Standing by the cooler

Some of the heaps of praise I got for Things We Do For Love may have been the wrong kind of praise. To my surprise and somewhat temporary delight, many extolled the wordplay in my lyrics. And that’s very nice, but it may have outed me as an outlier.

You see, the use of rhyme that tickles the audience is now considered terribly passé, and I think this is rather unfortunate. Partly, lyric-writing that’s so clever it calls attention to itself has gone out of style because the masters of this craft thrived in a long bygone era. Roughly, the rhyme-for-pleasure craze began around 1925 with Lorenz Hart and dissipated, a bit, around the time Oklahoma! (1943) showed the world that well-constructed drama was more important to a show’s success than a lyricist’s cleverness. That same year, Ogden Nash wrote a musical in which the wordplay in the songs is the chief source of entertainment. It’s called One Touch of Venus and hardly anybody knows about it. (Oklahoma! we know.)

So, we tend to associate word wizardry with 1930’s wits: Hart, Harburg, Ira Gershwin, and others. Audiences seem to be conscious, nowadays, that they’re taking pleasure in something our grandparents took pleasure in. Shows seeking to feel contemporary often eschew this old-timey kind of enjoyment. Or maybe the lyricists just can’t hack it.

It also may be a matter of taste and appropriateness. Certainly, if you’re writing a musical about a brutal murder, that dazzling couplet’s going to seem out of place. But you’ve got to ask yourself: “Why are you writing a musical about a brutal murder?”

Rodgers once said Hart “didn’t know how not to be clever.” I’ve worried, time and again, that my verbal facility is making my shows feel decidedly musty. And yet I got the impression from the audience at Things We Do For Love that they really miss this kind of writing in the theatre they attend.

One guy – a science teacher – specifically complimented me on my apocopated rhymes. He didn’t use that term, of course. It’s a word I never would have known had I not read Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics On Several Occasions. In my view, this book is the first, and best, example of a first-rate lyricist explaining his craft. In an apocopated rhyme, one of the rhyming pairs is part of a word that continues. Ira wrote “If we’ve no butler, I’ll put the cutlery on the table” and that makes me smile. The apocopated rhyme of mine the teacher mentioned, “to share a meal, to share a feeling” comes from a poignant part of one of my songs. So, with my relentless self-critical bent, I wonder if showy dexterity was the right thing for that moment.

Another song in the show is full of this sort of thing. Written, melody first, as the opening number for a Second City comedy revue, the tune’s full of three-line stanzas in which the final line is a little longer than the first two. I decided it would be fun, and fresh, to rhyme the first line with the accented note in the middle of the third. The melody’s an earworm, catchy as anything I’ve ever written, and the listener quickly learns where the rhyme is going to fall. So, I played with that anticipation by rhyming the first syllable of multi-syllabic words here and there:

I need somebody who’s boss

Somebody who’s short

Some help with the crossword puzzle

I need somebody to flirt

Someone to caress

Somebody who’s thirty-seven

I need someone who is glam

Somebody to crush

Someone to sell Amway products

I should point out each line is sung by a different character, and that much of the song is far too obscene to post here. But it’s a number in which internal rhyming is not inappropriate. And do I get away with the ones near the end of each chorus of “How Could They Have Missed?” You tell me.

(Taking in the view,/all I see is beautiful and Those you left behind/were knocked out by the blinding view)

The showiest one in the show is properly ensconced in a patter song: “End your timidity!/Heaven forbid it evolves into something heated.” Barely saw that going by, did you?

There’s a conflict between the advice, “Listen to your audience” and the notion that praise can send one in the wrong direction. It’s a curious paradox: if I listen to people’s raves re rhyme I’d be led to create the sort of show that’s deemed hopelessly out-of-date by the theatre world’s powers-that-be.


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