As well as looking at the issues currently facing musical theatre, I want to look at the genre as an art form. I want to look at what goes into the making of a show and how it faces just as many decisions, frustrations and creativity buzzes as a ‘straight’ play does.
I decided to start with lyrics because I believe they can often be the forgotten component behind the leader: music. It is true that it is often the tune we walk out of the theatre whistling, but it is the words that further the emotion and resonate most with an audience. I write this blog on the day Liverpool FC won the Carling Cup against Cardiff, resulting in Wembley Stadium ringing with a chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which many of the fans won’t know comes from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. Yet those words about companionship and standing together are universal, and transcend the boundaries of theatre. Similarly, many people thought ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music was actually an Austrian folk tune and not penned by the same writing duo.
Oscar Hammerstein II is the godfather of book and lyric writing but he also wrote an essay on the subject, which is vital reading for any musical theatre student or would-be lyricist. He gives tips such as the use of a rhyming dictionary but hastens to add this warning: “A rhyming dictionary, however, should be used as a supplement to one’s own ingenuity, and not a substitute for it.” He goes on to point out that a rhyming dictionary won’t help you with elements such as triple rhymes or colloquialisms. Or indeed, the writing of a song in a dialect, for example the heart-wrenching lyrics of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Showboat: “Ah gits weary/ An’ sick of tryin’/ Ah’m tired of livin’/ An’ skeered of dyin’/ But ol’ man river/ He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.”
Within his essay, Hammerstein highlights how a song can’t always be just pure poetry because its overall aim is for a singer to perform it. At the end of lines it is often useful to have a more open vowel such as ‘ah’, which creates a nice open sound for the singer to let rip with. Hammerstein cites ‘What’s the use of Wond’rin?’ from Carousel as an example of why a closed sound doesn’t work. People often asked him why it wasn’t a more popular song, and Hammerstein muses in his essay that it could be because the song’s very last word is “talk” which is an awkward sound. Subsequently performers often cheat slightly by giving it more of an ‘ah’ sound. Another example of this is ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ from Oliver!, whose last big refrain is the title of the song. That “me” is a closed “ee” sound, and some performers will give it an “a” sound which, in an exaggerated version, would sound more like “As long as he needs may”, which makes it so much easier to belt out.
The examples are just a couple of the minutiae that go into the writing of lyrics, so it is strange that these poets can be overlooked by theatre people and audiences alike. There is a story that Mrs Kern (wife of Showboat composer Jerome Kern) and Mrs Hammerstein (wife of Oscar Hammerstein) were at a social function and the hostess introduced Mrs Kern by saying: ‘Her husband wrote Ol’ Man River’. Mrs Hammerstein disagreed: ‘It was my husband who wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’. Mrs Kern’s husband wrote ‘da-da-da-da’.” This is probably the best example of people giving the full credit to the composer and forgetting the lyricist.
Stephen Sondheim is known predominantly as a composer/lyricist but he started his career writing lyrics, his first job being West Side Story, and it is only through composer Leonard Bernstein that he was put down as lyricist. Also, we now have composer Andrew Lloyd Webber who is so much his own brand that we barely know his lyricists who range from Tim Rice to T. S. Eliot. I understand the genre is called musical theatre and as such music is the key ingredient, but it would be a shame to forget these unsung heroes who make a song complete. It’s why I champion composer/lyricists such as Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz, Willy Russell and Tim Minchin, because they draw attention to both areas and not just the tunes. As Hammerstein tells us: “A song is a wedding of two crafts.”
Image by Carl Milner.