“Discouraging Words”: Lyrics for Musical Theatre

In 1998, Steven Winn wrote an article about lyric writing in contemporary musical theatre for the San Francisco Chronicle: Discouraging Words. The general thrust of his article is that “Broadway lyrics, with a few exceptions, have lost the wit and range of the classics”. Framing the piece with a superficial comparison between My Fair Lady and Miss Saigon, Winn’s beef really seems to be with the way that the musical has developed into a piece that serves the character before the lyricist him- or herself and is little more than a grumpy rant about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. Read through it for yourself, but what follows is what I make of it all. The boxed sections are all quotations from the article.

In Miss Saigon, another young girl hit the big city with uncertain prospects and fell under the sway of an older man. “I’m 17 and I’m new here today,” Kim sang when she arrived in war-torn Saigon. “The village I came from is so far away.” … Miss Saigon demonstrates the demoralized state of Broadway lyrics-writing today. There’s hardly a line in Miss Saigon that rises above pedestrian sentiments and lockjawed rhyme.

Miss Saigon may not have the greatest lyrics, but it sometimes gets a short shrift. For example, I really like Kim’s introduction, simple though it may be, because it sounds like something one of the Dreamland girls would say on that stage. Immediately, the simplicity stands in contrast to the crude lines from the other girls and, later, we discover that, for Kim, these words are in fact the truth. It works for the character, for the situation and provides a dramatic building block for the play as a whole. There are other lyrics in the show far more deserving of criticism than this one, but I think there are are other things to consider too. Lyrics aren’t lyrics wherever they may be; we simply can’t take that as a given principle if we believe that content dictates form.

Compare the work of almost any contemporary lyricist with that of Lerner, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer and even the more workmanlike Oscar Hammerstein II and Irvin Berlin, and the gap is yawning. The virtues of classic Broadway songs – which can register emotion, character revelation, narrative, poetry, wit, surprise and the sheer pleasure of melodious verbal dexterity – rarely come together at once in new musicals.

I think the juxtaposition of these two statements is somewhat amusing, possibly even ironic. I don’t think Winn has unpacked enough the work of the lyricists he has so deftly named. There are many examples where Hart, in particular, but also Porter and Gershwin and even Lerner sacrifice character and narrative for the sake of wit and verbal dexterity and, for me, wordplay for the sake of wordplay or merely to appear witty can sometimes be even more destructive than a lyric that is perhaps more pedestrian but more suited to character and situation. The lyricist should show off the character, not him- or herself.

Of course, that kind of peacocking was routine and acceptable, even expected, during the 1920s and 1930s when musical theatre songs and popular songs were one and the same thing, with the former feeding the latter in a very prominent fashion. That link still exists, but in a way it’s kind of reversed now and we see popular music being transferred onto the musical theatre stage not only in the form of jukebox musicals but also in the way that musical characters speak and sing in, say, the contemporary equivalents of classic musical comedies like The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde or Hairspray, which themselves have their origins as popular films. But even in these latter-day equivalents, disposable as they may be, there is a far greater attempt to knit together the pop idioms with the characters on display, which – to return to my original point – just isn’t true of some of the “classic” musical theatre composers, even if their skill as lyricists of popular songs was incomparable. The virtues that Winn names may not all be in evidence in every new musical that comes along, but they did not always all “come together at once” in older musicals either.

That Sondheim’s extraordinary range and sophistication stand so distant from the competition only proves the point: he’s working in an age of lyrical mediocrity. George Jean Nathan’s remark about Cole Porter comes to mind. Like Porter, Sondheim seems “so far ahead of the other boys in New York that there is no race at all.”

Am I alone in finding this a strange attitude towards lyric-writing? Or perhaps it is just a critics attitude towards lyrics writing that I, as a writer, find disquieting? Creating art is not a race. Yes, from the outside, comparisons are inevitable, but if you’re writing lyrics with the goal of trying to be as good as somebody else, be it Sondheim or Porter or whichever lyricist you choose, you probably never will be. If we look at Jason Robert Brown for a second, a composer-lyricist who seems to try and emulate Sondheim in many ways, we can see that his work often just appears to be a pale imitation, even in cases where it is great work – as in certain parts of Parade, for example. I wish he would shake off whatever chip he has on his shoulder and delve deeper into his creative self and emerge with something that is truly his and no-one else’s. I think that musical might be amazing. I guess I just think you should be immersed in telling the story you’re telling. But I guess this whole issue is part of what is debate by Sondheim himself in Sunday in the Park with George, particularly in “Putting It Together”.

The catalogs in Noise/Funk operate in a fundamentally different way from that of the famous zoological one Porter marshaled in “Let’s Do It.” Gaines’ lines spring from a rhythmic and political impulse rather than a literary one. The Noise/Funk lyrics testify, in a street-smart, immediate way.

Seriously? I think to imply that the lyrics for “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” spring from a literary impulse is a bit of a stretch. The narrative of Paris is so slim it might as well not be there at all and the link between the song and the narrative is so superficial and tenuous that the song was able to be extracted verbatim for the 1931 revue Wake Up and Dream. I highly doubt that Porter was very concerned with character and narrative when he wrote the song; it certainly is a bit sophisticated for an imperious matron from Massachusetts, even if she is pretending to be drunk. I would say it springs from an impulse to be witty and and verbally dexterous more than anything else; in that sense they are more street smart than literary, wouldn’t you say?

Noise/Funk, which turns to first-person autobiography in the second act, is a unique creation. But it also has roots in shows like Hair in the 1960s, A Chorus Line in the 1970s and The Who’s Tommy in the 1980s. Released from their traditional obligations, lyrics have become battlecry, confession and pop cultural anthems.

I’m not sure what Winn is saying here. At first I thought he was saying that there are certain baseline obligations for musical theatre lyrics. But this doesn’t allow for the principle of “content dictates form”, that a musical like Hair might need different lyrics than a musical like Anything Goes, and Winn then offers, almost begrudgingly, the idea these kinds of musicals actually can be released from those expectations, I suppose because of what they’re about. So is he actually criticizing the subject matter of new musicals, rather than the lyrics? Is he saying that the subject matter of contemporary musical theatre doesn’t offer opportunities for a lyricist to write good lyrics? But his idea of what comprises a good lyric is already in question – so where does that leave us. This article is not convincing me of the thesis that Winn has set out for it.

Critic John Lahr is concerned that the concept musical “is too often merely a song cycle… A smart lyric in the mouth of a stick figure is a theatrical nothing.” One trend, argues Lahr, is that “instead of being a game of show-and-tell the musical has become a song-heavy game of tell-and tell.” Examples abound in recent Broadway annals, from the long-running Cats and the curdled Jekyll and Hyde to Sondheim’s overly static Passion. Finding the right balance, for music, words and spectacle, is an eternal dilemma, no matter how much musicals change.

Now I think that either Steven Winn or John Lahr or both is oversimplifying what a concept musical is or can be and certainly his choice of examples is something I find a little confusing. As I see it, when it comes to concept musicals, we get at least three different kinds of concept musicals:

  • Concept musicals that employ a narrative structure similar to book musicals, but which nonetheless always return to a central image, e.g. Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof;
  • Concept musicals that break down linear narrative forms or employ an episodic structure in favour of the central idea, e.g. Company; Nine; and
  • Concept musicals that abandon plot, creating a series of character studies by placing a group of people in a common situation, e.g. A Chorus Line, Hair.

Now already, as far as I’m concerned, the first group is some kind of hybrid form of what I suppose we could call the musical play and the other two, going perhaps one step further towards being more presentational than representational. And, to get back to Winn and Lahr, I’m not certain that song cycles belong here, unless they are on the extreme end of the spectrum just before the form shifts into musical revue. I guess that’s what separates, slightly, something like Songs for a New World from And the World Goes ‘Round.

The point is that the field is wider than either is willing to admit and I don’t think any of the musicals in the three categories named above is guilty of merely putting “a smart lyric in the mouth of a stick figure”. But if we look at song cycles like like Songs for a New World or Closer Than Ever, the criticism snaps into focus.

Also, to consider this point in the wider context of the article, isn’t putting “a smart lyric in the mouth of a stick figure” precisely what lyricists like Hart, Gershwin and Porter did in many of their shows, musical comedies which were much slighter dramatically – much great “theatrical nothings” as Lahr might put it – than almost any of the concept musicals named in the little definitions list above.

Then if we look at the examples he’s chosen, Cats at least makes sense as a choice in that it is similar to concept musicals like A Chorus Line by presenting character studies of the cats as they compete for their spot in the Heavyside Layer, even though he doesn’t explore how the show might support the point he is trying to make. But I am not sure that using Jekyll and Hyde or Passion is much use to his discussion either. Both are is based on a particular thesis or theme, yes, are they concept musicals? I don’t think so.

Writing lyrics, Lerner said, was “a little above photography and wood carving.” But a serious sense of purpose, an aesthetic of fitting the words to a larger purpose, defines his work. A lyricist, he believed, was “a dramatist who wrote part of his plays in rhyme.” Lerner wrote at a time when musicals were much closer to their source in operetta. My Fair Lady, and to a lesser degree Camelot, are models of unified effect, with the music and lyrics poised like mutually enhancing counterweights.

What I have to say now might not be popular, I guess. But it doesn’t surprise me that Lerner equates lyric-writing with something like photography or wood-carving, which are hobbies for the masses but which only become art in the hands of a gifted minority. For me, Lerner was the Tim Rice of his era. I don’t rank him as highly as someone like Porter for wit and wordplay and he is no match for Hammerstein when it comes to character. I also think he tends to be a bit lazy and showy. I can’t handle “hung” instead of “hanged” coming from the mouth of Higgins or the mention of bobolinks in Camelot, when it is a species that is native to United States. And while we all know about the other minor lyric controversies in these two musicals, which arguably represent some of his best work, the errors and inconsistencies proliferate when we get to works like On a Clear Day. So I don’t agree with Winn that Lerner offered musical theatre a kind of unattainable perfection that will never be seen again.

But maybe lyrics have simply had a golden age that can’t, and shouldn’t, come again. If the form is going to thrive, musicals must reach an audience geared to high-speed transmissions, high-volume music and visually dominated ways of receiving and processing information. What can the chances possibly be of getting a few well-chosen words in edgewise?

Winn’s conclusion sums up for me the problem of his article as a whole. Although I can figure out, I think, what he is trying to say, but he isn’t clear about what he’s criticising. Does he want lyrics like Porter’s (which are smart and witty, often at the expense of character) or like Lerner’s (retaining a “sparkling” quality while making concessions for dramatic credibility)? He clearly doesn’t want a perfect marriage between character and lyric (“the more workmanlike Hammerstein”), although he does give Sondheim his dues. I think what’s he saying is he doesn’t like the way that musical theatre has developed, with lyricists writing for character instead of merely showcasing him- or herself as a wordsmith.

Winn says that he wants songs to “register emotion, character revelation, narrative, poetry, wit, surprise and the sheer pleasure of melodious verbal dexterity”, but he seems quite happy to leave emotion, character and narrative out of the equation if the lyric itself has poetry, wit or verbal dexterity. I think there is not a character inconsistency that Winn would not forgive if the lyric is sophisticated enough, and when it comes to musical theatre, that just doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

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One Response to “Discouraging Words”: Lyrics for Musical Theatre

  1. Eric HG says:

    You raise a good point about Miss Saigon – Kim’s introduction makes perfect sense. My lyric problems are more with “Bui Doi” and some of “Why God Why”. Certainly it was to the show’s benefit to get Maltby involved with the English lyrics and not Kretzmer who seems to be Boubil’s go to man for most English lyric help (and who the author of the above piece likes).

    I agree with you, David – if Passion is a concept musical (or even more so Jekyll and Hyde) then it makes me think that by that definition more musicals would be concept musicals than not.

    (However, I know people like calling Cats a feline A Chorus Line but I don’t fully buy that – there’s NO suspense or pressure about “who will make it” whatsoever for me in Cats.)

    It’s interesting that most people involved in concept musicals – certainly Fosse, Bennett, Sondheim AND Prince have all said on the record that they didn’t understand the term and it was something critics used not them.

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