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A ballad is a song with a serious lyrical intention that is characterized by the legato feeling of the melodic line. That is, the content of the song is usually something we take seriously and the music is smooth and flowing. It is the legato feeling of the music that really defines the song. In other words, a bouncy tune with serious words isn’t a ballad, whereas a smooth, flowing melody with a lighter content very well could be a ballad.

Ballads are used for many dramatic reasons, but the most common is probably a love song of some kind or other. Examples abound, and you can select your favorites. “If Ever I Would Leave You” is a typical ballad of the love song variety. Although the song is performed in the show Camelot with a very strong rhythmic pulse, the melody is very legato in style. Notice, also, how the words are arranged to make this possible. The only consonant that could be considered harsh in the opening title phrase is the “v” in ever and leave, and neither sound prevents the easy motion of the lyric. Say the
phrase, “If ever I would leave you.” One word blends into the next effortlessly – making this very easy to sing in the legato style of the music. Also, the phrases tend to end with round, open sounds – “Knowing how in spring I’m bewitched by you soooooooo” – so the singer can sustain the ends of phrases with an attractive sound. If a ballad is defined by the character of the music, the definition must be supported by the sound and content of the words.

Certainly not all ballads are boy-meets-girl love songs. One of the most interesting is from Oklahoma! The song “Lonely Room” is used to humanize a character. Jud is the villain, but rather than the evil, leering gent of earlier melodramas, he’s characterized as a psychologically disturbed murderer who craves physical love. Here the song really helps the audience understand and even fear the character.
The words are effective, and the music is sometimes balladic and legato, other times abrupt and staccato, reflecting the schizoid nature of both the song’s content and the character.

Another interesting use of a ballad is the song “Far From The Home I Love” in Fiddler On The Roof. This song explores the drama with a simple eloquence and causes the central character to re-examine his priorities when his daughter sings it. Again, the lyrics support the style of the music with soft consonants – “Far from the home I love/Yet there with my love, I’m home.”

Examples of Ballads


“If Ever I Would Leave You” (Camelot)

“Lonely Room” (Oklahoma)

“Far From the Home I Love” (Fiddler on the Roof)

“Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music)


“Home” (Bat Boy)

“Fine Fine Line” (Avenue Q)

“I Am Here for You” (Book of Mormon)


Note: We used to call this kind of song a “charm” song; many composers still do. We have found, however, that the commodity “charm” has gone out of fashion in musical theatre, and songs which used to be considered charming are now rather old-fashioned and approach parody. The artistic elements of a rhythm/uptempo remain the same, however.

Rhythm/Uptempo songs are defined by the rhythm – not merely the rhythm in the accompaniment, but also and especially the rhythmic syncopation of the melodic line.

The lyrics to a rhythm/uptempo song are usually optimistic and not as serious or ambitious as those of a ballad, and the words will contain lots of good, hard consonants and rhythmic phrases that lend themselves to syncopation.

The quintessential rhythm/uptempo song must surely be “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” from Oklahoma!. The lyric is narrative and percussive, the tune is rhythmic and reflects the content of the words, and the effect in the theatre is uptempo beyond belief.

Rhythm/uptempo songs are not hard to find. They are the mainstay of a score, outnumbering ballads and comedy songs by at least two to one. Consider just a couple and examine how the words and music work together to create the rhythmic unity that produces such a high degree of charm in the theatre.

Examples of Uptempo Songs


“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (Oklahoma!)

“Getting to Know You” (The King and I)

“I Feel Pretty” (West Side Story)

“She Loves Me” (She Loves Me)

“Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” (My Fair Lady)


“If You Were Gay” (Avenue Q)

“My Major is Joan” (Fun Home)

“Man Up” (Book of Mormon)


A comedy song is defined as a song in which the lyrics make us laugh out loud more than once. Comedy songs are generally complaints, and very often indulge in self-pity. Self-pity is only attractive when it makes us laugh.

Ballads and uptempo songs are characterized by the style of the music, but in comedy songs the words take precedence. Frequently the music to a comedy song is very attractive and charming, but the audience seldom cares as long as it supports the lyrics, which make us laugh out loud.

Topics for comedy songs are usually in the nature of a complaint of some kind, may be dripping with self-pity and always are rooted in some sort of problem. In “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie thinks she has a terrible disease. She believes that the other girls don’t have the feelings she experiences when she’s with a “feller.” “Adelaide’s Lament” in Guys And Dolls is that her perpetual cold is probably psychosomatically induced by her unwed status. In Brigadoon, a young girl’s search for “The Love Of My Life” thinly disguises her questionable virtue. Tevye’s “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof is mainly about his misconceptions of wealth. In each case there is an element of complaint – and something real to complain about: poverty, lack of virtue, chronic sniffles or the painful realities of puberty. Normally a complaint is not attractive and writers eschew self-pity like the plague – and they ought to! Except when writing comedy songs.

Comedy songs are much harder to write than they are to define. However, there’s at least one in every successful score, and two or three are to be hoped for. Audiences love to laugh. When attending a musical, the audience’s expectation is that a fair amount of entertainment will ensue. Originally, remember, the form was called “musical comedy”, and the responsibility to help an audience laugh remains strongly a part of the genre.

Examples of Comedy Songs


“I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No” (Oklahoma)

“Adelaide’s Lament” (Guys and Dolls)

“The Love Of My Life” (Brigadoon)

“If I Were A Rich Man” (Fiddler on the Roof)


“The Internet is for Porn” (Avenue Q)

“Sex is in the Heel” (Kinky Boots)

“You and Me (But Mostly Me)” (Book of Mormon)


A musical scene is defined as a moment in a musical when an entire scene is musicalized. This may mean that the sequence contains one or more songs and/or reprises, including underscored dialogue (if necessary, but not required). The section being musicalized must be a complete scene, with a beginning, middle, and end, and including a dramatic action.

Definitions of dramatic action will keep you awake nights, but the one we use is: The exercise of a character’s will in the face of an opposing force.

Musical scenes are useful when there are multiple conflicting forces on stage at the same time (Think “Tonight” from West Side Story), but they’re not merely crowd scenes. The focus of a musical scene is generally on one character who is working through a problem or confronting a conflict, though there could be multiple characters in action.

Ballads, rhythm/uptempo songs and comedy songs can all serve as the basis for musical scenes. “Tonight” from West Side Story is an example of a musical scene arising from a ballad.

Another example of a musical scene (even though it only involves one character) is “Soliloquy” from Carousel. It begins as a reflective moment and contains elements of charm in the songs “My Boy Bill” and “My Little Girl”. But at the end of the song, the young father-to-be realizes what his responsibilities will be. Consider the final lyrics: “I never knew how to make money/But I’ll try, by God, I’ll try/I’ll go out and make it or steal it or take it/Or die!” The reflection has caused him to make a decision, and we know he will act on it. Definitely a musical scene.

Not all musical scenes need to have such dire consequences as “Soliloquy” does to qualify. “You Must Meet My Wife” from A Little Night Music is a comedic musical scene. During the song, Frederick gives Desiree permission to hate his wife, Anne, by revealing her to be a perfectly horrible little simp, which she is, and Desiree announces her decision, albeit cleverly and comedically, to do the little witch in.

A caution: don’t create a musical scene simply by adding underscoring or vamps to a scene in a book. You want your music to have a dramatic function, and not simply mark time in order to make a scene feel as though it’s a whole musical sequence.

Examples of Musical Scenes


“Tonight” (West Side Story)

“Tevye’s Dream” (Fiddler on the Roof)

“You Must Meet My Wife” (A Little Night Music)

“I’m Going Back” (Bells Are Ringing)

“A Weekend in the Country” (A Little Night Music)


“The Money Song” (Avenue Q)

“That Horrible Woman” (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder)

“Gay or European” (Legally Blonde)

“Schuler Defeated” (Hamilton)