rhythm & groove in the musical theatre - "Next to Normal"

I’m finishing work on a wonderful show, “Next to Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. And it brings up a question I keep asking myself - how do grooves affect our ability to get hear lyric information - does music that makes us want to move (or dance) stop us from listening? Does it stop us from using the part of our brain that follows plot and character? And do lyrics need to be different for deeply rhythmic music than they need to be for lyrical music?

“Next to Normal” is interesting in that it has both - groove music in a strong rock beat and lyrical, theatrical music (still in contemporary pop styles, but without drums and bass laying down a solid rhythm.) I think Brian Yorkey’s lyric writing style varies right along with Tom Kitt’s music - the rhythm numbers have simpler language and ‘pop rhymes’ (the rules are less stringent for rhyming in pop - you can get away with more.) The non-pop numbers can bear more complex thoughts in their lyrics. And there is a good deal of writing in a folk/rock vein that stands somewhere between the two extremes.

Interestingly the heightened ‘poetry’ that a pop lyric allows sneaks into some of Brian’s theatre lyrics here - he can get away with it because the various styles are standing side by side, coming out of the mouths of the same characters.

But with rock I sense the audience getting excited about what’s going on in a dramatic situation where traditional theatrical music wouldn’t have the same effect - the rock pulse has them moving and getting excited as if at a concert. They ARE listening and hearing the lyrics - but now on a physical level as much as an intellectual one. And as they listen to to hard rhythms under the music, they listen almost as participants in the performance.

I think this is a show worth seeing - of course I would say that having worked on it. But besides being great theatre, it’s also an interesting step in how rock grooves are becoming part of the language of musical theatre and changing the nature of the plays themselves. Play as ritual? A more physical feeling of catharsis?

If nothing else, some of the rules seem to be changing ...