Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

This week's homework at ComedySportz is to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I bought it ages ago, both on iTunes and DVD, but hadn't gotten around to watching it until now.

Now, as my teacher Ben would say, "As a student of improv, what did you notice?"

First and foremost, I noticed Neil Patrick Harris' acting chops, both while doing straight acting and while doing the musical numbers. He showed that you can play a comic role completely straight to great effect. He was affected by everything that happened to him. (In the DVD commentary Harris winces at a missed opportunity to react to Penny touching his character's leg.) At the beginning of "A Brand New Day", you can see the change in outlook slowly work its way across his face before he starts singing. And throughout he always played at the top of his ability.

Second, I noticed a lot of different opportunities for musical numbers. The songs performed a number of roles, including providing exposition (Bad Horse Chorus), advancing the plot montage-style (So They Say), and providing a window into a character's inner thoughts (Brand New Day).

Perhaps the best example of a song performing different roles was "A Man's Gotta Do". It starts as a solo by Dr. Horrible, but he barely gets through the chorus before Captain Hammer muscles in and takes over the song, eventually turning it into a love duet with Dr. Horrible's would-be girlfriend. Dr. Horrible is reduced to shouting his objections in the spaces between Captain Hammer's lines.

Often in musical improv we pause the action while we sing about it. But a musical number is perfectly capable of moving the plot forward, in lyrics, emotion, and even structure.

Finally, I noticed a lot of stylistic items I could swipe. The most obvious was the clever use of internal rhyme. But more than that, in the song "My Freeze Ray", even the structure of the song furthers its purpose. Dr. Horrible starts each verse in dactylic monometer (3 syllables per line) -- very constrained, reflecting his tongue-tied feeling when he's around Penny. It's only when he sings about his freeze ray that he can speak in a more natural meter.

Obviously, a scripted movie is a very different medium than improv for the stage. The actors recorded the lyrics in a studio beforehand and lip-synced them for the camera. In the DVD commentary, Harris describes spending a long time rehearsing his lip-syncing, working on getting the breath and action to match the sound of each line of the song.

Maybe we can't do that, but maybe sometimes we can change up the songs partway through, and maybe take them in a new direction. Maybe we can use the meter or tempo to help tell the story. And maybe we can listen, react and be changed by what happens.