One thing I am told from time to time about my songs is, "It sounds like it could be in a musical!"

I often feel bad for the people saying it, because many times people mean it as a compliment. But the reason it puts me in a foul mood is because of all the other people that say it dismissively.

"Music Theater" is often code for "not marketable". There's a real snobbishness about it too - I've seen it come up in comments from Garageband reviewers, and it always has a dismissive air to it. And recently I got it from a songwriting judge, too.

There are a whole ton of elements to this.

First, there's people being down on music theater in general. You try to pin down what they mean by it, and it will usually lead to some stammering and "it's just... music theatery". Second, there's a lack of understanding on what music theater even is. Sondheim is not in the same universe as Andrew Lloyd Weber. But third, there's the apparent wisdom out there that it's not good for a song to sound too music theatery... whatever that means, and with no real explanation of why.

Me... I started in classical. And I loved Billy Joel and Harry Connick, Jr. I arranged Top 40 tunes for a cappella singers. I music directed two Sondheim musicals. I am quite involved with jazz. I love piano. I studied film scoring and classical composition. I love Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, Bruce Hornsby, James Taylor. I like pulling from a lot of different areas, I like the synthesis. I really like the idea of finding a way to combine pop structures, folk/country storytelling, jazz harmonies, and classical technique. But I think to some even that is basically a formula that adds up to music theater.

Honestly I don't really understand this apparent bias against music theater to begin with. Cole Porter? Gershwin? They're not exactly lightweights. But here's the other thing - by now, I actually know a bit about music theater. Music theater pieces serve a grander plot. They don't tend to tell a complete story by themselves. They don't tend to have concise song form structures because they often pull in interludes and recitatives and quotes from other pieces. They're driven by conventional accompaniment patterns, like triadic quarter notes over and over again that don't challenge the melody singer - background music that stays out of the way.

And that description has nothing to do with She Believes. She Believes is not a freaking musical theater piece. It's in 5/4, for christ's sake. You're not going to hire a music theater actor to sing and dance in 5/4! The train wrecks that would ensue. Not pretty.

But I got that comment from a judge - in the form of listing a bunch of compliments, separated by commas, but concluding with "but it sounds like a song from a musical." No other comments. There was nothing constructive about that comment - no examination of what is actually bad about something being music theatery, what was meant by it, and why it would nullify the other compliments.

Rather frustrating, and I'm sure I'll be getting that style of comment many times in the future, because being a piano-driven songwriter is enough for some people to sum the music up as music-theatery. I'll try to remember to take it as a compliment from those that mean well by it, but for those times when I have to swallow hard after hearing it... hopefully this explains why.

Update: Busted! Apparently "Everything's All Right" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is in 5/4. Dammit!