An old showtune I find myself singing just about every day is Rodgers and Hart’s You Mustn’t Kick It Around from Pal Joey. And I’m reminded of a story (or two) concerning songwriters’ process.
When lyricist-librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were writing their first musical, On the Town they had, in composer Leonard Bernstein, a famously peripatetic partner. When they started crafting a duet that they, themselves, would end up performing, Bernstein was off conducting somewhere, for conducting was his primary career. So, with no melody to write words to, they decided to write words to a Richard Rodgers melody, with the idea that Lenny could set them later.
The tune they used was You Mustn’t Kick It Around
and the words they wrote were:
I try hard to stay controlled
But I get carried away
Try to act aloof and cold
But I get carried away
Bernstein set this in emphatic mock-classical style. He extends the time given to the title, and then repeats it as a refrain with overlapping lines, as one might find in certain operas. (Compare None Shall Part Us from Iolanthe.) All of this serves to play up the hysterical personalities of the two characters, and it results in a great comedy song, a very far cry from You Mustn’t Kick It Around.
at 3:30 Comden & Green sing Carried Away
I had occasion to tell this story while working on The New U. This was an unusually collaborative experience in which four or five writers would pitch in and fill various roles on different scenes: script, music and lyrics. (One, last year, won a major prize for humor writing.) Stephen Gee wanted to write a song with me about the unsavory diner two blocks from our theatre. He admitted he knew too little about musical form, so I suggested that he take an existing song, write a completely new lyric to it, avoid telling me the name of the tune, and that would give us a start. I pointed out that this is how things usually worked in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaboration. Though Rodgers nearly always had to provide music first for Hart, Hammerstein was more comfortable handing him a completed lyric. Yet Hammerstein was using other people’s tunes to shape his lyrics-first contributions.
So Steve took Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Do-Re-Mi, and replaced “Doe, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun” with the lines,
Every time we hear the news
Something’s different than before
Did the music I composed to this resemble Rodgers’ didactic ditty? It couldn’t be any further afield. I was inspired by the unsettled nature of the expressed emotion to write something in the unusual time signature, 7/4, that, harmonically, takes its sweet time to reach a resolution. Steve was shocked, pleasantly, that I’d come up with something so different.
For the chorus, Steve used a different song, a smart move, since the verse and refrain need to contrast in form and feel. He took You Are My Sunshine, and, realizing there was no requirement to use both syllables of “sunshine,” came up with
Let’s go to Tom’s
It ain’t like Mom’s
It’s old and greasy
But we don’t care
The fries are wilted
The tables, tilted
If you’re hearing You Are My Sunshine as you’re reading the lyric, it might strike you that the information is coming at you a little too slowly. At least that’s how it struck me, leading me to write a very quick boogie-woogie that starts on the (flat) seventh of the scale. And then the boogie-woogie led to another idea, that three waitresses recite the soups of the day in Andrews Sisters-esque harmony. The lyrics, there, are my own. Once Steve had started me off, with the first two sections of the song, he was happy to let me finish the lyric, culminating in a shared credit for us as lyricists. The one thing he asked was to include the information that the chandeliers had recently been replaced.
When the song was later re-used in Spilt Milk, the opening lines had to be changed to fit that show. So, in the recording, you’ll hear the 7/4 strain on different words.
As luck would have it, a classmate of mine, at precisely the same time, without being aware of the Gee-Katz number, had the idea of writing a song about exactly the same place.
Suzanne Vega’s take on Tom’s Diner was an international sensation, a number one hit in many countries, and unbelievably catchy. But tourists snap pictures of the greasy spoon’s exterior for a different – and, if you’ll pardon me, entirely stupid – reason. One morning in 1990, the second unit of a television production company spent a few minutes taking the same shot and this was then used as the establishing shot for the diner in Seinfeld. None of the stars went there; the director wasn’t present for the shoot, no scene was ever filmed there. But that’s the magic of television for you: people are such rabid fans of the show, they’ll indulge in the fiction that they’ve gone someplace important or interesting when they visit Tom’s. Some even eat there. Which is why I chose the word “rabid.”