Wicked is a musical by Stephen Schwartz which hit Broadway in 2003. In this Music GCSE Set Work Blog I am going to look at how GCSE Music Students might approach the study of this set work. Hopefully you have had a chance to see other blogs in this series.
There is nothing quite like going to see a musical. Whether it be something classic like Phantom of the Opera, or something new like Dear Evan Hansen; there is is always something magical about a night at the theatre. Musical Theatre as a genre could be said to date back many centuries as music and drama have often been combined. However one might consider that the kind of Musical that we have come to know today dates back to the 19th century works of Gilbert & Sullivan. Musical Theatre has obvious links with opera and in many ways what we are considering is how stories are told with music.
Modern day musicals vary in style and approach with a number of new musicals hitting the West End every year. Some are revivals of past productions, some are entirely new or based on movies or existing stories. Musicals can have large scale sets & lighting rigs, or they can be smaller productions with only a handful of actors & actresses on stage. The world of Musical Theatre is huge and there is so much to discover. Students studying Wicked will not have a problem with finding wonderful examples of Wider Listening from this genre.
Defying Gravity is one of those songs where I remember the first time I heard it. I had heard about this new musical Wicked and I wanted to get the CD and have a listen. Listening to Music has always been a huge part of my life and job, but it was slightly harder back in the days of CDs. Buying a CD of a musical was therefore a commitment and I had no regrets once I had heard Defying Gravity for the first time. And I kept listening, and listening. It was full of so much energy and excitement, I loved it immediately.
Songs & Music can have that power, the power to keep you listening. But why? What is it about this song that gives it so much energy and power? Why did I enjoy listening to it so much and why are we now studying it for Edexcel GCSE Music?
Stephen Schwartz is one of the most successful musical theatre composers of the 21st century. An American composer born in 1948, he has created musicals such as Pippin, Godspell and more recently The Prince of Egypt. He has worked on stage and on-screen, contributing lyrics to a number of major motion pictures. He was won 3 Grammy Awards, 3 Academy Awards and 6 Tony Awards. We are dealing with a composer who knows the genre well. Wicked is a musical based on a book by Gregory Maguire “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West“.
What & Why
When I consider What is going on in a set work I like to link to “Lines of Argument”. I interpret this as key threads that run through a piece and any stylistic or dramatic features. With a musical it is potential easy to link the musical WHATS to the WHYS. The story helps us with this and we can start to think about how the musical features are telling the story.
There are 3 areas that I want to consider as we unpack this piece of Musical Theatre:
- What makes this a great example of a song from a Modern, 21st Century Musical?
- How does this song emphasise a sense of tension between the two character?
- In what ways does this song create a sense of strength, power & defying of gravity?
I feel like these 4 questions provide a way in to the WHAT of Defying Gravity and also a way of approaching the WHY. What is the song all about and how does the music help to portray this and bring it all to life? Of course we will need to attach Musical features to each of these questions in order to fully answer them. Here are a few things for each of the 3 points:
- Modern 21st Century Musical – Large Orchestra with wider use of electric guitar & synthesisers. Strong driving rock beat on the Drum-Kit.
- The song opens with an argument between Elphaba & Glinda. The use of Sforzando dynamic markings and the changes in time signature help to portray this.
- This song creates a sense of strength & power through its use of large melodic leaps, driving rock beat and moments of higher pitch in the melody – “So if you care to find me, look to the Western Sky”.
End of Act I
There is no right or wrong way of thinking about the WHAT & WHY and I explain them a little more in my first post about Set Works. It is just important to have these lines of argument as they help centre our thinking.
Here is another question that could be considered. We can then add musical features:
- Why is this song a perfect end to Act I of the Musical Wicked?
This Why question then opens the door for us to consider musical features that help to create a sense of Finale to the Act. We start to appreciate the nature of writing for theatre and how a composer takes the audience on a journey. This is a great end to the Act because it is upbeat, exciting and leaves us wanting more. It is great to think about how music can have that power. It is the same in the musical Les Miserables where Act I ends with the wonderful “One Day More”. There is no way the audience won’t want to return for Act II.
Wider & Weigh
One of the reasons Wider Listening is important is because it gives us music to compare our set works to. I use this term Weigh – we weigh up one piece against another. We certainly aren’t short of musicals to compare & contrast with Wicked, but we must weigh up the features carefully. Wider Listening for Defying Gravity might focus on some of the similar themes and ideas presented above:
- Modern 21st Century Musicals – Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Legally Blonde
- Songs that show strength and power – “Seize the day” from Newsies, “My Shot” from Hamilton
- Great “End of Act I” songs – “One Day More” from Les Miserables, “Who I’d Be” from Shrek or “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music
Choosing Wider listening is easier with a theme, thread or line of argument. It gives us something to listen out for and compare with our Set Work. Every time you listen to something from another musical you can think about how it compares to Defying Gravity. How is the instrumentation similar? What different ways are voices utilised in the song? How does the music create a sense of Drama. Out job as musicians is to look at what is going on in the song and why the composer has chosen to use that particularly element.
Gravity is essentially a force of attraction between any two objects. It keeps us down to earth, it draws us towards the ground. As we study set works we need to create a similar force where we are drawn to them. Understanding music isn’t just about recognising a feature or describing a story. It is about explaining how the composer, in the year they composed, created music with a purpose and then saying how they achieved this musically. We need to be able to say Why things happen, and then be able to compare with other similar or different pieces.
I discuss this more extensively in what I like to call my “Match of the Day” approach to musical analysis. We can’t simply say what the score is at the end of the match. We need to say how that score was achieved and why that team won or lost. Comparing to their last match or other matches from the same day can help further support this analysis.
So, do Gary Lineker proud and start analysing music like he analysis football. Allow the music to draw as close to you as possible and ground yourself in a world of musical theatre.
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