Tuesday, 20 December 2016

My Life In Lyrics

Hilary says...

There is Westconnex, Donald Trump and climate change, it's true. These are awful and depressing facts of life.
But then there are so many good reasons to get up in the morning, and these are what we must remember, acknowledge, and celebrate daily.
One of these joys, for me, is musical theatre. What a pleasure to revisit Nick Enright and Terence Clarke's 'Summer Rain' at the New Theatre recently, and to be reminded of what Australian creators and performers have to give the world. How good it would be to see the phenomenally talented graduates of our music theatre programmes performing home-grown songs in their own accents... One day it will happen.

Recently I was approached to write an article on lyric-writing for Southerly Journal, in a special edition entitled Words And Music edited by Hannah Fink and Elizabeth McMahon. I was a bit apprehensive at first. I've never had any formal training as a lyricist, and everything I know I've learnt from doing it. But once I started, I realised I had plenty to say on the subject. With kind permission from Southerly I am re-publishing the piece here.

(Southerly, Volume 76, Number 1, 2016)

My Life in Lyrics

 Hilary Bell

YOUNG GIRL steps forward, and as she sings, takes a gun from her garter, presenting it to MICHAEL.

Make my gift
Be your guide.
Dad gave it to me
When he died.

Oh boo-hoo!
Her dad died!
Hey hardy hey hardy ho
Hey hardy hey hardy ho

BAR GIRLS step amongst the drunken HABITUES.

As BAR GIRLS SING, HABITUES drift off to sleep.

They came with cranes and dredging machines,
With crucifixes and charts.
Greedy for gold and the Soul of the Heathen,
Greedy for danger and fame.
Running away from their factory lives,
From hungry children and angry wives.
You ask every man and you get a new reason,
But every one heard his name.

They poured from ships and flying machines
Waving their dreams like flags,
Holding them high as they waded up-river
Polishing them up at night.
Some saw them smashed to smithereens
Some came true and ate them.
Some fell from their grasp and were lost in the river.
Some of the dreams burned bright.
Some were crowned in glory.
We saw every story.

The above excerpt is from The Wedding Song, a musical I wrote with composer Douglas Stephen Rae in 1994. I am starting with this scene because it was a riveting theatrical moment that I can still remember clearly 26 years later, one of which I’m proud to have been a part. In terms of performance, direction, music and lyric it captured everything I love about musicals. It was intriguing, unsettling, sexy, funny, irreverent, mysterious – a still moment in a whirl of colour and chaos. As a lyric, it demonstrates some, though not all, of the principles of lyric-writing I will discuss in this essay. It frames this discussion as a reminder that what matters, ultimately, is creating a powerful moment on stage, and that the whole point of attention to craft is in its service to those moments.

Loving and Learning Musicals

I have always loved musicals. My parents, both theatre people, were not especially musical-obsessed, but they encouraged me with their cast recordings of the great shows:  West Side Story, Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, alongside the hits of the day, like Tommy and A Chorus Line. This was the early 1970s and they were building the Nimrod Theatre, literally as well as figuratively – developing a style that would in part draw on Australian traditions of music hall and vaudeville. After such novelty tunes as “Sweet Violets” and sentimental numbers like “Goodbye-ee”, my greatest love became the Broadway shows of the so-called Golden Age, the 1920s through the 1950s.

Along with many of my generation, whose childhood was pre-DVDs and post art-house cinemas, I’m grateful to Bill Collins and his “midday movies”. Surely there were more than a few kids, aware that Bill was screening Flying Down To Rio, who were too sick to go to school that day. Live productions of musicals were few and far between, though my sister Lucy and I were taken as tots to Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show, through which we quaked with delighted terror.

Aged about seven and nine, Lucy and I established the BOB Theatre Company with our friends Miranda, Kate and Lucie (Bell, Otto, Blinco). We dedicated ourselves to creating the Great Australian Musical. Who cared if every show we wrote (and performed, and charged money to attend) featured Chicago gangsters, Spanish dancers and New York sailors? We slavishly tried to recreate Hollywood glamour with sequins collected from the floor of Home Yardage, and oversized wedding dresses from St Vincent de Paul. I especially cringe when I recall the blackface routines... But it was the beginning of my life as a lyricist:

My señorita will not talk to me,
She says she sickens at the thought of me.
She says the way I serenade her
Does nothing but degrade her when her friends walk by.
She says she hates my black fedora,
She won’t believe that I adore her,
And every time I try to mention
My marital intention she says ‘Aye aye aye’.

All this was kept secret from my school-friends. I would have been mortified if they found out I couldn’t name a song by the Bay City Rollers, but knew every word of Gilbert and Sullivan’s  “Modern Major General”.

When I was growing up the playwright, director, actor and teacher Nick Enright was a dear family friend and a regular dinner guest. A brilliant song-writer in his own right, he introduced me to the songs of Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, and particularly Noël Coward, who became a big influence. (For a while I sported slicked-back hair and a smoking jacket, a stick of dry linguine for a cigarette-holder.) I loved Coward’s wordplay, his insouciance, the specificity of his voice. In 1978, Nick was working on a musical version of Goldoni’s Venetian Twins, with composer Terence Clarke and my father, director John Bell, for Nimrod. Nick and Terry would come over and play the songs on our piano as they wrote them. The thrill of hearing a musical being built, song by song, from my perch at the top of the stairs was enormous. I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Browsing the family LPs when I was 13, I came across Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. I’d noticed it before but not paid it much attention, being partial to the olden days. Now I played it, and was delighted by the songs: they were pastiches of the music I loved. I took them at face value, blind to the ironic currents of cynical divorcees regretting the road never taken. Follies, despite my basic misinterpretation, lit a spark and drove me to search out more contemporary musicals. My understanding began to grow of what a musical could be: political, intimate, blackly comic, chilling, abstract, epic, disturbing, character-driven, thematic, outrageous. One thing they must always be, however, is entertaining.

In 1986, aged 19, I met Paul Capsis at Shopfront Theatre for Young People, where I had my first professional job as playwright-in-residence (for which I wrote ‘Near And Strange’, a musical with a huge cast of kids, featuring the 8-year-old Trevor Ashley). Paul and I instantly became firm friends and with a shared love of 1960s surf musicals, decided to put on our own. We roped in a few other kids, including teenage director David Foster (now a New York producer) and 17-year-old sister Lucy, and Pocketful of Hula Dreams opened at the miniscule Pastels Café in Rowe St off Martin Place. It became something of a cult hit, with remounts featuring Toni Collette, Felix Williamson and Sacha Horler, still at NIDA. We hit the big-time when the original production toured to Katoomba’s Clarendon Hotel. Even with the seven of us crammed into one hotel room, sleeping-bags on the floor, we were living the dream: doing a musical and getting a free meal.

Paul and I worked together again a few years later. In 1992 he was in Belvoir Theatre’s Cockroach Opera, an Indonesian play with songs composed by Douglas Stephen Rae, and I was engaged to work the literal translations into lyrics. Stephen and I worked well together, and were approached by Jim Sharman and the NIDA Company. We had a year to conceive, write, and produce a show. The result was The Wedding Song, a cross-cultural romance about colonialism set on an imaginary island.

This was a fast and furious education. Jim had high expectations and much belief in us. The only way to make the deadline was to become obsessed, and Jim fed this by deluging us with provocations ranging from books to silent films to documentaries, Giacometti to Showboat to acid-house. As well as an inspiration, Jim (director of The Rocky Horror Show in its original Royal Court production) was a font of practical knowledge: “Keep the best rhyme for the last line.” “If you want to attract a brilliant performer, write a brilliant number” (easier said than done, but true). It was a bold, ambitious show, visually exciting and politically provocative, that featured a wealth of new talent, from choreographer Stephen Page to costume designer Tess Schofield to performers including Craig Ilott, Paula Arundell and, again, Paul Capsis.

Keen to take this experience and new knowledge further, I hung out my shingle as a lyricist and went on to work with different composers on a diverse range of projects. In 1996 Elena Kats-Chernin and I were commissioned by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir to write a song cycle, Talk Show. By now living in New York, I wrote an opera with Victoria Bond initially entitled Mrs Satan and changed to the more commercial (we hoped) Mrs President, about Victoria Woodhull and her bid for American presidency. I met and married my own composer, Phillip Johnston, and provided lyrics for his score to Murnau’s silent film Faust. We’re currently writing a show together, Do Good And You Will Be Happy – more about which to follow. Since returning to settle in Sydney I’ve worked with Andrée Greenwell on several song-cycles, including After Julia, about our first female prime minister.

The craft of writing lyrics for musicals has its own particular set of demands. For a masterful insight, history, and how-to manual, Stephen Sondheim’s two books – Finishing The Hat (2010) and Look I Made A Hat (2011) – are the last word. He describes musical theatre’s beginnings in operetta, through vaudeville, to the revues of the 1920s and the songs of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter et al, where the story was essentially an excuse for wonderful songs – the pop music of the day – in which character and context had little to do with anything. Sondheim credits Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) with the shift to musicals as drama, where songs tell us something about the person singing them, where they arise from the action and are no longer interchangeable between characters. Sondheim himself is responsible for further opening up the possibilities of musical theatre, pushing it into new realms.

Each project I’ve done has brought its own technical and artistic challenges, teaching me more about the art and craft of writing lyrics for musicals – which, it should be noted, have different demands from stand-alone songs, and even from plays-with-songs, of which I’ve written many. The essential difference is that a musical number is more than a statement or an illustration: it must somehow progress the action.

Here, I will focus on my own lyrics for narrative forms – musicals and opera. I will limit my references to the three I consider most successful: Do Good And You Will Be Happy, The Wedding Song and Mrs President. The assertions I make about lyric-writing are by no means set in stone, for every statement there is doubtless a brilliant example that flouts it. But they are general thoughts, discoveries and notions I’ve collected through practical experience.

Lyric Writing and Collaboration

In the writing of a musical, there are many different collaborative possibilities. Setting aside the later input of director and actors, which can be huge, a show may have three individual creators: a book-writer (script), lyricist, and composer. Then there are composer-lyricists like Cole Porter and Sondheim who work with book-writers. And there are the triple-threats like Noël Coward and Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the case of opera, being sung-through, the librettist takes care of all the words, sung and spoken. I’m a playwright as well as a lyricist, so I’ve always written book and lyrics (except Hula Dreams for which I also wrote the music, before I realised I wasn’t a composer).  Each different arrangement of artists will have its own challenges and benefits. Being book-and-lyric-writer means there’s a natural continuity of voice, but it also means I can’t just change the emphasis of a syllable in a song without discussion (straightforward or otherwise) with the composer.

I’ve found that methods of collaborating are as diverse as the composers’ personalities. I have worked with some who simply want a lyric to set, and won’t change a word. Others will give you a bit of a melody, or a rhythmic idea, and ask you to elaborate, playing around with your draft lyric, involving much back-and-forth revising. In all cases of course, there must be detailed discussion about content, intention, character and subtext. Lyricists who work with a book-writer tend to scrutinise the script exhaustively, to ensure a seamless transition between voices as well as to plunder ideas, even actual lines, for the songs.

The Function of Musical Lyrics

What must a lyric do? A song in a musical is a microcosm of a play. It is comprised of acts (usually three), it explores an idea, there are complications, and by the end of the song, something has shifted. The character singing it has probably changed in some way over the course of the song. She might have come to understand or to resolve something, decided on a course of action, pressed her suit. Other things might have shifted too: the passing of time, a change of circumstances. Unlike a pop song, a theatre song cannot be static. It can get away, to a certain extent, with being there purely for entertainment value, but then the burden falls on the director to ensure that even while it’s amusing us there’s something else happening dramatically: while they sing, the characters are falling in love, or competing, or aligning against a common foe.

For the past several years I have been working on a musical called Do Good And You Will Be Happy inspired by Cole’s Funny Picture Book, creation of the extraordinary nineteenth-century Melbournite E.W. Cole. The source material is essentially a scrapbook, with no consistent characters, story or situation, and the only structure is a loosely imposed series of ‘lands’ (Birdy Land, Pussy Land, Temper Land, Smoking Land, etc). Initially, composer Phillip Johnston and I thought we could capture its spirit by reflecting this grab-bag format in a kind of music hall series of sketches and ‘turns’. But however charming individual moments were, they soon became tedious: an arc was lacking. There was no reason for one song to follow the next, no reason for the audience to care. Through the many drafts that ensued, our goal was to find a meta-narrative, while avoiding writing a biopic.

I wanted to include some of the verses from the book in the show – but similarly, I discovered by plopping them in wholesale that they were undramatic. So I whittled my choice down to a couple of favourites, and got around the problem by inserting them into a dramatic situation. “Baby Land” is a bunch of babies singing about being babies, which is sweet but static. To overcome this problem, while they sing there’s subordination from half the group, and efforts by the other half to mask this  and present a picture of perfection. In other words, we needed conflict. I will argue further on that, generally speaking, poems do not work as lyrics. In this case, it was because the poems themselves were not written to serve a dramatic purpose. It’s the same problem every writer of a jukebox musical (one comprised of pre-existing songs) has to face: how do you make pop songs serve the dramatic requirements of musical theatre?

As well as developing an idea and enabling a shift, a theatre lyric expresses something about the character singing it: personality, state of mind, background, intelligence, class, desires, delusions, their place in the world. It must propel things forward, so that without that song there would be a significant gap in the storytelling. And it must be of a piece with the world of the musical. All this in the space of three minutes, and without any sign of effort!

Here’s an example from The Wedding Song. Rose, a young bride, is disenchanted with her marriage. She is also a gold prospector of sorts, so the landscape imagery is in keeping with her situation.

There’s a distance in the eyes
Of the man I'll never know.
My husband's face
Is a foreign place
That I’ll never go.

I thought from his clouded brow
I might one day see a view,
But a great divide
Keeps me on one side.
I can call all day,
My words are blown away,
And should he hear me and turn around
Then I don't know what I'd say.

There’s a language in his land
That I'll never understand.
Now I wonder how
When we made our vow
Did I ever see
A possibility
That I could ever be
Close to the
Man that I never will know.

I’ve been patient and sweet
I’ve been gentle and kind
Always cooing assurance
And stroking his hair.
There to back-rub and bolster
Be comfy upholstery
Tender, dependable Rose is there.

And she’s there in the goldmine
She’s there in the bed
And she's there when she's needed
And there when she's not
Where is he?
Where is he?
Why for once in his life
Can't he be there for me?

If I have to stand alone,
And it seems it must be so,
Then I’ll follow through
What we came to do
For better or for worse
With his consent or curse
For he’s a universe from me
The man that I never will know,
Never will know
Never will know!

We understand that Rose is bewildered, hurt, angry, and that she’s had enough. The lyric tells us she’s intelligent, and even has a streak of poetry in her soul – something she doesn’t reveal in her non-singing persona. The desire for connection she expresses here is otherwise hidden from her husband. The steeliness we’ve hitherto only glimpsed comes to the fore by the end of this song after which, Lady Macbeth-like, she becomes ruthless. (The “comfy upholstery” to rhyme with “bolster” I thought was pretty smart as a young writer, but more on ‘cleverness’ later. In the context of Rose’s bitterness and reaching toward a tough resolution it was not the time to throw in a silly image.)

Songs and Dramatic Efficiency

Theatre has the capacity to be as complex and abstract as the playwright’s imagination allows, and the inclusion of song can take the richness of expression to yet another level. It can bring a clarity and efficiency to the action, compressing time and expressing ideas that could be cumbersome as dialogue.

In this excerpt from “I Admit I’m A Tasmanian” in Do Good And You Will Be Happy, Cole is drafting a newspaper ad for a wife (which he did in real life), and while he composes it three Potential Wives make their pitches, as an unpreposessing young woman, Eliza, [Office9] answers the ad. The intelligent modesty with which she introduces herself tells us much about her character. The song’s drama entails the competition between the women for Cole’s interest, and once the Potential Wives have receded, it becomes the falling-in-love of Cole and Eliza. By the end of the song, they’re married.
She must be good-tempered






A lover of home...

Oh, me me me me.

Dear Mr Cole,
A man of your lavish habits
Needs an abstemious wife.
Thrives on gruel,
Happy wearing hessian,
Beholden, behaving, bespectacled,
Choose me!

I admit I'm a Tasmanian,
Nor am I pretty
But the virtues you request in a wife
I'm blessed with in some measure.

She must be intelligent.

Dear Mr Cole,
A man of your social standing,
Must have a glamorous wife.
Noble breeding,
High above the riff-raff,
Bejewelled, beguiling, be practical,
Choose me!

I admit I’m a Tasmanian
Without self-pity.
And though two stupid people
Can be happy in their ignorance,
I hold out hope for a partnership
Of some intellectual pleasure.

And of course be unattached.

A man of your height,
You need a short wife
Or else you would have to wear heels.
Oh, I’m she!
Bewitching, bewhiskered, behind you, sir,
Choose me!

It’s true I'm a Tasmanian
And you, from the city.
From your sensible comments
I trust you won't think me worse for it.
Though twenty-nine and with piggy eyes,
If our two hearts find they harmonise,
We might share in wedlock’s treasure.

Another way of compressing information is through simultaneous narratives. In this excerpt from The Wedding Song we have three groups, three separate strands of drama. Rose is warning Michael off the chief’s daughter Mia, reminding him of their marriage vows, while the Islanders remind Mia of her untouchable status, which she tensely acknowledges.

While we are young

All of your life Disobey I am a sun

When we grow old

You have one wife. Tell a lie I am a shrine

To love and to cherish

Though you may wed her, If you touch My soul, my body

To have and to hold.

You will not touch. You will die. Never will be mine.

The music serves to plait these lines into a single, somewhat menacing, admonition. Of course, if it is new or crucial information being conveyed, this would not be the way to do it: in order to land with the audience it would need to have appeared earlier on, or else be isolated and highlighted here. This interweaving serves emotional and theatrical purposes rather than narrative ones.

Another technique for communicating conflicting narratives is exemplified in this song, “Speak To Me”, from Mrs President, set soon after the American Civil War. Spiritualists at a séance yearn to connect with their loved ones. Among them is Joseph Treat, who’s less interested in the dead than in the medium, Victoria. His is an internal monologue, sung directly to the oblivious object of his affections: a profane layer of lust over the pure anguish of the bereaved. The sections are delivered separately, and then, once we get the gist, overlaid.

Speak to me.
If you’re here
A sign.
Touch me.
We never said goodbye.
Cut down,
Too young, too soon.
A sign
Please. Please.
Scarlet fever
Whooping cough
Lost at sea
My belovéd,
Are you here?
If you’re here…
We never said goodbye.
A sign!
Touch me, touch me,
Touch me.

Speak to me.
Look at me.
I am here always
At your elbow,
Breathing the sweetness of your hair
Speak to me
A sign
That you remember,
That I transcend your multitude of lovers,
That I still own your heart!

Speak to me, speak to me
Please, I’m desperate
Listen to me
I’m desperate
Speak to me! Speak!
My husband, my son…

Every week
I come to stare
Drink the air you move through.
Don’t you see me?
Don’t you remember?
My beautiful sorceress!
In the dark
Candles burning,
You glow,
You hand is hot,
The only sound, your sigh
And my heart, hammering!
Oh speak to me, speak to me
Touch me

In this song, also, there are simultaneous streams of information in which characters sing together, the same tune and even the same words, but they are singing about very different things.

“Adventure Song” appears early in The Wedding Song. Our protagonist Michael has a spiritual yearning, while his bride Rose’s ambition is for the material. But at this point, they are newly married and setting off together, united in their longing to escape the mundane for something bigger:

So long, small-town street
So long switch and typewriter.
There's a world lies beyond that is bigger and brighter,
And I knew some day
I would sail away
Sail away...
I can hear my father now:
"What the hell sets you apart?
You're a normal bloke from suburban stock
With a fernery and a cuckoo clock."

...from the Home Economics, the Saturday comics
The nine-to-five drudgery smudging my whole life grey.

Show me where! I am burning to follow
Take me there! To the throne or the gallows
Blessed or cursed,
My heart will burst
Unless you lift the veil and show me.

Words versus Music

A tool unique to songwriting is the deliberately inappropriate juxtaposition of music and lyrics. As in the creation of a picture-book, the aim is to find a tension between two distinct elements that creates a third narrative. And like the picture-book’s author and illustrator, the lyricist and composer must decide how much reiteration they want: if the words are optimistic, should the music echo this? If the intention is to menace, is threat reflected in both words and music? Usually, yes. What matters is the effect you want to have on the audience, and in emotional terms, music packs the greater punch. However when you choose to deliberately tell two (perhaps radically) different stories, the result can be powerful and shocking. Obviously, it should be undertaken with care...

Stephen Rae and I used this approach in The Wedding Song’s climactic sacrifice-by-immolation of our heroine. Against the lyric, the music is romantic, melancholy, tremulous. The effect is quite extraordinary, focusing on the quiet stillness at the centre of the horror.

ISLANDERS                                            MIA
Her body's burning                                   I am cold
Her hair is blazing                                    All is dark
Her flesh is melting                                  All is quiet
The smell is sweet.                                   I am cold
She is blistering all white, purple, red      I feel air
Her eyes burst from her head                   I see light
All blackened bones                                Coming near
All pus and blood                                     Burning bright
Her body bloating                                    Burning gold
Her skull explodes.                                  I am cold.

However, in the audience it produced a most unwanted effect: laughter. At the time we tried to convince ourselves it was due to their discomfort, but I suspect they found the gorgeous music accompanied by hideous images just plain funny. If we were to rewrite it, I wouldn’t change a note of the music. I would pull back on some of the more grotesque imagery, but not entirely: it’s an astonishing theatrical moment.

Singing Character

The way characters express themselves through song tells us volumes about who they are. It’s not only the words they choose, but the rhythm, pace, organisation of thought, focus or otherwise. Take Meredith Willson’s fast-talking salesman in The Music Man’s “River City”, dazzling the gullible townsfolk while whipping them into a frenzy of anxiety, or Adelaide in Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls, with her beautifully juxtaposed vulgarity and attempts at classiness: “Take back your mink / From whence it came / And tell them to Hollanderize it / For some other dame.”

In “I Admit I’m a Tasmanian”, Eliza’s character is affirmed by her quiet insistence that eclipses the intensity/frivolity/nuttiness of the Potential Wives. Her rhyme scheme is complex, her vocabulary and sophisticated ideas match those of Cole:

She must be neat in dress,
Not extravagant or / absurd

/ Absurd bustles and back-saddles

Sending men to debtor’s prison.

It’s women’s foolish fashions that cause recessions,
That prevent poor men from marrying, thereby dwindling the birth-rate,
And leading to deplorable but inevitable evils that tempt unmarried people!

This excerpt illustrates how song can imply a whole lot more than simply what the words say: the fact that they finish each other’s sentences, and then express the same overwrought idea about the dangers of fashion – in unison – is all we need to understand this is a match made in heaven.


Something that distinguishes theatre lyrics from any other kind is the fact that the song is to be sung by an actor in action, whether internal or external. Mrs Lovett’s “Worst Pies In London” from Sweeney Todd indicates to the director that this is a scatty woman doing many things at once, and none very well: rolling out dough, serving a pie, killing vermin, and in terms of dramatic action, inveigling her way into Todd’s affections. The lyric, full of interrupted thoughts, bizarre segues, and even grunts as the rolling-pin comes down, tells both director and performer exactly what the character’s doing.

Henry Ward Beecher, the antagonist of Mrs President, is an abolitionist and a charismatic preacher who, from the pulpit, moulds his parishioners like putty. His flattering imagery has particular effect on the ladies, whom he regularly seduces. In this excerpt he is luring them in, before explosively staging a slave-sale in the church intended to fire their indignation. The words give the actor lots to do, even if he’s tied to his pulpit:

I look at you,
Your faces crystalline,
You are all angels, imprisoned,
Waiting to emerge.
Ye are gods
And I tremble at your might!
You are mountains,
Yet, delicate as dewdrops.

He continues in this vein for a verse or two, making them vulnerable and heightening their sense of rectitude.

Through you will virtue conquer.
Through you, love will reign supreme.
I will be your shepherd
While we share this earthly dream.
You are my inspiration
You make heaven here on earth.
And that is why I ask you,
What is a human life worth?
HENRY rips down a curtain to reveal PINKY, a mulatto girl.
He loosens her hair, which falls about her shoulders. With a stick, he points out the attributes of which he sings.
The mood becomes fevered and rowdy, with HENRY as a consummate showman. He works the congregation into horrified outrage.

What will you bid for this?
What will you bid?
Good set of teeth and a strong back,
Long legs,
Working proportions in length and girth.
What will you give to have her?
What is a life worth?


As well as fulfilling the various functions discussed so far, the craft of the lyric itself has certain demands. Lyricists ignore these at their peril. Mis-stressed syllables, lazy rhymes, convoluted ideas and self-conscious cleverness serve only to yank the listener out of their suspended disbelief. It may only be for an instant, but for each few seconds you lose him the harder it is to regain his trust.
Whether written for theatre or not, it’s important to remember that a lyric, by definition, is a part of a whole. It’s not supposed to exist alone, it needs music to be complete. Just as a play can be an enjoyable read but only comes into its own when rendered three-dimensional, a lyric is like an uninflated balloon: it needs music in order to leave the ground, to float.

Sondheim has said, “Most lyrics are by their very nature banal – it’s the way they’re expressed that makes them soar.” [i] This expression arises primarily from the music, but also depends on all those other elements that are peculiar to theatre songs: character, narrative, context, stakes.

Of my own lyrics, one of my favourites is this simple statement from Victoria’s abused lover in Mrs President. He’s had enough, and in a few unsentimental sentences begs her to give up the viciousness of politics and live with him:

There’s a house
On a farm
By a railroad
Beneath a towering pine.
Nothing happens
Nothing changes
But the light.
They work side by side.
They love as they choose.
No law, no church, no wars.
It’s yours if you’ll have it.
I think of that house.

There are no rhymes (though a brief brushing-past of ‘wars’ and ‘yours’), no clear rhythm. One of the things I learnt on this opera from my composer, Victoria Bond, was how to loosen up and let the music do the work.  On paper, it’s fairly unremarkable. Set to music, and coming from this long-suffering character, it’s heartbreaking. Against the blunt statements, the music swells gorgeously: the words belie the deep well of emotion in this plainspoken man. It’s perhaps a less radical, and more successful example of a deliberate friction between words and music.

London Road is a verbatim musical by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, meaning that, like a verbatim play, its text is comprised entirely, and solely, of words spoken by interviewees. This musical flies in the face of many of these ‘craft’ rules, and the results are glorious. Its lyrics, being lifted directly (though edited) from informal conversation, have no rhymes at all. The rhythms are quirky and unpredictable, following as they do the natural speech patterns of different individuals. It’s full of trailings-off of thought, awkward sentence constructions, even laughter and sighs. The art of the composer and lyricist here has been to honour this authenticity while subtly shaping it into a song, able to be learnt by singers and even to stick in the minds of the audience. And of course, it serves its dramatic purposes of revealing character through these grammatical imperfections, the repeated words, sentences squeezed into too small a space. Far from being sloppy writing, it gives us enormous insight into a character with lots to say, constrained by circumstances.

Poems versus Lyrics

Poems are not lyrics. Lyrics are not poems. While some poems can be set to music and work brilliantly as a lyric, and some lyrics are so powerful on their own that they can be seen as poetry, the fundamental difference is that poems exist alone and lyrics become whole through music. There is no value judgment here: each form has its own exacting requirements. Lyrics can be dazzling in their complexity, wordplay, ironies, imagery, double-entendres – just as poems can be stark and simple. But a poem is all about the words, and a song is not. Even if you take a song in which the lyric seems to dominate – like “Modern Major General” – it’s the galloping pace set by the music that gives this song its real delight.

Many forms of poetry effect the compression of ideas. The pleasure of reading this poetry  lies in its layers, its resonance, in opening out those ideas one by one, letting them breathe. Much poetry needs thinking-space around each line – even around each word.

A lyric, on the other hand, is beholden to the melody. Its unspooling is set by the pace, rhythm and metre of the music. Like a play, a lyric is coupled to the passage of time. There’s no opportunity, watching a play or listening to a song, to pause, go back, re-read, ponder: you have to keep moving forward. Playwrights and lyricists enlist time to their advantage: it’s a tool we use, like language or imagery, to achieve an effect. We control Time in a way that the poet or novelist cannot: unlike a reader, an audience is captive, only released from the experience when the play is over, when the song has been sung.

‘Singability’ differentiates the successful lyric from the poem, too. The singer must be able to get their mouths around the words within the music’s pace and rhythm, which means the writer paying attention to the juxtaposition of vowels and consonants. If a song ends on a long held note, and the word being sung is ‘breasts’, that means an extended ‘é’ sound (which is manageable, if not ideal), but a messy cluster of ‘sts’ is the last thing we hear. The problem is amplified when sung by a group. Like poets, lyricists enlist sounds for their qualities – hard consonants like ‘k’, ‘t’, ‘p’ have an effect different from the softer ‘s’, ‘w’, ‘m’. But for lyricists it goes beyond the associative to the practical: what vowel will work for an octave leap held over four beats? If you have one word ending with s and the next beginning with s (eg ‘less sense’) is there time, musically, for the singer to separate the words? Will the words be understood?

What lyrics and poems share is an acknowledgement that words are precious, and not to be wasted. With each word we want to push things a little further, be they character revelation, story, or internal shifts. The thesaurus is our friend, not to be abused. While a chorus often consists of the same lines repeated, these may come to mean something new in the light of the lyric’s development, or in being sung by several characters instead of one, or in moving from a major to a minor key, or simply in being reinforced.


I’m a big fan of clever lyrics. From Porter’s “You’re The Top” to Coward’s “Stately Homes of England”,  Meredith Willson’s “Rock City” to Jeffrey Lane’s “Great Big Stuff”, Hart’s “The Lady Is A Tramp”, Sondheim’s “A Little Priest” – they are pure pleasure. In each of these examples, as in all good lyrics, the cleverness is bound up with the characters singing them. The characters might be clever themselves, slyly so in the Hart example, or funny because of their crassness (Lane) or way of expressing themselves (Willson). However if the writing is clever but not authentic to the character, or if it’s self-conscious, pulling the focus from the drama to the writer, then it becomes problematic. Again, we want to avoid hauling the audience out of their suspended disbelief, reminding them that these words are from the pen of a writer and not from the heart of the character.

I had great fun writing the following lyric for Do Good, the premise of which is the anticipated rhyme. The game is amped up, after leading the audience to fill in the blank, by suddenly veering away. There’s an inherent joy in anticipating a rhyme, especially if it’s not what you expected. So the ‘cleverness’ here arises from the situation: competitive characters trying to upstage each other in the creation of a book:

Well if you want people to read and to think,
You must use the very best paper and ink,
The spine must be sturdy, the type nice and big,
And see you devote a whole page to the –

Stork, who’s by far the most elegant bird.
Give him a whole chapter; give him the last –

Thing on your mind should be trotters and beaks.
What kiddies want is a doggie who –

Goes for a walk and is hit by a carriage.
A Roo-mance, with wooing, pursuing and –

Boring! Revolting! No, I want a verse
Where three naughty children set fire to their –


Amongst all these technical demands, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that there is plenty of room for pure pleasure in lyrics. You can get away with disregarding many of the craft principles if there’s enough joy to be had for both audience and performer.

“Spockingbrock’s Tobacco” is a nod to the tongue-twister songs of Victorian music hall. Like many of Do Good’s songs, it’s also an homage to the novelty tunes that started me off on my love for musical theatre. In terms of dramatic action, the singer is deliberately provoking his anti-smoking nemesis, especially when he turns it into a group sing-along. In terms of character revelation, it does its job of revealing an elegant snob. But the real point of it is fun. It speeds up as it progresses, becoming a bit of a highwire act for the performer and a held breath for the audience fearing he won’t make it:

I’ve had the most frustrating day,
I almost cried for Mother.
From one end of the town I walked
And all the way to t’other.
And as I did, I made a stop
In every tobacco shop
With hope in my breast
As I made this request:

Does this shop stock Spockingbrock’s Tobacco?
A pocket-box of Spockingbrock’s Tobacco?
I don’t want socks or stockings
A pox on your bric-a-brac,
But I’ll pay a buck for a big black block
Of Spockingbrock’s Tabac!

Pleasure is what I felt sitting at the top of the stairs aged 12, while Nick and Terry played their freshly-minted songs on our piano. Pleasure is what I feel when a word seems to fall into place from somewhere beyond all my efforts – in spite of them, really. And it’s absolutely what I get from listening to the master songwriters of the theatre, spanning the last century up till the present. No matter what story is being told, no matter what emotional place we’re being taken to, the delight of a good lyric is hard to beat.

[i] Stephen Sondheim in Jody Rosen, ‘The American Revolutionary’, The New York Times Style Magazine, 8 July 2015, Stephen Sondheim in Jody Rosen, ‘The American Revolutionary’, The New York Times Style Magazine, 8 July 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/08/t-magazine/hamilton-lin-manuel-miranda-roots-sondheim.html?_r=0

No comments: