Much Ado About Riffing
I am writing this because I absolutely love riffing. Ask my friends. They will tell you 90% of my humor is just riffing things that I’m saying because I think its funny. I love sometimes adding little ornamentations or back-phrasing or riffs (mordent and otherwise) to solos I sing just to give it some zest, some glitter. So its important that you remember this when reading this semi-critical analysis about riffing in modern musical theatre that: I love riffing.
But- I have been thinking a lot about why we riff when we sing and if that riffing is serving the story or just feeding our egos. The flow of this essay is to delineate some of the historical renderings of riffing and runs from opera to jazz, and deconstruct some recent examples. This essay will examine how riffing, with its roots in opera has historically been utilized as an apparatus of ego and not of storytelling, but, that, if modern musical theater is to progress forward we as performers must being to explore how riffing helps push forward storytelling and character development and not just ornament.
Now lets rewind a little. I recently entered BroadwayWorld’s next On Stage competition in which highschool/college grads submit videos of themselves singing to eventually win a recording session and donation to a charity of their choice. Cool right? When the submission deadline closed and I got to watch all the submissions I was struck by the level of talent in my generation. I was honestly really proud of us and secure in the future of musical theater (in a post-COVID world). I was also struck how many of the other contestants were riffing just for riffing’s sake. Some times the singer even riffed after every line (like in a contestant’s version of “When You're Home” from In the Heights). I was like: how is this actually moving the story/character along and how much of it is just you hearing yourself dude??? It became, at times, hard to listen to. And I think that is the very point: that many of us (myself included, don't worry I’m not infallible) watch and hear ourselves. We watch our selves act rather than sitting in the story and performing truthfully. Not listening to yourself is some of the hardest things to do in singing and really a final step towards mastery. But its hard. I think a lot of it comes from trust, or a lack thereof in young artists. Maybe they don't trust themselves to just sit in the story, play the objectives and be free! I know sometimes I don't. Its hard- but we- as the next generation, gotta step up.
Now- before we get ahead of ourselves, lets inspect a historical parallel to modern day riffing: cadenzas. Cadenza (borrowing its root in cadence) is a term in opera in which a soloist improvises and the orchestra rests alowing the singer to sing freely in whatever rhythmic style they choose outside of the driving pulse of the piece. This is typically demoted by a fremata in music notation. An important factor of cadenzas is that they are typically included to illuminate virtuosity of the singer. But lets just call it what it is: showing off. Yup I said it. Come at me Verdi! I argue, since a majority of opera is about the beauty of the voice (whether it be bass, tenor, baritone, soprano) that the cadenza does not serve the story very much, but rather, its function is to heighten the power, magnitude, and beauty of the performer. And thats okay! But- that doesn't mean that thats okay in musical theater! Whether you want to or not— when you're performing a MT song you are always acting: the song is the monologue. A modern example of a cadenza in MT is the end of “Think of Me” in Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in which Christine confronts the grief of her father’s death and the powerlessness she feels. So you better act that cadenza! Were good so far? Cool.
Lets now look at another historical node of the riff along the continuum: jazz and blues improvisation. Okay I’m not gonna talk a lot about this part, mainly because I don't wanna be another white guy mansplaining jazz (re: Ryan Gosling in La La Land [look that scene up for yourself, its gross]). But I like to think of jazz as a kind of controlled demolition; a harmonic decay into entropy. And the riff (an abbreviation of refrain) who's phonic cousin is rift (a break/rupture) fits into this idea of improv and chaos. Jazz also uses rev and rep, and singers often return to riffs with different harmonic accompaniment underneath to create a dynamic sound. Jazz is also about listening. Not listening to yourself but listening to others: to the ensemble and the sound being created by the Whole. See- were getting warmer here. Partially because jazz improvisations are another way for soloists and instrumentalists to “show off” but they are still driving, at least, a harmonic story forward. But, again, thats not quite the function of MT. So close!
Now lets look at some modern examples (good and bad) of how and why a riff should always push a story along. The first case-study I will mention is from Stephen Schwartz’s ouve. Mainly through two performers in the show Pippin. Firstly, Patina Miller riffs so much in “Glory”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q19_jh162WU. I think that upon first listen it feels a little indulgent, but honestly I think that her riffs, especially in the first couple of verses, choruses actually serve her character. Patina Miller is having so much fun, you can just tell, and the Leading Player is having so much fun too! I mean, he/she/they loves war! Why not riff? Lets just have fun! Riffing here displays that state. The second case from this musical is Matthew Thomas’s rendition of “Extraordinary”. Pay close attention to his vocal riff after the instrumental bridge before the last verse of the song. In this case, I make the case that the riff totally serves the story. Pippin is pissed. I think that riff especially is kinda a scream, a scream of frustration and anger and disappointment. Of course, its also childish and selfish. With Schartz, I really do think the riff serves the story.
Lets end our case by case study with the queen of riffing in modern musical theatre: Idina Menzel. I honestly think that Menzel, more than any other performer, endows riffing with its storytelling capabilities. Lets first look at her infamous riff at the end of “Defying Gravity” in Wicked. Its the end of Act I. Its epic. Its perfect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MslDnwerQRA. For me, the point of this riff really is Elphaba’s ascension. It is a kind of climax (which we will get to). And there is something beautifully free about her sound that matches the freedom of Elphaba in that moment of defying gravity. Its also kind of a warrior yell? Think about that riff as a kind of battle cry and it absolutely works. It doesn't just show off Menzel’s voice (although she did persuade Schwartz to let her sing that final chorus an octave above) but it truly drives the store forward and launches us into a new world created from this moment. Brilliant.
Okay- lets talk about a different, but equally important moment: Menzel as Kate singing “Life of the Party” in Lippa’s The Wild Party. I mean this whole song is a riff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyHMBXFc5nM. It starts with the bassoons/bass riff at the top and then Menzel takes it to a whole other level. This performance is amazing. Its kind of grotesque. Its terrifying. Its orgasmic (re: climax). Its sublime. Riffing here is the primary tool of vocal storytelling. So lets break it down a little bit: I think the punk-pop-rock modern placement of the voice that Menzel uses is perfectly analogous with a scream. We've shifted stylistically from the floaty operatic cadenzas to this messy and yell-y chest voice/mix. Lets unpack that a little. A good way of finding that placement on your own body is to tighten your solar plexus- right where your heart center/ chakra resides. It kind of feels like a broken heart. And well, that scream-like sound is what gets produced. Its the modern day broken heart, completely antithetical to the safe MT sound. And it works for Kate. She's lonely, dejected, rejected, hopped up on who knows how many drugs, and suffering from (perhaps a life long) broken heart. And Menzel’s riffing evokes that state of mind and that objective to “nope nope nope- push that sadness down- I’ll just be here being the life of the party”. And well- all that repression sometimes manifests itself in a scream. Menzel's vocal acrobatics vis a vis riffing even harkens back to Greek theatre as a kind go catharsis, or purging of emotion— a release. So its actually a very ancient and primordial sound. Oh and it serves the story. Ya dig?
Great. I hope that was interesting. I sure think it is! And I'm sure you do too if you've made it this far into the article. Now. Lets talk about the future of musical theater and riffing…
The app TikTok is gonna ruin musical theatre (if we aren't careful). Now, that was very hyperbolic but I do think there is a grain of truth in it. It really is a double edged sword. TikTok has a lot of karaoke challenges to musical theater songs like (“Wizard and I”, “Let Me Be Your Star”, etc..) that have kids, to quote JRB “belting as high as they can” for about a minute clip. On one hand its great- kids who maybe don't have access to a piano or other form of accompaniment or voice teachers are now able to sing and show off their voice on this new social media platform. It kind of levels the playing field in an interesting way. But, on another hand it may (and I mean may) lead a whole generation of young theater artists to think that is all ya need to do: belt as high as you can and riff the fuck out of something. And you maybe thinking “Ok, Gen Z”, but forreal- thats not all the work that needs to get done. So I leave you with this plea. If you're gonna riff in an MT song please think about why. Why am I riffing right now? Where is this coming from? Whats my objective? How would this character riff vs a different character? What do I want to get by riffing? Because a riff has to come from somewhere. And if were gonna keep going forward were gonna have to be pioneers- and redeem the riff, redeem the riff for purposes of character and storytelling. No more riffs just cuz, ok? So essentially: be careful what you riff for.*
*good for you you made it to the end of this mock article! Just a quick reminder that I'm not a voice teacher or music historian I’m just a young actor who really cares about MT, singing, acting, and its craft. So: take anything and everything I say with a grain of salt. That being said because you finished the article heres your reward (the riffing is SUBLIME; its proof God exists): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_hRfk4VZHs. Now go forth and Sing Happy!
Very happy to announce that I recently moved to NYC to pursue a career in theater. I have a part-time job, seeing friends, I've been auditioning like crazy, taking time for myself. Basically perusing my dreams. I'm lucky and privileged to have people support me in this new chapter. Its wonderful out here. I'm taking it day (by busy busy busy) day and couldn't be happier.
Shakespeare and Co.
This past January I did the month-long intensive at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. Words cannot describe my experience there. I got to work with some of the most renown artists in the field. Tori Rhodes. Susan Dibble. Tom Giordano. Tom Yager. Merry Conway. Skate. Sarah Hickler. And especially the legendary Tina Packer. I was challenged as an artist in ways I have never been before. I am a better person because of that month. I am a better actor because of that month. I am a happier person because of that month. Recently completing undergrad was a perfect stepping stone in this new chapter in my life. I got to play Macbeth. I made life long connections and friendships. My life is truly changed for the better.
A Quick Note on Grammar
I just wanted to make a quick note on grammar/spelling/punctuation/diction/profanity in this blog.
This is an informal blog and there are plenty of incorrect grammar/profanity/spelling errors peppered throughout. While I take this (my craft and this blog) very seriously the blog itself is meant to be a fun and informal way of getting to know me better as an artist, so, forgive the typos! Cheers!
I think that to be an artist, one must have a clear idea of who they are and what they strike to create. Heres my version of an Artist Statement/Manifesto...
I am an actor and a singer that focuses in specific, in-depth characterization mainly focusing in theatrical bodies of work (ranging from the classics like Shakespeare, to musical theater, to contemporary drama). I firmly believe in a queering of the classics and yearn to always bring a modern relevance to the work I produce. I make specific and precise choices in crafting a character topically understanding first the scholarly/literary meaning of the work/character before any other juncture in the process. Honing in on my close-reading and analysis skills I have accrued in my time as an English Major (doubling in Theater), I first understand the text and character through a literary lense, tracking the motifs, noting the symbolism, and threading dramaturgical insight into a piece (historical context, gender/race studies) before I actually begin the work of “creating” a character. I then, with that foundation, using different bodily positions, mannerisms, idiosyncratic gesticulation in conjunction with specific vocal choices build a character I believe coincides with the flat, two-dimensional character on the page. Each character I perform, yes to some extent is a facet of myself, but I try to create a specific and unique for each performance.
I draw inspiration from a multiplicity of people/artists around me. First of all, when I'm in a show, I am always inspired by my fellow cast members in the heart/tenacity they bring into the room and am secure that they feel the same way about me. Secondly, I raw inspiration from my very supportive network of family and friends who have continued to support my artistry into my early adulthood; I would not be the kind of artist-human I am today without them. I also heavily draw inspiration from my (past and present) theatrical mentors, especially at Davis. I also believe that knowledge of what is happening in the field is essential to maintaining good artistry, I try to read as many (new and classic) plays as I can and keep up to date on various productions or trends ebbing and flowing in the local/national/international theater community.
For each role (for example, Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s Richard III) I first to start with the text-work. I filled out my objections, noted the motifs, tracked the symbolism/themes throughout each script and especially did my diligence to map out the diction/meter/figurative tropes within the iambic pentameter. I then started, in rehearsal, my embodied practice of “outside-in”. I picked specific choices in how this character stood/walked/their pace/what part of the body they lead with. I start this by thinking about the spine: how does this person hold themselves? For Elizabeth, I chose the chest, fully upright proud spinal alignment (come on, she is a Queen after all). I break this down into two specific categories, pace and voice.
For Elizabeth, I chose slow, slow strides when she’s at court- she’s in control. She controls time-space. She moves like a panther. Her hands flow like in water, in a finger-pyramid- always thinking about the next move. She’s like pure steel onstage, she can change the temperature of a room with just one glance or gesture. I needed to find that energy.
Voice proved to be one of the more challenging aspects of this role Specifically, 1. Finding the right voice for these characters and 2. Maintaining proper vocal health throughout both processes. For Elizabeth, I decided the really control my voice- spitting out consonants and wailing during the lamentation scenes. I had to be very conscience of maintaining good vocal technique for both. And from this outside place and text work I could delve into the psyche of this (and other) character(s).
I make theater because theater allows me to tap into the collective human soul and extent beyond myself through the mode of storytelling.
My manifesto on theater is that: theater engenders empathy. I am a firm believer that theater can bridge communities and heal. I want my art to accomplish that cultivation of empathy and breaking down of the barriers between people. I want my art to rather than be decisive, to instead bridge people together, even though my own personhood (me being a cisgender, white male) is a binary I hope that my art crosses binaries and brings heart and empathy to a group of people larger than myself. Having a live person onstage is a transcendent experience, engendering empathy- I strive hard so that my art accomplishes that goal.
The Importance of Lamentatiòns
Last fall quarter I did a lot. I was in a lot of shows, had a paid job, was a full time student and tried to be a good person. Two of the shows, however, were probably the most emotionally taxing endeavors I have ever taken on. Those shows were Gibraltar by Octavio Solis and Richard III by Shakespeare. In Gibraltar I played Jackson, a husband dealing with his wife’s (Dot) Alzheimer’s, pushed by his melancholy into an affair with his wife’s art-therapist (Amy). In Richard III, I played Queen Elizabeth, whose power is stripped as her entire family is massacred by Richard. Both characters are defined by one facet of their psyche: grief.
How do they explore it/repress it? How do they react to tragedy in different (or similar) ways? How is their grief gendered?
These are the questions I saught to explore through the lense of these two characters. It was incredible being able to rehearse/perform these two people (nearly simultaneously). For each, I first had to start with the text-work. I filled out my objections, noted the motifs, tracked the smybolism/themes throughout each script and especially did my diligence to map out the diction/meter/figurative tropes within the iambic pentameter. I then started, in rehearsal, my embodied practice of “outside in”. I picked specific choices in how these two characters stood/walked/their pace/what part of the body they lead with. I start this by thinking about the spine: how does this person hold themselves? For Jackson, I chose to lead with the forehead (he’s a thinker) and hunched over. He’s insecure/ he’s not the man he used to be, he’s lost a part of himself through the years of grueling in-Home care for Dot; I thought this spine choice reflected that characterization. For Elizabeth, I chose the chest, fully upright proud spinal alignment (come on, she is a Queen after all).
Pace: For Jackson, I chose a deliberate pace (efficiency of motion through space-time). For Elizabeth, I chose slow, slow strides when she’s at court- she’s in control. She controls time-space, she moves like a panther. Her hands flow like in water, in a finger-pyramid- always thinking about the next move. I totally channeled my actor friend Leontyne Mbele-Mblong. She’s like pure steel onstage, she can change the temperature of a room with just one glance or gesture. I needed that energy.
Voice: this proved to be one of the more challenging aspects of these roles was 1. Finding the right voice for these characters and 2. Maintaining proper vocal health throughout both processes. For Jackson, I discovered a deeper, raspier voice than my normal speaking voice, one that reflects his age and quivers with the fatigue of taking care of his partner for that long. For Elizabeth, I decided the really control my voice- spitting out consonants and wailing during the lamentation scenes. Both roles were vocally challenging- Jackson being lower and Elizabeth in her screaming mourning. I had to be very conscience of maintaining good vocal technique for both.
Now let’s get in depth.
Jackson- pressured by the heteronormative society supporting toxic-masculinity is not allowed to fully express his grief. Rather, he suppresses it. This is unhealthy and may be one of the causes of why he cheats on Dot with Amy. He comes to eventually realize the love for his wife is real. He can’t give her up or throw her away. After the last performance, right after I got off stage. I cried. I blubbered. It was all I can do. I was empty.
For Elizabeth- catharsis is allowed. This purgation/pathos is allowed and fully expressed publicly in her lamentatiòn scenes. But one of the challenges for me was, how to do we from this controlled level-headed politician (on the verge of a breakdown trying to keep everyone okay and run the country while her husband-the king-sleeps around with anyone!!!!) and mother become a (nearly) famlieless widow with no political power wailing over her loss? How do we oscillate and negotiate those two facets of her character? Her mathematically sound/calculated crumbles into rocky/jumbled verse full of enjambments and endstops. She also enters (upon the death of her husband) hair disheveled, and it doesn’t get much better for her after that. Her lamentatiòns are some of the richest poetry in all of Shakespeare’s canon and her final lamentatiòn scene with Margaret and York STOPS THE PLAY COLD. THESE WOMEN FINALLY COMD TOGETHER AND TELL THE STORIES OF THE DEAD, engendering the space with empathy. Margaret helps her out on armor, giving her strength to curse him and put him in his place. Community is cultivated. Her war-of-words with Richard is some of the most riveting language of Shakespeare- she is clearly his equal. But does she win? In that scene: I’m not sure. Long term yes- she resigns to marry her daughter off to Lancaster and create the TUDOR EMPIRE (I mean come on: girl power¡¡!!!!). But her “Shall I forget myself to be myself?” js one of the most haunting lines in western drama. It’s also completely enigmatic and nebulous. What does she mean? Is she willing to give her daughter over to Richard to become queen regent once again- how can she- I mean he murdered her CHILDREN AND BROTHERS for crying out loud. I think I’m that scene she finds strength. The strength she lost. And she is now pushed into action again from her inertia- what else can she do- she has to be ten steps ahead of everyone else.
This experience was very taxing. There is so much emotional weight to both of these roles I often struggled to keep it up- to GO to that place of DEEP DEEP GRIEF and LOSS. But how amazing!
I got to explore both genders expression of loss!! 1. Men= Jackson 2. Women= Elizabeth. What a magical opportunity. At the end of the entire process I felt empty/full- satisfied at my ability to shift between the gender spectrum and explore two dream roles I never thought I would play at age 20.
I am writing this post to talk about my views on the current state of theater in our pop culture, specifically the importance of queering the classics, thereby beaming the binaries they foment and expanding representation onstage. Right now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) a queered production of the acclaimed musical Oklahoma! is being performed in which the two main couples are same sex. I think this is a perfect and prototypical example of what the future of the classics/musical theater should/will look like, queered casting. I think it’s really important to be conscience of what/who’s story we’re telling as a society. I mean come on, boys/men played ALL of Shakespeare’s women. Why can’t women do it for the men? And why can’t the men continue to play those female roles? How is Guys and Dolls different with same sex couples? Or opposite gender casting? Does Othello change if it’s characters are queered? What if Dolly Levi was transgender? What about Macbeth? The Trojan Women? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Sweeney Todd? Does it even matter? This kind of casting expands and degrades the harsh gendered binaries often perpetuated by the classics and the discriminatory nature of the canonical edifice in pop culture (disregarding minority voices). If gender is performative anyways- why not shake it up a little bit? I/we have a really exciting future ahead of us with theater. Get ready for it.
I wanna briefly exraportale a theory I have concerning some of the local SF-Bay area theater companies. It seems that a lot of companies seem to (at times) exclusively support the work of some actors by casting them in their seasons over and over again as well as having them work for their company in other fields (administration, front of house, casting). I think while this is wonderful for talented actors looking to really ground themselves and stick with a particular company, but this however leads to a problem: the vortex effect. I call this the correct effect because it can often be degrateting to both the company and the artist. Each show looks the same, I get bored as an audience member and the actors aren’t stretching themselves beyond their bag of tricks. Essentially everyone becomes all consumed by themselves and it leads to stale, boring shows. Stale actors. A stale company. How do we combat this? Well, as actors I guess we shouldn’t get too invested in one company. We should be invested, rather, in a myriad, who trust our work and know it to be precise/thought provoking. At first, I thought it was only certain companies but then I realized that ALL theater companies to some extent have this dilemma. Actors just have to be resourceful and value their work beyond a single company (casting permitted). Companies should then be open to hiring a wider range of actors- yes your Resident artists, but also some fresh faces. Or maybe not. Who knows- maybe I should stop complaining.
While on vacation (getting a little r and r) I began to reflect on one of the busiest times in my life: fall quarter 2017. That time was probably one of the craziest, most artistically fulfilling times in my life. At one point I was performing a play professionally (Hamlet); rehearsing a new-work musical (Near Love Songs); cast in a play (Gibraltar); and cast in a play with the role TBD (Richard III). (I also had a couple auditions peppered within that time). This period taught me the importance of self care and to balance a happy personal life with a fulfilling artistic one. I prioritized sleep and seeing friends, valuing a relaxing cup of coffee with a friend to decompress. At times, it was deeply challenging negotiating this time, but when again in my life will I be able to say that I was working on (to some extent) four amazing productions at once?
Reflection on 2016
My first year in the theater department at UC Davis was marked by experiences I need thought I would have. My fall quarter I was an ensemble member (a Greek soldier) in The Trojan Women. The classic was directed by Kirsten Brandt. I loved working under her specific direction and I always felt valued as an actor (even with a bit part) under her specific, guided notes and corrections. And, of course, I made the majority of my friends in the department because of this production. I also acted in a devised play- an experience I had never done before- this process made me act quick on my toes and really develop a specific character. It was part improv-sketch-comedy-greek-tragedy; it was an incredible experience. Winter quarter I served as an assistant stage manager for a production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike directed by Mindy Cooper. This experience taught me the value of a strong tech team to make a show run smoothly. Our stage manager was probably one of the most efficient and professional student stage managers I have worked with. It was very valuable being able to work so closely with a team of professionals. My spring quarter I served as assistant director for the screw-ball farce The 39 Steps directed by Mindy Cooper. This play was great fun to work on and working so close with Mindy was a gift. I learned the value of bringing bold choices into the room as an actor and brining really really specific character choices. So what did I learn from all of this? The value of watching. You know, maybe I wasn’t ready to act up there on the main stage yet, but, I got to watch actors who were. I watched Danika Sudik (Hecuba in The Trojan Women) deliver monologue after monologue each night: each time slightly different. Each with a different turn, spin, choice, emotion. It was amazing to watch. From her, I learned bringing different choices into the room and the specificity of linking text/language/voice/body. With being an ASM I watched an amazing group of actors work as an ensemble, working to develop impeccable comic timing. This I also watched during The 39 Steps. I learned the danger of half-ass choices and non-specific FULL EMBODIMENT of different characters. I watched Mindy try to pull choices out of actors like pulling teeth- I vow to never be that. This whole year: I watched. I learned from the failures and successes of my peers/elders and I know I am a stronger performer because of these experiences.