“I like music.” – Styx, “Music Time”

That’s not intended to be ironic. I’m not knocking the boys from Chicago. I’m a solid Styx backer – along with the movie Wild Things, they’re one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Besides, what more can you say about music, except that you like it? Music is a beautiful and mysterious art form because it isn’t tangible. You can’t really even prove that it exists, because you can’t pause it, touch it, or see it. You can sing along, but as soon as you do, the song becomes instant history. It’s always in the past, existing only in your memory.

As you’ve probably surmised, I’m fascinated by music. I’m an active listener – I can’t let music exist in the background. When a song I like comes on the radio (or on one of my most prized decadent possessions, my 400-CD jukebox that has a “random” button), I stop everything and just listen, or sing along, or – Lord help me and the rest of the world – start dancing.

Maybe that’s why I get really cranky about the use of music to underscore plays. When was it decreed that every play, particularly short ones, must have intro and outro music? When did we decide that key scenes in plays need musical underscoring? Why do writers and directors feel that music enhances their vision, rather than distract from it? I’m not talking about music that creates a setting, like soft jazz might in a restaurant scene, or set-change music. I’m talking about the use of music as a supplement to the drama, comedy, tension, or whatever that’s happening on stage.

Okay, let’s get my hypocrisy report out of the way…I have used music in some of my own directing or producing excursions. In two of my scripts, I even suggested the particular song. However, in my play Lives in the Wind, the underscoring was supposed to be distracting and over the top. The show is shameless, and the music, I thought, added to the camp level. In my scripts for Something Went Wrong and Yes, Mamet, my song suggestions (in both cases, the music enters suddenly at the end of the show and continues over bows) hopefully provide a certain comic commentary that sums up the endings. The songs call attention to themselves, but in both cases, the music is part of the joke. Whether or not the joke is funny, well, that’s up to the audience. Still, I thought it only fair to point out my own logical flaws upfront, before I start getting all polemic and self-righteous.

At the writers’ meeting for the New York Fifteen Minute Festival – one in which I am honored to participate – the organizers said that intro and bow music was essentially required. Most of the writers nodded along and smiled. I think the 15-Minute organizers feel that music completes and compliments the plays. They’re certainly not alone. At just about every short play festival I’ve attended, music – usually with lyrics – served as an introduction to each play, and most featured a cleverly chosen song to underscore the final moments.

Sometimes it works. The Brass Tacks Theatre, a great off-off-Broadway group, did a show called Among My Souvenirs by Dave DeChristopher in a short-play festival. The play itself is phenomenal – it’s mostly a monologue that documents our heroine’s slow and willing decent into madness, and it’s equally funny, disturbing, disgusting, and compelling. In this production, the last image is of our heroine sleeping on the floor, surrounded by jars full of colorful liquid, each one containing an imaginary mouse corpse. A verse of the lovely pop standard “Among My Souvenirs” plays, and the lights slowly fade, as the audience shudders.

As effective as that music was, though, I have questions. Was that image really stronger for its musical accompaniment? What if it had been played out in silence? Would it be any less compelling, any less real? Would that final image be even more disturbing, because the audience would be forced to confront it in silence? I don’t know, but I’d be really curious to find out.

My great friend Kristyn Robinson is an uncommonly talented writer and director. We love to engage in healthy email debates about aspects of theatre aesthetics (it’s a gift to have a friend who not only tolerates discussions of topics that would be insanely boring to anyone else, but actually encourages them), and the concept of underscoring came up. She feels that while underscoring is misused by many directors, it can be extremely effective in enhancing the tone of a piece. “The trick to doing it successfully is to choose music that doesn’t interfere with the action on stage,” she writes, “and to play it so the audience doesn’t even realize they’re hearing it.”

It’s entirely possible – likely, even – that my problem with this is that I’m such a music geek that I always realize I’m hearing music. But I have another issue with underscoring – it’s an innately cinematic devise, not a theatrical one. In early theatre, the audience heard music only when the singer was about to burst into song. In early cinema, of course, music was the only sound, and it’s impossible to imagine any modern movie without constant musical underscoring.

I’m no theatre history snob. I love movies, and music always plays a vital role. Can you imagine how awkward a movie with no music whatsoever would feel? But there’s a crucial difference between a play and a movie: a movie is captured on film, while a play unfolds right in front of you. A movie is a document of something that once happened, but a play is happening RIGHT NOW. So when music starts to play, one can only assume that the hand of God (i.e., the director) is making a contribution by adding some sound into the action. In a movie, this is a good thing. In a play, well, I’d usually rather God mind His/Her own business so I can watch the characters do their thing. When I hear music in a scene, I become aware – and to a degree, I think the audience does too – that the music had to be chosen and cued up beforehand, which reminds me that this play isn’t unfolding before my eyes, but has been rehearsed, analyzed, examined, and underscored.

Yeah, but Matt, what about spotlights that appear? Or curtains that close? Or lights that go dark at the end of scenes? They were planned and rehearsed too. Why don’t they distract you like music does?

Well, because (and how did you manage to write a paragraph in the middle of my essay? And why the italics? And why did Matt think this little meta parenthetical insertion was a good idea?) lighting is immediate and urgent. Lights fade because there is no more to see, and rise because hey, there’s a set and some characters…let’s see what they’re doing! Even gimmicky light cues should appear to be spontaneous manifestations of the moods created by the action. Obviously the lighting scheme of any show has been carefully drawn out and tirelessly rehearsed, but it always feels, or should feel, immediate. Underscoring, on the other hand, almost always feels premeditated.

I recently saw a play that drove this home. A nice piano melody led us, gently, in and out of each scene. Therefore I knew, as did the audience, that when the music began, it was time for me to stretch and get ready to applaud. Suddenly I wasn’t watching two people I cared about – I was watching a play. A play with an omniscient sound engineer who had the power to end scenes by playing music.

Did this ruin the play? Absolutely not. Did it distract me and take my mind off the action? Yep.

Any playwright, actor and director knows that it capturing your audience’s attention is a mighty and daunting task. But once you’ve got it, you shouldn’t give them any excuse to think about anything else. Music can be an extremely effective tool in theatre, but it carries a weight that I don’t think a lot of directors and writers appreciate. When you underscore, you risk having your audience members think about something besides the action (“Who’s that? Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald? And what’s that she just said about Southern trees”), just when they should be wondering who killed the limo driver, and why. So please, before you choose to underscore, put yourself in the audience’s position.

Like Styx, I like music. I love it, even. But please respect the power of music and the power of your plays, and accept that sometimes, keeping them separate might be a better idea.