Posts tagged #music improv

Successful Tag Line Songs

When we are writing songs on the spot, it is helpful to know song structures. It's sort of like knowing different plays in sports - you may not know how it's going to play out exactly, but you have a framework to follow.

Annie Schiffmann onstage with Bway's NHM

Annie Schiffmann onstage with Bway's NHM

One of the song structures that we work within is a tag line song. Tag line songs bring to mind classic musical theatre songs, songs from the American Songbook, and even blues songs. This structure has worked for over a hundred years and can work when you only have miliseconds to formulate your song. 

The "tag line" or "tag" of a song is a lyric that is repeated in the same place every verse. A tag line song usually has two sections - a verse and a bridge. Often times used in a verse-verse-bridge-verse order. But not always. We'll get to that.

Tag Line Technique #1: Set Up Your Tag Line like a Punch line.

In Broadway's Next we ask the audience to make up titles of songs. Knowing your song title definitely comes in handy since traditionally the tag line is usually the title of the song. Tag lines can happen anywhere in the verse; for the example we're going to use, it will be at the end of the verse. Our example is from a show we did in New York City a few years back. Rob Schiffmann was given the song title "The Day Lindsay Lohan and Winona Ryder Went Shopping."

Think of your verse as four lines (it can be more, but we're keeping it simple). And we know our last line already - that's the tag line. While singing your verse you want your third line to set up a rhyme for the tag line. It's like setting up a punch line for a joke. And, since we do improve comedy most of the time that's exactly what we're doing.

We can see a very clear tag line structure  in the song Rob Schiffmann improvised "The Day Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan Went Shopping." Let's take a look at the verse.

Verse 1

Line 1 (sets up a rhyme)

Back in the days so many years AGO. 

Line 2 (answers the rhyme with a joke)

There was a girl who liked to steal things, and another girl who did BLOW.

Line 3 (b - which will rhyme with the tag)

But the law came in and those things the law was STOPPING

Line 4 (b - tag line becomes the punch line to the joke.)

One the day Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan went SHOPPING.

You can hear from the audience's reaction that it's satisfying and funny to land the joke there. Your second verse will have the same structure - and since it's a Tag Line, you know what your last line will be and that the preceding line will rhyme with it.

Verse 2

Now a little year later 'Nona tried to see

the life she lied before then in 1983

her career'd gone down the toilet it ahd all just taken a WHOPPING

because of the day Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan went SHOPPING

Note: It is possible to do a first line tag (think "Somewhere Over the Rainbow").

Tag Line Technique #2: Make distinct changes in the bridge of the song

After you've done two verses, in a traditional tag line song it's time for a bridge. This is where the melody will change - if your rhythm was faster and more stoccato, now it's time to extend your words out more logato. You can change up your rhyme scheme. You can show a different side of the character, or of the story that is being told. It's a nice diversion, music-wise and preps the audience for the return of the melody they are expecting when the verse comes back around.

This is also an EXCELLENT opportunity for a turn of phrase to occur. If your song title is "Never Together" and in your verses you sing about how you and a lover are never together, the bridge can be the moment when you discover that you were never together - like never in sync with one another - in the first place.

Bridges are GREAT places for experimentation!

Tag Line Technique #3: Use a Melodic Hook to make your song Brain Dead Proof

Sure, rhyme is great and all, but what if your brain is going blank? What if you can't possibly rhyme your tag line? The answer is melody.  A melodic hook happens when the tune has something repeatable and memorable.  When we talk about tag lines, we are talking about lyrical hooks - the words that are consistently repeated at the end of the verse. When we talk about melodic hooks it's the tune that is consistently repeated. By creating a melodic hook in your song, you make it "brain dead proof." If your brain goes dead and you don't have a rhyme, you can hook into the melody that you've created and the audience will still be satisfied because their ears will know what to expect musically.

In Verse 3 of our example Rob Schiffmann doesn't even USE the tag line, but he's established the pattern enough melodically that it's not jarring.

It should be noted that often a tag line song will end after the third verse. "The Day Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan Went Shopping" doesn't. If the song were to end here, it would be anticlimactic. Rob knows that the story of the song isn't over, and he continues on until the story is told properly.

Once the story has found it's ending, it's easy to wrap up with the melodic hook and the tag line - and really sell the ending as well.

Check out some more examples

We created a playlist on SoundCloud to give you some more examples of tag line songs that we created on the spot onstage.

Producer Spotlight: Time To Listen

[Editor's Note: Once a month we have a producer or artistic director take you behind the scenes, into the rehearsal process, and backstage to illuminate more the of Broadway's Next Hit Musical process. This month it's co-artistic director, co-producer, and cast member Rob Schiffmann]

Rob Schiffmann leading rehearsal for Broadway's Next

Rob Schiffmann leading rehearsal for Broadway's Next

There is a moment when your scene has achieved its narrative goal: the musician has begun to underscore with music that supports the current tone of the scene, the dialogue ceases and we are all aware that it is time to sing. This moment is a pivotal one in which you must make deep and profound choices as an improviser that will effect the success of your song, your narrative, your show and perhaps, your entire life! (Okay, maybe not that last bit.)

It is so tempting in that moment to start the process of idea generation. You ask yourself what is this song about, what shall I sing about, what structure of song should I attempt? All of these questions - and many more like them - are natural questions to ask. You are in a situation that seemingly demands creativity. People have (most likely) paid to see your show and there is a feeling that they have come with the expectation that you are going to entertain them and make them laugh. I do not agree with this.

In fact, they have come to see you - whether you know it or not - to see if you are really willing to put yourself on the tight rope. And for how long are you willing to stay up there.

And so, the questions you are asking yourself are the wrong ones. These questions beg for a safety net.

If I know what my song is about, I can easily sing itIf I know what my first line is going to be, I can easily follow it up. If I know what structure to fit into, I can easily adapt to that.

The problem with all of these statements is that they take away the essence of improvisation: discovery. You MUST be in a place where you are discovering choices AS THEY HAPPEN and then realizing the ramifications of those choices in the moments they happen as well. It's a moment to moment thing. You use your technique NOT to preselect these choices but to see them as they are happening. Then to recognize them for what they are. Then, potentially nudge them into whatever structure, story, or lyric they suggest.

So, the next time that you find yourself in that moment when your scene has achieved its narrative goal, the musician has begun to underscore with music that supports the current tone of the scene, the dialogue ceases and you are well aware that it is time to sing - quiet your mind.  Instead of making choices, quiet your mind.

Do what we were all designed to do in this tricky little moment: TRULY LISTEN!

Rob in Broadway's Next Hit Musical

The King and I Opens Today on Broadway with BNHM Accompanist Andrew Resnick

Our entire cast and crew is made up of Broadway-caliber performers, stage managers, and musicians. And tonight one of our accompanists, Andrew Resnick, opens The King and I on Broadway as an Associate Conductor. We take enormous pride that the Broadway community gets to share in Andrew's talent. He played for Broadway's Next Hit Musical for many years and  conducted Jason Robert Brown's Bridges of Madison County last season and the year before that played the Off-Broadway revival of The Last Five Years. (For you serious musical theatre geeks out there, JRB refers to Resnick "The best. THE best.")

Cast member Annie Schiffmann - who has worked with Resnick for nearly ten years  - chatted with him while he was on a break during previews for the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Here we crib the notes from their conversation.


With scripted material, obviously the cues are set, there are lines and technical cues. But in the rehearsal process, Resnick explains how they look at the music from different levels and try to figure out if what's on the page works. And if not, can they "modify what's been there to make it work."

The moment of actually beginning a song - that second when the conductor cues the musicians to start - should come from a connected place. The conductor takes it off the right word, rhythm, and tone of how the scene is progressing with how the actors are saying their lines.  (Although he did admit that with long-running shows it's possible there are moments of disconnectedness, and the conductor just has to follow the cues.) 

Former BNHM Accompanist Andrew Resnick conducting the Broadway revival of The King and I 

Former BNHM Accompanist Andrew Resnick conducting the Broadway revival ofThe King and I 


In an improv show, when the improvisers are in the middle of a scene and the moment calls for a song, Resnick explains how he often starts playing and isn't sure what will come out musically. He doesn't always have a complete idea, but might "tinker with it for a few seconds" before building  to a full song.

 "Improv songs can be plot-driven" and Resnick mentions this as their downfall. "The best songs," he says, "have the scenes as context." He mentions that Jason Robert Brown says that "great songs move the story forward, but not the plot forward." Resnick warns that starting an improv song on a "catchy line" may not necessarily be the best time. Is it an emotional moment that can be explored? Are the stakes high enough? If it's all plot and no heart, this can make for confusing storylines in unscripted musicals.

Andrew Resnick playing Broadway's Next Hit Musical at Stage 72 in 2013.

Andrew Resnick playing Broadway's Next Hit Musical at Stage 72 in 2013.


The running time for The King and I is nearly three hours - quite a difference from a second act musical in BNHM which usually hovers at the thirty minute mark. Resnick is clear, though, that "successful musicals can be distilled down to very little. You don't need a lot to happen to justify the story." He mentions how thirty minutes is "more than enough time to develop a funny - sometimes even moving, depending on what comes up - story." When shows become too plot-heavy and add in too many characters, the story becomes cumbersome.

This is where he cites the advantage the accompanist has by being both outside of the scene, but inside of the show. The musicians in an improv show have the ability to look above what is happening onstage and ask "why is this story being told? What themes are arising that are funny and important? Why do we care?" Is there a universal theme being explored? Accompanists can help to shape the musical by satisfying what the story calls for.

Congratulations to Andrew for another Broadway opening! We hope to have you create Broadway's Next Hit Musical with us again soon! 

Purchase tickets to Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I at Lincoln Center Theatre.