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Broadway Songwriting Is in Critical Condition. Again.

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Four Musical-Theater Composers Explain What Makes a Perfect Song
As told to Rebecca Milzoff.


Musicals today—mindful of long odds, high costs, and the general precariousness of the form—are, I think, resisting their inner madness, and that’s a little like hating one’s own flesh. What basis besides madness can there possibly be for a form that’s as shapeless, idiosyncratic, and painstakingly artisanal as the novel yet as vastly collaborative and consensus-dependent as a Hollywood film? How do we reconcile these things? We do not. We embrace the schizoid totality of it. A true musical is the fissile power of internal contradiction gone critical. It’s the disciplined, rigorous release of madness from the molten core of the human soul, apportioned in meter, disciplined (barely) in song. Perhaps in our culture-wide search for the perfection solution to the Musical Problem, we’re missing opportunities to go a little more nuts. Embrace a bad idea or two: a singing barber-cannibal here, a tuneful prison romance there. Sometimes a “good” idea simply doesn’t sing, but a bad one does. We must save the calculations for scansion, and instead let something impractical romp across the countryside, laying waste. Overstuff our birds with feeling, with meaning. And let’s not get between ourselves and our madness—at least, not in the first draft. Lean times, we’re learning, call not for austerity but heroic overage. So today, the bad news, the barrel-bottom: but maybe? Tomorrow? A turducken in every pot.


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