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Using frequency analysis to uncover hidden meanings in musical theatre

In a further effort to take all of the fun out of musical theatre (my wife’s chosen profession), I have undertaken a word-frequency analysis of two famous songs in the musical theatre canon, to see if I could reveal deeper meanings that might not be immediately apparent.

The songs I have chosen are “Garden of Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar, and “Soliloquy” from Carousel.

graph_all

(I know you can’t read anything in the above graph.  It’s just for effect.)

In “Soliloquy”, 19th century Massachusetts bad boy Billy has just found out that his long-suffering wife is going to have a baby. A life filled with brutish, craven decisions is thrown sharply into contrast as he realizes he must suddenly do the responsible thing and grow from being simply a man into being a father. As he foresees the near-impossibility of an uneducated grunt like him being able to adequately provide for a family, he decides to go along with his mate’s plan to kill and rob a wealthy businessman. By the end of the play, Billy is dead because of this plan.

In “Garden of Gethsemane”, Jesus has been abandoned by his frightened and confused apostles.  He sings to God, his father, that he sees the inevitability of his death in God’s plan, but prays for Him to “take this cup away from me”, that he has tried harder than He has any right to expect to fulfill his role on earth and teach Man to live in peace.  But when his prayers seem to go unanswered, he grits his teeth and promises his father such a death as will be remembered for all time.  He steps with both feet and with no more regrets into his role of savior, and though he feels all of a man’s pain and fear, he makes the decision to finish what he started the only way he can, and die.

I chose these songs because of their similarity in content and structure: single male characters alone on stage trying desperately to come to grips with forces larger than themselves.  Written in 1945 and 1971 respectively, the songs function as markers in the evolution of the sung soliloquy, and of the power of music and characterization to dig past the “mere” cause and effect of our lives, and into the pulpy collective unconscious that constitutes our culture.

But enough of that nonsense.  Let’s see some data.  In all of the graphs on this page, the values represent the percentage of the words in the song that are made up of the target word.

First, let’s look at who we’re talking about.

pronouns

Billy has a lot of people on his mind.  He’s thinking about himself, of course, but he’s also thinking about his wife, and then his son or daughter.  But Jesus’ problem is centered solely on him.  His apostles have abandoned him, so its just him and The Big Guy (“you”).

or

Jesus has a lot of doubts, and he spends a whole percent of his time stopping himself with “but”.  Jesus has doubts but no options.  Billy has a thousand different alternatives to consider as he rolls his life forward and tries to imagine his fatherhood in different configurations.  Only Jesus knows that he has no future, and thus no alternatives to consider.

die

For me, this captures a lot of the tragedy of both situations.  Jesus, because of who he is, can see that he is truly facing death.  But this never occurs to Billy.  True sight is not gifted to him.  “See how I die!” says Jesus over and over.  Is it more tragic for a character to be forced to embrace his inevitable death, or for him to not have the luxury of thinking about it?

will

Instead, Billy lives in the future tense.

want

I thought this one might provide a nice bookend to these thoughts.  Setting aside the fact of Billy’s ultimate demise, both of these characters are in a situation where they need things (well, I guess all protagonists are like that all the time).  But Billy’s song is not one of pleading.  He is not the kind of guy to ask anyone, God or anyone, for the help that he needs.  He sees Jigger’s criminal plot as the only option open to him in the near future, and he takes it because it means he can (possibly) solve the problem using only his own power.  He doesn’t want to have to confess his wants and needs to his wife or his God or the audience.

Jesus, however, sees that his days of self-agency are over.  If there is going to be a tomorrow for him, it will only be if he makes his wants known to the power that exists above him.  By feverishly declaring his wants, he releases control of them, humbling himself before his father and the audience.  But in the midst of that process he finds the situation’s (and Man’s) salvation living in his heart.

And then God lets him cheat death anyway.  (That part’s not in the musical.)

I hope you have enjoyed this brief nerdification of song.  If you have any ideas for interesting applications of word frequency analysis, I’ve got my Perl scripts standing by.  Just leave a comment.

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