Vocal Arranging for New Musicals

This month we’re going to take a look at the task of vocal arranging specifically as it pertains to new musicals.  We’ll examine both the nuts and bolts of vocal arranging, as well as the more abstract concepts that one must be aware of when working in such a unique environment.  Let’s dive right in!

“Vocal Arranging for Dummies”

Before we move on to talking about the technical aspects of vocal arranging, I’d first just like to give a quick introduction to any readers that may be unfamiliar with what vocal arranging really is.  Let’s begin with what vocal arranging is not: it is not orchestration, though it can often feel like orchestration.  Rather, vocal arranging is the task of writing vocal parts to complement the melody, either when two or more soloists are singing in harmony, or when an ensemble is singing.

Say you’ve just been hired as the vocal arranger for a new project.  The composer and orchestrator might say to you, “There’s a duet in the second act that we want some harmonies in.”  Your job is then to write a complementary second voice to the melody of the duet, providing the second vocal part.  Or they might say, “In this song we want the ensemble to provide some choral ‘Oos’ and ‘Ahs’ in the background.”  Your job is then to write out parts for the ensemble that will result in a satisfactory background to the music.

Vocal arranging often includes working with the orchestrator on ensemble parts that are part of underscoring.  It can just as often include working solely with the composer on harmonies for a group of principals.  The specifics of the tasks can change, but the vocal arranger is the one called upon to write new voice parts.

Vocal Arranging Craft in Musicals

In this section, I’m going to pull some samples from my own work vocal arranging in the past to demonstrate some points of craft that I’d like to discuss.  A quick disclaimer: I do not claim to be an incredible vocal arranger.  Everything I say here has been acquired over the course of my four years of vocal arranging experience, and can be taken with a grain of salt.

First, let’s take a look at arranging harmonies for a pre-existing melody.  Below is the melody of “Born to Be,” from Super Iron Cooking Chef.

"Born to Be" from Super Iron Cooking Chef, Music by Travis Frank, Lyrics by Travis Frank, Nora Germani, and Noah Hazzard

This is the hook and chorus of the song, so a strong statement is required here to bring out the intensity at play.  It’s also a big number, the penultimate moment in the show before the climax, so we’re definitely going for big and bold.  A quick survey of the information at hand can also give us some obvious, but useful, observations: we’re in C minor, so that last note is going to stand out as not being the tonic.  The tessitura of the melody also indicates a baritone or soprano two in the lead, so we need to make sure that the parts we write provide contrast to that voice.  It’s also worth noting at this point that the harmonies we’re writing are for an additional two voices.  We know that May, the protagonist, is singing the melody, and we need harmonies for Billy, a tenor two, and Helen, an alto.

With all of this info in mind, here’s the final harmony that I ended up going with:

"Born to Be" from Super Iron Cooking Chef, Music by Travis Frank, Lyrics by Travis Frank, Nora Germani, and Noah Hazzard

This is a loud, pop musical number, so I chose to stick with tighter harmonies in order to fit that style, though open fifths would have worked well, too.  The second half of the phrase gives us this nice unexpected resolution into the parallel major key, so I chose to really emphasize that by staying in close position and following more traditional voice-leading practices.  This really lets the harmony be the star of the phrase, rather than any fancy vocal arranging.  I chose to keep the harmonies for Helen and Billy static in the second measure since the figure in the melody there is so distinctive.  I could have had Billy join her, but I decided to just let the riff speak for itself as the melody, setting it apart further.

Second, let’s take a look at arranging ensemble harmonies as background for a pre-existing melody.  Below is the full orchestration of “Woe Is Me”, from The Queen’s Dilemma.

"Woe Is Me" from The Queen's Dilemma, Music and Lyrics by Samuel J. Bernstein, Orchestration and Vocal Arrangements by Travis Frank

I was not the composer of this work, and was instead hired solely as the orchestrator, music director, and vocal arranger.  Therefore, I can speak less to the harmony and melody of the piece than with examples from my own writing, but this is a good time to talk about writing within the constraints of someone else’s art. 

For this piece the composer asked that I make sure this song contained the correct amount of intensity, and so I set about creating a vocal arrangement that would effectively illustrate the plight of the characters at this point in the show (this is an act one finale).  With the harmony of the piece fairly static for the first two measures of the phrase, I knew that I would need to provide interest in order to keep the intensity up without changing the written harmony.  To this end I wrote a countermelody for the women (which I later emulated with the violin when orchestrating) that outlines the shape of the c minor chord.  After the first two measures, the harmony begins to change rapidly, so I abandoned the complexity of a countermelody in favor of simply recreating the chords.  In order to “build in” a crescendo, I kept the harmonies close in measure 27, and then expanded them out into open harmonies at measure 28.  When the sound grows into a more open space, the effect is almost the same as a written crescendo

Finally, let’s take a look at arranging background vocals as part of an underscore.  Below is the vocal part of “Be Brave Reprise”, from Mirror, Mirror.

"Be Brave Reprise" from Mirror, Mirror, Music by Travis Frank, Lyrics by Travis Frank and Megan Ruppel

Here the only support the voices get are a simple bass and pad.  The voices themselves are the background, and so the parts are necessarily more harmonically dense in nature.  The first half of this phrase is a leitmotif found in Mirror, Mirror, and is recreated more or less note for note, with an added harmony in the fourth measure to bridge the gap into the second half of the phrase.  That second half is arranged fully, so that the chords are recognizable when sung a cappella.  This particular section needed to sound eery and otherworldly, and so I chose to utilize a dorian progression.  Notice how once the second half of the phrase begins, the soprano voice is the only voice that moves more than once every two measures.  This is vital to keeping the underscore out of the way of the dialogue.  I also employ some basic lower-interval limits here, keeping the male voices further apart from each other and more open and the female voices closer together.  This creates a brighter sound, with a rounder, more reinforced result.

Vocal Arranging for New Musicals

Now that I’ve gone over some examples of what I’ve done and imparted some of the expertise I have to give, I’d like to touch on the challenges one might face when arranging for a new musical.  For most new musicals, the composer and orchestrator and arranger are strong collaborators, and should be working together to create the best score possible.  Oftentimes the vocal arranger will be called upon to create altogether new material as an underscore, or may be asked to voice an opinion on wether more vocals are necessary in a specific spot in the show.  Participating fully in this process is what makes vocal arranging for new musicals so unique and rewarding.  Other times, though, the vocal arranger may be relegated to the role of a skilled craftsman, whose only job is to write parts under the parameters they have been given.  Either way, it is important to remember that the vocal arrangements of a show must be sung in a theatrical context, and this can often take arrangers by surprise.  Every line they write must be singable in a way that fits the artistic vision of the show, and that can be a difficult task.

Vocal arranging for new musicals is not for the faint of heart.  There are countless aspects to the craft, but after all of the work, some of the most beautiful musical moments in a show can come from the vocal arranger’s pen.

Stay tuned for next month’s post where we’ll be taking a look at an inescapable task for the music director: reading music.  Or rather, we’ll be discussing the technological advances in this area, and the pros and cons of using a digital device to store and read music from.  Until then, I wish you luck with your many vocal arrangements!

ComposingTravis Frank