Comment on the use of vocal ensembles in musicals from 1900 to the Present Day

Vocal ensembles have been used in musicals from the 1900s until the present day. They can help reveal plots, create atmosphere, or provide texture. Vocal ensembles include duets, quintets, and even some chorus numbers.

In the 1927 musical, ‘Showboat’, the duet, ‘Make Believe’ charts the interaction between Magnolia and Ravenal. The latter’s aimlessness is shown through his frequently changing harmonies at the end of phrases. Upon setting eyes upon Magnolia, he stops singing and picks up the theme from her piano piece. The waltz style of the piece demonstrates their love at first sight while changing major and minor keys show the couple’s uncertainty as to where the relationship will go. A modulating rising semi-tone creates intensity before at last, in the final line, they sing together.

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Another duet from a similar time period comes from the 1935 folk- opera/musical, ‘Porgy and Bess’ and is entitled, ‘Bess, You is My Woman Now’. In this number, the two confess their love for one another and Bess sings a portion of Porgy’s song, ‘When Gawd Made a Cripple’ showing that she is the answer to his loneliness. Porgy’s demanding octave leaps on ‘You Is’, are offset by the gentle syncopation thus removing the harsh nature. This special duet is characterised by the use of F# major which is heard nowhere else in the musical, demonstrating the pair’s special relationship.

Ensembles can also reveal the characteristics of the people who sing them. This is made evident in ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’ from ‘Guys and Dolls’. The counter-point setting of the piece is perfect to accommodate the three men singing over each other. The fact that this piece is named a fugue is a way of mocking the three tinhorns who believe themselves to be more sophisticated than they are, as the texture is more reminiscent of a children’s round such as ‘Three Blind Mice’ rather than a Bach style fugue. The music further mocks the three by giving them sophisticated, syncopated music to echo their lack of sophistication. This makes the piece somewhat comical through the use of dramatic irony.

Many ensembles are comical and are so in order to provide light relief from a serious plot. This is evident in ‘Mater of the House’ from ‘Les Miserables’, and ‘Westside Story’s, ‘America’ which also features an energetic dance number. However, this is juxtaposed later against the quintet, ‘Tonight’ in which the five main characters in ‘Westside Story’ sing about the tragic events that will occur later that night. It is structures in such a way, each of the five have solo lines before the solo material merges in a complex contrapuntal style.

The leader’s of the Sharks and Jets musical material is similar and therefore demonstrates their mutual characteristics. Tony and Maria also sing, reprising material from their earlier duet, ‘Tonight’ from the balcony scene. Keys are used symbolically in this piece as the lovers’ longing is shown through the use of C minor, and the ensemble ends on a strong, powerful C major, with Maria singing a high C.

‘Pretty Woman’ is duet sang by Judge Turpin and Sweeney Todd himself and is split into three sections. The first, with a 5/8 meter conveying a sense of uncertainty. The number is about romance however, unlike Turpin, Todd is singing ironically. The second section faces an obvious contrast between Todd’s slow moving melody and the judge’s rapid triplets. The piece finishes with the characteristic four semi-quaver motif, and a contrapuntal texture before the piece ends dramatically, and ‘unfinished’.

Ensembles are simply an additional way in which composers can integrate music, add interest, and reveal ideas relevant to the plot.

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