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Crafting Theatre, Part 5: Choosing Songs

Picking the music is just the beginning of music preparation for a show, and so I’m dividing this into three parts. The first - this one - is about choosing the songs to include in a new show.


When one is preparing a musical show, picking the music is an integral part of the overall preparation.  And I’m sure that, watching the end result, it probably seems easy:  Do a cabaret about Piaf, sing a bunch of Piaf songs.  A bio-play about Vera Lynn?  Pick a bunch of her greatest hits and stick them in.  Early music of Irving Berlin?  There are hundreds of songs to choose from, as long as one keeps in mind that even though they were written in the United States, they’re still under copyright in Canada…


It’s not so easy, though.  Because there are a lot of songs out there, and only about an hour to perform a show in North America (in the United Kingdom, shows tend to be longer with an intermission).  And with any famous musical figure, there are certain songs that the audience expects to hear.  And certain songs that I like to sing.  And certain songs that I’ve sung so many times, that I can’t imagine putting them in a new show (such as La Vie en Rose).  And other songs which are so inextricably linked to the character in question, that there’s no way they can be left out of a bio-show (again La Vie en Rose in a Piaf show). 


This particular show was exciting for me because I was unfamiliar with Deanna Durbin’s music, which meant – hurrah! – learning new music!  It’s been a while – for the past couple of years, I’ve performed shows with gorgeous, interesting songs, but most of them were songs I knew already – or had heard before, at the very least.  And with this new show, I got to start at the beginning.


A few of the songs weren’t really a choice.  As the show is going to be about both Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, Somewhere Over the Rainbow really wasn’t a choice.  I needed another Garland tune, and I have always liked Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.  Was there an American Songbook standard recorded by both Durbin and Garland?  Yes!  Always, by Irving Berlin – which is a great song, and which a lot of people know.  Three songs down, about twelve to go…


In most of the cabaret-style shows I do, the songs are a major part of the overall piece.  Each song is 2.5-4 minutes, and overall, 40 minutes out of about  55 is just me singing.  However, as I planned for this to be a more theatrical piece, I had decided that I wanted more songs, but generally shorter musical interludes.  About 28 minutes of music, possibly 32 if some of it were instrumentals underscoring dialogue.


The next step in picking music was listening to songs.  Listening to a LOT of songs.  Deanna Durbin was known for singing sentimental ballads, and although a few of those would work well, an entire show of sentimental ballads would start to drag.  And also, even though the songs are actually quite unique after one gets to know them, I would be singing to an audience who would likely be hearing most of this music for the first time.  So the songs needed to be catchy at first listen.  And, to be honest, a lot of them weren’t.


I spent the next few days listening to songs.  There were a few I loved right away, and a few more that  fascinating.  Others were forgettable, but even those were sweet in their own way.  After listening to song after song – both Durbin versions and the occasional cover, to see how the music sounded with someone else singing it – I had almost decided on the music I wanted.  One particularly gorgeous Deanna Durbin recording was of the Irish folk song Molly Malone, and I decided to integrate it into the plot so I could play the original.  There is only recording of Garland and Durbin singing together, and I decided to integrate that into the next draft of the script, also, so audiences could hear the vocal contrast between the two.


Then, armed with the list of music I wanted to use, it was time for another script revision.  Each song needed to fit in with the preceding dialogue, either to mirror the overall feeling, or to further the plot.  Some of the songs worked well, some didn’t - so back to listening and organizing.  And finally – finally!  All the songs were in, and it was time for the next step: Finding (and learning) the music, and prepping it for the studio.

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