So, as I sat down to write this seasonal discussion of love songs, my wife was on the fourth day of a five-day business trip, one of many she must take in the coming months. Listening to, and thinking about, great love songs I was moved to tears on more than one occasion. Far more frequently than most people, I’m at the verge of weeping: This may be a good thing, in terms of being in touch with the sorts of emotions I often write songs about.
Love song writing, like love letter writing, seems a lost art. When couples choose the song for their first dance at their wedding, they don’t tend to pick things written over the last thirty years. Chances are it’s a ballad written between 1925 and 1957 (maybe it’s Chances Are). What’s been up since 1957? The rock era, of course. Don’t rockers ever want to get romantic?
One thing that happened was a generational shift. Rock’s appeal was linked to capturing the raw power of (often angry) young people’s emotions. In a way, love ballads seemed the stuff of a previous generation. The great songwriters of that generation: Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart (and then Hammerstein), Irving Berlin, etc. all wrote rapturous tunes that continue to be embraced and appreciated. The rockers, to a certain extent, were driven by a market that thought of tender sentiments as old-fashioned. And, starting with The Beatles, the majority of Top 40 Hits came from singers who also wrote their songs. Which meant that they had to be good at two different skills. I can’t think of a single singer-songwriter who crafted love ballads the way the aforementioned masters did, but those old guys didn’t have to sing and sell records.
Great musicals, with very few exceptions, involve romance. You’re going to have to write songs that communicate love, at some point. The ultimate goal is to make the listener feel something akin to what the character being sung to is feeling. Show-writers have a secret weapon: they’re sculpting material for characters in a situation. This gives you a set of images and ideas to hang your lyric on. For instance, Ira Gershwin wrote They Can’t Take That Away For Me knowing Fred Astaire would sing it to Ginger Rogers.
The way you wear your hat speaks for itself: She’s just adorable in a chapeau.
The way we danced till three Exactly the sort of romantic activity one associates with Fred and Ginger
The way you sing off key This is more inspired by Fred than Ginger. His on-screen persona was always that of one who razzes women he was fond of, deep down inside.
Another thing that happened more commonly before the mid-fifties than after is that musical theatre writers, hoping to get a hit song out of their scores, would strive for a certain universality, an expression that could be felt by everybody. In a way, they were servants of two masters: Were they writing precisely for character and situation, or were they writing the extractable ditty that would be enjoyed outside of the context of the show? One of favorite duets, Namely You, is so wedded to the way these two characters talk, that one can’t imagine Sinatra or any pop crooner singing it. And that makes me love it all the more. (song begins around 1:23)
Eight years ago, I faced the ultimate challenge: to write a love song that my bride and I would sing at our wedding (which was a musical). Of course, I was intimately aware of Joy’s admirable qualities, so that inspired what I sang to her. In what has to be seen as the ultimate act of egotism, I also had to figure out what Joy could possibly sing about me. I don’t think that highly of myself, certainly not as highly as she thinks of me, but, from my experience writing musicals, I was used to putting myself into the minds of characters. Plus, any words I put into Joy’s mouth, she had to approve; in that way, it was a collaboration.
The thing I’m proudest about here is that How Could They Have Missed is a fairly original idea for a love song. Knowing that we’d have an ex-lover or two in our audience inspired me to acknowledge the fact (and call them idiots). And I don’t think they minded one bit.
Crass commercialism: you can click on the Playbill at the bottom of the column at the right to purchase Our Wedding – The Musical for a mere $20, including postage. Sorry about the sales pitch, but Valentine’s Day is the holiday that turns love into a money-making enterprise.