“We’re sitting and watching,” sings the cast of William Finn’s 1992 musical Falsettos. “We’re watching Jewish boys, who cannot play baseball, play baseball!” In the world of the stage, the characters are doing exactly that, belting their lyrics while perched on bleachers before an imaginary New York ballfield. But according to Alexandre Bádue, a doctoral candidate in musicology at the College-Conservatory of Music, the cast’s song is also shifting how theatrical stories can be told.
Speaking in Song
Bádue’s research examines the sung-through musical, a form of the genre made popular by a group of composers who came of age in the 1980s. “In a traditional musical like Camelot,” he explains, “you learn a lot about the characters from what they speak. It works, but these composers asked, ‘What can we do to make this different?’” In their musicals, the characters instead deliver all of their lines while singing. Because a sung-through musical can’t rely on dialogue, however, every song must accomplish a lot more dramatic work. Characterization, action, plot: everything must happen through music.
Consider the baseball scene from Falsettos. Through the staging, the audience experiences the action of the characters, but the song itself also narrates the unfolding drama. Especially interesting to Bádue is the commentary folded into the lyrics, which directly addresses the audience to break the so-called fourth wall. “It’s just so clever, and it makes you aware as an audience member that this is a piece of theater,” he says. “If the play comments on itself, it makes you think about how that correlates to your life, how that can change you as a human being.”