We'll Be Alright

An actor once told me he had been taught by a musical theatre teacher that when you repeat a line in a lyric, you have to find a new meaning for that line every time you sing it, new colors, new subtext, new context.

Now that sounds good on the surface, although I'm not sure it's always true.

After all, time operates differently during a song than it does during a book scene. Usually, time slows down once the music starts. What would take five seconds of dialogue in a book scene – like introducing yourself, for example – takes a minute and a half in song. Or longer, if there's a dance break. In Company, Bobby's "Being Alive" revelation happens in a second or two in "real" time, but takes almost five minutes in musical theatre time.

Sometimes repetition is a necessary tool to make sure an audience gets important information. That's why the really great craftsman get the most vital piece of info into the "hook" of the song, as in "Being Alive," "Some People," "Morning Glow," "Populism, Yeah, Yeah," "La Vie Boheme," "You Can't Beat the System," "You Can't Stop the Beat," and lots of others.

Mid-century, it was ground-breaking for a musical to reprise a song and give the same lyric new context. The prime example, of course, is Sondheim's brilliantly chameleon "Let Me Entertain You," but there's also songs like "Lovely" in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and a number of others.

But musical theatre writing is getting more sophisticated every year. In terms of just pure craft, lyricists like Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) and Larry O'Keefe (Bat Boy) have progressed beyond Hammerstein and Lerner and Harnick. Once the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution happened in the mid-1940s, audiences became impatient with the shallower pop musicals of the 20s and 30s. Later in the 70s, when the concept musical and rock musical both exploded onto the scene, audiences grew less connected to the simplistic morality and storytelling conventions of the R&H shows. With each new revolution, audiences demand more.

So I return to my original point. Does an actor have to find a new meaning for each repeat of a line? I guess I believe that sometimes the song just isn't built that way, but it's probably always a valuable exercise because it will at least reveal more possibilities.

And I think it's often true with Night of the Living Dead. There are a lot of lyrical themes throughout the show, phrases that get repeated a lot:
Please stand by.
This is the end of broadcast.
This can't be happening.
What's happening here?
We'll be alright.
and there are more...

They're all packed with meaning and thematic resonance. But since the narrative situation is different each time these phrases reappear, they always have a partly or entirely new context.

For instance, when the actors sing the broadcasts they hear on the radio and TV, we decided that their faces would be exactly the same as if we were playing a recording of the broadcasts. In other words, their singing would be (sort of) outside the story, acting as Greek Chorus – providing the voice of the world outside – while their bodies and faces would stay alive inside the story, hearing all that. And each time they hear (and sing) the broadcasts, there are new realities that color their responses to what they hear. So though certain phrases are repeated in all the broadcasts, they do take on new shades of meaning each time.

Then there's the song "We'll Be Alright." It starts out as a love song of sorts (as close as this show gets), but a complicated one. Tom and Judy are sitting in the kitchen, making Molotov cocktails, as part of a plan to get to a truck outside. Both of them are clearly scared out of their wits, but Judy wears it more obviously than Tom does. What's weird about the song is that it's an entirely dishonest love song. Neither of them believe that they're really gonna be alright, and yet both of them repeat the title phrase over and over. Tom is Being Strong Because He's the Man (this is 1968, after all), and he's comforting Judy, even though he knows or suspects that his reassurances aren't true. Judy knows that Tom wants to protect her, and so she goes along with the lie. It feels so much better than facing reality.

It's an ironic song, in which the surface meaning is opposite the actual meaning, and it's vitally important to get that across to the audience. Other examples of songs like this include "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd, "So Long, Dearie" from Hello, Dolly!, and "Spread a Little Sunshine" from Pippin. What Tom's really saying is "We're doomed and it's hopeless, but I love you and I want to protect you from that terrible truth." What Judy's really saying is, "I know we're doomed and it's hopeless, but I also know you're just trying to protect me because you love me, so I'll pretend to believe."

It's an acting gold mine.

But halfway through the song, "We'll Be Alright" changes the way it functions. Now instead of a straight-forward (?) love duet, it becomes a plot song. Sections of singing alternate with sections of dialogue in which Ben, Tom, and Judy are outside, getting through the zombies to the truck, getting it started, driving over to a gas pump, getting the pump unlocked, fueling the truck, etc., all while fighting off zombies. The longer the scene goes on, the lower their odds of survival, the more poignant the lyric becomes. They just keep repeating the phrase, "We'll be alight," as their unease grows into fear, then into raw panic, and each time we hear that line, it gets sadder. They know and we know that their luck has about run out, but these kids still hang on desperately to their lie.

The first few times we ran this scene, it seemed uncomfortably comic. With all that's going on, why are these idiots singing about happy shit? But the more we ran it, the clearer it became.

Each character in the show has a different response to the zombie apocalypse. Barbra retreats inside herself. Ben suits up for battle. Harry wants to barricade himself in the basement. Helen's trying to decide whether Harry or Ben has the right idea. But Tom and Judy are almost entirely passive, being ordered around by everybody else. And their songs reinforce all that. "This House, This Place" is a song about not acting. "We'll Be Alright" is thematically about denying reality and plot-wise about being helpless. Even on its surface, it's about just being together. Not doing anything. So much of the lyric is about what they don't want.

Coming back to my original point again, it's certainly true that every time Tom and Judy sing the words, "We'll be alright," context has changed and so meaning has changed. As the danger increases in the short dialogue scenes, their fear and their desperate need to cling to each other gets more and more frantic, panicked, despairing, and this repeated line gets more and more complicated. And because of this, the scene takes on far more emotional weight, as we go through these emotions with them. New Line can't blow up a fuel pump onstage, so the stage writers changed the purpose of this scene. In the film, this is a scene about action and pyrotechnics; in the musical, this is a scene about character, about these two innocent, doomed kids who love and need each other deeply.

And in a nutshell, that's the difference between the movie and the stage musical. The story onstage still has lots of suspense and scares, but it also has a much more powerful emotional quotient. Because that's what musicals do best – emotion.

We've got our show up on its feet and running. Now we'll take the time to work on all the subtle stuff. When all is said and done, this show (like most of our shows) is first and always about strong, truthful acting. We're asking the audience to buy into a zombie apocalypse. Truth and authentic emotion from our actors will get the audience there.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!