When Hamilton opened in London last year, many in the audience already knew its songs inside out. The 2015 Broadway recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit – about the US founding father who will not throw away his shot – had long since gone triple platinum. With 46 tracks, it boasts more songs than most musicals; the off-Broadway track list was even longer. But Miranda still had leftover lyrics – and the feverish love for his show means new Hamilton material is still being released three years after its New York debut.
Remixes, covers and demos appeared on the Hamilton Mixtape in 2016 and this year Miranda has been putting out fresh Hamilton-related tracks every month as part of his Hamildrops series, which he kicked off with a song – and character – he cut from the show. He had written “Decemberists-esque lyrics” to be sung by Ben Franklin but that founding father was deemed superfluous to the story. Miranda later sent the lyrics to Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and they collaborated on Ben Franklin’s Song (opening line: “Electricity … Yeah, you can all thank me”). Hamilton fans were duly electrified.
Unused songs often languish in their creator’s “trunk” of material, waiting to be repurposed in another show, or have occasional outings at concerts. They are sought out by super-fans; some are easier to find than others. A handful of deleted songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – including Can That Boy Foxtrot! which was sung by Yvonne De Carlo during the show’s Boston tryouts – were eventually used alongside other Sondheim leftovers in the show Marry Me a Little. One of them, All Things Bright and Beautiful, had become an instrumental prologue to Follies. Sondheim’s two-volume set of collected lyrics features a number of songs with a discreet “(cut)” next to the title. But for composers and lyricists, how much pain lies within those parentheses?
When you write a song it becomes part of your emotional life, says lyricist Teresa Howard. “It’s very hard to let go of them. Even if you know it’s right to cut it, you always feel the loss.” She remembers a time when one of her songs wasn’t working and the angst of losing it helped her dramatically improve it.
Lyricist Martin Charnin, whose hits include Annie, agrees that there’s “always a disappointment” when a song is discarded. But “a song is not just a song. It depends on the thrust of the play, who is performing it. These discoveries aren’t made on paper but once the show is up on its feet. A lot of times, songs are cut for the simple reason that the material is just too long or a scene works wonderfully and the song ends up being a duplication of it.”
The musical-theatre writer Kirsten Childs is well versed in “sigh-back-to-the-drawing-board frustration” and can’t begin to put a number on the songs she’s cut. One of the hardest was a track in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. “It was one of the first songs I ever wrote,” she remembers. It was a tribute to a friend who died and Childs “kept the song in the show way past the time it should have been cut. I didn’t want to take it out because it felt like a betrayal.” She ultimately realised it didn’t contribute to the character arc of her heroine and that “my friend would have been the first to roll his eyes and say, ‘oh please, get over yourself, take the song out.’” The song is called Keith and people have asked Childs for the sheet music “but I just don’t have the heart to put it out there for publication”.
A cut song is not necessarily a dud. Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman of the Feeling, composed the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, based on the real story of a Sheffield teenager who dreams of becoming a drag queen. He says five songs used in early versions of Jamie were eventually dropped. About the same number were written for the show but not performed. “Some of the songs that were binned are really good,” he adds with a groan. “But you need to be much more precise when writing a musical compared with an album. There was one character I wanted to write another song for. Then I realised she just doesn’t deserve a second song.” He adds quickly: “As a character, not the actress!”
The Feeling would start with around 30 songs for an album before whittling them down to a dozen. Some songs in Jamie started out as hooks and melodies that went unused by the Feeling. “Good songs find a way,” he thinks. “If they’re strong ideas, they see the light of day.”
One song that found its way for composer Alan Menken is Proud of Your Boy, which he and lyricist Howard Ashman wrote for Disney’s Aladdin movie, released in 1992. It was to be sung by the hero, for his mother, but suffered the same fate as Ben Franklin’s Song: when the character of the mother was cut, out went the song, too. For Menken it was poignant because Proud of Your Boy “was an emotional song not only within Aladdin but also within my collaboration with Howard”. Ashman died of Aids shortly after writing it and before the film was released. A demo version was included on a special edition of the soundtrack. When the 2014 Broadway version of Aladdin was developed, Proud of Your Boy was reinstated even though the mother was not. Now Menken is keen to get another of the film’s rejected songs, How Quick They Forget, into the stage version: “Maybe I will on the fifth or 10th anniversary of Aladdin.”
Menken laments the loss of a “beautiful ballad”, We’ll Have Tomorrow, from the second act of his show Little Shop of Horrors because it jarred with the ballad Suddenly Seymour. For the film Hercules, his song Shooting Star was recorded with a full orchestra but they decided it wasn’t active enough so Menken quickly wrote a replacement, Go the Distance.
Such changes show that songs have a different function to a scene. Childs quotes the lyricist Yip Harburg: “Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” Teresa Howard likens the songs in musicals to soliloquies in Shakespeare, but stresses that songs must often move the story along.
When she was adapting Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle with composer Steven Edis they turned one of the female characters in the novel, Leda, into a man, which led to a gay relationship in the story. They wrote a song about it, Dorian Gray, which “felt right” in workshop performances. But when the show was picked up by Watford Palace, it was suggested they revert to the original female character, which meant the lyrics no longer made sense. Howard says she found it hard to let Edis’s music go so she rewrote the song as My Little Star. Dorian Gray remains unrecorded, unpublished and in the trunk.
Charnin believes “there are a lot of composers, in the history of American musical theatre, who really don’t have large trunks of material”. That’s proof of how “intelligently and successfully they write the right musical number for the moment”. When Charnin met Richard Rodgers, who collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim and other greats, he asked Rodgers to play some of his unused songs. “He wasn’t able to give me any more than five melodies for things that didn’t work over the course of maybe 30 years of writing.” Some songs are even “lost” twice: when Oklahoma! was tried out in Boston in 1943, before it arrived on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s number Boys and Girls Like You and Me was cut. It was picked up by MGM for Meet Me in St Louis (1944) but dropped from that film, too – though it still features on the soundtrack album. The song eventually found a home in State Fair.
Menken is wary of the notion of a trunk of material to be raided whenever inspiration fails to strike. “I work with so many different lyricists. I’m not going to take a song with a lyric by David Zippel and put it into a show I’m doing with Glenn Slater. Songs are written with the DNA of a certain score. Your job is not to hawk one song but to serve the musical as a whole.”
Miranda and Menken are currently collaborating on a live-action film of The Little Mermaid, which started as a Disney animation in 1989 and reached Broadway in 2008. While the pair are writing new songs together, it’s too early to tell if we can expect a series of “Merdrops” in the future. For now, Miranda still has Hamilton ideas – and he’s not throwing away the lot.