On Medleys

September 6, 2020 | By | 3 Comments

Let me open with a rather broadly stated observation: Too many people are doing too many medleys in too many shows. Now I’ll narrow in and expand on this. (Perversely, and yet delightfully, this seemingly oxymoronic sentence is not self-contradictory.)

By medley, I refer to any combination of more than one song. Let’s start at the numerically low end: a pairing of two songs. This comes in a few flavors. The tastiest—i.e., most satisfying to the audience—is a performance of two complete, or nearly complete, songs in which one segues to the other without an applause break. The first song not only delivers its own message and rewards, it also establishes a context for the second, imbuing it with a subtext that enables the listener to hear the song in a particular, and perhaps new, light, thereby enjoying a richer experience. By not significantly truncating the songs, each can be given its full due, and the combination can pack a greater wallop than if the songs had been performed separately.

Choose Wisely

Obviously, the songs must be carefully chosen if these benefits are to be realized. (Some years ago, one hapless singer paired Amanda McBroom’s “Ship in a Bottle” with Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”—apparently believing they shared a nautical theme.) Further, while a combination may offer the potential for a synergistic relationship, your interpretation must deliver on that potential. In a Dorothy Fields show, another singer did a medley of “You Should See Yourself,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Lovely to Look At.” Unfortunately, she did nothing to relate the songs in any substantive way, leaving us to wonder why she combined them, and to conclude that they all involved the sense of sight—far too superficial a link. But take care. Even when songs are well combined and your interpretations masterful, if you do too many pairings in your show, this approach will become tired and predictable, and its effectiveness will diminish.

Another two-song variant is a combination of the verse of one song and the body of a second. The first time I heard this approach, I was taken with its inventiveness. But that was many, many, many years ago. Now this is done so often it has become rather a cliché. Other overdone two-song models include doing a little more than the verse of one song followed by the second song, and doing a portion of one song followed by a portion of another. What’s more, many of the two-song models have three-song counterparts. (More about shortened versions farther down.)

An increasingly popular device entails combining refrains, choruses, or other extracts of two songs to create a quasi-new entity. While musical directors are frequently extremely skillful at constructing these collages, and though I have witnessed a few such compositions that made dramatically strong statements, more often than not the mongrel is not as compelling as the original two purebreds.

Honor the Source

There are factors beyond simply not working very well that argue against mixing different sources—or at least should induce you to seriously reconsider doing so. Songs are the product of writers, who have devoted a lot of talent and effort in creating them; they are not natural resources, to be extracted and molded to meet our needs. Taking such liberties with them smacks of presumption. It is especially disrespectful and hubristic when the arrangement deprives one of the songs of its melody and unique quality, as is often the case. Performing a song as written affords ample latitude for singers to put their individual stamps on them. (I am excluding from this discussion such legitimate stylizations as jazz, in which liberties are taken with the music and meter, but in which the original lyrics should be honored, and variations imposed at the very end of an arrangement.)

Further, singing only portions of songs can be a bit of a cop-out. By mixing extracts of two songs, singers sometimes attempt to use the combination to give the proceedings interest, rather than accepting the challenge of making their interpretation deep and rich. It is relatively easy to perform a couple of refrains and a chorus of a song and do a pretty good job of it. It is far more difficult to interpret an entire song and hold the audience’s interest throughout. What is more, good songwriters generally know what they are doing: songs have however many refrains and choruses they have because that is what it takes to make their point and have emotional impact. And even when a writer concludes a song by merely repeating a refrain and/or chorus, it is the singer’s responsibility not to repeat his/her prior reading of it, but, rather, to convey an emotional state or point of view that advances the interpretation. As a general rule, the shorter the extract, the less weight and impact your rendition will have.

Now we get to traditional medleys—strings of relatively brief extracts of several, or many, songs—perhaps as a survey of a particular songwriter’s work, perhaps songs with a common theme, etc. As we have all seen, these can be quite wonderful. For medleys of serious songs, guard against making the extracts too brief or the medley will almost certainly not work on an emotional level; however, comic medleys can often withstand or even thrive on this approach. Whether serious or comic, do not include more than one or two medleys in your show; the law of diminishing returns applies to traditional medleys as well. What’s more, a terrific song performed authoritatively will trump a medley seven times out of ten. (I recognize that there are shows or unique situations in which an abundance of medleys can be used to good effect as part of a broader theme or agenda. For example, years ago a singer performed a show consisting exclusively of song pairings; the pairings and her interpretations made strong statements.)

One final point. It is almost always a mistake to open a show with a medley. (I say almost because I have seen rare instances in which a medley worked in that spot.) With the first song in the show, you establish yourself with the audience. You show them that you are worth listening to and you earn their attention and interest. If your first number fails to do this, it might take you several more songs before you make this crucial connection. The more diffuse your opener and the more varied the signals you send the audience, the more difficult it is to achieve your objective. Do a single song and nail it.

This commentary is based on commentary I wrote for the MAC website. I welcome your questions and comments—RS


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.

Comments (3)

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  1. Roy, I truly enjoyed this very on point article. I am sharing this with all the artists I know as we hopefully return to the stage for live shows in the not too distant future.
    Thank you for your insight.

  2. sharon says:

    You nailed it, Roy. I went to Rainbow & Stars with Bob Harrington to see a female singer who did a medley of about twenty songs. Twenty!! that were not nominated for an Academy award. In between each snippet she would sing “wasn’t even nominated” and jump into the next snippet. Do you know of whom I refer to??

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