Decoding the Bright Star Banjo Book
Year: 2016 (Broadway opening)
Music/Book: Steve Martin
Music/Lyrics: Edie Brickell
In this article I take a critical look at the Banjo book for Bright Star, although this is a very different kind of article from the “Detailed Notes” I have written on other books, for reasons which will become clear. I reflect briefly on the banjo’s important role in the show, outline the many problems with the Banjo score currently available, and describe my approach to resolving them. Finally I provide examples of tab charts which fully describe the parts which need to be played in the show.
A BROADWAY FLOP WITH A UNIQUE SCORE, FOR A SERIOUS BANJO PLAYER
Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s folk/bluegrass musical was first performed in 2014 and opened on Broadway in early 2016. It’s low-key, folksy story failed to win a large audience and it closed in June 2016 after only four months, despite having picked up a bunch of award nominations (being up against the juggernaut of the then-new “Hamilton” probably didn’t help). In 2018 the show was made available for licensing and now seems to be thriving. At the time of writing, about 80 forthcoming productions are listed for the next year in North America.
During the Broadway run, most critics agreed that the beautiful bluegrass score – an unusual thing on Broadway – was a high point of the show. Performed by a 10-piece band, it includes three books for plucked stringed instruments: Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar. Steve Martin is, of course, well known as an accomplished banjo player, and has devoted much of his post-Hollywood career to playing and performing. So it’s no surprise that the banjo is heavily featured throughout Bright Star’s score, and is a signature element of the show’s sound.
Banjo parts in Broadway musicals typically comprise simple chords strummed on a tenor banjo. This is not the case for Bright Star. The songs are filled with complex clawhammer and three-finger parts, requiring 5-string and long-neck banjos, extensive use of capos, two distinct tunings and the talents of an experienced bluegrass banjo player (the Broadway player was the outstanding Bennett Sullivan). Any guitarist who thinks they can bluff their way through this book is mistaken.
A PROBLEMATIC BANJO BOOK
Since the sound of the banjo is such an important part of the show, it’s surprising to find that the banjo book is very, very problematic. Musical theatre guitarists are accustomed to varying degrees of vagueness in scores; some rock scores comprise little more than pages of slash marks with chord symbols, which is fine for, say, The Rocky Horror Show. But the lack of detail in the Bright Star Banjo score is extreme. Put simply, there is not enough information in the book to play the show properly.
Like the score for any musical, the book provides a framework for the show. It has the songs in the correct order, the correct number of measures, and time and key signatures. There are chord symbols, and some melody lines which are reasonably accurate for some of the songs. But that’s really as far as it goes. The banjo is a highly traditional and idiomatic instrument, and notating it accurately is difficult. Whoever prepared the Bright Star Banjo book hasn’t really made a serious attempt to do so.
Here’s a summary of what’s wrong with the book:
- No tab notation: most banjo music, particularly bluegrass music, is written as tabulature (tab), not standard music notation. This is partly because banjo music is largely about complex, repetitive picking patterns and it’s easier to show these in tab than in standard notation. The Bright Star book has only standard notation.
- Inaccurate notation: the music in the book does not come close to representing what has to be played. Typically it provides either slash marks and chord symbols, or a melody line and chord symbols, with a note saying (for example) “+ clawhammer rhythm”. Sometimes the melody line provided bears little relation to the actual banjo melody heard on the Broadway cast recording.
- Incomplete instrument listing: the book describes which banjo has to be used for some songs; for others the player is left to guess, or work it out. In some cases it is hard even to tell whether to play banjo or acoustic guitar (the Banjo player also plays some acoustic guitar).
- Incomplete/inaccurate tuning and capo information: the Banjo parts require extensive use of capos and two different tunings. The information on tunings and capo settings in the book is incomplete and often inaccurate. To complicate matters, some numbers require re-tuning of the drone string during a song, but this is never indicated in the book.
To illustrate the gulf between the music provided in the Banjo book and what has to be played, I provide an excerpt from the chart for “Firmer Hand” below, together with my own transcription of the same excerpt in both standard and tab notations. This number requires a standard 5-String banjo in “Double C” tuning, with a capo at the 1st fret and the drone string tuned to A-flat. None of this information is provided in the book.
Here’s another excerpt, this time from the song “Bright Star”. This time the tuning is Double-C on the standard 5-String Banjo, with a capo at the 2nd fret and the drone string tuned to A. The score provides only the capo setting, and includes no detail at all on what to play – just slash marks and chord symbols.
WHY IS THE BANJO BOOK SO VAGUE?
While I can’t know precisely how the Banjo book ended up in its current state, I suspect it has a lot to do with the contrast between the “oral tradition” of banjo music, where tunes are passed on by ear and maybe eventually written out in tab notation, and the more rigidly structured world of Broadway musicals, where detailed charts in standard notation are the lingua franca for all musicians and orchestrators.
Bennett Sullivan posted an illuminating 2016 video interview between himself and Steve Martin, where they discuss the process of writing the songs in the show, and Martin teaching the banjo parts to Sullivan, who was with the show throughout its development period in 2014-2016. Martin is apparently quite particular about his parts being played accurately, but every banjo player brings something of their own style to a tune, and the parts would have changed incrementally in passing from one player to the other. They go on to talk about how the show’s orchestrator modified the tunes, adjusting the banjo melody lines and adding many key changes, which are unusual in banjo music, and so very common in Broadway scores.
Having passed from composer to performer to orchestrator, the parts would finally have been passed to a music preparer. Notating banjo parts in the kind of detail required to reproduce Bennett Sullivan’s magnificent performances is a time-consuming, painstaking business (I speak from experience, as I explain below). It probably wasn’t necessary for Broadway, since Sullivan had learned the parts directly from Martin (oral tradition), and nobody bothered to expend the time and effort to transcribe the parts properly once the score was issued for licensing.
The resulting Banjo book is in standard notation (not tab) and comprises mainly melody lines of varying accuracy, and slash marks. It looks more like the sort of information that would appear in a Piano-Conductor score than a score for a banjo player. Some of this is speculation on my part, and I would be very interested in learning more about the process which led to the current Banjo score from anybody who has better information.
Irrespective of the book’s evolution, the result leaves any banjo player wanting to play the show as envisaged by its composers in the position of effectively having to decode the book.
So, how do you do it?
ENTER THE BRIGHT STAR BANJO APP
In May 2016 a free iPhone & iPad app called “Bright Star: Banjo” was made available, while the show was still playing on Broadway. The app features partial tabs for all of the main numbers in the show, together with videos of the parts being played by Bennett Sullivan.
The app is by far the most useful source of information available on how the Banjo parts are really meant to be played. It covers the main picking and clawhammer patterns for every song, and the combination of tabs and video demonstration is particularly effective. It also provides details of which banjo to use for each song, together with tunings, capo settings and a few hints on key changes. Combined with the “road map” of the Banjo book, you can piece together the bulk of the songs, given time and patience.
Despite its usefulness, the app is not without its limitations, which are as follows:
- Only fragments are provided: the app provides fragments of each song. You are left to work out where they fit into the actual score.
- Inconsistency with the score: the time signatures and measure numbers used in the app are not consistent with the score, complicating the process of mapping the app onto the score.
- Incompleteness: not every section of every song is covered, particularly where there are key changes and tempo/feel changes.
- Errors: there are some errors in the app, in the details of tunings and capo settings provided.
- Inconsistency: the tabs provided are largely but not completely consistent with the video performances in the app.
Despite these limitations, the app is a tremendously useful resource, and anybody preparing to play the show should make use of it.
FILLING IN THE GAPS
With the combination of the Banjo book, the app, and a lot of time and patience, you will be well on your way to understanding how to play the show. For the significant remaining gaps, you can either wing it from experience, or start digging deeper (of course, I did exactly that – I was in far too deep by this stage). The most important missing pieces of the puzzle relate to capo settings, management of key changes, and varying picking patterns during changes of feel. I used the following sources:
- Broadway Cast Recording: the banjo is easy to hear on most of the excellent Broadway Cast Recording. I was able to pick up a lot of hints from careful and repeated listening to it.
- 2016 Reunion Concert Video: a complete video of the December 2016 reunion concert, which features the Broadway cast and band, is available on YouTube. This is a high quality video with excellent audio. Fortunately, Bennett Sullivan is seated right at the front of the band, and is clearly visible for much of the performance. I was able to fill in further details by watching carefully, particularly about re-tuning the drone string during songs, management of key changes and clarifying which banjo to use where there was uncertainty.
- Video of 2016 Sullivan/Martin Interview: this interview includes some useful information on how the long-neck banjo was useful in managing key changes, and includes an excerpt of Sullivan playing “Please Don’t Take Him”.
- Other Videos:, there are many other YouTube videos of the Broadway cast performing in various settings, of Steve Martin playing some of the songs, and interviews with Bennett Sullivan, all of which I scoured for detail.
- My Own Experience: in the end every banjo player will play a part slightly differently, and once I had a fairly complete set of information on each song, I completed the parts by playing what I thought would be appropriate.
A BETTER BANJO BOOK?
When I played the show for Seattle’s Taproot Theatre in summer 2019, the banjo parts I prepared were scrawled out by hand in a hurry, giving me just enough information to get me through rehearsals and help me memorize the parts I needed to play. I thought about preparing some fully transcribed parts for the songs, but it’s a big undertaking, and not something I would normally have time to do, so I put it on the back burner.
In spring 2020, I have found myself with a bit of down time, courtesy of the COVID-19 epidemic, and have started to revisit the idea of a better Bright Star Banjo book. Below are links to some examples of the charts I have prepared.
In preparing the charts, I decided to provide both standard and tab notations, to provide the fullest possible information, and help both traditional banjo players and those more accustomed to musical theatre scores. This has the downside of resulting in more page turns, which I have tried to place in such a way as to minimize difficulty.
The standard notation attempts to describe as fully as possible each note played and its duration, whereas the tab is structured in such a way as to avoid multiple voices on the stave, for ease of reading. For this reason some notes appear to have a shorter duration on the tab stave. You just have to let them ring. I have also tried to show as explicitly as possible the rhythm of clawhammer style where practical to do. The tapping of the thumb against the drone string is typically shown as cross-head notes. Where the iPad app tabs were inconsistent with the videos in the app, I have tended to go for something closer to the video, to get a better feel to the part.
My transcriptions also provide clear and accurate information on which banjo to use, tunings, capo settings and any re-tunings required in the middle of songs. Any errors are mine alone. I hope musicians preparing to play the show will find them useful, and welcome constructive feedback. Let’s see how far I get with the project!
(May 26, 2020 update: the COVID-19 lockdown has dragged on, and I have completed a full, detailed transcription of the Bright Star Banjo book!)
Bright Star has a beautiful and unusual (for Broadway) score, with a prominent role for the banjo. As it starts to be performed more widely, productions and musicians will be challenged by the current Banjo book, which does not include enough detailed information to properly perform the show. There is a need for a better, more detailed and accurate book. I have provided some examples of what such a book might look like, together with advice on how to better understand the current book when preparing to play the show.
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
Bright Star – A Banjo Roadmap
LINKS – EXTERNAL
Bright Star Wikipedia page
Steve Martin homepage
Edie Brickell homepage
Bennett Sullivan (Broadway banjo player) homepage
Bright Star Licensing information (TRW)
Bright Star iPad Banjo app
Broadway cast recording CD and YouTube playlist
2016 Bright Star reunion concert – YouTube video
Bennett Sullivan / Steve Martin 2016 video interview
Taproot Theatre, Seattle