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!