Undertale the Musical is a musical adaptation of the video game Undertale, composed by Alex Beckham (‘Man on the Internet’), based around singing over music from the game's soundtrack. It's an interesting concept, and a remarkable accomplishment, spanning over 4 hours in length. Writing, casting, singing and mixing, drawing art and editing all of the music video together is a huge undertaking, and the end product reflects the passion that the creators have invested into it.
At the same time, though, I can't help but feel ‘That's not how I would have done it’. Don't get me wrong, it is an inspiring work – it took a core concept (singing over the soundtrack) and ran with it to a spectacular conclusion – but I am curious how things might have played out with a different concept.
Chiefly, when I think of video game music, I conceptualise it as having a fundamentally different role to a musical soundtrack. Video game music is atmospheric: it supports the tone of the current scene, and – while it's an extremely important part of the experience and Toby Fox pulls it off masterfully in Undertale – it should rarely, if ever, draw your attention away from the gameplay itself. It loops indefinitely until the next track is called for, and advancement within the story is conveyed by the transition between scenes and between different tracks, and rarely by a single track itself.
In contrast, music in musical theatre is the primary medium through which the story is told. As the proverb goes, ‘When the emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance.’ Song is how key plot points are conveyed, and the structure and flow within a song expresse changes in the characters and their situation – like Veronica's ascension to popularity in Heathers' ‘Beautiful’, or Jeremy's heel-face turn in Be More Chill's ‘Loser, Geek, Whatever’.
This is perhaps best illustrated with an example. Consider the following melody from the track ‘Once Upon a Time’:1
This is a pretty funky chord progression!2 In particular, the phrase ends on a Gsus4 (Csus2/G?), a fairly dissonant chord. As a consequence, the tune may traipse back and forth, but there is no overall sense of resolution, and little sense of progress. This makes sense for a video game soundtrack – the music accompanies whatever happens on screen, and you can loop it as long as you need.
In Undertale the Musical's rendition, though, this is lifted verbatim, looped and used as the melody for the vocals, repeating it over and over for more than 3 minutes, with no variation bar a modulation here and there. A good tune it may be, but with no sense of forward movement, it loses interest quickly. This song describes an epic tale of history, of war, of betrayal, of sacrifice! – but with this tune it just feels a little stale.
An additional problem arises with this tune in particular, as it is a key leitmotif within the Undertale soundtrack, appearing again and again across different tracks. In many respects, it is symbolic of Undertale itself, and it feels appropriate that it should be reserved for that purpose. Yet in Undertale the Musical the melody is repeated so many times, with so many different lyrics, that it feels overused and loses this meaning. Under these circumstances, it's no surprise that when it appears later, say in ‘Undertale’, it is sung with unrelated lyrics.
At the very least, though, this melody is singable. ‘Spear of Justice’ is another matter entirely. It pulls some 88 beats per minute, which seems reasonable until we consider that it frequently articulates in semiquaver increments (some 352 ticks per minute!). The vocalist in Undertale the Musical's rendition does a commendable job, and yet still audibly struggles to keep up with the frantic pace of the music. Undertale's music is written for synthesisers, not voice, and Undertale the Musical's approach in combining the two creates significant challenges.
With this in mind, I set out to adapt my own version of ‘Once Upon a Time’, a taste of what my own version of an Undertale musical might look like. It takes the leitmotifs from the Undertale soundtrack and uses them just like that – as motifs – building new vocal lines on top of the existing chord progressions. I've also taken some small artistic liberties to shape the music into a form more like the narrative structure of musical theatre music – resolving that Gsus4 to an F at bar 5, for example, and building the melody up gradually.
The score is far from perfect – the vocal arrangements are a little uninspired, and the lyrics could do with some work3 – and a 2-minute demo is far from the 4 hours of the complete Undertale the Musical soundtrack, but I had fun writing it, and I hope this little snippet (Undertale the Musical from a parallel universe?) might be of interest to you.
Update 3 October: I continued to procrastinate from doing actual work, so now I have uploaded an outline of the plot and music for an entire musical.
This track is probably not the best example to use, but it's the only arrangement I have on hand at the moment. ↩
Or perhaps I'm just very bad at arranging music. This amateur musician didn't take very much music theory. ↩
An XXAA rhyme scheme is certainly defensible given the thematic context of the track, but actually it was because I couldn't find any better rhymes. ↩