Adventures In Score Writing And My Love Of Latin Music
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
The process of writing a musical is one full of unexpected roadblocks and breakthroughs. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently finished what I’m considering the final draft (yeah, yeah, nothing's ever "final," still this is the draft that's going to print, so to speak) of a musical I’ve been working on for a little over three years now. While by my standards the writing of this piece has been slow going, it has still been rife with those little discoveries you make along the way. Here’s one such example I’m particularly happy to have made.
The show is a simple book-musical comedy about weddings, airport travel, and coming of age, and from the start I wanted to give it a somewhat “cosmopolitan” (read: Sex and the City) vibe. To this end, I wanted to employ a staple of the style of Latin and Latin jazz music you hear at Sunday brunch all across the city: the montuno. In general, a montuno is essentially a syncopated piano ostinato (“vamp” or “repeated” in layman's terms) figure. There are countless different styles of them in Afro-Cuban music, usually based off of what's called either a 3-2 or 2-3 clave rhythm (I am very much obsessed with the use of clave rhythms, by the way). I sat down and studied more of them than I can count in preparation for writing my own more “musical theatre-ized” versions that could be played by a single accompanist.
One of my favorites that I came up with was included in a song called “Friends Like Mine” for the character of Alex in a very, very early version of the show which I presented in a 45-minute reading in my apartment to a few colleagues back in December of 2008. Here’s a section of the chorus from that song (forgive the lyrics here. They are far from what I'd call “polished”):
The montuno, with a few harmonic shifts, goes on from there. The simplicity of the harmony coupled with the cheery bounce of the montuno was perfect for a character sitting in a bar basking in the warm relationship he has with the other characters (sure, it's not a “true” montuno in the strictest sense of the word, but we're dealing with dramatic song form here so it's “pastiched” for the context of the lyric). Unfortunately this song was also functioning as too much exposition. The characters were, as I put it (forgive the Lord of the Rings reference): “spending too much time in the Shire and need to get on with their quest to destroy the ring.” The entire scene and song, and with it the montuno I liked so much, was scrapped.
After a reading of the full show at NYU in February of 2010, another problem presented itself. I had always intended the show to be a story about the friendship between the two main characters, Alex and Emily. A sort of musical Will & Grace, if you will. But the main feedback I was receiving after that reading was that the audience wanted more of the romance between Emily and Michael (her ex-boyfriend and the groom at the wedding to which they’re traveling). Rather than just blindly taking that feedback, I thought: If that’s what they want, then that means I’m guiding the audience in the wrong direction from the start and setting up a story that's not the one I intended to tell.
The result was a song titled “Thanks To You.” While writing the lyrics, I felt myself humming something. There was this familiar bit of music in my ear. Where was it coming from? And it hit me: oh, wow. It's that montuno I had scrapped years ago in “Friends Like Mine.” What a perfect feel for the new song, so the music was resurrected:
This happened totally subconsciously. I hadn’t thought of this music since I cut it years earlier, but somehow it was still alive in my brain and ear. The lyric I was writing (99% of the time I write lyrics before music – though in my head I always hear the melody I'm eventually going to use while writing the lyrics) was begging me to set it against this accompaniment I had previously cut. Bonus for me, as it took far less time to compose the song than it would have had I started it from scratch.
Recycling is key in writing a score. It always sucks to have to cut a song and kill one of your babies, but never assume that it’s dead forever. While I didn’t reuse the song completely (and looking at the original lyrics, I really never would) I did get to use my favorite musical notion from the accompaniment of that song. In its new life as “Thanks To You” it works perfectly for the dramatic moment, and the song now even gets a small reprise towards the end of the show. For me, it’s little discoveries like this one that make score writing so much fun.
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
EMAIL HIM | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | OTHER POSTS BY THIS AUTHOR