I’m late to the party (or wake) in the wake of the passing of 91-year-old lyricist Hal David. Upon hearing the news, I rashly decided I wouldn’t write about him, because he’d only written one musical, and I didn’t think he was all that good. Then came the usual outpouring of sentiment on Facebook, and one songwriter friend just quoted a bunch of lines from his lyrics:
I’ve heard some talk. They say you think I’m fine.
I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you.
Throw a little joy my way.
Sometimes your eyes look blue to me although I know they’re really green
A chair is still a chair even when there’s no one sitting there.
Without true love we just exist.
Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left.
Go while the going is good.
The blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me.
Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found my heart.
And this got me to thinking: there really are a lot of Hal David lyrics I really admire.
David’s was a star that shone brightly for just a few years. Incredibly successful, but not for all that long. And the hits came with composer Burt Bacharach, who was then and now a huge influence on me. What I love most about these songs is the set of jaunty jazzy harmonies in the music, but along with that came quite a number of jagged rhythms. And you have to be some sort of a genius to put words to such oddities that will somehow be singable, and sensible. Now, David’s lyrics didn’t always make sense to me, but now that I consider the Sisyphean task of matching Bacharach’s music, well, it’s something of a miracle they made sense as often as they did.
And I’m a theatre writer: that my lyrics make sense is of paramount importance to me. In order to have a pop hit, like Bacharach and David did in such high quantity, sense is less important. Here’s one of my favorites of theirs:
There’s a sale on happiness:
You buy two, and it costs less.
Can we be living in a world made of paper mache?
Everything is clean and so neat.
Anything that’s wrong can be just swept away.
Spray it with cologne, and the whole world smells sweet.
At times, I fantasize I’m a jazz pianist, improvising away, with no regard for such mundane concerns as voice leading. I imagine Bacharach noodled, in the key of C, a melody that’s just great on piano but is desperately hard to sing. Now, if you don’t know about voice leading, well, I pity the singers who have to sing your songs. The human voice can only do so much with wide and unusual intervals. It’s just not fair to ask a singer to jump more than an octave, and then to go right back down more than an octave: it’s like a roller coaster ride for the voice, but one that safety inspectors would declare far too dangerous for human consumption. On piano, without singing, take a good look at the end of Alfie. OK, I just did that, and see it’s not nearly as hard as I’m describing, but it’s hard, man. And the performer’s voice gets a salve (and a save) from Hal David. The peaks and valleys of that odd melody manage to sound something close to natural due to these words:
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
Now that we’re considering what it must be like to have one’s worth co-exist with some really attention-grabbing music, what about an attention-grabbing script? Neil Simon’s book for the musicalization of The Apartment, Promises Promises, is less like a musical and more like a stand-up comedy act. A corporate schnook addresses the audience, and the things he has to say are really, really funny. And then it’s time for a song. To be the lyricist in that situation is very difficult, especially if comedy songs are not your forte and you’ve never written musical theatre before. I don’t think David’s lyrics to the show are nearly as good as his collaborators’ contributions, but they’re not so bad they stopped the show from being a huge hit. He did a decent job at something that must have been extremely challenging.
The origin of that project is a tale worth telling. Neil Simon had had hit after hit on Broadway, and gets a call from infamous producer David Merrick inviting him to lunch. Everyone who knew Simon told him to stay away, but the good doctor felt there was no harm in just having a meal with the mustached man. Merrick was surprisingly charming, and when he got to business, he said “What if I got the rights to do The Apartment as a musical, who would you want to write it with?” And Simon thought to himself “There’s no way David Merrick will ever get the rights to The Apartment; it’s an Academy Award-winning picture, and the studio will never let it be put on the stage.” (How times were different then.) Pressed for an answer, Simon blurted out “Burt Bacharach and Hal David” who, at the time, had several songs on the Top 40. They were at the height of their popularity, and Simon knew there was no way they’d leave the lucrative film scoring work to waste time on a stage musical. He might as well have named Mozart, there was no way Merrick was going to get them. Except Merrick did, and then Simon had to go through with it, and that’s how a hit show was born.
Today, we often say, rather reflexively, that musicals based on movies are always bad ideas. It’s only true if you have no sense of history, like most people today.
Something I can remember from many years ago is when the city of Los Angeles was suffering from sort of inferiority complex: There were many great songs about New York, a couple of really good ones about Chicago, and of course New Orleans. L.A. seemed the unsung city. So they held all sorts of contests, and tried to interest top songsmiths in writing about the place. Randy Newman wrote a spoof, which contains the brilliant line “It’s got Century Boulevard.” Century Boulevard, which leads to the airport, has no particularly character at all. Compare “On State Street, that great street” in the song about Chicago. But the real reason nobody could come up with a song that really captured Los Angeles is that Hal David (with Bacharach) had already done it, in a song with a different California city in its title. What lines sum up the place better than these?
L.A. is a great big freeway.
Put a hundred down and buy a car.
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years; how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas.
Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, that’s good. Rest in peace, Hal David.