When I was sixteen, I played a song I’d written for a musical-for-children for my composition teacher. It contained the line,
If you will kindly listen
To your beloved misanthrope,
I’ll tell you what we’ll do
Joe was rather tickled by it, but said “You can’t use a word like misanthrope in a song for kids. But that rhyme is so delicious, well, I guess you have to keep it.”
Keep it I did.
But it started me thinking about vocabulary that isn’t understood by the audience. Obsessively, over the years. In college, I wrote a show and used the phrase “de trop.” I only knew this bit of French because Cole Porter had used it. (He intentionally mispronounced it to create a humorous rhyme for “You’re the Top.”) My mother, who majored in French in college, scoffed. Today, I can’t remember what “de trop” means – it’s not part of my vocabulary. I better look that up.
Where was I? Oh, yes: my de trop obsession about lyrics that contain words or concepts the audience isn’t immediately able to grasp. In a recent post, I ragged on a certain egghead writer for using précis, reticule and bathysphere. When a musical is being performed, the audience has so much to see, so much new information to take in. The last thing you want is for them to be scratching their heads, wondering what was just said, while you’ve moved on to providing them with the next entertaining tidbit.
Today, in a cabaret, I’m playing a song from a musical-for-children, Be Prepared. Tim Rice and Elton John wrote it for the Disney film, The Lion King. It’s fully and amusingly choreographed, but, rehearsing it, I’ve had way too much time to think about Rice’s words which kids – hell, human beings of any age – can’t possibly understand.
The very first rhyme isn’t a rhyme at all, it’s an identity.
I know that your powers of retention
Are as wet as a warthog’s backside
But thick as you are, pay attention
An identity is a pair of words that end with the same stressed syllables. It indicates a lyricist is being lazy: he wants a rhyme, but all he’s got is a repeated sound, so he’s missed out on all the good things a good rhyme can do for you.
It’s clear from your vacant expressions
The lights are not all on upstairs
This might work were it not for the fact that it’s a lion talking to hyenas. What do lions know of stairs? Why would the concept of a light being on exist in a world without light switches?
I know it sounds sordid
But you’ll be rewarded
When at last I am given my dues
And injustice deliciously squared
What the hell is “sordid” doing in a song for children? Here, Rice wants the rhyme, but it’s not worth doing if your audience needs to run for a dictionary. And do we want children to understand the definition of sordid? Just as we’re scratching our heads over that one, comes “injustice deliciously squared” so I guess children now have to run to a math textbook as well as a dictionary. We who’ve learned enough math to be familiar with squaring might not grasp what he means here. Scar, the evil lion, says he wants injustice? Already that’s odd, but applying the adverb “deliciously” to “squared” is positively rococo.
The guy who’s doing the song today has been diligently working on his diction, and it’s part of my job to correct him here and there. But I find “quid pro quo” impossible to pronounce, given the rhythm and speed Elton John has proscribed for those words. And how old was I before I knew what that meant? (In order to learn it I had to teach someone some Latin in return.)
So prepare for the coup of the century
Be prepared for the murkiest scam
Decades of denial
Is simply why I’ll
Be king undisputed
And seen for the wonder I am
Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared
Again, in combination with Elton John’s music, this is totally incomprehensible. (And without the music, it’s not exactly the picture of clarity.) The rhyme and the cadence seem to indicate that “tenacity spanning” is one phrase, one that we’re supposed to understand without taking in the words surrounding it. Then, to make matters worse, “decades” is misaccented, as if the writers think there’s some beauty in having two unstressed “de-” sounds starting off two words in the same line.
And I’m not sure why the lion is telling us his ambitions are bared.
But Noel, some of you are saying, The Lion King is a phenomenally successful children’s entertainment. Rice and John have a slew of Grammies, Oscars and Tonys. The song is loved by millions.
True. But the success of The Lion King has to do with a variety of factors beyond the quality of its songwriting. There’s the animation, the story, the voice-actors, the huge marketing ability of the Disney studio. I’m not an animator or a marketer: I can only discuss the craft of fashioning a musical. But yes, I’ll admit it steams me that Tim Rice gets away with this crap, under the supposedly watchful eye of Disney, while I barely got away with “misanthrope.”
But they got the Oscar for Best Song, for another song from The Lion King, one that contains the line,
Stealing through the night’s uncertainties
Love is where they are
Don’t get me started on that one.