Musicals: Songs as a Vehicle for Plot

Think of Me
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Emmy Rossum et. Al
YouTube     Lyrics

In my experience, every theater has its own social hierarchy, and the musical theater performers sat on top in my collegiate theater. I could not see significant difference between musical performers in show tunes and those in musicals. Granted, improvisers mostly watched from the outside of this hierarchy. No one was really sure what to do with us. My writer’s mind prefers musicals. I’ve always respected talented poets and songwriters, in large part because of my own lack of skill. A show tune doesn’t have to play any particular function in a play, but songs in musicals must advance plot by definition. To me, musicals present the greater challenge.

I remember being a young teenager and seeing the Phantom of the Opera on my first trip to New York. The music and the show were both stunningly beautiful. To this day, I admire Andrew Lloyd Webber’s skill. His musical has true staying power, shown by its more than 10,000 performances on Broadway alone.

One of my favorite songs is Think of Me because of its beauty and effectiveness as a plot device. At the beginning of the song, Christine Daaé is simply a member of the chorus. When she is given a chance her strong and pure vocals win her the recently abandoned role of prima donna. Though she attained the prestige by irregular means, she deserves it by right of talent honed through training.

In musicals, songs have an additional layer of meaning to consider beyond lyrics and accompaniment.  Staging.  However, the shot excels in that regard, melding the three aspects to deliver meaning. Initially tentative and pure, Christine’s voice is complemented by the soft orchestrals at the beginning of the shot. The camera is in mid-range, focusing attention on Christine, but showing interaction between Firmin and André in the background. Their doubt and astonishment, and then their approval and admiration add layers to the characterization of Christine. As she gains confidence, Christine advances on center stage. Her singing grows stronger, as does the accompaniment. The camera pans around behind Christine, and as she reaches center stage, she transforms from the humble chorus girl to the glorious prima donna in a flash of light and blast of fanfare.

Think of Me is the initiating moment of the show. As Christine sings of the impermanence of love and her hopes for simple remembrance, she becomes the obsession of two men. Christine’s later indecision aggravates the competition between the Phantom and Raoul that drives much of the later action. Though the same events were covered by prose in Gaston Leroux’s novel, the use of song as a vehicle for plot development allowed Webber to cover significant time and material in just over three and a half minutes. It is efficient, effective storytelling.


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