07.28.2008

Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:05 pm

Last week on my commute to and from work, I was listening to the soundtrack of the musical Wicked. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2003; my brother obtained the soundtrack perhaps a year or two after that, and I had heard small snippets of it from his CD. But on my road trip last fall, my fellow Team Americans and I saw it on Broadway in New York City and I fell in love with it. Shortly after our return I bought the CD for myself (or rather bought it on iTunes and burned it onto a CD); and the fact that I listen to it in the car is a testament to how much I love the music. Orchestral music is often difficult to hear in a car because it has a much larger range of frequencies than popular music, and the quieter parts tend to be covered by the ambient noise driving entails. But I enjoy this musical so much that I’m willing to let parts of it be obscured, and have to adjust the volume multiple times, in order to listen to it while I’m driving.

Because there’s so much to love about Wicked, I’m going to dedicate a week’s worth of posts to it (and I may post a bit more frequently this week)–mostly short posts that deal with specific songs or ideas. To start off, I’ll mention a few general things.

The lyrics. Okay, I know this is a blog about music and sound; but I have to tell you, the lyrics to Wicked are magnificent. The fact that Stephen Schwartz could be a brilliant composer and such a genius of a lyricist boggles my mind. The lyrics are better, all things considered, than most of pop music and even much of classical music set to poetry. They’re not as serious, of course, as poetry per se; but the artistry with which they’re written is certainly on a similar level. He uses more internal rhymes than Billy Joel (which is saying a lot), and his rhymes aren’t throwaways or easy rhymes but often complex and surprising ones. Some of my favorite rhymes come from the song “Popular,” in which Glinda (the good witch) is telling Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch of the West) how to be popular:

“Don’t be offended by my frank analysis
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sis-
ter and advisor,
there’s nobody wiser!
Not when it comes to…

Popular! I know about popular
And with an assist from me
To be who you’ll be
Instead of dreary who you were… well, are,
There’s nothing that can stop you,
From becoming popular… lar…”

Any lyricist who can legitimately use the word “dialysis” in a song is pretty amazing, in my book. And if you listen to the soundtrack, or see the show, especially, there are a lot of little details in the lyrics that reference the original Wizard of Oz in very clever ways. It’s a blast.

The style. Wicked is what my girlfriend referred to as a “pop musical,” meaning that although it uses a full orchestra it’s written in a pop style more so than typical musicals–it owes its idioms more to pop songs than classical stylings, uses guitars, synthesizers and drum kits, etc. I enjoy this aspect of the music, although my girlfriend (who is much more a theatre aficionado than I) doesn’t like it as much.

The style is also rather varied throughout the musical. Although it’s all pop-flavored, there are big orchestral numbers (e.g. “No One Mourns The Wicked” and the “Finale”), tracks that are almost straight-up pop songs (e.g. the first part of “Dancing Through Life”), a ragtime (“Wonderful”), the obligatory piano ballad (“For Good” which, despite being obligatory, is actually a really good song) and even an alma mater/school song (“Dear Old Shiz”).

The leitmotifs. As originally conceived by the classical 19th century composer Richard Wagner, a leitmotif is a musical theme or idea associated with a particular character, place or plot point. It’s a concept used extensively in movie scores today, where each character often has their own theme. For example, everyone knows Darth Vader’s theme (technically titled “The Imperial March”) from Star Wars. This theme also pops up in subtle, understated ways in Episodes I through III, which detail how Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader–it could be played quietly in the low strings as he contemplates an evil action, for instance. In Wicked, the themes are not so much associated with characters as with ideas, but they function in similar ways. The “unlimited” theme, for example, which first appears in Elphaba’s song “The Wizard And I,” reappears later in “Defying Gravity” and “For Good;” and the original chord progression in the opening song (“No One Mourns The Wicked”) comes back periodically as well. Schwartz’s use of leitmotifs, while perhaps not innovative, is certainly excellent, and it lends the show a great deal of internal coherency–which I always appreciate.

The details. All well-written music is full of little details that make big differences, but I particularly appreciate the detail in the music of Wicked. I’ll get into more specifics as I write about individual songs throughout the week.

In the meantime, you can check out samples on Amazon’s product page. Also, you may be interested in this article: “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage, musicalschwartz.com. It talks about some of the themes and leitmotifs used in the show, and even uses Star Wars as an example. Great minds think alike, I suppose.

An old friend of mine in college named Albert, who was not a trained composer but nevertheless taught me important musical lessons, once said that with all the changing norms and styles in our musical culture today, perhaps the only universal aesthetic left was the ability to inspire. (I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s a thought-provoking point.) Wicked fires on many, many cylinders, but that is certainly one of them: listening to its soundtrack makes me want to write better music.

(P.S. In an interesting twist, our old friend Last.fm didn’t really have any of the songs that I tried to find; but I was able to find all of them on iLike.com. So all the links to listenable clips in my posts this week will be iLike links. Go figure.)

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