by Mo Brady
There are few moments that are impactful for a theatre lover as when they hear a new favorite song for the first time. As lovers of the art form and believers in its ability to evoke emotions, we are always on the hunt for new showtunes that not only tell a story but speak to something greater about the human experience. Such is the case with composer Matthew Sklar’s “Unruly Heart.”
As a piece of theatrical storytelling, “Unruly Heart” lands halfway through Act II of The Prom. An original musical, the show centers on Emma (played by Caitlin Kinnunen), a lesbian teenager who causes a controversy by making the public request to take her girlfriend to prom. While the plot features many of outlandishly lovable characters, the heart of the story is Emma and her journey towards self-acceptance. In “Unruly Heart,” Emma shares her story with an internet audience and finds that her story resonates with many outside of her town.
Sklar began working on Broadway while he was a teenager himself. While studying at New York University, he began playing in the pit for the original Broadway production of Les Miserables, eventually graduating to conducting the show. He worked as an arranger, conductor or musician on more than a dozen additional Broadway musicals before getting the opportunity to write his own.
Alongside writing partner Chad Beguelin, Sklar made his Main Stem debut as a writer first for the musical adaptation of The Wedding Singer, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Since then, the team has worked on numerous collaborations, including the successful musicalization of the beloved film Elf. For The Prom, Sklar worked again with Beguelin, in addition to co-creating the show’s vocal arrangements with Music Supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell.
Together, Sklar and Beguelin wrote the first draft of “Unruly Heart” in the summer of 2014. While this was well before the show’s first staged production in 2016, it was about halfway through the team’s writing process. The team wrote the song in hopes of finding an opportunity for Emma to find her own voice.
“It felt right for Emma to sing directly into her laptop camera, sitting in her room - on her own terms,” says Sklar. “Then we would see kids from all over the country see her video online and express their love, support and pride.”
Aside from some minor lyric changes, the song stayed virtually the same until the show’s pre-Broadway lab in 2018. “We all loved the song, but we felt something was missing from the final section. Casey (Nicholaw, director) asked if we could create a bigger build and have the ensemble truly soar vocally.”
Collaborating with Campbell, Sklar quickly worked on a revised arrangement and taught it to the company that afternoon. The results were striking and immediate. When it was presented to Casey and the rest of the creative team, they has a positive and visceral reaction.
“They began sobbing as the music built and built,” says Sklar. “It was a thrilling day.”
In performance, “Unruly Heart” has an anthemic quality. Forever, part of the song’s power lies in its build from soliloquy to anthem.
“Since Emma is a teenage girl who plays the guitar, I knew it had to be a guitar-driven song,” remembers Sklar. “It had to be somewhat simple, because Emma would probably only know a limited amount of chords.”
As the song progresses, the orchestra slowly builds around her. Only once the ensemble begins to sing with her, it becomes quite epic.
The key or placement of notes in the singers’ ranges affect how an audience perceives a song. “Placement in vocal range is incredibly important,” reveals Sklar. “The higher you climb in vocal ranges, the more intensity you’ll get. So you want to make sure you’re supporting the story you’re telling by creating the correct dynamic shape of the vocals.”
One of the most striking moments of the song’s climax is when the ensemble goes from singing in parts to singing in unison. “I always enjoy the element of surprise in vocal arranging,” admits Sklar.
“Unruly Heart” has found its way into the hearts, souls and Spotify playlists of many theatre lovers, including Sklar himself. The simple, but poignant song has become one of his favorite moments of The Prom to watch. “You can feel the audience and actors connect. It’s really beautiful to witness.”