Graduate School Dean's Fellow: Alexandre Bádue
“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.”
In Their Own Words
Musical theatre composers carefully structure their songs to achieve this narrative sophistication, as Bádue discovered from the composers themselves. In 2015, he made two research trips to New York City, where he interviewed Broadway icons such as Galt McDermot (Hair), Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) and Jeanine Tesori (Shrek The Musical). In conjunction with archival research into old scripts and scores, these interviews helped Bádue piece together the creative processes and artistic goals for different productions.
Bádue also visited the Library of Congress to study the papers of Jonathan Larson, creator of the landmark musical Rent. Larson struggled with the show for over five years, constantly adjusting the structure, order and characters of its songs. Using Larson's extensive notes and audio recordings, Bádue traced the evolution of Rent through its first off-Broadway preview in January 1996; Larson died the morning of that performance. "I saw the sketchbook that he held the day before he died, with notes that he took the last time he saw the show," Bádue recalls. "I had goosebumps."
Musicals that Matter
This close analysis of musicals fills what Bádue sees as a major gap in musicological research. "For a long time, scholars did not believe that you could write a dissertation on the history of the musical, because it was just silly or light entertainment," he says. But musicals such as Rent, which tackles real-world topics such as HIV/AIDS and social inequality, have given the genre more dramatic weight. His research further establishes musical theater as a form worthy of serious academic work.
After he finishes his dissertation, Bádue plans to teach music theory and sight singing for musical theater students. By sharing his deep knowledge of how musicals are constructed, he hopes to help singers better connect with their material and give more meaningful performances. "Musicals aren't just entertainment," Bádue says. "They can tell us who we are, what we're doing in this world, how to cope with different situations, and how to be happy."
Written by Daniel Walton, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office