As noted in my earlier blog, Insta-Musical: Just Add Water was my first, perhaps slightly clumsy, attempt at a fully improvised long-form musical. One of the underlying concepts that was unique to this production and that I’ve played with a lot since was creating a stock of song structures that could be deployed within the arc of the show to help create variety in terms of song type, energy and number of singers. It’s important to note that the songs were still truly improvised – melodies, lyrics and accompaniment were not set in any way – but they were predictable in terms of how the parts were assembled. Would the song start with a verse, utilize a hook or repeated phrase, and when would the chorus typically appear? I will acknowledge that this approach is not everyone’s cup of tea, but particularly when it comes to group songs, I find it helpful to have a basic road map especially if you’re working with a new ensemble that doesn’t have decades of experience reading each other’s subtle musical intents on stage.
As an example, I offer you Work Song, which is one of the more peculiar options we had at our disposal. I actually think the song format was inspired by a distant memory of a family of musicians performing on an English variety show that I saw and filed away in the recesses of my brain as a kid in New Zealand!
Here’s a peek inside:
Work Song is a structure that introduces and unites four characters musically. It has a sense of whimsy to it, with a unique approach to a chorus that primarily consists of rhythmic and syncopated sound effects that gradually build and complicate as each new character and voice are added. I dubbed it Work Song as it often fits well in a work environment as you see the various functions or roles each person fulfills.
With four players, this is a Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, repeat Chorus to a resolution structure. Each player, in sequence, introduces themselves in a solo verse, typically two rhyming couplets or similar. Later players should strive to mirror the length and musicality of the first singer to give the song a sense of uniformity. At the completion of the verse, the singer provides a lead in to the effect of “And I go…” or “And it sounds like…” and then crafts a series of verbalizations that mimic a component of their activity, subtext or emotional state. Generally this pattern is repeated twice as the chorus (and the chorus takes up about half the space of the solo verses).
“I work here at the office, slogging to earn my pay
Standing at the copier, just passing the time of day
They hand me stacks of paper, like none you’ve ever seen
And I watch the light scan by as I put them in the machine
And I go… Zip, Zippity Zip, Zippity Zip Zip Zip (scanning sounds)
And I go… Zip, Zippity Zip, Zippity Zip Zip Zip”
Each player repeats the pattern, crafting a unique verse from their character’s point of view, and then adding their own rhythmic chorus addition. The new singer cues the chorus with a similar launching phrase, taking the first line alone to establish the new work sounds, with the previously established players joining on the repeat. Once all the voices have been introduced, the full chorus generally repeats and builds.
Traps and Tips
1.) Character is key. I’d certainly consider this a charm song and as such you need to really establish strong and clear points of view and sell them in the various verses and staging. I don’t think the cuteness of the format would particularly serve later in a performance as it has a very “let’s meet the family” premise at its core.
2.) Avoid sentences in the chorus. If the chorus consists almost exclusively of utterances and sounds rather than words and phrases, it really makes it stand out and will likely not replicate other song energies and dynamics that you have in the mix. There is always the exception to the rule, and often the fourth player can get away with something a little more language-based, but if the chorus starts with phrases, it’s hard to break that pattern further down the line.
3.) Know your order. When I utilize this type of strategy in my long-forms we nearly always have a default singing order so that players aren’t suddenly taken off guard when others are expecting them to sing. I’ve found the simplest default is just to start with the most stage right singer and then move in order across the stage. This also allows singers to juggle their spots if they would prefer to go sooner or later, or know that they have a strong closing point of view that would work well in the final position.
4.) Capitalize on the silences. In the chorus, in particular, really look for different rhythms and ways to syncopate your choices with those that are already established. If someone has crafted a long sustained legato feel, providing something more sparse and staccato can be really effective and dynamic. Musicians should err on the side of simple as the chorus is being established as well as you want the actors’ voices to at least initially create the interest here.
5.) Tell the story. The repetitiveness of the chorus is both the blessing and the curse of this particular song frame. It invites an escalation or heightening with appropriate staging and emotional attack. Generally, the song feels as if we’re peeking inside the heads of the characters (hearing their subtext) so it’s also a great way to reveal secrets, passions or idiosyncrasies that can then inform the resulting scene work. If the content and verses are too trivial, the song feels like a place holder as opposed to a way of establishing relationships and a work or family routine.
This is probably an unlikely show stopper but it’s a playfully different way of assembling the elements of a song. While this idea was birthed with Insta-Musical, I’ve gone back to the central premise and polished it several times for my later musical experiments, most notably FourPlay: The Improvised Musical, which took this concept of having a Rolodex of possible song structures up several notches. (That’s an image of the first season of this production at SAK Comedy Lab above.) If you’re finding your improv songs are all starting to sound alike or defaulting into ballads, this might offer a different approach.
And that’s your peek inside Insta-Musical: Just Add Water, my first crack at mounting a long-form improv show.