Appassionata

My last post, about the unstoppable compulsion to tinker with old, flawed musicals, ran a little long.  I try to keep these things to about 1000 words.  Still, it seems that I was too brief, because I need to expound upon the process I assume led Lerner & Lane to create the song, She Wasn’t You.

It’s this section that requires explication:

Lane fashioned a passionate ballad for a faithless Regency rake, in 6/4 time, no less, and now it’s given to Harry Connick, Jr. to sing as the 20th Century analyst.  Why would a modern widower sing in 6/4?  Why would he have a lyric like “Why did champagne lose its year for me?”  Who talks like that anymore?  The effect of this revisal is to make Lerner and Lane look like second rate hacks, since 18th Century Edward’s overblown calumny is now put into the mouth of a shrink who sincerely mourns his dead wife.  Good writing becomes bad writing.

Lerner & Lane seized upon the plot’s only opportunity for an I-Love-You Song, sung by one character to another.  N.B., a substantial portion of the musical theatre audiences lives for such moments.  You might want to see to it your show contains an unabashed romantic expression.  The lack of such, I believe, is why Sondheim-composed shows have such limited popularity with the general public.  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever‘s story throws a lot of hurdles in the way of achieving this goal.  Unrequited feelings abound.  So, in the 18th century section, we meet the fellow who was the great love of Melinda’s life.  (Similarly, I found I had to employ a flashback to a time when my characters truly desired each other in Such Good Friends.)

The musical introduction, in Robert Russell Bennett’s fetching orchestration, sounds like a plaintive passage from a string quartet.  Then there are these arpeggios on harpsichord, the last of which is taken freely.  It’s gorgeous, and particularly successful in conveying that we’re in 18th century England.  The singer has a powerful voice and is seemingly singing from the heart.  But, in a way, it’s all too beautiful to be believed.  The listener, like Melinda, gets caught up in a romantic fantasy, only to be later crushed.

Why did each love melt away before?

Heaven above turn to clay before?

She wasn’t you – She wasn’t you.

Why did champagne lose its year for me?

Love’s haunting strain disappear for me?

What could I do?

She wasn’t you.

She wasn’t you, and no vows ever chained me.

No, she wasn’t you, and goodbyes never pained me.

Now I know why each affair always faded so fast!

Only with you was I born to live;

Only to you is the love I give,

Love for as long as a lifetime can last.

Lerner’s lyrics are densely rhymed, with the precision we associate with the poetry of the period.  Lines end in three-syllable rhymes, an unusual thing for a love song to do, but this also gives the sense of Long Ago.  Lane accommodates these by using a rather rare time signature, 6/4; it’s somewhat languorous, imbued with sensual yearning.  The drawn-out nature of passion is further embellished by the surprising triplets in the bridge, the lead-ins to the “chained me/pained me” rhyme.

Lerner & Lane

And don’t you just love how “Why did champagne lose its year for me?” depicts the character’s class?  Lerner’s earlier My Fair Lady dealt with the ardor of an upper-class man for a lower-class girl; Lerner’s earlier Brigadoon featured an impossible relationship between a 20th century American and an 18th century Brit.  In this song, he returns to those themes but brings even more of a lyricist’s expressive tools into play.

I feel terribly guilty commenting on a show I haven’t seen.  Crooner Harry Connick Jr., as a 20th century man of science (typecasting? I think not) is now performing the song on Broadway.  And that bothers me, maybe more than it should, because it seems all the songwriters’ choices I just described must be going to waste.  If Lerner and Lane set out to write about a contemporary widower, they would have gone with different options in musical palette, rhythm, harmony, word choice and rhyming.  That’s what I meant when I said that the repurposing of their songs makes them look like hacks.

I don’t know for certain Lerner and Lane consciously considered all these intricacies.  All I’m saying is: good musical theatre writers, which they certainly were, often think about this stuff.  You should too, if you hope to come up with a ballad as luscious as She Wasn’t You.  And then, years after you’re dead, someone can come along and make you look bad.

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