Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Performance and the audience

We're sometimes told when writing: "Consider your audience."

I'm sure we should do so, to the extent of being aware of the kind of vocabulary our readers may appreciate and also how far we can push the limits of their understanding - you can't write for young children in the same terms you would use for an audience of critical PhDs - but from a creator's point of view there are other things to consider.

I found this illustrated rather oddly via music at a recent scratch "concert" performance. Our local choir was giving its first public renditions of various songs: old-time music-hall songs and a couple from stage musicals. We weren't so much giving a performance as leading the audience. This worked all right for "Pack Up Your Troubles" sung against "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", as well as for "Daisy Bell" where in the little-known second verse the ladies got to sing "damned" with considerable force.

The trouble came when we started in on Lionel Bart's "Food, Glorious Food!" It's well known as a big set-piece in "Oliver!" where the workhouse boys vigorously express their desire for something interesting to eat. The time signature is therefore a march-time 4/4, but often with triplets on the second beat ("Food - GLO-RI-OUS - food"). It's by no means a predictable, disciplined march! So we had rehearsed it a few times and got it about right. But this is a novice choir, as yet unconfident in its skills. We marched all right through the intro, complaining about "groooo-ell", and swung with some relief into the famous tune.

So far, so (moderately) good.

Our mistake lay in giving the audience the words and expecting them to sing along. Oh, they did, don't get me wrong; they joined in with gusto. But the audience was much larger than the choir, and the audience didn't want to know about those unsettling and difficult triplets. They wanted a jolly good sing, nice and easy. Before we were halfway through the first verse, conductor, accompanist and choir had been railroaded out of the threatening march-time and into a nice cosy slow waltz.

I've been niggling over this phenomenon all weekend.

I'm sure that more than half the choir didn't actually know we had shifted from one rhythm to another, and if they did, like the audience they found it much easier to sing. Someone made the excuse, when I mentioned the shift, "Well, they were having fun singing." Yes, they were, and it was appropriate enough for a Methodist Harvest Festival supper, but it was certainly not the edgy message bellowed by Bart's hungry workhouse boys.

What I'm trying to work out is, did it matter?

This morning I remembered another famous musical, "Cabaret" where in the movie version a lyrical young tenor sings, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The swaying waltz time of the original Landler-style solo is gradually changed by Fascist soldiers joining in, until by the end of the song the phrase "tomorrow belongs to me" has become an aggressive march, threatening the sunshine with the dark days of the Third Reich. The majority of the audience takes over, to terrifying effect.

All of which should give food for thought to a creator, whether of music or of words. 

Connolly is quoted as having said: "Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self."

Despite being a selfish git, I would rather like to fall somewhere between those two.

Sue's books can be found at her web site, Jackdaw E Books, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/

1 comment:

Richard Abbott said...

'Tomorrow belongs to me' is a fantastic example of your point. The first time I heard that it had a totally chilling effect, considerably weakened if the time change was not there.