FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

“Rhyme and Its Reasons”

Craig Carnelia

Above: Craig Carnelia

A few months ago I asked a question about different kinds of rhyme their validity in musical theatre lyrics. Although various people responded to the question – most of them getting sidetracked by debating whether or nor the various types of rhyme that Peter Dale had listed in An Introduction to Rhyme were valid types of rhyme at all – I received no satisfactory answer about why we celebrate pure or perfect rhyme in song lyrics more readily than lyrics which employ other types of rhyme. Not until now, when Stephen Sondheim offered the perfect answer in Finishing the Hat:

The most effective kind for a story-telling theatre song is [true rhyme].

Upon which he expands by saying:

[T]he craft is supposed to serve the feeling. A good lyric should not only have something to say but a way of saying it as clearly and forcefully as possible – and that involved rhyming cleanly. A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. A near rhyme only dampens the impact.

On a more practical level, Sondheim quotes Craig Carnelia (best known for Working and Sweet Smell of Success) as saying that rhyme helps lyrics to be heard and that near rhymes teach the ear to disregard lyrics and not to listen to them. This reminds me of comments from the audience during the run of the production of Marry Me a Little in which I performed a couple of years ago:

In a sense this is why “Two Fairy Tales” works so well as an opening number – besides focusing the concept for the evening, it really makes the audience realise that they have to listen because they are faced with a number that they can understand without hearing every word but in which it becomes apparent that the more words they hear, the richer their experienced will become. And so it means that their is a greater degree of attention through the much simpler “Saturday Night” and that they are settled in for for the real playing with words that happens from “Can That Boy Foxtrot?” through much of the rest of the show.

One of the things that was said to us again and again during the run was that it took a couple of numbers for audiences to tune into the idea of listening to the lyrics and the people who came twice only really managed to fully appreciate “Two Fairy Tales,” which opens the show, the second time they came to watch because they knew they had to listen from the very beginning. And there was certainly a deeper sense of appreciation for the lyrics in people who saw the show a second time.

Is Pete Townshend

Above: Is Pete Townshend “Songwriter X”?

In the rest of this chapter, Sondheim outlines a few other concepts about rhyme that, one presumes, provide a foundational vocabulary for his comments on his own lyrics throughout the book and which provide to readers a more widely accessible set of concepts than say, Dale’s, for discussing rhyme in musical theatre lyrics more broadly.

He also tackles the issue of near rhymes and the apparent perspective of some that true/perfect/pure rhymes are ‘the enemy of substance’, denying the expression of true emotion. Of course, he (rightly) dismisses this as nonsense, using the words of a songwriter who is only identified as “X” – a pop music lyricist who has created one hit Broadway musical – to present the opposite point of view:

I hate all true rhymes. I think they only allow you a certain limited range…. I’m not a great believer in perfect rhymes. I’m just a believer in feelings that come across. If the craft gets in the way of the feelings, then I’ll take the feelings any day. I don’t sit with a rhyming dictionary. And I don’t look for big words to be clever. To me, they take away from the medium I’m most comfortable with, which is Today…

Sondheim’s response to “X”‘s words, which are quite damning when it comes to the vast majority of what musical theatre lyrics attempt to do, is quite literate – but one wonders who “X” is. There are many pop lyricists whose work has been represented on the Great White Way; which of them has only had one show? After typing in a few names at the Internet Broadway Database, the most likely candidate seems to be Pete Townshend whose Tommy appeared on Broadway in 1993. (Townshend’s songs have also been heard on Broadway in Rock ‘n Roll! The First 5000 Years and a special Anthony Newley / Henry Mancini event, but I do not think revues and concerts count here, as it seems that Townshend was not involved in creating those shows – they were not a venture into theatre-making on his part – whereas he most certainly was involved in the development of Tommy.)

I suppose some people might suggest that someone like Jim Steinman, whose only full Broadway score was for Dance of the Vampires, might fit the bill. His other big musical, Whistle Down the Wind, never played Broadway. However, Sondheim specifically says that “X” had one hit musical on Broadway. I doubt Sondheim would forget that Dance of the Vampires was a major flop when it appeared on the Great White Way and it might be a bit of a leap to assume he was talking about the show’s success in a completely different version overseas. So it seems as thought the pieces of this particular puzzle do not all fit and that Jim Steinman simply does not fit the profile.

Another possibility – although the possibility is slight – is Lee Hall, who wrote the lyrics for Billy Elliot. The problem here is that my impression is that his work on Billy Elliot rhymes well more than it doesn’t and that its arrival on Broadway is a little too soon in relation to the publication date of Finishing the Hat for the show to have been considered a bona fide “hit” – although it depends on how Sondheim is using the word, I suppose. Perhaps the thing that rules him out definitively, however, is that Hall is a playwright and screenwriter and not a pop lyricist by trade.

Other options? How about Hal David, the lyricist of Promises, Promises? I’d have to take a look at those lyrics again before coming to a decision based on that suggestion. But I feel my general memory of the lyrics seems to clash with the sheer contempt for true rhyme that is displayed in the quotation. The tone of the quotation also doesn’t seem to gel with They’re Playing Our Song lyricist Carol Bayer Sager. Although that was also a single hit for a pop songwriter, with Bayer Sager having previously written lyrics for the flop, Georgy, the parts just don’t seem to fit.

So, all things considered, my guess would still Townshend. Although Townshend created both Tommy and Quadrophenia, the latter has really only developed any legitimate claim as a bona fide theatrical musical in the past few years and, while that has been done with Townshend’s blessing, it seems that he has not been involved in the development on his album into a piece of musical theatre to the extent that he was with Tommy. I’d be keen to hear if any one has ever seen a TV interview with Townshend denouncing true/perfect/pure rhymes or whether anyone has any other ideas as to who “X” might be.

Now onto the meat of the book – a show-by-show discussion of Sondheim’s lyrics, with a few digressions along the way…

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