In the musical theatre, we love our instructive parables, from the casting of Gene Kelly in Pal Joey to the struggle over finding just the right opening number for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One of the most popular, however, revolves around a specific number from A Chorus Line.
Those of you acquainted with the basics of this story can skip the next paragraph. However, for the uninitiated…
The character Val has a gleefully naughty number about how much more successful she has been in appealing to casting directors since she got plastic surgery. It was pitched as a big comedy number, but it wasn‘t getting laughs. The creators scratched their heads at this until they looked in the program and recalled what title they had given it: “Tits & Ass.“ In short, they had put the punchline of the song in the title. They changed the title to the more oblique “Dance 10, Looks 3“ and it brought the house down. Happy ending.
The lesson usually derived from this is one of detail and pacing. Through it, we are taught that even a seemingly small detail like a song title can completely change an audience‘s reaction, and that jokes are better when left to unfold organically, not when telegraphed.
This is all perfectly true and perfectly valuable, but I think it overlooks the more fundamental lesson of the parable. Because here‘s the thing: “Dance 10, Looks 3“ is just fundamentally a much better title.
Unless you are deliberately obfuscating for effect – like the intentionally vague title “Epiphany“ in Sweeney Todd – your song title will also be the key phrase around which the song is based, and a good key phrase must get at the central dramatic tension of the song. “A Weekend in the Country” from A Little Night Music is a great title for the song it is attached to because the song is all about the comically contrasted reactions of the various characters to the suggestion of a weekend in the country and the disparate things it means to each of them. Right there in that seemingly innocuous phrase you have the tension that drives the entire number.
In this light, “Tits & Ass“ is a terrible title primarily not because it telegraphs the punchline but rather because the song is not properly about that punchline. The song is about the tension the character discovered between her talent and her looks and how she went about resolving that tension. Or, put more elegantly, “Dance 10, Looks 3.“ The title is about the double standard she faces. The punchline is about how she deals with it.