bad shape as everybody was turning against the government. Hugo felt personally hurt by the class differences that was forced down upon him. He wanted to join the fight.


You hear a familiar melody in the third verse. As Hugo tells us about his fight against the regime, we use the same theme as when Pamela told us about Hugo's flight in into exile.


Don't forget, you can follow the whole musical scene by scene, in chronological order, from this page (see menu bar at top)


Finally, some comments about the song form. As you may have noticed by now, I do not like everything to be the same. I do not stick to a single song form. Yes, I do follow the trends and rules, but only to some extend. In musicals, my objective is not to write pop songs which has top 40 hit potential only. I do not mind getting to the top of any charts, but only if that suits my purpose of advancing my story. A sing-a-long chorus would have been totally put of context for this song. Verse 1 and verse 2 shares the same harmonic structure, with verse 3 introducing the familiar melody from another song. This makes it a AAB song form, composed in two parts, i.e. the A part, reapeating again, but with some variation in lyrics and melody, and then the B part that repeat some themes within itself. This is a form not very commonly heard on hit parades, but not completely unknown.


Take a listen to the beautifull instrumental song, Europa by Carlos Santana, which employs a very similar song structure.


Monday, 11 February 2013

You got to love those professors and time travelers

Time traveling is nothing new.
Waldo Selden Pratt (1857–1939) is highly regarded as one of the authorities on the topic of the history of music. His work, the history of music, was published in 1907 and has since been used by many (or at least two I know of) students as a version of the truth.
For the history of music in pre-historic times, Pratt made use of many sources for his book, including stories gathered from time travelers. In chapter 1, on page 25 of his book, he makes this astonishing revelation about his sources:
"The great difficulty of the topic lies in the variable accuracy and clearness of the first-hand reports of the facts that come from travelers, misionaries and other observers."
You got to love those learned guys. They have gone through so much to bring us the truth. They even built time machines. Pratt was able to describe music as it originated in prehistoric times in much more detail as anybody was able to do since. The music of the "savages", as he refers to the musicians of old, is described in much detail, with great respectful reference to, what he calls, the "childish attempts" and "rudimentary attempts" of said savages.
He also studied, what he refers to as, the "Semi-civilized music" of the Chinese and Hindus, as well as the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Hebrews who were "on a similar footing" as above-mentioned.
The most astonishing part is what he documents as facts, presumably exactly as told to him by those time travelers. He reveals that these savages made music mainly for social purposes, affording an outlet for surplus animal spirit. This is not only important for the study of music, but also proof that early music was used as soundtracks of porn movies. He tells us:
"The practice of music is sometimes shared by men and women alike, but sometimes, for obscure reasons, is reserved for one or the other sex".
Just as porn music is nothing new, he also tells us that pop music, rap, and beat boxing is also an ancient custom:
"Instances occur of the use of mere nonsense-jingles and of even a song-jargon, quite distinct from ordinary speech".
Even heavy metal is nothing new. We only had to add the guitars:
"..given melody contains but few distinct tones, though sometimes varied with indescribable slides or howls".
I am not planning on quoting the whole book out of context, so I would rather advice those interested in the musical experiences of the time travelers to follow the link above and read the original text. Alternatively, you can go to your library and find any other text that is authoritative on this subject. Anything under the Disney section might just do the job.
Hope you enjoy the trip to the library. They say you might find more virgins there than in the cloister.
Lastly, the rest of Pratt's book is actually an interesting read. Go ahead and try it out. Then come back and tell me all about it.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A son of my own

In the scene leading up to the sixth song on the album (listen on soundcloud), Cathy answers the doorbell. Hugo is a lecturer at the university in political studies, and Cathy is used to Hugo often receiving visits from young students looking for some advice.


At the door, Cathy finds Tyler and Melissa. Without any suspicion in her mind, she show them the way to the balcony where Hugo waits. Besides, Cathy is not one who gives anybody much of a chance to explain anything.


When Tyler gets a chance, he explains the purpose of their visit. As expected, his announcement is met with astonishment. Hugo would at first not believe that Tyler is his son, but after a long explanation he is convinced.


In this song Hugo express his realization that he had a son and contemplates about how different things would have been, had he known about his son before. Most importantly, in the last verse, he express his desire to spend some time with his son and make up for the lost time. Finally he make a commitment to his son that he will stand by him and help him fight his battles.


Track: A son of my own

(Click song name to listen on soundloud)

Album: The Exile, concept album recording
Artist: Eric Swardt

I always wanted a son of my own
to teach him everything I know
and show him all places that I have seen
I wanted someone who could follow me
someone that I would teach to be
the master of his own destiny


If I knew I had a son of my own

maybe I would have spend time at my home

or maybe I'd made the same mistakes

If I knew I had a son waiting for me

the choices I've made might not have been

as easy as it have seemed to be


Now that I know I have a son of my own

I want him to tell me everything that he's done

and what he plans for the rest of his life

It is not too late to change our destiny

and in the time that's left for me

I want to spend all my time with him


Together we will walk along the streets

Together we will fight against his enemies

and together we will celebrate his victories

More about the song structure:

This song is an example of how we develop character and advance the plot of the story, while heightening the emotion, and reinforcing dramatic action, through the use of both words and music.

The structure of this song is based on the AABA form, but with a twist. The melody, together with the arrangement and instrumentation, builds up to a final climax in the last verse. In order to maintain the momentum towards the climax in that last verse we do not repeat the melody of the first verses exactly, but rather repeat the second part of the verse only.


This is not a standard "verse, chorus" structure, which is so popular in the top 40 charts. No significant part of the lyrics is repeated exactly. The song also steer away from using a "hook" like many popular songs does today, as we do not want to confuse listener. Instead, we keep the focus of the song on the topic at hand by repeating the words "son of my own" in the first line of each verse. In the very last verse, we move away from repeating "son of my own" and repeat the words "together we will" in each line, giving forward motion to the story in the song towards the final climax on "victories".


Friday, 8 February 2013

I dream

In the meanwhile.... Let's return to our story at the fourth song on the concept album recording.

In the previous scene we left Tyler searching for his father, Hugo. Now it is time for us to meet Hugo in person. We have heard much about Hugo. In Freedom day we learnt that he was a hero. In Talk about democracy Tony told us thaat he left us on our own. Pamela then told us how they met in I recall. This is the first time that we give him a chance to speak for himself. He is far away from South Africa, but where is his real home? He faught for the the freedom of the country, but what did he get from it? Is he really free?mdoes he still think about the possibility of going back home?

Quoted directly from the script.*

HUGO sits on the balcony of an apartment, looking out over London, while the sun is setting. CATHY enters.
Are you feeling ill, darling? You ate so halfheartedly.
HUGO stares out at the horizon and the setting sun. He is holding his pipe in his hand, resting on his lap.
It is nothing, my dear.
It can not be nothing if it troubles you so. Is it I? Was it something that I have done? I knew mother should not have come to visit two weeks ago!
I am so fortunate to have one such as yourself, you know? If it weren't for you I would still be lost, all those years ago.
I too, am fortunate my darling. However I know that you have troubled dreams. It may have been I that got you back on your feet, but I am aware that it is not I that keep you here.
And nightmares they will stay if you don't tell someone of it, my darling. Tell me what has troubled you. Show me!

Track: I Dream

(Click song name to listen on soundloud)

Album: The Exile, concept album recording

Artist: Eric Swardt



I dream that one day I will be going home

I dream I see sunshine every day

I dream I see mountains that reach

up towards the blue skies

I dream of my home

All of my life I fought for the freedom

I fought for the right of the people to be free

but for me that freedom remains just a dream


Every day I dream of my home

I dream of the things I left behind

I still remember the times

and remember the ones I left behind

But here I am now so much time has gone by

I'm in a new place and I live a new life

I am a prisoner of time

but no one can see the rivers I cry


Every day I sit here and I watch the sun rise

Each day I see my life pass me by

There are some days

I feel that I just want to run away

back to my old home

Other times I want to stay here with you

It beaks my heart that I should forget my old home

Take my hand

dry my tears and help me forget


Thirty years ago I started my mission

For thirty years I fought for the cause

Never a moment did I change my position

Never did I ask for applause

After thirty years we reached our goal

After thirty years no one can disagree

Every man can go to the pole

but freedom is worth nothing if I'm not free

* Book by Edward Swardt


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Should songwriters follow trends?

Many songwriting books on the market advice us to follow what the top 40 of the day is. Some even analyze the top 40 in terms of tempo, form and subject matter and even the length of the intro, the time to get to the chorus, and the overall length of the song and all kinds of interesting technical aspects, just to find that magical formula that makes a song a hit song.
Leonard Cohen tells us that David had this secret chord that pleased the lord, but does the magic formula for a hit song really exist?
Is it a wonder then that everybody complains that all pop songs sounds the same and there is nothing really new coming out lately, if all the songwriters are taught to follow the trends? Many top divas are competing on how little clothing they can get away with in their music videos, or how many tows they have on display, rather than intelligent songwriting. I am not one who complains about beautiful bodies on display, but really, one have to ask the question, is that art?
The question I am asking does not relate to our problem with the divas, but rather about songwriting in general.
Let's get more specific.
Here is one trend that you are told to follow. A certain analysis shows that 70% of songs in the top 40 follows the verse, chorus format. Half of those add a bridge for extra interest. Those songs who do not follow the basic format, follows the AABA form, where essentially the melody follows a verse, chorus shape, but the words for the chorus does not repeat exact in each chorus. Not a single song included in that survey followed the AAAA format or the ABCD, or free format.
This verse and chorus trend is consistent over the last 100 years or so. Songwriters have always followed this trend. The conventional wisdom is that songs must have a chorus, and those chorusses must be repeated many times. The total abandoning of AAAA format is however sad.
Many very famous songs followed this format. Who remembers "The house of the rising sun"? This song had 4 to 6 verses (depending on which version you listen to), all with the same chord progression, but nowhere a repeat of any chorusses. Most of Bob Dylan's early songs followed this format. Who remembers "Born to run" by Bruce Springsteen? At some time thought to be the greatest rock song ever.
There are many more examples of great songs that followed this form. At least this writer would like to see this form more often. Not because I have any emotional attachment to it, but simply because I would like to see more variety.
The verse, chorus form is great and should be the first choice for songwriters, but please remember that this is not the only possibility.
Until next time!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

News from Broadway - Evita fails to show a profit

The Lost Angeles Times ran a story this week about Andrew Lloyd-Webber's hit show, Evita, closing its doors. This is interesting news for all of us and there are much we can learn from it, even if we are not playing in the same league. This revival of Evita has it all. Ricky Martin and Elena Roger as the stars, Lloyd-Webber's music, a movie to remember, and an advertising budget like never before. Yes, if any show had potential, that must be it.

In contrast, Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the opera celebrated its 25th year in London last year and this same week, the 25th year on Broadway. Hope you have seen the show when it came to a theater near you. I was in second heaven when I saw it at the Teatro last year. If you do not have the celebration concert DVD, shame on you - you must get it.

What we can take out from this is important. Big budgets does not make a success - at least not always. The $11 million made sure that the show would be of greatest quality. Just remember, if you want to spend big budgets, you have to earn even more to pay it back.

Big names does not always make for big profits. The times reports in the story quoted above that shows staring Ricky Martin showed better ticket sales. What it does not say, but can be assumed, is that the bigger names also insist on bigger salaries. If you want to splash out on big stars, you will have to make sure that they can bring in more than what you spend on them. That is a most basic budget principle.

The story above also reports that the show ran for 46 weeks on Broadway, but it needed 63 weeks to recoup the costs. We can safely assume that the budgeting team did not make such simple mistake. What most likely went wrong is that the attendance was lower than expected. Mmmm. Looking at the gross figures as reported on The Broadway League for the previous week, this show ran to a crowd of close to 80% capacity. Mmmmm. Make me wonder. If the budget team made the assumption that they needed to contract their stars for 46 weeks only, and 80% attendance was not enough to make it, then what on earth did the budget team assume for attendance? A lesson to be learned, which I have learned in grade one of finance 101, is that you never budget  to sell at 100% capacity. Always make sure that you have some margin. I read on the internet and in learned books that a 60% attendance on Broadway is about average. In budgeting basics you learn that, when you draw up your budget, starts with a likely scenario (say 60%), contract your expenses to make sure you break even at a pessimistic scenario (say 50%), and then make sure your product quality and appeal aims for an optimistic scenario (say 80%). With this simple budgeting model you make sure that you will make big profits when your show hits it big. Yeah I know I am selling cars by daylight and musical theater on Broadway is something very different, but we are talking basic business principles here.

So much for complicated budgeting stuff for now. Until next time, and oh yes, I wish Ken Davenport all the best with his production of Macbeth on Broadway. There is one producer who will not make any such mistakes when drawing up a budget.

Friday, 1 February 2013

What comes first, the words or the music?

Every songwriter gets asked this question all the time. What comes first, the words or the music? Some say they first have a melody, then add words to it. Some start with the words - the lyrics, and then fit that into a melody. I say, it does not matter how you start. As long as eventually they come together.

Most songwriters will tell you that not every song is the same.

I have developed a sort of work flow that works for me for many of my songs. The short version is, it all really happens in parallel, i.e. it come together. The initial starting point is usually the same. For me, writing songs for musical theatre can start in only one place. It must start with the story. Without the song having the story as the main driver, the song does not have a place in a musical.

I can hear lots of people shouting out at me about that statement. People saying, "but what about those musicals that use regular pop songs and put them together, like Mama Mia, Jersey boys, etc.?".

Let me make myself very clear on this point. I have nothing against those kind of musicals, and many of them, I do enjoy. Those musicals are called jukebox musicals. Some of the most successful musicals are jukeboxes. For many producers of musical theatre, the jukebox is a great solution. If you have a great story to tell, but you are not musically trained, it is much better going for this form, than trying to write songs and miserably fail. Staging a jukebox is also often cheaper, as you only have to pay songwriters royalties to SAMRO or similar organization.

Then, you may ask, what am I saying? Let me start by saying: I am a songwriter. I write songs. For me to use a song that somebody else has already written, is not writing. That is using, and I am not a song user, I am a songwriter. I have nothing against song users and jukeboxes. It is like a plumber and an electrician. They both help in building houses. They do not hate each other. They are often great buddies, but they are not the same.

So, when I write a song for a musical, I start with the story. I would find a place in the story where I think the story need a song. That is called "song spotting". When I spot a place where the song goes, I need enough material to put into the song. I'll ask a few questions. What are the emotions at that point? Is it sad, or happy? Is it a love scene (e.g. Strength to carry on), a celebratory scene (e.g. Freedom day), or is it a confrontational scene (e.g. Talk about democracy). The answers to those questions will determine the mood, tempo and melody of the song and often the style of the words I use for the lyrics.

Once I have the general idea of the song, I gather enough material to put into words. Many great songwriters starts with the script or book itself. If you have a well written script, all you have to do is rhyme the words and put it into a rhythmic pattern. Most often things are a bit more complicated and as a songwriter you need to spend extra time in making up enough story to fill up a 3 to 5 minutes of a song. Take note, at this stage I am not talking about full lyrics yet. It will take some time before we have the lyrics of the song ready. I will just write down everything I want to say in the song, without regards of trying to fit it to any rhythm or melody.

Having enough material to make up the song, gives me a good basis to start thinking about the music. Very often I will next decide on the form of the song before I continue. In simple songwriting speak, the "form" refers to the number of repeating verses and choruses. The material I gathered will often lead me here. The general rule with popular songwriting is to have the "story telling" elements in verses and the emotional parts in a chorus. Sometimes there is a part where I want to throw in an alternative viewpoint, or some surprise, which calls for a bridge.

Once I organized the words and stories into logical groups, I decide on how many verses I need and how long each verse should be. Normally, each verse is either 8 or 16 lines long, but different schemes are common. The important thing is to decide on something and then try to stick to it for all verses. For example, if I decide that my song will be best suited by 2 verses, a chorus, then another verse and then another chorus, with the verse being 12 lines long, I have to make sure that I am consistent and have all my verses the same length. Very often, I would find that the material I have gathered in the previous step is not as symmetric as I would like to be, e.g. I have 10 lines for the first verse, 13 lines for the 2nd verse, etc. Clearly, that is not ideal. In such cases, I need to get back to being a bit creative and add extra lines where needed, or cut what is not needed.

Only at that point will I actually switch on my computer, keyboard, or grab a guitar, or take whatever instrument of choice to work on the music. It is my preference to work on the chord progression before I work on the melody. I do not think it is wrong to have a melody first, but then you must be prepared to tweak the melody later on to fit into chord progression. To come up with chord progressions can be a separate field of study all by itself. Without overcomplicating things, I try to keep things interesting and steer away from overused progressions.

Armed with a story and a chord progression, I will start writing the melody. A great tool to use at this point is a little program called Band-in-a-box. I type in the chord progression, choose a style and a tempo and let the computer generate a backtrack. Starting with the first verse, while the computer loop the backtrack over and over again, I will try to sing out the song or play it on the keyboard. This requires me to change the words and the melody repeatedly, until they fit together. It can often take many days before I end up with something that I am happy with.

There are no real rules I follow in writing melodies, other than it must be possible for somebody to sing it. This means I have to know which character will sing it. I have to know at this stage if the melody will by sung by a tenor, bass, or soprano, as each type of singer will have a very different range of notes they can comfortably sing. Believe it or not, but an average man can not sing the same notes as a classically trained soprano.

Once I have a single verse sorted, I will skip to the chorus, following a very similar process as when I wrote the verse.

Having one verse and one chorus is the battle halfway won. Next I will go to the second verse and then the third verse, etc. The melody, at that stage, is more or less fixed, but I might want to go back and tweak it at places. Very often in musical theater songs, different characters will sing different verses (e.g. I am free). It is therefore necessary to adjust the melody to fit for the different voices. The rest is just a matter of fitting the words to the melody.

Until next time. Then we can talk more about the rhyme schemes, rhythm patterns etc.