Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Music of Waitress

Today, Waitress: The Musical opened for previews on Broadway. It’s been a long journey for the musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, the first musical with an all-female creative team. You can read more about its path to Broadway in this New York Times spot this last week. The article also profiles Sara Bareilles, the composer of Waitress’s music, who made the leap to musical from popular music. Bareilles is certainly not the first to make this leap (see my post about Sting and his Broadway musical The Last Ship, which failed after a few months, as many musicals do). Nor will she be the last. Musicals based on movies have also been a big trend, though very few of them seem to do well in the long run; a notable exception was Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper’s Tony award-winning musical.

So like Kinky Boots, here we have another musical based on a movie by popular songwriter that’s a newbie to Broadway. How’s Waitress’s music? While a cast album hasn’t come out yet, like Sting with The Last Ship, Bareilles released versions of the songs of Waitress,
with herself singing them, before the musical came out, so we have a taste of the final product.

I think there are at least three creative obstacles that a songwriter who is from the popular music world needs to overcome to succeed on Broadway:
  1. Making different songs match different voices, instead of being all the songwriter's own voice,
  2. Writing songs that fit an emotion and plot narrative arch, and
  3. Taking the pop musical style and merging it with a theater musical style.
Did Bareilles overcome them? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Different voices for different characters

Bareilles does a great job of writing characters, especially those apart from the main ones. For example, in “When He Sees Me,” the music has very persistent pounding for the worrying, OCD part of the character; stutteringly-like phrase extensions for nervousness; and a quick transiting to a romantic latin rhythm section for the warmth of wanted love. Also, in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the music conveys the quickness, pushiness, and fun of this character, again with clever lyrics. I think Bareilles has some experience at writing song that are fiction, so this probably wasn’t a big leap for her, but she did well.

2. Emotion and plot arc

I think Bareilles does a good job encapsulating emotions and narrative arc into songs. For example, “Door Number Three” and “Opening Up” both have some clever lyric writing that sets up emotional and plot points at the same time (I especially like the “heartbeat” section of “Opening Up” that has her voice imitated a heart, while simultaneous hinting at other plot points). However, I’m a bit disappointed that there aren’t more thematic music returns, which can be a great way to infuse emotion, especially late in a musical.

3. Channeling pop into theater

I’m not sure that the music on this album really lends itself to visually-stunning set pieces that are important in musicals. With few exceptions (such as “Opening Up”), most are confessional songs; these are normal for singer-songwriter pop songs, but a musical requires more production, on-stage song sharing, and drama to succeed. Even the duet “Bad Idea,” while uptempo and exciting, with handclaps and a dash of humor, seems more a confessional than an emotional decision-making plot point or a production number. “You Matter to Me” could carry a dramatic emotional bump in context, but as a song, it doesn’t show as much variety and inspiration as the other songs on the album/musical; I really want the overlapping melodies at the end to redeem the song, but they aren’t as complicated as I would like for a such a long set up, and so don’t quite overcome the humdrum. “Everything Changes” might be a great set piece song, especially the chorus where the song projects the plot out into our own lives, but it still ends up being a confessional that peters out instead of a final plot exclamation. Of course, often songs that reveal too much of the plot are left off these type of advanced albums, so maybe there will be something more; also, the article mentioned that the music is still being tweaked, so perhaps there will be some improvement in the final product.


I think at as album, with many strong, varied songs and clever lyrics, is a strong as other Bareilles albums, though perhaps without a “hit” song strong enough to make a big splash. But it is hard to see how the songs will translate to a stage where Bareilles isn’t singing from behind her piano. We’ll have to see.

Have you seen Waitress live? What did you think?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Do born-digital sound recordings have a future?

I spent the weekend at the Music Library Association annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Many of the sessions I attended dealt with the problems of preserving born-digital materials, or materials that are created only in digital form. Preservation of these born-digital materials in a world where files and formats become unreadable and obsolete every 10–20 years is something that many people don’t think about and librarians are still trying to get a handle on.

One of the biggest issues/problems for music libraries is the preservation of commercial audio recordings that only appear in digital and not physical format; this digital-only distribution is increasingly the case. Physical format collection and preservation is the bread-and-butter of libraries because of a concept called "first sale," which is the legal idea that once some person or organization has purchased a legally-copied and sold physical object, they can do almost anything they want with it (I’ve blogged a bit about first sale before). However, digital-only copies often come not as purchases, but controlled by legally-complex licenses which do not allow resale or storage and specifically exclude institutions such as libraries from purchasing or even downloading an inaccessible copy (a so-called "dark archive") for preservation. Further, the large corporate sections of the music industry have a track record of not caring about the preservation of their own sound recording archives, often throwing master recordings away when they are no longer profitable to keep them. In other words, if things continue the way they are, these recordings will almost certainly be inaccessible in the not-too-distance future.

A recent article in the Music Library Association’s journal Notes gives a great (or, more accurately, horrible) example of the problem. The situation involves a music library approaching a large recording company about purchasing a recording distributed only digitally:
We chose to pursue the purchase of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recording of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, available via iTunes, toward making it part of the University of Washington collection. This recording was issued online and not in any physical format such as a compact disc. In 2011, we contacted the Los Angeles Philharmonic about purchasing this recording and were referred to its distributor, Deutsche Grammophon, who in turn referred us to its parent company, Universal Music Group (UMG). UMG responded by stating that such an institutional license would not be possible. After exchanging several e-mails, UMG changed its answer, and agreed to license the material to the University of Washington Libraries, our institution, under the following conditions: that no more than 25 percent of the album’s content could be licensed, and the license would be valid for no more than two years. Furthermore, a $250 processing fee would be charged in addition to an unspecified licensing fee that would have been “more than” the processing fee. Given that the standard cost of a complete iTunes album is $9.99, we determined UMG’s offer to be unreasonable. Perhaps more importantly, having 1.25 movements of this five-part piece is useless to a library or user. We attempted to further negotiate with UMG, but our efforts were rejected (Judy Tsou and John Vallier, “Ether Today, Gone Tomorrow: 21st Sound Recording Collecting in Crisis,” Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 72, no.3 (March 2016): 465).
Truly, the response of Universal Music Group is ridiculous. 

What are the possible solutions to this problem? The article (which is available via Project MUSE, if you have access to a subscription, or in print form) details a few, most of which are pie-in-the-sky (for example, simply adding to copyright law a legal exception for libraries, which will certainly be opposed by a legislature that seems to be in the pocket of large media corporations). At the moment, the only seemingly doable solution (and not a very comprehensive one at that) is working with willing smaller, independent recording companies to create dark archives of digital files for preservation that will just sit around until the music itself becomes public domain. That may happen in around 90 years, unless copyright terms get extended again, in which case, it will be longer.

Here’s hoping we can find something better!