Bed music is an odd thing. It doesn’t occur in real life. It’s not like when we’re having some dramatic moment — an argument with our spouse, a hike to a mountaintop — that suddenly an orchestra swells in the distance, bringing even more passion to the experience. The psychology of underscore really deserves to be wondered about; do we need it in theater, precisely because it’s not real life — that is, because there’s literally a physical distance between the audience and the show? In real life, you experience things in your head, happening to you, as you look out at the world, and what happens to you has real-life import. It truly matters if your real-life girlfriend tells you she’s been cheating or your nation gets plunged into war. But in theater, when the curtain’s down, nothing that happened on the stage actually has any real meaning any more. So, because we know it doesn’t matter, because it’s 20 or 100 feet in front of us, because it’s not the real us that it’s happening to — for all those reasons, perhaps, we need bed music, pumping emotion into a scene, replacing what we lose by virtue of the fact that it’s just theater.
All this philosophizing about bed music here isn’t just to mark time. There’s a purpose to this pondering. Musical theater pianists need to know how to make good bed music. This, my comrades in key-pushing, is not just a matter of blithely playing the notes on the page. It’s much, much more important. Great bed music inspires the actors, enthralls the audience, and paces the show.
It’s also a chance for you to play solo, right? In addition to overtures, curtain-exit music, and scene changes, bed music is the part of the accompanist’s job which actually doesn’t involve accompanying. Right?
NO. Bed music is accompaniment just as much as what you play under a song. The only difference is, the actors aren’t singing. Rather, they’re speaking and making all kinds of movements and entering and disappearing, and your underscore is the melody, harmony, and rhythm of their words and actions. Great bed music isn’t just sitting in front of the page and plunking it out as the actors do their schtick independently on some stage. Great bed music is coordinated in precise and subtle ways with their performance, enhancing it, and filling in the emotional gaps in the audience that occur because they’re watching a play. So… how to make better bed music?
1) Watch the actors. You want your bed music to be coordinated to their movement. This means two things. If you can, you want to time downbeats and other tempo markers such that they elegantly match the performers’ motion. It also means that incidentals — certain musical figures that are meant to be coordinated to a particular moment in the script — have to fall perfectly with their concomitant stage direction. A great example of this is the bean music in Into the Woods — that five-note sequence, dare I call it a leitmotif, that recurs throughout the show, is mimicked by Rapunzel, mocked by the princes, and connotes magic. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, you know. When the beans drop, you want to make sure that your notes drop with them. If you get the timing just right, it adds to the mystery of those beans which create giant stalks up into the sky. If you get it wrong, the audience is going to notice.
Sometimes you won’t be facing the actors, so you won’t be able to watch them directly. In this case, you must insist that the director provide some kind of mechanism — a camera-video system, mirrors, whatever — that allows you to see them at work — in rehearsal or in performance. Insist. It’s your right as the accompanist to see whom you’re accompanying, the same way that it’s your right as a prince to know which damsel you’re carrying across a swamp.
2) Watch the audience. Great actors do whatever they can to sense how the audience is reacting emotionally to the show. Do they see someone yawn in the front row? A sign that things are too slow, that they need to pick it up. Are a lot of people motioning in their seats? The scene isn’t capturing them. Are they laughing the right amount? If not, readjust timing. And we all know when a great dramatic scene is being played out, because of the complete silence and stillness of the audeince, transfixed on the show. With musical theater piano, you can also gauge how the audience is responding to the music. If you’ve got a waltz bed (yes, they exist, I just played one tonight in Light in the Piazza), see if you can glance up and check if any one is rocking in their seat in 3/4 time. When the beans drop, see if any little kid in the audience gets a smile on her face. If she does, you know you’ve got the timing right. By the way, “audience” here doesn’t just mean the paid crowd in the auditorium — it also means all the assistants and crew and techies that hang around rehearsals. These principles apply to rehearsals just as much as performances.
3) Listen carefully to the dialogue. Words well-spoken are form of music. Think of Shakespeare: his poetry has a rhythm, a melody, a meter. So do the books of Hugh Wheeler and Terrance McNally. If you’re playing underneath them, your music, if it’s well composed, should match the sound of the script. Your volume shouldn’t overpower the actors, and your tempo shouldn’t race along if the scene is calling for slow, contemplative speech. And if the music’s not well-composed… call the person who wrote it and give him a piece or your mind, or just tinker with it and blow the copyright.
4) Consult with your director about cues. Frequently, the cues in the piano-conductor score don’t match the ones in the book. So first of all, you’ve got to sort out any discrepancies. Furthermore, every production has its own quirks and directors very frequently re-block scenes in a way that the original scored cues don’t match the action anymore. Think about your cues. Do you come in right after a line is spoken, or after a beat, or after the actor has made some other motion onstage? All these things should be defined precise during rehearsals to make for a perfect show. Finally, directors frequently forget about bed music. They literally don’t know it’s there, sometimes, in a scene. So at some point early in the production schedule, sit down with them, and discuss exactly where that music is going to go and what its purpose is.
5) Match the emotion of the music to the scene. This is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often piano accompanists miss this. We have a lot of latitude as to the actual passionate expression of bed music, because it’s often scored without much written direction. So this means that you can use phrasing, articulation, and touch to compliment whatever emotional tenor the scene requires. Is it a love-making scene? Play romantically! Use that damper pedal, or vary the tempo ever-so-slightly to enhance the drama. Is it a violent scene? Staccatify the notes a little. Play loud! Forget the dynamic marking (which very well may not be there anyway) and give the music the oomph it requires to make the audience think they’re actually in a fight.
6) Practice it as hard as you practice the songs. There is a temptation not to take bed music seriously. That’s because you’re not accompanying the singers… so you don’t have to play everything right. Right? Right. If you hit a wrong note during an underscore, directors and actors aren’t going to scold you (or give you “the eye” — maybe you know that look I’m talking about). That means this is really a question of personal, moral responsibility. Just remember: with good composers, just about every note (and rest) on the page was carefully considered. So although you can make adjustments — you all know I’m a big endorser of that — before you do, take the bed music seriously, analyze it as much as you’d do any song, and try to figure out exactly what the composeer was doing. Know your bed music cold, so you can concentrate fully on meshing it with the stage performance.
Have you ever encountered someone with headphones blasting music that was completely out of psynch with their environment? You know, someone walking through a willow forest while listening to Emiinem at full volume? That’s not what you want your bed music to be. It’s not an iPod, which plays the exact same recording over and over again. Every time you play it, you tailor it to that particular rehearsal or performance — a unique rendering of the music at a fleeting moment in time, never to be reproduced (unless it’s filmed and stuck on YouTube). It’s a sand-painting. Remember, bed music is called bed music for a reason. Like a bed, it’s meant to cushion and conform to whatever position you’re in at the moment. Be that bed, and you’ll have an audience and actors that will feel refreshed and that the show was a good dream.