Sunday midday, November 8, 2:00-3:00 CST

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Theorists Talk about Musicals

Michael Buchler and Rachel Lumsden (Florida State University), co-chairs

This session offers analytic perspectives on musicals that blur and expand the traditional heterosexual paradigm, highlighting musical moments that are unexpected, unorthodox, and transformative. Three papers analyze ambiguous sexual subtexts: one paper discusses “hidden” references to sex, and two papers explore moments where a female character is ambivalent about conforming to the trappings of a heterosexual relationship. Three papers analyze musicals that foreground queer sexual relationships. One paper examines the different ways that sexual desire is depicted for gods and mortals in Hadestown. We will present a series of seven lightning talks. An overall organization by theoretical methodology (rather than by chronology, plot topics, or character themes) allows a rich network of cross-references between the seven papers to emerge. The papers feature a broad range of musicals that intersect and overlap with one another in compelling (and sometimes unexpected) ways: for example, three talks describe phrases in ways that derive from Caplin’s sentential taxonomy, three involve feminist and/or queer theory, and three discuss topics and stylistic interplay (several of the seven talks fall into multiple categories).

The Waltz Topic and Aspects of Love in Broadway Shows after 1940

Greg Decker (Bowling Green State University)

Greg Decker is Associate Professor of Music Theory at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He holds the M.M. and Ph.D. in music theory from Florida State University and was the winner of the National Opera Association’s biennial dissertation prize (2013). His research focuses broadly on the semiotics of musical topics and other music-cultural associations in texted music from Italian madrigals to Baroque opera seria to Broadway musicals. He has presented research at numerous meetings, including the Society for Music Theory, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Handel Society, and the Nordic Musicological Congress, among others. His publications can be found in Music Theory Online, The Opera Journal, Intégral, A Cole Porter Companion (University of Illinois Press, 2016), and Singing in Signs: New Semiotic Explorations of Opera (Oxford University Press, 2020), a volume of essays that he co-edited with Matthew Shaftel. He is currently co-editing a collection of essays with Michael Buchler tentatively titled Putting it Together: Analyzing Musicals. At BGSU, he regularly teaches core undergraduate music theory and aural skills courses and graduate seminars in musical semiotics, musical topics, and analysis of tonal music. He also serves as the coordinator of music theory.


The waltz has a special place in musicals that almost no other topic does: we know when we hear it that the subject, somehow in some way, has to do with love. Although waltzes do not have a monopoly on romance in musicals, the waltz’s semiotics are complex enough for many different kinds of situations having to do with love, including comic and ironic uses. The waltz gained these topical associations from several sources: its use as a European and American social dance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the method of dancing itself, which involved a whirling motion while in close contact with one dancing partner; and its use in concert music, salon and parlor music, operetta, and, to some extent, music hall and vaudeville. In this talk, I will briefly substantiate these potential associations using a survey of over 200 popular songs and operetta numbers written between 1885 and 1930. I will then turn to some waltz numbers from later Broadway shows (after 1940–present) and examine the ways in which these associations have been manipulated to highlight different aspects of the topic’s possible meanings and underpin a range of situations involving love, romance, and sex.

Torch Song Ternaries: Broadway Medleys as Reinterpretation

Nathan Beary Blustein (American University)

Nathan Beary Blustein (he/him/his) is a Professorial Lecturer and Music Director with the Theatre/Musical Theatre Program at American University. He received his Ph.D. in Music Theory from Indiana University. His dissertation, titled “Through Arrangements of Shadows…”, examines reprises in musicals by Stephen Sondheim. Dr. Blustein’s research interests include Broadway form and harmony; the intersections of jazz, pop, and opera onstage; and the role of theatre in music analysis.


Music-analytical studies of songs from book musicals are generally work-centric. Such approaches prioritize musical meaning and interpretation through the dramatic context of a libretto, paralleling the critical valuation of the “integrated” musical. But musical theatre entertainment is considerably more varied than sitting down in a theatre for a live performance of a dramatic work. And for a canon that upholds stereotypes as much as it subverts them, performances that surpass the bounds established by mid-twentieth-century texts offer sites of potent and imaginative reengagement.

In this paper I examine one such category of performances, using Dorothy Loudon’s “Losing My Mind/You Could Drive a Person Crazy” as a case study. Loudon’s medley turns Stephen Sondheim’s pastiche of Tin Pan Alley pathos in Follies on its head by switching back and forth with a solo rendition of an Andrews Sisters-style trio about a flaky beau in Company. A close reading of musical form shows how her performance lampoons patriarchal conceptions of hysteria in both songs, reframing an explicitly sincere and sentimental lyric with surprise and irony.

Loudon’s performance is part of a broader practice of subverting expectations of the torch song—“freighted with gender and sex coded meanings” (Hubbs 1996)—through juxtaposition, alternating two affectively opposed songs into a newly constructed ternary form. These performances most often happen in cabarets, recitals, and concerts—beyond the Broadway stage, where play with musical form is much more rigidly codified—providing a liberating space to confront theatrical stereotypes and animate intersectional subtexts.

Communism, Baptism, Canned Corn, and Other Salty Matters: Songs That Aren’t about Sex (That Are Totally about Sex)

Michael Buchler (Florida State University)

Michael Buchler is Professor of Music Theory at Florida State University. He is the President-Elect of the Society for Music Theory and has previously served SMT as Vice President and Chair of the Program Committee. He has also served as President of Music Theory Southeast. His most recent publications are on ornamentation in atonal analysis (Music Theory Spectrum vol. 42.1), on methodological inclusivity in atonal analysis in The Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy, and on large-scale form in Kiss Me, Kate (Journal of the Society for American Music, vol. 12.1). His video article on “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” is forthcoming in SMT-V.


Lusty songs, as opposed to love songs, are relatively rare in musical theater. When they occur, they’re usually metaphorically valanced—and they’re funny. This brief talk examines three songs, ostensibly not about sex, where the music, stage direction, and lyrical double entendres clarify the actual topic: “Sign Here” from Flora, The Red Menace (Kander and Ebb, 1965), “Baptize Me” from Book of Mormon (Stone, Parker, and Lopez, 2011), and “Jerry Likes My Corn” from Grey Gardens (Frankel and Wright, 2006).

Each song employs a different compositional and lyrical strategy to let us know that signing up for the Communist Party, getting baptized, and the way an old lady “does” her canned corn are not the real matters at hand in these not-so-demure theatrical songs about sex (by any other name).

Unraveling Uncertainty in Sondheim’s Ladies

Richard J. Plotkin (BMI Musical Theatre Workshop)

Richard Plotkin is a professional music theorist and composer, and a writer in the BMI Lehman Engel Advanced Musical Theatre Workshop. His most recent research is aimed at better understand the role that rhyme plays in affecting musical form and closure in Broadway song.

Dr. Plotkin received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and his B.A. from Columbia University. He has taught many advanced seminars on mathematical music theory and analysis, as well as advanced seminars on the analysis of song. He has given multiple SMT annual conference presentations, as well as presentations at other venues including American Mathematical Society conferences and the Clough Conference. His research appears in Music Theory Online, the Journal of Mathematics and Music, World Scientific's recently-published book Mathematical Music Theory, and other publications. He has previously served on the SMT Networking Committee and as Chair of the SMT Mathematics of Music Analysis Interest Group.

Richard sings all the time (especially nowadays) with his wife and two wonderful daughters, and is looking forward to our very socially distanced conference.


Capturing specificity of character in song is crucially important when writing for musical theatre, and Sondheim’s work, which is consistently specific, lends itself to careful study. Ballads of love, torch songs, and almost-love-songs take on unique qualities when affected by aspects of a character’s gender and age. Sondheim’s deliberate coordination of harmony, form, rhythm and rhyme combine to express in-the-moment revelations about his characters’ moods and desires. There are two particularly illuminating examples of women struggling with their futures: “Losing My Mind” (Follies), sung by Sally for a love that has not materialized, and “On the Steps of the Palace” (Into the Woods), sung by Cinderella as she determines to change her awkward relationship with the prince. In the first example, we will examine how rhyme and harmony are manipulated to offer or deny closure. In the latter example, we will look more at the manipulation of form to express Cinderella’s confused stream of ideas.

“Queer Temporalities” in Fun Home

Rachel Lumsden (Florida State University)

Rachel Lumsden is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Florida State University. She has published articles and book chapters on topics involving feminist theory, critical race theory, women composers, experimental music, and pedagogy. Her article “Music Theory for the ‘Weaker Sex’: Oliveria Prescott’s Columns for The Girl’s Own Paper” appears in the most recent issue of Music Theory Online (26.3). She is also co-editor of The Norton Guide to Teaching Music Theory (2018). When she’s not geeking out about music theory or trying to dismantle the patriarchy, you can often find her singing along to Mary Poppins with her two toddlers.


This paper examines depictions of lesbian desire in Fun Home (2015). Based on Alison Bechdel’s eponymous graphic memoir, the musical chronicles Bechdel’s emerging awareness of her lesbian identity and contrasts her eventual acceptance of her own sexuality with that of her closeted gay father, who commits suicide. I draw on Halberstam’s (2005) conception of “queer temporality” to show how the musical departs from conventional formal structures in its overall design and in two songs that directly address Alison’s lesbian identity: “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major.”

Desire in Hell: A Love Song That Transforms Gods and Men

Rachel Short (Shenandoah Conservatory)

Rachel Short is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA. Her research specialties are choreomusical analysis, rhythm and meter, and American musical theatre. Her interdisciplinary dissertation, “Musical Feet: The Interaction of Choreography and Music in Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s Ballet Fancy Free,” is an integrated reading of the musical score and the original choreography that investigates the relationship between complementary aspects of their creative artwork. She is Co-Chair of SMT’s Dance and Movement Interest Group. An active scholar, Dr. Short has presented papers at various conferences including the national meeting of the Society for Music Theory Conference in St. Louis, and Music Theory Midwest—where her work received honorable mention for the Arthur J. Komar Award. She was recently featured in the article “Music Theory, Professional Conferences, and Community Engagement” in Practice Magazine, which she co-authored, and is currently writing a chapter in the edited collection Putting It Together: Analyzing Musicals.

Committed to teaching and mentoring, Dr. Short completed the Certificate in College and University Teaching at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and earned a Certificate from the Summer Teaching Institute for Associates (STIA). She provided mentorship and support for graduate student teachers as Peer Facilitator in Arts & Humanities for STIA, and oversaw and mentored teaching assistants at Arizona State University. She was selected as a Transformative Teaching & Learning Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year. Her teaching goals center on harnessing multimedia to develop students’ analytical abilities so they can better understand the music they perform and enjoy.

She has been active as a musical director and performer in theatrical productions, as a solo singer and as a member of various choirs. She has performed onstage at regional theatres and in national tours, including a tour of Camelot starring Robert Goulet. Favorite performance arenas include Lamb’s Players Theatre, the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre, Starlight Musical Theatre Sea World, and the Empire State Building as a singer, dancer, pianist and actress. Her current favorite musical activity is singing with her family in their living room for online cabarets.

Dr. Short received a Ph.D. in music theory from University of California, Santa Barbara, a M.A. from Queens College, CUNY, and a BA from Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego.


Anaïs Mitchell’s 2019 musical Hadestown is a complex intertwining of two mythic couples. The Greek god Hades is driven by love for his dissatisfied wife, Persephone. Their angst-ridden tale combines with the burgeoning romance of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus, a songwriter. Musicals with double couples commonly portray two different types of romance through different musical styles. In Hadestown’s portrayal of desire, music weaves the two couples together, turning the convention on its head. This paper traces varied uses of the shared “LaLa=Love” theme to explore how music develops the central ideas of desire and love as it transforms the stories of both mortals and gods.

The LaLa=Love theme is interwoven into eight different musical numbers, occurring in both duple and triple meter. It is set in relief by the surrounding folk-recitative narrative, sung in counterpoint against the worker’s mechanistic chant, and—at a pivotal point in the drama—is sung by Orpheus to Hades, who eventually joins in. The theme is transformative for both couples, changing their paths and connecting their desires musically and dramatically. While the theme is mostly performed by Orpheus, he frequently sings it about Hades’ passion. In a departure from many two-couple shows, all does not end well for the young lovers, but the older couple’s love is given renewed hope. Tracing the LaLa=Love theme’s introduction, metric changes, additions, and narrative arc helps us see how the music is changed by, and changes, both gods and men.    

Tonality as Sexuality in The Rocky Horror Show

Nicole Biamonte (McGill University)

Nicole Biamonte is associate professor of music theory at McGill University. She has published articles and book chapters on the theory and analysis of popular music, 19th-century musical historicism, and music theory pedagogy, including her edited collection Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom (Scarecrow, 2010). She is a past editor of Music Theory Online.


Tonal relationships, as well as musical style, reflect the characters’ sexual relationships and transformations in the British camp musical The Rocky Horror Show (Richard O’Brien, 1973). The show is set in a dilapidated cinema and parodies science-fiction and horror movies: a bisexual, cross-dressing, alien, mad scientist—one of a trio of aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy Transylvania—sexually preys on Earthlings and creates an idealized male lover for himself, evoking both Pygmalion and Frankenstein. The show’s first six songs establish a clear tonal contrast between the innocent, conventional humans, who are introduced in flat keys and are the only ones to sing in minor keys, and the sexually aggressive, queer aliens, who are introduced in sharp keys. Changes in tonal areas also reflect the characters’ transformations. The most dramatic of these is Janet’s sexual awakening, depicted in “Touch-a, Touch Me” by a shift from the weakly defined A minor of the verse to A major in the chorus, a key associated with the Transylvanians and, by extension, with sexual agency. The pump-up modulation to B♭ major at the end of the song reflects her increasing excitement and also restores her opening key, suggesting that she has internalized this new sexual agency.