Music in Musicals: The Relationship between Song Functions and Hit Songs

Author Richard Kislan defines musical theater as, “total theater, an artistic system that… encourages the use of techniques beyond the spoken word” (4). Through the use of music, the theater is transformed beyond visual stimulation. It includes not only instruments but vocals as well. Through instruments and vocals, music communicates to the audience information about the storyline and cast of characters. It rouses elements such as mood, personality, and can foreshadow future events. What uniquely differentiates musicals from theatrical plays is that songs become part of the storyline. Songs are intricately woven within the script of the drama, giving music its own role and function. By examining the function of song in musicals, one can better understand how musical theater generates popular hits among audiences. Often a hit song can determine the success of play, by its usefulness, the emotions it evokes, and the use of chords and execution.

Songs in musicals are popular and this has remained throughout the decades. Audience members find themselves catching on to a snappy tune or choosing their favorites songs from the production. Not only is it music that holds the audience but the story that is communicated through song. Music allows directors to emphasize the emotion of the drama. The music within musicals can gain attention to the production and generate larger audiences. As such, “hit songs are now being routinely written and performed by the same people who generate audience demand for more hit songs from them” (Kislan 276). Often a song within a musical can survive longer than the popularity of the musical itself. One example is the song “All the Jazz”, from the 1975 musical Chicago. Although one may not have seen the production, the song is familiar to most due to its signature chorus and memorable tune. The song is upbeat, adding energy to the show all the while maintaining the attention of the audience.  Consequently, “the use of music heightens any situation… so when a character in a musical suddenly burst into song, something of major importance is happening or about to happen” (Fisher & Kayes 27).

Although audiences are captivated by the music in musicals, music has an important and primary function in the musical theater. This is because songs have strong attention to detail to the drama that unfolds. Through musicals, the director can give the audience additional insight into the story line by effectively interpreting thought and emotion of a character. Furthermore, song allows the director to save time on giving backstory, developing the setting, or creating a time lapse. In this way, “music allows the audience to multi task, processing different layers of information” (Fisher & Kayes 29). Not only are songs the definition of musical theater it also plays a vital role in how the story is interpreted or portrayed overall. Majority of songs written for musicals cannot be omitted from a scene. Music in musicals holds a message that must be delivered to the audience. Without the use of song, the information provided through music will be lost. Without the songs found in musicals, the audience may have difficulty identifying with the emotions of the performance, losing interest or information that is important to the plot.

An important function of song in musicals is the character song. The character song is a song that defines the character. It “gives the audience a clear understanding of what the character is feeling… [or] the history of that person” (Leech). Character songs are divided into segments to include the, I am song, I want song, reprises, and emotional climax songs. Through character songs, a character is able to introduce themselves to viewers letting the audience in on vital information given through song. This way viewers hold a better understanding of the characters personality, role, and how he or she may interact with others. An example of this can be seen in the Little Shop of Horrors. In this play the character, Orin Scivello, reveals to the audience his need to inflict pain on others. A savage dentist who takes advantage of his job, he enjoys making children cry and intimidating others with tools and devices to hurt people. Singing, “I’m your Dentist”, this character is able to freely express his thrill for inflicting pain without the use of dialogue or letting the other characters in on his secrets. Through song, Orin Scivello communicates his thoughts directly to the audience asserting his antagonistic nature. Character songs not only have function in musicals but also become popular hits. This is because the audience is able to create an emotional connection with the character weather this is through empathy or shock.

Another function of song in musicals is to tell a story. These are known as exposition songs, conflict songs, narrative songs, and summary songs. Songs that tell a story are significant and, “one of the most important functions” (Leech). Through the use of song the audience can be caught up on subjects not included in the dialogue. This includes the musical’s back story, setting, or a specific incident in time. It can also be used to summarize an event or even to narrate the play. In songs that tell a story an outside character can sing without taking away from the meaning of the song and its relation to the plot. For instance, narrative songs allows special guest to sing instead of the main character. Doing this should not take away from audience awareness and understanding. Most often these songs will “fill the audience so that we know exactly why and how they are here… and an idea of what’s going to happen”, (Leech). “No One Mourns the Wicked” from the musical Wicked is the perfect example of a song that tells a story. It is not only the opening song, but it proves to be an informative song for the audience. It tells a story which brings the viewer up to date. In this way, the audience is made aware of changes within the show including a new plot twist, growth, or a characters change of heart.

“To harness the enormous energy of music and channel it into the theatrical expression, composers control the use of its principal components: melody, harmony, and rhythm” (Kislan 217). Through these musical techniques a composer is able to create a hit song. These elements can evoke the spirit of the play and emotion from the audience. However, in today’s era the hit musical song emphasizes sound. While the lyrics of the song are important and relevant to the storyline, the sound is what generates the energy and emotion that dominates. This gives the song uniqueness, pulling at the heartstrings of viewers. The emphasis of sound is popular in contemporary music which is observed throughout songs across genres. Kislan suggests this is associated with the rise of MTV. Music video’s puts a spin on creativity in musical content, focusing less on vocals. Instead, to reach wider audiences music is heavily expressed through sound and audio. As such, “in the adolescence of the American musical who wrote hit songs for immediate enjoyment, modern composers for the serious musical theater embody dramatic objectives in the melody they create” (Kislan 217).

Incidentally, the musical Wicked contains many songs that have become popular hits. One reasoning is that it, “reflects contemporary issues or stylistic trends” (Fisher & Kayes 28). Wicked is a production that reaches a younger audience demographic. This is an audience that once had little interest in musical theater, teenage girls. However, composer Dave Malloy suggests that songs from musicals become hits due to a combination of chords that is highly favored by listeners. He refers to these chords as the “sus chord”. “The sus chord is one in which the third of a chord is replayed by a more unresolved, ‘suspended’ note, the second or fourth”, (Malloy). While some chords of music generate joyful sounds such as the major chords, minor chords do the opposite producing sounds that are sad and melancholy. However when one uses chords that are uncertain, that sounds produced stimulates feelings of expectation and anticipation. The use of the popular sus chord can be heard in Wicked’s highly acclaimed song, “Defying Gravity”. The song appears in the second act of the play, working the audience as well as the cast of characters with the use of melody and vocal power.

Song continues to have an intricate function in musical theater. It becomes part of the play and works to tell a complete story. Yet song has another function within musicals, it can maintain interest and popularity of a show long after it is over. It can also stimulate sales and the success of a show. “Since hit songs meant lines at the box office, a policy ran headlong against the prevailing currents in Broadway musical production… what merged was a more fluid and compact union of song and story” (Kislan 116-7). Songs from musical productions are linked to the events of the drama and its cast of characters. Through the popularity of musical’s song hits, it raised the bar of audience expectations. This includes the manner in which music is used and conveyed throughout a production. Although some professionals argue a hit song becomes popular by using a specific set of chords in music, the drama and emotions produced helps to stimulate popularity. It is the combination of chords and production drama that create hit songs.

In conclusion, the makings of a hit song should not only include the perfect use of musical chords. It must “personify character, foreshadow mood, echo emotion, underscore dialogue, and parallel the librettos emerging patterns of action and rest”, (Kislan 117).



Works Cited

  1. Fisher, Jeremey, and Gillyanne Kayes. “GCSE: Musical Theatre.” Classroom Music. Spring 2004/05: 28-32. Web. 13 Jan. 2014. <;.
  1. Leech, Lucy. “The Function of Musical Theatre Songs.”Prezi(2012): n.pag. Prezi Inc. Web. 13 Jan 2014. <;.
  1. Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. New York, NY: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1995. eBook. < and hit songs theatre&ots=LjONcbPFob&sig=nRZkkgFQ2l7C0wh4oONeWMrdPvo
  1. Malloy, Dave. “A Slushy in the Face: Musical Theater Music and the Uncool.” Essays, Practice, Opinions. Howlround, 11 Dec 2011. Web. 13 Jan. 2014. <;.

About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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