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Photo by Joan Marcus.


Scene Change Music: Taking a Closer Listen

A Roundabout Archives Series


The moving thirds theme, a fixture of my previous two posts, has been a helpful model for our discussions thus far.

It has helped us to see how music can form a relationship with the story of a musical, and how that relationship allows music to imbue scene changes with storytelling. (Each time we hear the moving thirds theme, we are reminded of the previous times we heard it, even if only on a subconscious level.) But we have yet to acknowledge what this music sounds like in the first place. It feels obvious to say, but it’s vital to recognize that the moving thirds theme communicates a certain feeling to us when we hear it in the opening song, despite the fact that we haven’t heard it before then.

In the previous post, we noticed how the moving thirds theme appears in the show at key moments relating to Georges and Dot’s relationship, especially relating to Georges’ painting as a central matter of concern. How exactly does this music capture that idea? Georges, who is a pointillist painter, paints by arranging multitudes of tiny dots in a series of patterns according to color theory, just like pixels on a computer screen. (Have a listen to “Color and Light” for a refresher!) Painters employing pointillist technique create an image that allows a viewer’s eyes to blend those tiny dots together into a single color when looked at from a distance. Similarly, the moving thirds theme features a series of rapidly moving small notes in parallel thirds, which flicker back and forth from one chord to another. The juxtaposition of these chords creates a similar aural experience for the listener just as pointillist paintings create visually for their observers. We can hear the notes as individual objects, and we can hear the texture produced by their close arrangement to each other. A deep dive into the semantics of  music—the evolutionary and neurocognitive factors that contribute to why different musical features (intervals, chord progressions, instrumental timbres, etc.) universally elicit certain feelings in humans—would go beyond the scope of this blog post. But it is simple enough to say that the moving thirds come to represent Georges’ painting not only because of when we hear them in the score, but because, in a way, they actually sound like Georges’ painting.

Once we understand this piece of the puzzle—how music can capture or suggest a feeling through its construction alone—we can appreciate how scene change music does not necessarily need to be linked to familiar musical themes to be effective. To be sure, many non-musical plays utilize scene change music, and they have no musical score to draw from. “Scene Change to Studio” and “Scene Change to Park” use the moving thirds to help thread together the story of Georges and Dot’s relationship as it relates to Georges’ work, but now I’d like to take a look at a song from Sunday in the Park with George called “Yoo-Hoo!” It employs music that, though clearly connected to the rest of the score, isn’t thematically driven by something like the moving thirds. It communicates a feeling simply by virtue of the way that it sounds.

Reduction of “Yoo-Hoo” from Sunday in the Park with George.  Click here to listen.

“Yoo-Hoo” covers the extremely brief scene change into the song “No Life,” in which Jules, an artist friend of Georges, and Jules’ wife Yvonne, criticize Georges’ painting Bathers at Asnières. The scene prior takes place in the park, and “Yoo-Hoo” begins when a group of boys in swimsuits are wheeled onto the stage. The scene change ends when a large picture frame drops down from above to frame them, and they become the figures in Bathers at Asnieres. We are transported to an art gallery where Jules and Yvonne observe the painting.

“Yoo-Hoo” uses music that, according to Stephen Banfield in his book “Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals,” is left over from a song that was originally written to be sung by the boys in the tableau of the painting. It was also called “Yoo-Hoo,” and it was ultimately cut from the show. So although “Yoo-Hoo” makes use of musical ideas found throughout the score and  feels  cut from the same cloth (for one, a lot of small notes played in quick succession; and the chromatic shifting back and forth from D-flat to D-natural in the piano on the fourth beats of measures 5-8 is the beginning of an idea that develops throughout the score), it exists as a distinct piece of music.

Unlike the moving thirds, the rapid series of small notes in “Yoo-Hoo” sound more frantic than shimmering. Perhaps it is reflective of the mood of the boys in the painting, as we see them shouting boisterously at each other when they are wheeled on. Perhaps, too, it is reflective of Georges’ frustration about how his work is misunderstood and unappreciated by Jules and Yvonne. Whatever it might imply about the story, it infuses the arrival of the painting in the gallery with a feeling of anxiety and chaos that borders on panic. It almost sounds to me like something out of a horror movie, something that would play right before a killer is about to strike—except in this case, the killers are smug art critics who will sing about how Georges’ painting “has no presence, no passion, no life.”

Imagine if we heard the moving thirds here instead: we might expect Jules and Yvonne to be as enamored with Georges’ painting as Dot. What if “Yoo-Hoo” was played by an organ? Or much more slowly? Or diatonically in the key of F? Or if no music played at all? Each would feel markedly different than the “Yoo-Hoo” that is played before “No Life,” and would suggest something different about what we would expect to happen next. The scene change happens so quickly, and there is so much else on stage going on, that it is unlikely many would consciously register the music that accompanies it. But the emotional subtext it applies to this short transition is unmistakable. And that is the power of scene change music! The particular feeling generated by “Yoo-Hoo,” however brief, indelibly colors this transitional moment with feeling, and that feeling is what helps to connect the previous moment in the story to the one that will follow.

This post brings the Scene Change Music: Taking a Closer Listen series to a close. I had originally planned for more posts that would dig into other musical scores available in  Roundabout’s archive, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made that impossible. I left the archive in early March with a giant stack of library books still on the shelf, and the Sunday box still pulled and left by my desk. I knew I would be gone for a while, but it only felt like a murky possibility that I wouldn’t be returning before the completion of my fellowship at Roundabout. Luckily, I had taken enough notes that I was able to cobble together my previous blog posts from home—but my plan to use the lessons learned from studying the Sunday score as a lens through which to examine the scene change music in other scores was cut short. It feels like the industry itself is in the middle of a long, uncomfortable scene change, and we don’t know when it will be over or who or what will remain when we get to the other side. Even so, writing these posts has made me feel connected to live theatre during a time when none is possible, and I have been grateful for that. I will be eagerly awaiting the next time I can go see a musical, whenever that may be. And when I do, I will be carrying with me a newfound appreciation for one of my favorite idiosyncrasies of live performance: the necessity for downtime demanded by a live medium, and the way that music can help make that downtime feel like a seamless part of performance.

Columbia@Roundabout is a collaboration between Columbia University School of the Arts and Roundabout Theatre Company which provides exceptional educational and vocational opportunities for the next generation of playwrights and theatre practitioners.

The program includes an annual reading series for Columbia MFA students, Teaching Artist training facilitated by Education at Roundabout and two fellowship positions in Roundabout’s Archives.

As a part of the Archives fellowship, the MFA candidates conduct deep research into our historic records and are encouraged to produce scholarship that explores Roundabout’s contribution to American theatre. Josh Brown is one of the Archives Fellows, and over the course of the coming months, he will write a series of articles about interstitial music from Roundabout’s musical productions.