Song Insights: 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy', COMPANY
Is your life totally prepared for a gigantic change right now? Then brace yourself for the last in our Song Insights series for Company.
Musical Director Joel Fram takes us through a number which proves "a real surprise for the audience", and the process of updating this classic for Marianne Elliott's production: "You Could Drive a Person Crazy".
The singers in this Company are all incredible musicians. Just listen to the three boyfriends (George Blagden, Richard Fleeshman, and Matthew Seadon-Young) sing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy". I defy you to find anyone else in the world who could make that incredibly difficult vocal arrangement sound so good and so...effortless!
They are so 'off the cuff' and casual and funny, in both their musical phrasing and their acting - and yet so in tune and so stylish. That's the secret to this kind of vocal writing - and I can tell you from experience: as easy as they make it look, it is so hard. And did I mention they're dancing at the same time?
So Sondheim's original concept was to frame this number as an Andrews Sisters-style trio - and what a proper stroke-of-genius idea that is! The Andrews Sisters were at the height of their popularity just before and during World War II, when their music brought joy and optimism to their audiences during a particularly dark time in history.
So it was a devilishly satisfying choice for Sondheim to write the number this way. In the original, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" was the audience's introduction to Bobby's three current girlfriends. And although he talks about them as if everything is perfectly delightful, they are all clearly furious with him.
What could be a better way to show that discrepancy theatrically than to evoke the Andrew Sisters, a famous trio known for bringing joy and humour to the world?
In the first few bars, we hear that iconic jazz trio sound, and we expect nothing but sweetness and light from them. But then the actual characters say rude and angry (and hilarious) things about Bobby - lyrics the Andrews Sisters never would have said!
So how to capture that for three men in 2019?
As I was trying to figure out how to create this vocal arrangement, Sondheim made it clear it couldn't just be three men pretending to be the Andrew Sisters. It's possible of course, but then you'd be saying something else with this number entirely - a sort of "layer on top of layer on top of layer" which would only confuse the clarity of Sondheim's original idea, and which would invite more questions than it would provide answers.
I had a 'first draft' thought to find a contemporary pop equivalent: an a cappella, close-harmony sound, something like the Pentatonix. And although the idea of writing for a bass/beatboxer initially seemed super cool, I quickly realized that the audience would be too busy listening to the arrangement to actually focus on the brilliance of the lyrics. Also, Sondheim's use of a nostalgic reference was the key to the ironic 'sting' of the song.
That's when I hit upon the idea of basing the arrangement on the men's singing groups of the 40's and 50's - groups like the Williams Brothers, the Hi-Los, and The Four Freshman. The musical theatre equivalent is, of course, Forever Plaid, itself a parody of the 'clean-cut' genre.
It meant I could write some really virtuosic vocal harmonies (which all of those groups excelled in), but still make the point that these 'clean cut' guys are saying some pretty mean things about Bobbie.
So in our production, I think this "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" is a real surprise for the audience.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg