For most song writers, I imagine that there is a fair amount of freedom with regards to the words they can choose to put to a melody. There are exceptions of course. For example some pop artists might be pressured to include repetitive lyrics in order to create a catchy hook. But for the most part there’s some degree of freedom. However, musical theatre lyrics seem to be quite different in that they should serve a specific purpose in a show to express a certain character’s emotion or advance the plot from a to b.
In an interview with musical theatre composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, he teases out some defining characteristics for lyrics in musicals. He does this by drawing out the differences it has with poetry . In poetry, he explains that the reader has a generous amount of time to interpret and digest the words. But in shows, there is a limited amount of time to communicate a message and there are so many other things going on. You have costumes, sets, props, dancing, acting and lighting etc. As a result, there’s a risk that unclear lyrics will overwhelm the audience. Lyrics should therefore focus on what message needs to be communicated to the audience and the words should be expressed in the simplest of ways.
(The whole interview is fascinating to listen to but the part I mention starts at about 07:30)
Although I believe this to be true, rather than think of it as a hindrance, I think the parameters within which musical theatre lyricists have to work makes for interesting and creative pieces where one can delve into emotions not always explored in song. At its worst, you get pieces in musicals such as “Jekyll and Hyde” or “I Can’t the Sing” where there’s lots of forced rhyme schemes and a lack of an imagination with word choices. However, at its best, the lyrics can be deeply moving.
There are so many lyrics I could pick out but here are a selection of three of my favourites:
Old Friends – Merrily We Roll Along (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
I recently watched ‘The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’ a documentary (currently available on Netflix) about the creation and life of the show Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway. It closed on Broadway after 21 performances (losing $8 million). Despite its poor critical reception, I’m quite a fan of the score (I have listened to the song “Opening Doors” an unhealthy number of times).
It began when Hal Prince, the director was challenged by his wife at the time to develop a show for children. The musical tells the life of Frank at the height of his career but then goes backwards in time and ends when he his graduating from school with his friends. In addition to the reverse ordering of the show, the original Broadway cast was made up of children. I think the multiple concepts was lost on the audiences at the time and I understand that audiences would just walk out in droves.
My favourite lyrics come from the song “Old Friends”. I think the song nicely captures the rapport that old friends tend to have. The specific part I like is when the lead characters, Frank, Mary and Charley find themselves arguing about what characterises an old friendship. This debate escalates and next thing you know they’re shouting at one another. However soon enough they start singing again and chime in harmony ‘Who is to say, old friends how an old friendship survives’. And I think it’s a beautiful way to sum it all up. Most people have no idea how certain friends manage to stay in their life for so long, but are damn grateful that they have stuck around.
Old friends don’t make demands on you
Should make demands on you
Well, don’t make demands you can’t meet
Well, what’s the point of demands you can’t meet?
Well, there’s a time for demands
Whether you meet them or not
Hey, old friends
How do we stay old friends?
Who is to say, old friends
How an old friendship survives?
One day chums
Having a laugh a minute
One day comes
And they’re a part of your lives
New friends pour
Through the revolving door
Maybe there’s one that’s more
If you find one, that’ll do
But us, old friends,
What’s to discuss, old friends?
Here’s to us
Who’s like us?
(the YouTube clip is an endearing version from the revival encores production of Merrily We Roll Along starring a very young Lin Manuel Miranda)
If That’s What It Is – 13 the Musical (Music and Lyrics from Jason Robert Brown)
Similar to Merrily We Roll Along, musical theatre composer, Jason Robert Brown wanted to do a musical for children. Unfortunately, the musical like Merrily We Roll Along didn’t last very long during its Broadway run. The cast of the show is made up entirely of teenagers, including the musicians which is fairly brave. I haven’t seen it live myself but judging from the cast recording I would say that it perhaps didn’t get as much love as it should have done.
My favourite lyrics are in the song towards the end of the show when Patrice is consoling her friend Evan after his dreams of becoming popular have been dashed. I’m not sure how I should feel about the fact that the advice from a thirteen year-old strongly resonates with me now in my mid 20s. But I like it regardless.
I realize that now it is but how it is
Isn’t how its got be
Another day comes, another day goes
And if i get teased or hurt or lied to or punched in the nose
I say i wont cry
I cry until dawn
And then i put one foot in front of the other
And just keep walking on
Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love – A Chorus Line (Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban)
A Chorus Line is such a creative show. It is essentially a love letter to all the hardworking performers who are not necessarily in the leading role and are often out of the spotlight. The musical at the time didn’t rely on having a big star in the cast in order to become a success. Rather the creative team recorded a couple of conversations with these Broadway dancers about their life and experience in performing and used this as source material . It became a critical hit and one of the longest running Broadway shows at its time (it was surpassed by Cats in 1997).
My favourite section without a doubt has to be Richie’s in Hello 12, Hello 13, Hello Love. This song is essentially about growing up and different members sing about their unique experiences. Poor Richie starts off as this enthusiastic basketball player, believes he has a promising future ahead of him but it quickly descends as he realises he doesn’t have a clue what direction he wants to take his life. The backup singers are joyfully singing ‘Shit Richie’ repeatedly as this guy is lamenting about how scared he is.
Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball. Yeah!
Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball. Yeah!
I was always runnin’ around shoutin’,
“Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball. Yeah”
I was so enthusiastic.
I was in ev’rything.
The yearbook is filled with my pictures,
And I was lucky ’cause I got a scholarship to college.
A scholarship to college! So I went.
So I’m gonna be this kindergarten teacher…
Imagine me — this kindergarten teacher? And I thought…shit
What are you gonna be?
When you get shoved outta here
Aint nobody gonna be
Standin’ there with no scholarship to life.
And I was scared. Scared.
If you’ve made it this far, many thanks for reading! Whilst writing this post many more ideas for musical theatre lyrics have popped into my head which I shall perhaps touch on in a separate post. If you have any favourites that I may not have heard of please comment them down below!