April 21, 2023

Spilling the Tea with TikTok Star Brett Boles: The Secrets Behind The M. Tea and the Art of Film Musical Songwriting

Spilling the Tea with TikTok Star Brett Boles: The Secrets Behind The M. Tea and the Art of Film Musical Songwriting

The world of musical theatre has a new star, and he's not just on Broadway stages. Meet Brett Boles, the creative mind behind The M. Tea, a popular TikTok series that delves into the craft and artistry of musical theatre songs. In each episode, Brett "spills the tea" on what makes a song work from a songwriter's perspective. As an award-winning musical theatre composer and lyricist, Brett brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his videos, and his TikTok channel has become a go-to source for musical theatre fans and professionals alike.

Recently, we had the pleasure of chatting with Brett about his inspirations, creative process, and favorite songs, as well as his thoughts on the music of Encanto, Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Prince of Egypt, and film composers. Read on to discover the secrets behind The M. Tea's success and get a glimpse into the world of musical theatre from one of its brightest voices.

Brad: One of the first videos I remember seeing from you, Brett, was the “Prince of Egypt,” discussing the plagues song.

Brett Boles: It's so good. It's strange though: when I started covering that, I did that one two years ago and I started it around Passover week, obviously. And I've always loved that particular song, but that’s not the one that I take away from the film. So I was surprised so many people gravitate toward that song. I love “Through Heaven's Eyes.”

Brad: We listen to that song with our daughter, on repeat, and she just absolutely loves it. The theology in that song—it's one of the best written songs I think I've ever heard. But then on top of that, it's just absolutely beautiful.

Brett Boles: Oh, it’s gorgeous. And Brian Stokes Mitchell's singing on it doesn't hurt it either.

Bob: We watched Prince of Egyptand Hunchback a couple years ago for this show, and the thing I love about them is that after The Lion King and through to the end of the decade in the 1990s, it seemed like studios went all in on making their animated musicals as intricate and maximalist as possible. I've heard you talk a little bit about the “Deus Irae” in Hunchback It's kind of the same thing for me with Prince of Egypt: the orchestrations, the incredibly layered choral arrangements.

It's like they reached their pinnacle with those two movies and then after a couple of them didn't perform super well at the box office, the early 2000s are just kind of a wasteland for animated musicals.

Brett Boles: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good point actually. That's interesting.

Bob: So Brett, let's go back a little bit. Let's talk about your history and how you got to this point. So I know that you went to school for music theory.

Brett Boles: Yeah, I went to school for composition at Ithaca with an emphasis in musical theater. I'm a musical theater writer; that's really what I wanted to do, and I still do it. And the focus of my four years at school was to write a musical that would be produced by the theater department as a main-stage musical, because no student had ever done that before. So I was like, I'm gonna do this. And so I did, and I did an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo before Frank Wildhorn wrote his, and it was performed my senior year. And if you know who Jeremy Jordan is, we went to school together and he actually starred in that show in college when we were in college together. You can actually find it on YouTube, if you look up my name or his name and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” you'll see some clips of us as babies doing that show.

Brad: I'm going to look that up. The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite classic novels.

Brett Boles: Oh, it's so good. It was my dad's favorite book and he got me into it. I actually started writing it in high school and continued it all throughout college, so I did everything. I did book music, lyrics, orchestrations, and did the whole thing.

Bob: I wish that in the wave post- Les Mis we had gotten more of those classic literature adaptations for musical theater because, and like Brad said, that book is just perfect for what we were going for in that era.

Brett Boles: And they're so expensive to produce, you know?

Bob: So you get out of school and for years, you are a vocal coach and a choir teacher. And I'm really interested to hear the transition from the day-to-day of teaching teenagers to living on the app that they are on constantly. What's that transition like for you as an educator? Is it awkward for you? Is it awkward for them?

Brett Boles: Okay, so this is my fifth year teaching in public school. So before I started teaching in high school, I was doing private voice lessons and I music-directed shows. But right around when the pandemic hit, the kids had been talking about TikTok a lot, and I'm notoriously terrible at anything social media related. (Not anymore, but I used to be.)

So right around winter break of that following year, I decided to give this a shot. And I thought, you know what, let me go and try to meet people where they are in terms of how songs are written and how songwriters think.

And it turns out that I think I was uniquely positioned as a writer, educator, and as a performer to tackle this in a way that nobody else really had. And I thought, “If I can just educate maybe 300 new people, I thought that would be great.” Never thinking in a million years that it would blow up the way that it did.

But if you look at the very beginning of my video feed, the first week or two worth of videos, I had it set up so that my ring light and my camera was in front of me, looking at me, and I was sitting at the keyboard, but you couldn't really see the piano. And ultimately I decided—and this was the teacher in me—that maybe it would be better to place the camera to the side, so you could see the piano and I could turn, and it would almost be like you were just sitting next to me and I was just talking to you like you were one of my students. That's when things started to catch on, and I think it had a lot to do with the positioning of the camera and the style with which I was starting to do things. So I think it all came together in this nice, serendipitous way.

The logo of Brett Boles "The M Tea" TikTok Show, for which he's accumulated over 375k followers

Bob: It's grown to, I think, 375,000 followers on TikTok now. Do you think it's more that people are responding to finding out new things about their favorite songs? Or is it in some ways people having confirmed for them why they love these songs in the first place?

Brett Boles: I think the comments that I get the most of are, “I'm listening to music in a new way.” I liken it to a sense that you never knew you always had, and you just need somebody to break it down to you in language that you can understand.

My goal from the very beginning was to be able to reach anyone, regardless of their level of knowledge or experience. So I try not to use too much musical jargon because a lot of people don't understand, and I try to break it down in ways that are really accessible. I think people are hearing songs in ways that they never knew that they could, and that's exciting. I think once you start to listen to songs that way, it's hard to stop, and I think you appreciate the craft more when you know what's going on. It's not like a magic trick, where it spoils the trick if you know how it's done. It's one of those things that gives you a deeper appreciation for the songs that you know and love. So I think that's what people are reacting to.

Brad: I remember being 7, 8, 9 years old, and I realized that the music in movies wasn't just a part of the movie. It was something that people played on instruments. And I have a specific memory, I probably saw something on PBS or something of an orchestra playing a movie score and being like, “Wow, this is a different part of it,” and it feels like ever since then I slowly dove deeper and deeper into “it's not just a part of it, it's a whole thing.” And Brett, I feel like your pocket of the internet speaks to that process in such a way where people can move from, “Okay, I know that the music in the movie is made by people. Let's figure out more,” and it's that educational side of it that makes people go, “Oh man, I already love this music and now I get to learn more about it.”

Brett Boles: Yeah. You don't you don't know what you don't know sometimes. And so when people realize that composers who write for film are making conscious decisions about where they're placing notes, how they're constructing melodies and harmonic motion, and what instruments are playing what, and if there's a reason for all of those choices to, for lack of a better word, to manipulate your emotions, that's a cool thing to realize. [Especially] if you never really knew that or understood it, or maybe you knew that, but didn't really understand how it all worked. It's just a really cool thing for people to learn, I think.

Bob: I imagine that at this point, you've had this question asked of you hundreds of times, but people see you talking about specific pieces of music, specific songs. What would you suggest as the baseline, general rules for, Okay, I've been watching Brett Boles, I want to apply this kind of thinking to all of the music that I take in my life, whether it's accompanying a movie or a TV show, or if it's just something on the radio.” What are your general guidelines for people who are starting to develop that ear for interesting music theory or compositional observations?

Brett Boles: So I think It all comes down to prosody, right? And that's the thing that I talk about more than anything else is prosody, and that is how all the elements of a particular song or a piece of music work together to tell the same story. So in a musical, for example, you have lyrics and you have music, right? Those are the primary pieces that come together to tell a story. And so as a songwriter constructing a song, you want to make sure that your music is helping the lyric tell whatever story the lyric is telling. On a very basic level, it can be something as simple as if the character is singing about looking up at the sky or something, that the music would probably be moving in some kind of upward trajectories to mirror that.

Now, in the case of something like film music, for example, I did a whole thing about the beginning of the Disney/Pixar film Up. Now that gets more into harmonic structure, and Michael Giacchino, who does the same thing in Inside Out that he does in Up, bases everything on a major seven (maj7) chord. So that's a minor chord, stacked on top of a major chord, which creates a sense of melancholy. Because on a very basic level, major chords are “happy chords” and minor chords are the quote-unquote “sad chords,” even though it's a very basic explanation of it.

But when you put those two things together, it creates this sense of melancholy. And so a lot of times when the ear is hearing something that's different from what the eye is seeing, it trips this wire in our brain and it makes us feel something. So as Mr. Frederickson is going back into his house after Ellie dies, we hear all these alternate chords playing, it's an F Maj7and then an F major and an F Maj7and then an F major. And you're wondering, like, where is it gonna land, right? We have this really melancholy chord followed by what we normally would think of as a happy chord, but something really sad has just happened.

And when he closes the door and goes back into the house, the very last thing we hear is it settles on an F major chord and it just does something to you inside. It makes you well up with tears and it tugs at your heartstrings because what you're seeing and what you're hearing are the same thing. So you have this cognitive dissonance going on, and it's a really powerful thing to use in film.

TikTok and Instagram star Brett Boles

Bob: Maybe the best application of it is if we talk about a specific movie. We settled on talking about what is still the most popular current Disney musical, and that is Encanto. How do you tackle something like a Lin-Manuel Miranda production?

Brett Boles: So Lin is extremely knowledgeable about his craft and very deliberate (in a lot of ways, more deliberate than many other writers even are) about the choices that he makes. So, when it comes to him, I like to focus on little moments as opposed to taking a macroscopic view at first, and just kind of delight in the little things that he does. One of my Encanto videos is what got Lin to follow me on Instagram, and it was that song, “What Else Can I Do?” that Isabella sings. And one of the opening phrases of that song, there's a four-measure phrase followed by a five-measure phrase. And it happens right around the words, “It's not symmetrical or perfect, but it's beautiful, and it's mine.” And it's a very deliberate choice that he made to do that four-measure phrase followed by the five-measure phrase, because again, that's prosody, that's the music and the structure of the music supporting the story of the lyric, right?

And that's the video that he shared on his story and said, you know, “Quit giving away my secrets, Brett.” which was very cool. But it's just those kinds of choices that he makes that are so fun to delight in and share with people, because most people aren't going to hear that on first listen. Admittedly, I don't hear a lot of that stuff on first listen: it takes me looking at the score and going into it to learn all this stuff. One of the other reasons I love doing all these videos is because I'm learning at the same time everybody else is. I don't always pick up on this stuff on first listen, I sometimes have to look at it and only through looking at it do I realize, “Oh my God, that's so cool.”

Bob: I love the first song in the movie, “The Family Madrigal,” where Mirabel is introducing the whole family, and it follows a very particular rhythm, a very particular pattern, and a very particular melody until they get to Abuela. And then the melody that she sings is, the melody of a song that comes later. It's a foreshadowing of a song called “Dos Oruguitas,”and we've already gotten a hint of it in the movie because in the opening scene, we see her husband get slaughtered and the kind of birth of the miracle that is protecting this family.

But allowing her to give a bit of that foreshadowing through that melody is such an early window into her psychology and what's driving her. It's not just that she's hard on the family, it's not just that she's forcing them to live up to a standard. It's that when we revisit that melody later on in the movie, you're finally seeing it from her perspective and you're seeing what she had to go through and the grief and loss that she's still processing.

And then to go back to “The Family Madrigal,” where she's talking about “Work and dedication will keep the miracle burning, and each new generation must keep the miracle burning,” all of what becomes explicit kind of folded in that lovely little way early in the movie. I think it's just it's a nice little trail of breadcrumbs that you get from the beginning of the movie into that emotional climax later.

Brett Boles: It's also really cool that in that moment, it shows and illustrates how far apart Abuela and Mirabel are from each other. And it's also that same song that brings them together at the end. So it serves it serves the purpose of illustrating the two extreme ends of their relationship, too, which is really cool.

Brad: Part of the beauty of learning is not just the initial learning, it's the teaching it to other people. At the start, you are teaching it at a high level, but it feels as we've moved on and you've done hundreds of videos now, it's like your knowledge of all these has deepened just because you've been teaching it so much. And that's just been really cool to watch.

Brett Boles: Yep. As a teacher, I love learning just as much as I love teaching, and they both go hand-in-hand. And this has been not only a teaching experience journey, but a learning experience for me.

Bob: Stepping out of the world of Encanto, I know you've hinted at some other movie-related series that you've done on your channel. Is there any movie score or song from a movie that you really hope to dive into?

Brett Boles: Yeah, it's a really good question. I've done a few Lord of the Rings things and I've done a few Star Wars things. I would really love to just to dig into both of those things even more than I have, just cause there's so much there. Howard Shore and John Williams are both absolute masters of the craft. But people have also been asking for some of the older, like, Ennio Morricone films. like Cinema Paradiso and those kinds of things. It may be really cool to go back and look at some of those, because I haven't done a whole lot of that.

Bob: No thinking about this: what is the best John Williams score?

Brett Boles: Star Wars. Although the main theme from E.T.is great.

Bob: It's been a long time since I was in choir, and I look for those musical outlets and those chances to converse with people with what the music's about. And I feel like I get to have that conversation with you every time I'm watching your videos. So first of all, thank you for that. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

Brett Boles: Yeah, I've got some things planned. I have a few courses that are going to be coming out soon. I'm starting with a lyric writing course, so that's going to be available starting next month. And shortly after that, I'll be going into a music writing course all tying into songwriting in general. You could be on the lookout for that.

And then I can't announce officially the place where I'm doing this yet, but I'll be doing a live version of what I do on Instagram and TikTok in New York in September.

Bob: Brett, we wish you the very best as the school year winds down and in all of your future endeavors. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Brett Boles: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. It's been a blast.