X(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of MormonWickedThe Lion King, and The Music Man.)

We got the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon pretty much as soon as it was released, and I was utterly engrossed.  But one thing bothered me quite a bit.  The song “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”…

…sounded awfully familiar.

It kind of stuck in my craw.  The rest of the songs are great, so why rip off something contemporary and distinctive?  But the more I listened, the more I realized that it’s supposed to sound like Wicked, because they do the same thing throughout the show.

The thing is, it’s not a straight copy so much as a quote.  The difference is that they’re doing something with it, using the musical similarity to make a distinction.  With this and with the other similar songs, they’re using the same familiar music to accompany a polar opposite situation.

Let’s look at this pairing to start.  “Defying Gravity” sees both Glinda and Elphaba realizing that while they’re choosing to walk different paths, they’re still joined together as friends and equals.  However, in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elders Price and Cunningham are acknowledging that they’re being forced onto the same path, but they’re not so much with the friends and equals.

It goes on like this.  The Ugandans’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”…

…actually references its doppelganger:

In the latter, Simba has left his home in terror and shame, only to discover that his fate isn’t nearly as unpleasant as he feared.  In the former, the missionaries leave their home in triumphant expectation, only to discover that their situation is far worse than they could have imagined.

One more! “All-American Prophet” kicks it old-school:

Harold Hill doesn’t remotely believe the things he’s saying, but the townsfolk are all over it.  Kevin Price believes what he’s saying body and soul, but the townsfolk are decidedly unimpressed.

Sure, the writers could still establish the story beats on their own.  But by invoking these familiar standbys, they subtly set up audience expectations, which can then be subverted to add another layer to the joke.  There’s an old saying about knowing your audience, but it’s not just about what they’re likely to find funny or offensive or what have you.  If you have a good idea of the works your audience is familiar with (someone who sees one musical has probably seen others, for instance), you can use that knowledge as a sort of springboard to let you build something new.

The important thing is to make it new, mind.  Just pointing to something familiar and saying, “Hey, here’s a thing you should recognize!” isn’t going to get you many points.  But if you can provide a twist to it, that’s when you’ve got something special.

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