with Spencer Robelen

How Musical Theatre saved SpongeBob SquarePants


Most fans will agree that the Spongebob Squarepants franchise has been pretty terrible ever since 2004. After several awful TV episodes and two disappointing feature films, the series has yet to return to the classic brilliance of its first three seasons.

Until now.

When it was first announced that a Spongebob Squarepants musical was in the works, I was skeptical (and jealous for not having been hired as dramaturg…but, like, whatever). But after seeing the show in previews with some friends, I can happily say that it was a masterful spectacle that reestablished my faith in life, theatre, and the franchise.

I’ll start by saying that the true highlight of the show is the stagecraft and costumes. It’s clear this show was created by artists who are not only brilliant at their craft but also respectful of the Spongebob Squarepants canon. The detail and care put into all the show’s physical aspects made it a genuine homage to the cartoon as opposed to a lazy commercial venture. From the moment you walk into the Palace Theatre, you are immediately submerged into the nautically nonsensical world of Bikini Bottom: blue streamers line the walls, fish are projected onto the skrim, lights cast water reflections on the ceiling, various contraptions made of flotsam and jetsam line the proscenium, and a pre-show of Hawaiian music (featuring ukulele and kazoo) completes the aquatic ambiance.

If the stagecraft doesn’t win you over then, it certainly does by the end of the evening. Throughout the show, the intricate set pieces (while frequently campy but never tasteless) are operated by the performers in such a way that you see how the “magic” works, and then your imagination fills in the rest of the details. To describe specifics would be to spoil some truly delightful moments in the show, but let it suffice to say that this show does what I love most about theatre: it presents art imitating life (or at least a caricature of life). Similarly, the delightful costumes perfectly capture the personalities and body types of the sea critter ensemble. Whether it’s Spongebob in a yellow dress shirt with suspenders, Mrs. Puff in a bloated blue coat and hat, or Plankton in a Dr. Evil-esque suit with a pony-tail and eye patch, the costumes remain anthropomorphic and never approach hokey. Even Plankton’s wife, Karen, who wears a dashing sci-fi suit reminiscent of something out of The Rocky Horror Show, is believable as a computer even after the initial computer monitor prop is abandoned early on in the show. All these production elements ensure a faithful translation from animated cartoon to real-life-theatre that even Disney will have trouble topping. And best of all, the audience gets such a thrill out of seeing how each character and setting is portrayed onstage. We keep asking ourselves, “Now how are they going to do THAT?”

You may be saying to yourself, “That’s all well and good, but a show that’s all spectacle can’t be all that good.” And you’re right. But while the Spongebob Squarepants musical is mostly spectacle, its story and structure are decent enough. The plot is basically this: a volcano is going to erupt and destroy Bikini Bottom, and Spongebob et al must prevent it from doing so while Plankton et al try to capitalize on the crisis. Straightforward enough. But by the end of Act One, you get the feeling that an eleven minute TV episode has been stretched into a two hour musical. The upside to this is that, because of the way the show is structured, it is more character-driven than plot-driven; and whether they know it or not, the audience enjoys this because it means that we are able to spend a lot of time with all the zany characters we love from the television series. For example, a duet between Mr. Krabbs and Pearl is unnecessary, but the audience loves to see these often overlooked characters have a funny (and in a way, touching) moment together. Similarly, the show’s structure allows it to incorporate several tropes that the television series is so famous for. From title cards saying “50 years later,” to the French narrator, to even the pathetic Patchy the Pirate with his meta comedy schtick, the musical utilizes several inside jokes that only the true geeks will get; but the result never alienates less seasoned fans or newbies.

A topic of much discussion, the score consists of songs written by several different artists ranging from the Plain White T’s to David Bowie. Most people worried comprising a score of so many different styles would make the show feel inconsistent; but thanks to Tom Kitt’s musical supervision and gnarly band arrangements, the score feels streamlined while still having that element of musical eclecticism that the TV show is known for. (Think “Sweet Victory,” “The Campfire Song Song,” and “Gary’s Song”). The only downside is that most of these songs are pop songs that you can rock out to instead of Sondheim-esque songs that propel the plot forward. At the end of the day, it is Jonathan Coulton’s songs that help build a musical framework on which the others may hang.

(Bikini) Bottom line? This show is worth seeing whether you’re a die hard Spongebob fan or just an enthusiastic theatre-goer. It’s crazy, silly fun…and just like the TV series, it’s pure escapism. Don’t go in expecting the cerebral profundity of Sunday in the Park with George. You wouldn’t expect that from a Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse cartoon, so you shouldn’t expect it from a SpongeBob musical either. After all, Spongebob Squarepants has never aspired to be more than escapist, nonsensical fun; but every now and then, an episode would strike a chord with people because of its sincerity. In much the same way, so does the musical.

Now it’s time to “BRING IT A-ROUND TOWN!”


Top 12 SpongeBob SquarePants Episodes

Creating a list of the twelve best Spongebob Squarepants episodes was almost as tedious and stressful as applying to college. With so many excellent episodes to choose from, it’s not only difficult to select just twelve but also to put them in some hierarchical order.

So after choosing my personal favorites and taking note of those which are the most popular/memorable, I’ve compiled a list that will provide you with two hours worth of Spongebob episodes that exhibit witty jokes and exemplary writing.


12. Mermaidman and Barnacleboy V
After Mermaidman keeps treating him like a kid, Barnacleboy decides to join E.V.I.L with Man Ray and the Dirty Bubble. To help defeat them, Spongebob and his friends join Mermaidman to form the International Justice League of Super Acquaintances. With witty jokes, fast pacing, and some eyebrow-raising Squidward moments, this is considered to be the best Mermaidman and Barnacleboy episode.

11. The Graveyard Shift
A simple yet classic episode in which Squidward and Spongebob are forced to work the night shift at the Krusty Krab. For his own amusement, Squidward spooks Spongebob with the made-up ghost story of the “Hash Slinging Slasher”…but after a series of coincidences, they both realize the story might NOT be made up after all. Arguably, one of the best moments in the episode is the ending…which features a cameo from none other than Nosferatu himself, the vampire from the famous 1922 silent horror movie.

10. The Camping Episode
This is another one of those episodes that needs no explanation. When Spongebob and Patrick go camping (ten feet from their houses), Squidward somehow gets involved and all hell breaks loose. Featuring classic jokes and the unforgettable “Campfire Song Song,” this episode is a gem.

9. Chocolate with Nuts
Spongebob and Patrick decide to become entrepreneurs by selling chocolate, and hilarity/danger/scandal beyond anyone’s comprehension ensues. You either love or hate this famous episode…but no one can deny that the scene with the two old ladies is probably the funniest scene in the entire series. That’s really all I need to say.
8. Rock Bottom
There really are no words for how unanimously loved this episode is. When Spongebob and Patrick get on the wrong bus, they suddenly find themselves in a pit of “advanced darkness” where a motley crew of scary-looking fish only speak in tongues. With jokes including the strange amusement park of Glove World, Spongebob trying desperately to get on a bus, and creepy creatures communicating in fart sounds, this episode is definitely one of the best in the entire series.
7. Club Spongebob
What a fantastic episode. Squidward ends up getting hopelessly lost in Kelp Forest with Spongbob and Patrick. As if that weren’t funny enough, it turns out that Spongebob and Patrick have deified their toy conch shell, which keeps denying Squidward food. Not only is this episode hysterical, it’s also a great commentary on groupthink, Stockholm syndrome, and societal worship.
6. Krusty Krab Training Video
Acclaimed as one of the most popular episodes in the series, “Krusty Krab Training Video” has all your favorite Spongebob gags in addition to looking like a totally weird instructional video from the 1980’s. With the help of an omnipotent narrator, Spongebob walks us through all the aspects of working at the Krusty Krab, with all of its perks and foibles.
5. Rock-a-Bye Bivalve
When Spongebob and Patrick find a helpless baby scallop, they decide to raise it together as a family. What soon follows is not only a funny sequence of events but also a very harsh criticism of current domestic issues. You heard correctly, folks. “Rock-a-Bye Bivalve” is probably the most controversial episode in the entire Spongebob Squarepants series. I’ll be the first to say that Spongebob episodes are pure escapism and humorous nonsense the majority of the time. But out of the very few episodes that actually have a moral or lesson, this one is the best and most daring. Read my full critique of it HERE.
4. Tea at the Treedome
In this classic episode, we meet Sandy for the first time and wonder, “Why in the name of God is a squirrel living under water?” But alas, that question is never answered, because the pressing matter at hand is whether or not Spongebob is going to survive tea and cookies in her airtight treedome. The episode is truly genius considering the stakes are so high for the characters…not to mention the situation itself is bizarrely terrifying. And we can’t help but laugh out loud at Patrick’s futile attempts to console Spongebob from outside the dome. Classic.
3. Pizza Delivery
Yep, this is the one. Do I even need to say anything? No, but I will anyway. Spongebob and Squidward trek through no man’s land to delivery the first ever Krusty Krab pizza…and it is EPIC. Aside from some great gags, we also see one of Squidward’s first redeeming moments.
2. Dying for Pie
Definitely one of the best episodes in the entire series (and one of my personal favorites), which would explain why it was aired so much back in the day. When Squidward accidentally gives Spongebob a pie that turns out to be a bomb, Mr. Krabs guilts him into spending the rest of the day with Spongebob, considering he could explode at any moment. What follows is a brilliant episode with clever writing and wonderful jokes.
1. Band Geeks
Considered by many to be the greatest Spongebob Squarepants episode ever (and my personal favorite), “Band Geeks” is practically flawless for a number of reasons. The script is great, and it’s loaded with high stakes, a mix of both clever and absurd jokes, several memorable quotes, an inspiring moral, and an unforgettable musical sequence at the end. From Plankton trying to play the harmonica to the baton twirlers accidentally blowing up a blimp, all the gags are just as funny now as they were when the episode first aired.


The Making of “The Boy Who Cried Succubus”


Near the end of our first year at the Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, Nina Kauffman and I were paired together for the twenty-minute musical assignment. This was already the start of something beautiful because Nina and I had joked that, if we were paired together for the twenty-minute assignment, we would write a musical about hamsters trying to escape from their cage.

We did not write that musical.

Instead, when the time came, Nina visited me in my apartment where we promptly got drunk and devised two brilliant ideas that we thought would ultimately change the history of American Musical Theatre and make Hamilton look like Plan 9 from Outer Space. The first idea was My Fair Swamp Donkey, a contemporary spoof of Pygmalion in which two frat boys find a swamp donkey (which is a derogatory European term for an overweight, unattractive female who gets men drunk so that she can sexually molest them) and vow to turn her into a “booshy bitch.” The second idea was Missed Connections, an original idea based off of a mortifyingly awkward incident that occurred between me and an old roommate that really doesn’t need to be retold in this blog.

When we sobered up and pitched these two ideas to our faculty advisers, we found out that alcohol does in fact make everything funnier. The faculty, while delighted by our enthusiasm, found both ideas confusing and flawed. But they recommended we take the idea we liked best and start writing spec songs.


So Nina and I started developing My Fair Swamp Donkey and wrote several trunk song hits such as “Just Two Frat Boys Thirsty for a Drink (and I’m Definitely Not a Twink)” and “Why Are All the Women Feminists?!” The best of which was the swamp donkey’s solo, “Maybe Life Would Suck a Little Less,” which went something like…

My life is like a ship upon the barren sea.
My life is like a broken pot of lukewarm tea.
If I had personality or even a nice dress,
Maybe life would suck a little less.

My life is like a waiter who is never given tips.
My life is like a sandwich that doesn’t come with chips.
If only I were confident with someone to impress,
Maybe life would suck a little less.

My life is like a slinky tangled in a knot.
My life is like a child left in a parking lot.
If someone loved me as I am, then…
Ah, but I digress.
It wouldn’t be perfect.
It wouldn’t be awful.
But maybe it would suck a little less.

I was convinced we would never write anything better than this. But the faculty, thankfully, thought otherwise.

They encouraged us not to spoof My Fair Lady, but instead to keep adapting Pygmalion or some other similarly themed public domain work that would allow us to develop new, realistic characters as opposed to just silly caricatures.

Nina and I brainstormed a bit and, somewhere along the line, thought it would be hilarious if the swamp donkey character were actually a monster of some kind. We found The Painted Skin story and decided to try that as our source material. The new story wasn’t too different: two dudes go to a bar and one of them picks up a beautiful, mysterious woman…but her skin falls off after they have sex and it turns out she’s a soul-sucking demon. The spec songs from this draft included the catchy “I’m Gonna Kill You (With My Love)”…

I’ve never met a guy like you.
You make me feel this thirst.
I want you so bad it makes me wanna shout.
I wanna take your hands and then look deep into your eyes…
They’re so damn beautiful, I wanna gouge them out.
Fuck, it gives me such a thrill
To know I’m gonna KILL you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.

Your face is so cute I just wanna rip it off your skull.
And nail your sexy body…to a tree.
Then I’ll rip your heart out and I’ll hold it in my hand
To show how much your love has meant to me.
It’s only been one day, but still
I know I’m gonna KILL you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.

We pitched all this to the faculty, and it seemed to be a step in the right direction, but they wanted us to go deeper with the female character. Why was this demon inside her? What does she want? What does she need? Do we all have a demon inside us?

This was when things got weird. Well, weirder I should say. Nina and I kept asking ourselves these questions and the next thing we knew, we had a draft about a married couple with a foster child named Bacia who was trying to suppress her inner demon…literally. The show ended with Bacia ripping off her skin, destroying the house, killing her foster father, and then convincing her mother that it was for the best. Because the story started to resemble an 80’s horror flick, I started listening to Jim Steinman songs and, for better or worse, wrote several spec songs that were all epic 80’s power ballads. Think “Total Eclipse of the Heart” meets The Thing.

This draft was even more complicated and flawed than the previous ones. And worse than that, we both kind of hated it. We had been overthinking the critique and ended up writing something neither one of us cared about anymore. I specifically remember one day where both of us walked out of lab, sat down at a table in the department lobby, held each other’s hands, and cried. Why were we crying? Because we had eight weeks to write one good twenty minute musical…and we had just spent six weeks writing three terrible ones.

So we confided in our main adviser, Sybille Pearson. She comforted us…and then promptly told us to write the show that we wanted to write. She would make herself available to us whenever we needed her, and she would help us in any way she could. “But if we’re starting all over, we only have two weeks!” Nina and I squealed. “Yes,” Sybille replied. “So there must be nothing else in your lives for the next two weeks…only this. You can do it.”


And we did. To this very day, I still don’t know how. It was a blur of emails, pdf files, and voice memos of me singing with the hiccups…but we got it done. We decided to hang on to the demon idea and the dudes at the bar, and the result was The Boy Who Cried Succubus: the story of two bros, Guy and Brandon, who go cruisin’ for chicks at The Brewer’s Art. Brandon finds and falls for a sexy babe named Bacia; but out of jealousy, Guy tries to convince Brandon that she’s a succubus intent on freezing his dick off with her “ice snatch.” We loved what we had written…but there was just one thing missing.

The ending.

The show originally ended with Brandon storming out of the bar after the “I Don’t Want a Bro” number, Guy getting upset about it, and Bacia taking Guy home instead. We liked this because Brandon, the good guy, gets away safely while Guy, the douchebag, gets what he deserves. And Bacia, of course, gets what she wanted all along.

But we were unsatisfied with it to a certain degree. So with only one week left to finish the show, we asked ourselves, how can we end the show with all three characters still there singing with one another? Nina had the answer.

“A threesome,” she said. “They’ll have a threesome. Guy and Brandon both die. Bacia wins.”

A perfectly deranged ending to our perfectly deranged musical.


We presented the show at school under the direction of Michelle Tattenbaum, who helped us find depth in a piece that we thought had none. Gillian Berkowitz music directed and helped improve the score in so many amazing ways. And of course, our performers Matthew Roscoe, Sam Prince, and Julia Johanos were all virtuosic and hysterical with their portrayals of such deeply flawed yet good-intentioned characters. I pray we’ll always be able to work with artists this talented, helpful, and fun.

The show was warmly received by our faculty and classmates, with feedback ranging from “That was immensely disturbing” to “That was profoundly hilarious.” Nina and I couldn’t have been happier. Everything worked out in the end, not just because of the great support system we had, but also because, through it all, Nina and I trusted one another.

In those last two crazy weeks, we were sending so much material back and forth to each other that there really wasn’t much time to second guess any of it. I specifically remember one evening when Nina sent me the lyrics to “Nice to Meet You,” and I blatantly told her that I didn’t think I could set them to music because there was no form or rhyme scheme. Nina said, “Give them another 24 hours, and if you can’t think of anything, we’ll try something else.” Low and behold, I locked myself in a room with a piano and, an hour later, had set all of “Nice to Meet You” to music. The result was a new type of song that I would never have had the chance to write without having swallowed my pride and trusted Nina’s artistic intuition. It was a lesson learned in a very short amount of time, and luckily our friendship never underwent any strain.

Hopefully The Boy Who Cried Succubus will have a life after its small success at NYU; but until then, check out the awesome demo recording with our original cast and crew, graciously recorded by John Allen Watts.

Enjoy your next Friday night, and may you find love, sex, or frozen dicks…whatever you need to survive. No judgement, bro.



Musical Theatre Songs That Shouldn’t Have Worked (But Did!)


Have you ever watched a musical (on stage or film) where, somewhere usually around the second act, a song starts and you think to yourself, “What does this have to do with ANYTHING? Can we just get on with the show?”

When writing a musical, one tries to make every song, at the very least, either advance the plot or develop an important character. But frequently, there are songs in a musical that do neither; they only stop the show dead in its tracks and annoy the audience. In short, they don’t work.

But in my opinion, there are a handful of songs in the musical repertoire that, despite stopping the plot or developing an unimportant character, suspend our disbelief and delight us. Here is a list of ten, in a mildly progressive order, with explanations as to why I think they work.

10. “Shipoopi” from The Music Man (1957)

I’ve always said the Act II opener should try to be the best song in the show (you need to convince the audience that staying after intermission was a good idea), and “Shipoopi” does not disappoint. But within the brilliant plot of The Music Man, it serves no function except to allow the character of Marcellus to shine for a bit, since he is basically always in Harold Hill’s shadow; even then, it’s an ensemble number, not really a solo. So why does it work? Because it starts the second act with a bang, and it’s one of the silliest and catchiest songs in the whole show. And if you didn’t love Marcellus already, you will by the end of the song. Family Guy even did an elaborate spoof of it.

9. “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is one of the best film musicals of the 1950’s, and the most impressive aspect of it is not the singin’ but the dancin’. Some could argue that this song technically moves the plot forward as the actors learn to speak properly, but let’s be honest…this was just another great opportunity to show how mind-boggingly amazing Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are. The number emerges out of a cute tongue twister the actors are learning, and it’s probably the most impressive dance in the entire film. The characters may not be different by the end of the song, but somehow the audience is.

8. “Les Poissons” from The Little Mermaid (1989)

If you remove this song and the chef from The Little Mermaid, the film would still be perfectly intact. So what do they add? Intense comic relief at a time when Ariel is just “getting to know” Prince Eric. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good dose of slap-stick comedy. Not only are the song and ensuing chase scene hilarious, but the song itself is brilliantly crafted by the songwriters.

7. “Sister Suffragette” from Mary Poppins (1964)

The character of Mrs. Banks is even more absent from the film than the pivotal character of Mr. Banks. Therefore, it’s quite odd that she gets her very own song twelve minutes into the film that has nothing to do with anybody or anything integral to the plot. So why does this song work? Two reasons. The first is that it gives us living, breathing, singing proof that Mrs. Banks has become so wrapped up in her political cause that her children are coming second in her life. Sure, she encourages the hiring of a nanny, but in the end, she’s just as guilty of neglecting her children as Mr. Banks is. The second reason? It is one of the Sherman Brothers’ best songs. It’s a rousing number that everyone loves, and it picks you up after the Oscar-winning, but somewhat dreary “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The song may have been written specifically for Glynis Johns, but it does the film no harm at all, and if anything, it is utterly delightful.

6. “Piragua” from In the Heights (2008)

The same reasoning goes for this song as for “Les Poissons.” While everyone in Washington Heights is freaking out about life, love, college, blackouts, and ninety-six thousand bucks, the piragua seller comes out of nowhere and sings about selling…you guessed it…piragua. The song is short, sweet, and catchy, and also has the endearing hook of “Keep scraping by,” which actually encapsulates the mindset of the community. Half of the song is in Spanish, yet even if you don’t speak Spanish, you still get the message.

5. “Posh!” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Full disclosure, this is my favorite song on the whole list. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a strange movie to begin with, but the character of Grandpa Potts is delightfully enigmatic and ridiculous. He regularly dresses up in old military garb and secludes himself in a little hut, claiming he’s going on a trip somewhere. Nowadays we would diagnose Grandpa with PTSD, but because he’s in a musical, we just have him sing. Midway through the film, while in his hut, Grandpa gets kidnapped by the Vulgarians in their blimp. The rest of our protagonists are freaking out and attempting to rescue him…but what does Grandpa do? He sings a song about traveling that ALMOST makes no sense…all the while flying through the air in his hut. It has nothing to do with the plot, and it only informs us that Grandpa is a little bit crazy, which we already know…but good god, it’s a delightful, hilarious song that helps the film transition into what would be its second, somewhat darker act.

4. “Barcelona” from Company (1970)

Company  is my go-to favorite musical, and while I love the number “Barcelona,” it actually doesn’t seem necessary to the show’s structure. We already have a brilliantly written scene between Bobby and April where they talk about past lovers, as well as an equally brilliant song (“Poor Baby”) that gives it context with the rest of the show. “Barcelona” really just serves as a bittersweet and humorous tag to the whole sequence, and it often feels more like recitative than song. But “Barcelona” provides an interesting perspective that none of the other songs quite tap into. While almost every song in the show is about marriage or dating, “Barcelona” examines both the ecstasy (and awkwardness) of a one-night stand. And even though Amy stays at the end of the song, we can tell that Bobby is still “alone,” as well as annoyed.

3. “With a Little Bit of Luck” & “Get Me to the Church on Time” from My Fair Lady (1956)

In a perfect world, every musical would have a drinking song (well, in my opinion). Alfred P. Doolittle is a delightful character, but he’s non-essential to the main plot of Eliza transforming from flower girl to high society lady. Therefore, his two songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are both non-essential as well. But they both provide sheer fun and humor at key points in a show that is heavy with themes of sexism and classism, especially when examined by a modern audience.

2. “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music (1965)

In the film version of The Sound of Music (note that the context of this song is different in the original stage version), “The Lonely Goatherd” marionette show put on by Maria and the children seems to come out of nowhere and has nothing to do with nuns or Nazis. You could say it serves the function of inspiring Max to suggest entering the children into the Salzburg Festival, but “Edelweiss” could have easily served that purpose, and the three hour film would’ve been five minutes shorter. But honestly, if you removed “The Lonely Goatherd” from the film, you’d be losing what is undoubtedly the most musically satisfying and catchy song in the entire musical. No other song builds quite as much as this one, and it’s almost impossible to get out of your head. Plus, the direction and cinematography of it in the film are superb.

1. “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music (1973)

Stephen Sondheim tops the list with a song that is both perfectly crafted and totally unnecessary. The song is sung by Petra the maid…a great character, but still a minor role. This is her only solo in the show, and in my opinion, it comes at a terrible point in the second act: we just heard “Send in the Clowns” which is a hard song to follow, the plot is getting more confusing and building up to a climax, and the audience is probably fidgeting in their seats, ready to go home after what has already been a two hour show. So to have a minor character come out and sing a solo at this point in the theatrical evening is what I would consider very daring. And yet, “The Miller’s Son” is a memorable, upbeat, and somewhat dark song in which Petra explains to us the reasoning behind her promiscuous ways. In essence, the song sums up one of the biggest themes in the entire show while developing an amusing and endearing character. Sondheim’s craft won out and defied the odds…we as an audience are willing to put the plot on hold and listen to what Petra has to say to us.

Wendy Carlos and the TRON Soundtrack


This article was previously published on The Info Zombie blog back in 2014. I’ve decided to share it again because we must never forget who Wendy Carlos is and how she changed music forever.

“Almost Magical”: The Love Theme from TRON

After several hours of trying to come up with an “anthem” for the film Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos gave up and decided to just go to bed; but no sooner had she done so, Wendy had a musical epiphany that kept her from falling asleep. “Many of my best ideas…seem to pop into my head when it’s most inconvenient,” she recalls. “In such cases, you actually “hear” the final music in your head, pretty nearly in a finished form, with the full orchestra or other instruments playing. A private, steerable jukebox!” [1] Fortunately, Wendy kept a pad of “amusing” keyboard paper by her bedside on which she could transcribe these impromptu musical ideas. So within a matter of minutes, the “Tron Anthem” was born.


[Figure 1. Wendy Carlos’ initial sketch for the Tron anthem.]

By this time in her life, Wendy had already made a name for herself as a composer and pioneering electronic musician with her debut album Switched-On Bach (1968), which won three Grammy awards and surprised everyone in the music business with its immense success. In addition to producing similar albums, Wendy also went on to compose electronic film scores, including A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Because of this, Wendy was the obvious choice when Walt Disney Pictures went searching for a composer to score the science-fiction computer film Tron.

What makes Wendy’ score for Tron so unique is the fact that it utilizes both acoustic instruments (orchestra, choir, and organ) and electronic instruments (Moog synthesizer and Crumar’s GDS digital synthesizer), which is extremely appropriate for a film about a man getting sucked into a computer. All the acoustic and electronic instruments are used in Tron’s “Love Theme,” which is the main selection I will be analyzing.


[Figure 2. Wendy Carlos studying the Tron score at her modular Moog system.]

“Love Theme” starts with at least fifty seconds worth of tone clusters (Section 1), played by what we can only assume are the strings and one of the synthesizers. By 0:10, the clusters become less dissonant, and we can begin to make out some consonant intervals, although several different rhythms are simultaneously occurring. By 0:20, choir voices enter singing eerie perfect intervals over the string clusters, and at 0:40 the synthesizer joins in. If you listen to the piece in stereo, you can hear a very quick call and response between the synthesizer notes on the left and right sides.

Everything changes in Section 2 at 1:00, where a solo cello plays the “Tron Anthem,” soon followed by the violins and violas at 1:10. Between 1:00 and 1:25, the synthesizer once again ornaments the melody; but it also accompanies it with what sounds like an Alberti bass pattern. Due to the prominence of the strings, this section is particularly full and lush with a consonant harmonic sound. And although it is difficult to decipher what time signature it is in, this section still has a definite pulse that gives it a very organic feel and cantabile style. Because of these qualities, the second section is an extremely stark contrast from the first section, which had an ambiguous harmonic sound and no sense of pulse. Interestingly, both sections utilized the electronics to the same purpose of ornamenting the acoustic instruments and blurring the lines between “real” and “unreal” voices.

A transitional section starts at 1:25 where the strings begin to play cluster chords again and the synthesizer begins arpeggiating chords that clash against them. The chaos crescendos as trumpets play a triumphant call above it at 1:35. And as if things couldn’t get any crazier, the lower-pitched instruments of the orchestra (and the lower notes of the synthesizer as well) slowly enter, creating a sense of heaviness as the music continues to crescendo in both volume and instrumentation, a term I’ve always referred to as “frooping.”

At 1:40, when the ensemble can froop no more, we enter the third section, where the anthem reprises gloriously in not only a different key but also a slightly bastardized minor mode. Almost every instrument, including the choir, is playing the melody. After a bar or two in this minor mode, the ensemble switches back to the initial major mode, providing a perfect instance of harmonic tension and release. And to the listener’s surprise, the whole piece decrescendos on an E major chord (III) as opposed to the tonic C major chord (I).

Regarding musical form, Wendy always consider it to be the biggest bugaboo about any composition longer than a minute or two. “The minute you try and get into a longer, abstract piece of music, even if it’s program or film music, you’re facing formal questions,” she says. “How do the structures relate to one another? Does this lead to the other logically?” [2] Considering that, we can see that “Love Theme” has the following form:

[Section 1] – [Section 2] – [Transition] – [Section 3]

With this, we can now answer Wendy’s own questions. How do the structures relate to one another? Well, Section 1 and the Transition feature the cluster chord areas, or the more chaotic parts of the piece, whereas Sections 2 and 3 are merely the “Tron Anthem” presented in two different ways. So in terms of musical structure, the form would look like this:

Chaos ~ Anthem A ~ Chaos ~ Anthem B

So, do the ideas lead to each other logically? I’d say yes, because in a way, the “Love Theme” form resembles classical sonata form (Exposition ~ Development ~ Recapitulation). If we consider Section 1 chaos to be just introductory material (because its only purpose is to slowly push us into the Anthem theme), Anthem A to be the exposition (because it is the first statement of the theme in the first key area), the transitional chaos to be the development (because it serves to disorient us and take us to a different key area before the second statement of the theme), and Anthem B to be the recapitulation (because it is the second statement of the theme in a new key), it results in this:

Introduction ~ Exposition ~ Development ~ Recapitulation

Well played, Wendy. Well played.

In terms of texture and tone color, Wendy has always strived to incorporate as many different timbres in her music as she can, and “Love Theme” is no exception. The reason I selected “Love Theme” instead of a more electronic-heavy selection like “Tron Scherzo” is because this piece has so many more timbres and compositional techniques to observe and appreciate. Wendy does such a lovely job of contrasting the higher, clustered textures in Section 1 and the Transition with the deeper, more luscious textures in Sections 2 and 3; and that is exactly what she wanted to accomplish. “I heard the score as a blending throughout of electronic and acoustic colors,” she said, “with no harsh, artificial separation of timbres.” [3]

Throughout all the sections, Wendy accomplishes her mission of blending the orchestra, choir, and synthesizer tracks to make one pure, new sound. She achieved this by recording her orchestra and choir cues separately from her synthesizer tracks, and then mixing the two together to create a homogenized recording.

Unfortunately, this was not an easy feat. The orchestra recordings came back from the Royal Albert Hall sounding distorted and messy because of poor sightreading and bad microphone placement, so Wendy had to edit everything in her own home studio. “First, I added tracks where synthesizer colors were needed. Second, I doubled lines that I thought were played poorly. Third, I put in lines that had been missed altogether by the orchestra, totally off-mike or improperly recorded.” [3] Between splicing and re-recording tracks at different speeds, Wendy made her own modifications to the new Crumar GDS digital synthesizer in order to save her score. “It was physically exhausting, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

[Figure 3. Wendy Carlos with the Crumar GDS synthesizer.]

Luckily, Wendy’s efforts paid off. The Tron soundtrack blended marvelously with the film, and it would grow to be a cult favorite among many science-fiction fans and electronic musicians who eagerly awaited its release on vinyl and CD. [4] While it was one of Wendy’s most difficult projects, she still talks positively about it. “You’re aware of the time you’ve spent, you’re aware of every little bit in the music at the end, that it all went through you…but the process itself is somehow still almost magical. That’s just the act of being creative.” [5]

[1] Carlos, Wendy. “TRON Original Sketch: How two main themes were first created.” Wendy May 2003.
[2] Aikin, Jim. “Visionary Composer and Computers.” Music and Computers Magazine.
Nov/Dec 1997.*.pdf
[3] Moog, Robert. “The Soundtrack of TRON.” Keyboard Magazine. November 1982.*.pdf
[4] Krakower, Beth. “Walt Disney Records Introduces Highly Anticipated Expanded Reissue of Tron.” February 12, 2002.
[5] Oteri, Frank. “Wendy’s World: A new text/video interview with Frank Oteri.” New Music Box. April 2007.

“Larry the Lobster” Syndrome


With me, all roads lead to Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or Spongebob Squarepants. So today, I’ll be referencing the latter…and I swear this is relevant to your life.

In an early episode of Spongebob Squarepants called “Ripped Pants,” Spongebob and Sandy the squirrel go to Goo Lagoon (an underwater beach, if you will) and meet Larry the lobster. Larry is big, buff, charismatic, and adored by everyone. So basically, he is everything Spongebob is not. So when Larry asks Sandy and Spongebob to hang out with him and his possy, Spongebob ends up feeling inadequate and constantly in competition with Larry for everybody’s attention.

Why do I bother writing a post about this? Because it’s important for us to realize that we all have people like Larry the lobster in our lives…people who have certain qualities that we covet and lack ourselves. People who are so good at something that they make us feel like we can’t do crap.

Granted, they can be really nice, awesome people. Your best friend can even be a “Larry” in your life. Or a family member too! How many times have you been jealous of your friend for doing something amazing that you could never do in a million years? Or felt like the black sheep of the family when your sibling accomplishes something you never did? And granted, the “Larrys” in our lives can be crappy people too…people who pride themselves on what they can do that you can’t, and then promptly rub it in your face.

These people, good or bad, can cause us to question ourselves as often as we’re around them or seeing their posts on social media. When I was a student at the Frost School of Music, I remember being surrounded by so many talented musicians that it was almost overwhelming. All I had to do was look around and there would be a dozen students who could compose or perform at a level that I never could. And then when I moved to New York City, it only got worse. “Good God,” I said to myself in my best old man voice. “Here I am surrounded by thousands of people who are better than I. What can I possibly do that would contribute anything to anyone?”

Well, here’s the truth, friends…it’s never going to change. There will always be people who can do things better than you can. But it works the other way too. There’s plenty that you can do that other people can’t do. Even if it’s something normal, you do it in your own special way. Sure, Larry can lift weights and Spongebob can’t…but Larry sure can’t fry patties, blow bubbles, or catch jellyfish as well as Spongebob does. In fact, the Ripped Pants episode ends with Spongebob finally accepting who he is, singing a song about it, and then ultimately earning the admiration of those around him (including Larry) just for being himself.

And actually, here’s the ironic bit. Chances are really good that you’re the “Larry” in someone else’s life. For example, while I was in New York City bemoaning my own insecurities, I was simultaneously dating someone who felt insecure around me because of all the musical stuff I was getting to do at NYU.

The lesson? Accept the “Larrys” in your life (again, good or bad) for whatever you’re able to learn from them. But also be sure to check in with yourself and all that you’ve faced, fought, suffered for, and accomplished at this point in your life. If you’ve made it this far, you can probably keep going. You’re stronger than you think you are…and you need to keep reminding yourself of that. You should define yourself by your strengths and not your weaknesses.

And as Spongebob said, “Be true to yourself, don’t miss your chance, and you won’t end up like the fool who ripped his pants.”

The Sound of a Place


I was born and raised in South Florida, and the music my family seemed to listen to the most was country on 99.9 Kiss Country Radio. But as I grew older, I found other genres of music that I liked a lot more…and eventually all country music became an incessant wash of the same chord progressions, the same audio production qualities, the same slant rhymes, and worst of all…twang. So much twang. Every type of twang. Everywhere. All the time. I saw this YouTube video that mashed up 6 nearly identical country songs, and my aversion was confirmed.

In short, country music really bothered me and I avoided it like the plague. And after four years of music school, my musical tastes were at their most pretentious.

But recently, I went on a short vacation to North Carolina with my parents, and every time it was my turn to drive, I plugged my phone in and played as much non-country music as I could. But after miles of driving by farms, mountains, rivers, and cows, my mother finally begged me to shut off the showtunes and play something more appropriate to the environment. So I unplugged my phone and turned on the radio to a country music station.

And after a few minutes, I had an epiphany. And it all made sense.

This environment…this beautiful environment…caused people to make this kind of music. The stories that take place here, the characters you meet…love ’em or hate ’em…they are in the music. And as soon as I put that together in my mind, I suddenly had a better understanding and appreciation for both the country music and the country environment that I was immersing myself in.

And that understanding and appreciation only grew as I participated in multiple jam sessions with the townsfolk of Brevard. Sure, half of these people didn’t even know how to tune their instruments; but sure as shit, they knew all the words to every single country song and folk tune we sang. They weren’t making music to try to impress anyone…they were making music to bring the community together.

I had never thought of it before, but certain places have a “sound,” and it’s important to listen to that sound when you’re there because it can tell you so much about the land, its people, its past, and even its future.

And to tackle the elephant in the room, yes…the South is still an awkward place to be for most people, myself included. I was in Brevard for a week, and I only saw one homosexual, two African-Americans, a few Asians, and no Latinos. The rest were all old white people. Oh, and one Confederate flag in someone’s yard.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a good song is enough to forget about slavery and those guys from Deliverance. But if you listen to songs like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, “Long Time Gone” performed by the Dixie Chicks, or even “America the Beautiful,” you get a sense of the kind of lifestyle immersed in a place dominated by natural beauty. No iphones, no laptops, no Facebook…just rocky mountains, amber waves of grain, and family members taking care of each other. Granted, there are more songs, and similarly, more perspectives, where those came from…and they’re all enlightening in one way or another.

So the next time you’re in a place you don’t quite understand, or surrounded by people you’re having trouble relating to, maybe try listening to the sound of the place and the music these people listen to. It may not be your cup of tea; but I truly believe (especially in today’s world) that one of the best ways to understand someone is by listening to the music they make, and more importantly, why they make it.

“Nothing That I Do Would Interest You”

When people ask me to send in my “best work,” I always include this song. It was originally inspired by a friend of mine who once very casually said “I don’t know…I’m not a very interesting person.” As soon as she said that, two thoughts went through my head…the first being, “What a terrible thing to say about yourself”…the second being, “What a great idea for a song.” I held onto the idea for a few years until I started writing Awkward: A Song Cycle. While it ended up being one of the easiest songs in the cycle to write, I’m still not quite sure why. I guess since there’s an introvert in all of us, I just tried to tap into that part of myself.

There are currently three performances of this song that you can watch…one with Rachel Ohnsman, one with Molly Gorman, and one with yours truly.

Nothing That I Do Would Interest You

Don’t invite me to the party or the mixer at ten.
Fraternities are not my kind of thing.
I don’t care about the booze or hooking up with a boy.
I’m not the kind of girl who wants a fling.
I just want a cup of coffee and a book to read,
No wait scratch the coffee, make it tea! That’s all I need.
So as you go off clubbing, I shall bid you all adieu,
‘Cause nothing that I do would int’rest you.

Please don’t ask me to the rally or the volleyball game.
Tomorrow you can tell me if we won.
I don’t care if there’s a barbecue right after the match.
Don’t you know there’s schoolwork to be done?
Please just give me peace and quiet so that I can write
This macroeconomics paper that’s due Friday night.
Don’t say that it can wait because you know that isn’t true.
Plus nothing that I do would int’rest you.

And hey,
Who needs boyfriend anyway
With Colonel Brandon by my side
And Mister Darcy in his prime?
Just know
I’m sure you’d make a lovely beau.
And maybe we could still be friends
Provided I still have the time?

Please don’t try to coax me further, ‘cause I’ve made up my mind.
Let’s say that we’ll agree to disagree.
Oh, and please don’t be offended by the things that I say.
The problem isn’t you, it’s simply me.
With all the things I have to do, I must prioritize.
If I’m acting like a snob then I apologize.
There are lots of lovely girls out here that you could still pursue,
‘Cause nothing that I do would int’rest you.
I really mean it,
Nothing that I do would int’rest you.
I’m being honest,
Nothing that I do would int’rest you.
I’m really boring.
Nothing that I do would int’rest you.

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