Two young lovers in the musical Children of Eden face each other in front of Noah’s Ark just before the rain begins—one is scheduled to get on the boat and the other is not. The fictional moment set up in the musical is precarious and precious. In a beautiful power ballad duet by Stephen Schwartz the romantic couple sings, “In whatever time we have, we will make the most of time.”
Making the most of time is not only a powerful theme in love songs, it’s a major concern musical creators face long before audiences arrive. Although several thousand years ago the action in Greek tragedies commonly occurred within a single day, as Aristotle mentions, today’s musicals leap forward and flash back through a wider range of time with concentrated stories that keep audiences engaged. Musical writers employ time-focusing devices like montages, backstory, and ticking clocks.
Leaping Forward and Compressing Time with Montages
Although a musical could move backward (Merrily We Roll Along) or both backward and forward (The Last Five Years), most musicals move forward chronologically with some leaps. Even following this convention, writers have tough decisions to make. Musicals based on historical figures are notoriously hard to focus, but some, like Gypsy, become classics.
To create Gypsy’s book, Arthur Laurents drew from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 400+ page book Gypsy: A Memoir. The show begins when Louise and June are young girls dominated by their ambitious stage mom and ends when Louise is a mature adult working as a successful Burlesque star who can overshadow her needy mother. The time compression in this Broadway Golden Age musical comes primarily from the selection of scenes that convey the emotional needs of the characters along with the decline of Vaudeville. At one point the staging employs a time-advancing trick: switching from child to adult actors mid-song and letting the chronology continue from there.
Other musicals zip through time by using “montages” or “musical sequences”—musical numbers that span plot points. Disparate moments are compressed in individual songs either to create greater impact or to help with exposition.
The 1996 musical Evita includes several montage examples. In “Goodnight and Thank You” we speed through love affairs of Eva Peron. Her reported ability to quickly dump a lover is made more poignant by the show’s creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice who pieced numerous good-bye moments together in the same song. “The Art of the Possible” is another time-compression number in Evita, during which rivals competing for political power are quickly eliminated. In Hal Prince’s original production, it was done as a game of musical chairs. And the “Rainbow High/Rainbow Tour” section in Act II covers a European tour yet is performed in a few minutes.
One of the more memorable contemporary uses of time compression can be found in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton song “Helpless.” When the Eliza Schuyler character sings the melody line, she reveals the whole story of falling for Alexander, their letter exchange, Alexander asking her father for permission to marry her, and the ‘I Do’ lines of their marriage ceremony.
Enjoy a pandemic video recording of “Helpless” with Jimmy Fallon, the original Hamilton cast, and Roots:
Composer-lyricists have been known to collage together a bookwriter’s scenes to compact the story. Stephen Sondheim describes how he rearranged story material to fix problems during an out-of-town tryout of Company, preserving the song “Another Hundred People” that might otherwise have been cut. He writes in Finishing the Hat: “I combined the three separate girl-friends’ scenes in the first act into one scene by having them all take place on the same park bench, and divided the song into three sections, using it to string the scenes together.” It went back into the show in its new spot toward the end of Act I and has remained there since.
A time-montage device for moving young characters into adulthood works well in the family friendly musical Shrek. Three actresses play Fiona at three ages of life—child, teen, and adult—as they all sing “I Know it’s Today” about being rescued from a tower. In Frozen, Anna’s song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is used in a similar way for the aging of she and her sister.
Looking Backward: Covering Backstory with Prologues, Framing Devices, and Memory Songs
Because stories are limited in scope, writers may ask themselves: how do I draw from the past? Should I use a flashback as is done in movies? Can I have the characters share memories in a way that seems natural? Here are some of the approaches to backstory used to draw from times not included within the main forward-moving storyline:
An opening number prologue is a piece that covers everything the audience needs to know going in. These are sometimes called “Prologue,” as in Ragtime’s “Prologue: Ragtime” that introduces the cultural groups in the historic period. Titanic similarly opens with “Overture / Prologue: In Every Age.”
Backstory-revealing opening numbers can help orient audiences. For The Hunchback of Notre Dame Disney animated movie musical, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Alan Menken covered key backstory plot points in a song “The Bells of Notre Dame.” For the musical stage adaptation, Schwartz rewrote the lyrics to suit the new story version that had additional characters and varied roles.
Framing devices are used to inset the entire rest of the show into what is essentially a flashback. For example, Beautiful, The Carole King Musical is framed at the beginning and end with a song performance at King’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1971. The main timeline begins in 1958 when 16-year-old Carole tells her mother that she wants to be a songwriter. She ignores her mother’s resistance, goes into Manhattan, sells a song, and her famous career begins.
Wicked begins and ends with the celebration of the demise of the supposedly Wicked Witch of the West. Schwartz and Holzman used the opening number “No One Mourns the Wicked” to orient audiences to where they are in relation to The Wizard of Oz story and the unique story of the show based on Gregory Maguire’s novel.
Memory Songs provide another form of introducing backstory or maneuvering time to create a desired emotional effect. These songs pause the forward motion of the story for reflection but usually prove their worth in impact.
Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick was able to capture nostalgic reflections from a lifetime in “Sunrise, Sunset.” Having the parents remember the childhoods of the bride and groom may not be necessary from a story point of view, but it adds emotional layers—another form of compression—in a way that could only be captured in a song like this.
The same layering effect is felt with Sherman Edwards’ song “Mamma, Look Sharp” from 1776. In this heart wrenching piece, the messenger who normally brings war dispatches pauses to remember men fighting and dying, giving us an entirely different perspective on this moment in history.
Another way to share backstory is to have multiple characters reveal moments from their past in one song. In Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” Kander and Ebb have six murderesses reveal their backstory and a life vignette for each deceased spouse. In A Chorus Line’s “At the Ballet,” Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban blended three different character stories. They share memories depicting the contrast between their real-life pasts and their more idyllic memories of the ballet.
The “Cell Block Tango” is a popular number for shows like Miscast. Here six male Broadway stars perform the number written for six women.
Creating a Ticking Clock
“Hurry up—can’t waste time,” sing a chorus of factory workers in The Pajama Game as an efficiency expert tries to monitor them. They are annoyed by the push, but the audience is entertained. For a show’s authors, rushing the story is not required, but some sense of advancing momentum is.
Creators of any type of fiction are often advised to include some kind of metaphorical “ticking clock” in their stories— a plot device that puts a time limit on when the protagonist(s) must complete a task or resolve a conflict. The consequences of success or failure provide motivation for the characters.
The ticking clock idea is used comically in the musical She Loves Me, set primarily in a store. During the countdown song “Twelve days to Christmas,” customers in the store are initially calm but each time they leave and come back it’s closer to Christmas, and things become increasingly frantic. The song doesn’t include all twelve days, but lyrics give enough detail to present the sense of urgency.
Broadway revival recording:
In some musicals, the time-limiting element is related to a major problem for the hero to work out or learn from, such as dealing with a financial issue. In Kinky Boots, the need to save the historic shoe factory from closure inspires a series of unexpected actions. In The Music Man Harold Hill’s plan to collect the final money for band uniforms right before skipping town provides dramatic tension.
A promised calamity is a frequent time-limit motivator in fairy tale-related stories, such as is introduced by the witches’ spells in Beauty and the Beast and Into the Woods. Anticipated death serves as a ticking clock for realistic musicals like Rent with the AIDS diagnosis for several characters and Titanic with the audience’s foreknowledge of the outcome.
Anytime there is a show within a show, audiences understand the tension over whether or not the characters can pull it off as planned, as in 42nd Street or Kiss Me Kate. Auditions create time-linked tension in A Chorus Line and Billy Elliot. The signing of the Declaration of Independence by July 4th provides motivation in 1776, entertainingly emphasized through the tearing off of calendar days on the set. And there’s often an event like a wedding or special dance for the characters to anticipate or strive toward, as in Mamma Mia, The Prom, Footloose, and My Fair Lady.
In a few shows, the focus is the sense of ticking clock for twenty-somethings who feel the pressure of creating a good life. Tick, Tick, Boom literally includes a ticking sound in the background, representing the lead character’s internal stress facing his impending 30th birthday. Similarly, the character Pippin in Pippin spends the entire show anxious about losing time on his way to an extraordinary experience. The show is about his quest and its resolution.
Truthfully, time-weaving approaches—montages, backstory, framing devices, memory songs, and ticking clocks—are not meant to be noticed as such by the audience. Rather, we are meant to be swept up into the storytelling that seems to unfold in scenes that feel inevitable and perfectly fit together. But when we analyze them to see how musicals work, we know someone has been busy trying to make the most of time.
What are your favorite examples of compressing and expanding time in musicals? Comment below!
SEE ALSO Carol de Giere’s interview article How Musicals Make the Most of Time – A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz