Ghosts In The Room: The challenges of singing familiar songs

The past few weeks, I’ve been working as music director for a production that features songs with music by Richard Rodgers, many of them quite familiar: My Funny Valentine and The Sound of Music are just a few of the most well-known.

The singers are thrilled to have the opportunity to sing such iconic material. Though we include this sort of repertoire in classroom study, the opportunities to perform songs like these are, sadly, few and far between.

As singers and educators, our relationship with familiar songs is a complicated one. Within the insulated world of professional musical theater and programs that train students for the profession, there’s an odd sort of stigma attached to familiar songs.

As teachers, even the best of us get tired of hearing them, in the same way I imagine that wine-tasters must get weary of drinking fine wines, and restaurant critics grow tired of delicious food.

Some schools even go so far as to publish “DO NOT SING” lists for prospective students planning to audition for admission, and heaven help you if your favorite song has been designated “off limits” by a jaded, grumpy professor at your dream school. Working actors are similarly advised that certain songs are taboo in professional auditions. It’s as if these familiar songs are like Kryptonite, possessing the power to compromise even the most talented performer and get them booted from the room before they’ve even sung a note.

Ours is a field of specialists and cognoscenti, and familiar songs suffer in this rarefied environment. The connoisseur who scorns a particularly familiar song may simply be executing an esthetic maneuver designed to set himself apart from the hoi polloi. We jump to the conclusion that someone singing a familiar song must be lazy or ignorant; how else are we to explain their painfully obvious choice?

The question of taste is actually a vast and complicated one for those who would study musical theater and those who would teach it. The concepts of “quality” and “popularity” get all muddled up in our heads when we talk about shows. The history of the musical theater is a tangled tale of mingled threads, highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, elite and vernacular, historic and contemporary, commercial and experimental all evolving side by side with the passing decades, and it takes a particular sort of open mind to embrace the rich and varied array of work that has been created in the past century or so.

Everyday theatergoers, however, have quite a different relationship to familiar songs, and it should come as no surprise that familiar songs are catnip at the box office and during the performance. During our revue, we often find audience members singing along quietly (and sometimes not so quietly); it’s as if the familiarity of the song deepens their experience, sometimes to the extent of making it possible for them to participate in the performance.

When someone hears (and sees) a performance of a familiar song, a remarkable thing occurs in the brain. A relationship is instantaneously created between the present performance and whatever memories of that song are stored in the listener’s memory. Songs are designed to be memorable, built around repeated “hooks,” catchy turns of phrase that use rhyme, rhythm and melody to embed themselves quickly in long term memory; it only takes a handful of notes to activate those memories, and the mind quickly begins to compare the current version to the versions it has stored. Is it faster, slower, higher, lower? Does it have similar tone and texture, or does it contrast with those?

Comparison is not the only mental process that comes into play when you hear a song; equally important are the associations that exist in your memory. Where were you when you heard this song? Who were you with? If you stopped to consider its lyric and message, what impact did that have on you?

Musicals take advantage of this song by employing reprises, the recurring use of a song at different points in the narrative. When Eliza revisits Covent Garden in Act II of My Fair Lady, the song Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, which she sang there in Act I, is heard with a melancholy air. The reprise and underscore evokes her innocence and enthusiasm in that earlier scene, and a sort of wistful nostalgia for the loss of those qualities in her life. When Adelaide and Sarah meet at the end of Act II in Guys and Dolls, they sing their respective theme songs, “Adelaide’s Lament” and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” in counterpoint, and the juxtaposition serves to remind the listener of how two very dissimilar characters could arrive at such a similar place in their life’s journey. And when Magnolia sings Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man in her audition at the Trocadero Night Club in Act II of Show Boat, accompanying herself on a battered guitar, the audience remembers her youthful innocence on the occasion when Julie sang that song early in Act I, and how “lovin’ that man” has brought Nola to this low point in her life.

The same quality in songs that makes them work as reprises in a musical also serves to link any present performance with other remembered performances. Aging hipsters at a Steely Dan concert groove on “My Old School” and “Hey Nineteen,” and their present pleasure results in no small degree from their recollections of other occasions when they heard those songs. If you sing “Strange Fruit” in a performance, you bring Billie Holiday into the room with you, and many listeners are likely to have a particular memory of that song that will color and augment their experience of the current performance.

Jazz artists in particular are noted for their creative ability to “transform” familiar songs. When a jazz vocalist alters the melody of a song, chances are that the listener has some other “pure” version of that melody in their memory, and the two versions – the remembered original and the present riff – are compared. When an improviser uses a melody as the basis for an extended impromptu (I’m currently listening to Brad Mehldau fashion My Favorite Things into an elaborate Lisztian fantasia), the listener’s ears remain alert for signs of the tune that forms the basis of the improvisation, and a palpable sigh of relief is felt when a familiar motif or fragment can be glimpsed amidst the torrent of strange, new music. The interplay of familiarity and invention makes the experience of such performances breathtakingly exciting.

I’d go a step farther and claim that our experience is influenced by similar songs, songs with different titles and lyrics but some sort of stylistic resemblance. This is what makes pastiche work: we hear a song and, while we recognize that it is new and unfamiliar to us, it bears such a strong resemblance to other songs that our associative memories are engaged. Think of how the songs in Follies evoke historical predecessors (can you hear “Losing My Mind” and not think of “The Man I Love” or “The Man That Got Away?”), or the pseudo-Dubin-and-Warren pastiche of Dames At Sea, or Jason Robert Brown’s ingenious Surabaya Santa, which preposterously links Mrs. Claus and Lotte Lenya? Our brains are puzzle-solving machines, and they create meaning by making connections between something occurring in the present moment and other occurrences of the past. This is an integral part of the experience of song, and the SAVI singing actor will recognize this, acknowledge it and utilize that knowledge to his or her advantage.

Forewarned, then, is forearmed. How can the SAVI singing actor employ this phenomenon, this inevitable aspect of the act of experiencing a performance, and use it to his or her advantage? Let’s begin by saying that we all stand on the shoulders who have gone before us. Choose to sing People, and Streisand’s iconic performance will have to be taken into account; embrace it, reject it entirely, or digest it and use it to create something new, but it’s foolish to pretend it doesn’t exist. Choose to sing the Dentist song from Little Shop, and you’ve got to reckon with the ghost of Elvis Presley and his James-Dean-bad-boy persona. Sinatra’s persona hovers over The Lady Is A Tramp (even though Rodgers and Hart wrote it for a woman originally), and Chet Baker has staked a claim on My Funny Valentine that vies with Sinatra’s in the listener’s memory and serves as a prism that will refract the rays of your present performance.

This means that schooling yourself in the DNA of a song is almost always valuable. You want to be sure you’re aware of what your listeners might be experiencing internally while they listen to you. Do your research: what have past interpreters of this song done with it? Listen to original cast albums, cover versions, concerts and anthologies. Track the versions down on YouTube and BlueGobo and sift through them for ideas, for clues, for inspirations that will lead to YOUR version, your creation, your specific set of choices.

The present moment is always experienced in the context of the past. That context serves to make the present moment meaningful. Any form of communication must be undertaken with an awareness of context: how you say what you have to say will be shaped by what’s been said, how it’s been said, and how it’s been interpreted in the past.