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Flexible Themes and Forms

Peter Smucker (Stetson University), Chair

Montage Form and the Evolution of the Musical Theater Ensemble

Joan Huguet (Knox College)


The narrative scope of post-1960 Broadway musicals has expanded greatly, eschewing the relatively straightforward plot structures of the Golden Age in favor of more complex means of storytelling. The rise of the concept musical in particular posed new challenges for audiences, given the increased number of characters and actions to follow. This invites an important question: how did musical theater composers create new forms for ensemble numbers? This paper introduces “montage form,” a strategy by which a single number presents multiple characters, stories, and points of view in an efficient and comprehensible manner. In montage form, a number juxtaposes multiple equally weighted stories from different points of view. Its musical construction reflects this multiplicity of perspectives, featuring contrasting melodies and clear sectional divisions. Additionally, shared musical material links the individual stories into an ensemble, creating connections between the disparate storylines and perspectives at hand. Montage-form numbers are often set apart temporally from the primary plot, conveying past events or providing context for the main action of the musical. After defining montage form, I analyze the eponymous montage-form number from A Chorus Line (Hamlisch and Kleban). Finally, I briefly discuss additional examples of montage form, including “Cell-Block Tango” (Chicago), “Prologue: Into the Woods” (Into the Woods), “Dancing Through Life” (Wicked), and “Non-Stop” (Hamilton). By showing how each of these montage-form numbers contributes to narrative development in its respective musical, I will demonstrate how form-functional study of ensemble numbers can deepen our understanding of the evolution of musical theater style. 

Supplementary Material(s)

Filling in the Blanks: Formal Ambiguity in Game Show Themes of the 1970s

Christopher Gage (University of Delaware)


Flexibility is an essential characteristic of game show music: a theme song needs to be able to accompany varying lengths of time occupied by entrances, exits, announcements, and credits, depending on the unique requirements of each episode. I argue that the game show music of Score Productions in the 1970s satisfies this need using formal ambiguity in three ways. First, the one- or multi-measure vamp can be repeated as often as necessary to fill time, as in the celebrities’ deliberations during Match Game or the host’s and contestants’ entrances for Concentration. Second, hypermetric disruption weakens listener perceptions, particularly of the four- or eight-measure group, so that these passages can be shortened or elongated. Password Plus employs this technique by inserting additional measures of tonic after the four-measure main theme, while To Tell the Truth alternates between measures of 4/4 and 3/4 in its introduction, main theme, and interludes. Finally, motivic reuse subverts length-based expectations by saturating a theme song with one single motive, or transformations thereof, as in Password Plus, whose four-measure main theme begins with three identical measures of a characteristic arpeggio. Used as separate entities or in combination, these elements of formal construction provide the flexibility required to accommodate the day-to-day variations in game show segment length, in addition to special situations requiring additional music.

Variations on a Theme by K. K. Slider: Variation Sets and the Hourly Music of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Nathaniel Mitchell (Philadelphia, PA)


In Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020), players socialize, build, and explore an infectiously cartoony island community against a backdrop of equally infectious music. This backdrop consists of continuously looping music that changes every hour, on the hour; producing a daily cycle of twenty-four compositions tagging each hour to a distinctive sonic identity. But though such cycles have long been a series hallmark, in New Horizons, for the first time, each miniature is constructed out of motivic materials from the game’s title track. With this change, Animal Crossing’s signature cyclic soundscape has been centered around a reference point, effectively transforming it into a set of variations on a theme ascribed to the fictional canine composer, K. K. Slider.

At one level, the variation techniques in New Horizons are deeply familiar: each hourly composition selectively elaborates materials from the title track and brings them into new topical fields. But unlike the variation sets of classical music, these techniques operate within a non-teleological, ludic frame, in which variations are environments to be immersed in rather than aesthetic objects to enjoy attentively. Players are thereby encouraged simultaneously to regard the cycle as an index for the routines and schedules of the virtual world and to build mental links between temporally disparate play spaces that are tagged to similar musical motives. By bringing variation techniques into a temporally distended and non-teleological space of play, New Horizons thus unlocks new ways of understanding the functions of motivic reminiscence, analogical thought, and topical recognition in musical experience.