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The Star-Spangled Ballad

In an hour or so, Hannah Waddingham will take the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and present this year’s Olivier Awards. I won’t be there, but a number of dear friends are in the audience, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed for Operation Mincemeat – a musical with which we all have an entirely normal and healthy relationship. (Just don’t ask how many times we’ve been.)

One of Mincemeat’s six nominations is “Outstanding musical contribution”, specifically Joe Bunker for music directing and Steve Sidwell for orchestrating. While we wait to find out who’s won, I wanted to point out a fun detail in the music – one that I only heard for myself last night.

In the second act, the main characters are waiting for news of a fake plane crash – a dead body they’ve dressed to look like the made-up British officer William Martin, who’s carrying “secret plans” about the “Allied invasion of Europe”. The idea is that he’ll wash ashore in Spain, the Germans will find the plans in his briefcase, and they’ll be misled about the Allies’s true goals.

Unfortunately the initial news is quite different – an Allied pilot has washed ashore, but he’s very much alive and very much American. We get to know him in the song The Ballad of Willie Watkins, while the main characters fret about whether two pilots crashing on the same day, in the same place, with the same name, might arouse suspicion.

(This may seem like an implausible coincidence, but it’s true. Willie Watkins was a real pilot, he really did crash in Spain, and he was even present at William Martin’s autopsy – a detail too ridiculous to fit into the show. Truth is stranger than fiction.)

For months now, friends have been telling me that The Ballad of Willie Watkins has a few bars from The Star-Spangled Banner, the US national anthem, but I’ve always struggled to hear it. With some help from Liam in the Discord, I was able to spot it.

Here’s a clip from the cast recording where the anthem is playing in the background:

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Liam messed with an EQ to make the Star-Spangled Banner a bit more prominent – the rest of the song fades away when the anthem is playing. Here’s an MP3 he made:

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I took that a step further by stripping out the bass and the drums, and I think it makes those parts even more prominent. (I googled something like “remove lyrics from MP3” and used the first website I found. It split the MP3 into different tracks, and I could toggle each of them off/on.) This makes it very clear to me:

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These processed versions definitely distort the brass which is actually playing the melody, but they were enough that I can now reliably hear it in the unprocessed soundtrack. And last night, I was sitting in the audience and I finally heard the Star-Spangled Banner as it was played live!