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The Crackle of Difference: Analyzing the Contrast Between the Spoken and the Sung

Updated: May 4, 2021


Music Director & TheoryWorks Coach

“I like the contrast of the spoken word and the sung word,” said Stephen Sondheim, when I interviewed him in 2016.

The late musical theatre scholar Scott McMillin agrees. “When a musical is working well,” he wrote in The Musical as Drama, “I feel the crackle of difference, not the smoothness of unity, even when the numbers dovetail with the book.”

I spent the better part of graduate school as a music theorist pursuing the applications of music analysis to the repertoire of the American Musical Theatre. The spoken and the sung, and the way they volleyed with one another in the musical theatre, piqued my curiosity.

It became my belief that a practical, analytical approach to a musical’s score would serve as powerful fodder for character development, providing a richer experience for both

actor and audience.

I mean: actors delve deep into script analysis all the time, don’t they?

They interpret the themes, motifs, and structural implications of the scripts they’re readying for the stage, mining the text not only for authorial intent, but also for the nuances that sparkle and shine for them in particular; that help to feed their unique interpretation of a role.

Why, then, would an actor, director, performer, or designer at work on a musical neglect to interact with the score in this same way?

In the non-musical world of the theatre, dramaturgical work with a script is a standard (and hopefully, expected) part of the creative process.

But in the musical theatre, the score is often given little more consideration than that of a guidebook replete with notation that represents “how the music goes.”

But beginning with “Sondheim: A Seminar in Sound,” TheoryWorks founder Amy Marie Stewart and I hope to change that.

In the first masterclass of its kind, we'll be putting the score on par with the script, and interacting with the music on a deeper, character-driven level -- and then, immediately seeing how that work reflects itself in performance on its feet.

The class will divide into two parts: the first class, we'll focus on analysis of the score. Not slogging away on written notation -- like actors might have done in college courses -- but looking at the broad elements employed by Sondheim. And, asking ourselves why.

Then in week two, those actors will put what they've learned on its feet, performing songs of their choice, and seeing how their work informed their interpretation as actors.

This is a big experiment on our part, that begs the question “is a practical approach to score analysis in the musical theatre, well… practical?”

We’re not sure yet where it will lead. But we so excited to test these new waters, and find out.

Adam's upcoming performance and analysis masterclass "Sondheim: A Seminar in Sound," is scheduled for Tuesday, January 19th from 7-9pm, with the second session a week later on Tuesday, January 26th.

Click here to register as a participant or an observer, and to find out more.


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