My lovely wife is a musical theatre connoisseur, and she recently gave me the soundtrack to Anything Goes (1934, although the version she gave me was the 1962 revival) to listen to. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, and just this morning finished listening to it all the way through. The lyrics by Cole Porter are quite clever–I must say that nothing I’ve heard thus far in my life can top Stephen Schwartz in Wicked, but I’ve been impressed with the lyrics in this show, especially in the songs “You’re The Top” and “Anything Goes.” And I’ve enjoyed the music as well. Musical theatre has never been one of my favorite styles of music; although I’m always up for seeing a good musical, I wouldn’t normally listen to a soundtrack on its own. But, when I gave Eleanor Coldplay’s LeftRightLeftRightLeft album and was looking for something of hers to listen to, I thought I’d take a musical to see what I could glean from the style.

I find that the music for Anything Goes is a little more interesting to me than “typical” musical theatre style. (Eleanor and I also listened to excerpts from Kiss Me, Kate recently, which is another Cole Porter musical from 14 years later, and we were both much less impressed.) The orchestra that it uses is an intriguing one: mostly piano, brass (in a big band sort of style), and drums/percussion, with only the occasional woodwind for color and a banjo (?!) just for good measure–hardly any strings at all. I have to give Mr. Porter props for that; I don’t think I could sacrifice strings in writing a musical, no matter how hard I tried. But I generally like the way the orchestra is used (even the banjo), although the piano parts can be a little hackneyed and most of its intros sound the same.

In listening to this musical, I also tried to deduce what musical elements make up the “musical theatre sound.” Certainly the orchestration (primarily brass and piano) has something to do with it. As far as the harmonies go, they tend towards a pop-jazz style, using lots of extended chords (sevenths, ninths, etc. without getting too crazy or dissonant), secondary dominants and active, mobile bass lines based around the tonic and fifth (C – G – C – G – C – G – C G A B – C etc.). And melodies and harmonies alike are in love with the sixth (e.g. the note A in C major)–somehow the sixth as a melody note is harmonious and “part of the chord” with the tonic triad in many songs (see, for example, the song “Heaven Hop” in Anything Goes). Apart from those, though, I’m not sure anything else jumps out at me, even though musical theatre is an almost instantly recognizable style.

What are your thoughts? What do you think of Anything Goes? Any technical or non-technical ideas about what makes something sound distinctly like a musical?

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  1. Gravatar

    Mark Harbison on 06.28.2009

    I feel like the style of singing in musicals contributes a lot to a general “musical theater” sound. in my experience, it tends to fall somewhat in between classical and pop—most theater singers have some classical training (a lot, if they’re in a show good enough to have a soundtrack made), but their singing is a lot less rigidly controlled by the rules and there’s always some belting and stylizing thrown in.

    Also, and I’m not sure how to describe what this sounds like, I feel like the purpose of music in theater determines the sound. Music in musicals is almost always doing one of two things: expressing emotions of characters (usually internal struggles or some such thing), or expositing the plot. Naturally, this leads to essentially two types of songs, although there’s obviously a lot of variety within those two types.

    But anyway, the songs also have to entertain the audience (especially the expositional ones), and so they also often have to have the additional requirement of being danceable. I couldn’t describe what “danceable” sounds like, but there’s some songs you can do choreography to and some that you really just can’t. Most musical theater songs have to fall into the first category.

  2. Gravatar

    ajharbison on 06.29.2009

    Mark: Excellent comments! The two types of songs idea is true, I think, in any kind of musical drama–that distinction exists in opera as well (exposition is done in recitatives and emotions are expressed in arias). And your point about “danceability” is also a great one. Good thinkin’!

    AJ Harbison

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    Rachel on 07.01.2009

    First of all, I love the new layout!

    Okay, now to the post response: I’ve never seen Anything Goes, and have only heard select songs at various musical theatre senior performances at school. But I like what I’ve heard.

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    karen marie on 07.18.2012

    What is the correct musical term for the way that Cole Porter started many of his songs? You know, the kind of “talking” and then he led right into the singing.
    Thanks!

  5. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 07.19.2012

    Hi Karen! I don’t know that there is a musical term for that, or if there is, I don’t know it. Sorry. But thanks for stopping by!

    AJ Harbison

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