Feels like I’ve been arguing a lot lately. You know the kind: on the internet, in newsgroups and Facebook threads. It’s been stuff I’m fairly passionate about (of course). I never resorted to name-calling and didn’t bring up Hitler. (Did others? Guess!) At one point, a conservative friend said I’d changed his mind – How often does that happen? It’s enough to make a fighter forget he has a blog.
Because here the views expressed are rarely argued with. Not that that’s a good thing. You’re welcome to rebut in the comments section. (I’ve never deleted a comment.) I’m not bringing up politics, I assure you, but my spate of debate started with some newsgroup writers’ insistance that there’s a good reason to use false rhymes in musicals. Then. after the horrible school shooting, I found myself debating gun ownership advocates. Finally, just when it looked safe to go back in the water, a guy I know started comparing the Sandy Hook victims to aborted fetuses, thrusting me into a discussion so unpleasant I longed for the day I could return to the deathless but death-free topic of the correct way to rhyme.
Oh, happy day: you’re finally here! Here are the reasons every good musical theatre writer uses perfect rhymes. Just so you know, the moment you let a false rhyme into your score, you’ve opened Pandora’s box, and you don’t get any of the good stuff that comes from rhyming perfectly.
Something I find myself saying over and over again – and it’s not true of pop songs – is that songs in the theatre must work their magic on first hearing. People have paid a great deal of money to see a show on stage; they want – and deserve – to “get it” then and there. If they only understand your lyrics after they’ve listened to a recording multiple times, perhaps with a dictionary in hand, you’ve failed. A pop song is just the opposite: you often get several listens while it grows on you. And that’s fine in the pop world. We in the theatre don’t have that luxury.
Good rhyming gives pleasure; bad rhyming makes me wince, and gives a physical pain not unlike fingernails on a blackboard. Now maybe I’m an odd duck. Or an old duck, insisting on things being done as they were in the good old days. But, unless you’re certain you’re playing for an audience of young ducks who’ve never heard a good musical before, you’re running the risk that there’s someone like me in the audience.
Good rhymes tickle the funny bone. There’s a Sondheim song about a woman who divides her time between high society and low-brow Bohemia. Its bridge makes me gasp with delight:
She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s
And starts to pine for a stein with her Village chums
But with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s bar
She thinks of the Ritz. Oh, it’s so schizo.
Imperfect rhymes fail to produce mirth, like this couplet from Spamalot: “This is one unhappy diva/The producers have deceived her.”
If a perfect rhyme is a thing of beauty, than a bad rhyme is a thing of ugly, no?
So, a new musical hits the stage, which means roughly two hours of previously unheard songs are hitting the audience’s ears. Help them out, for God’s sake, with the ultimate aid to comprehension, perfect rhyming…
When you hear the first half of what you know is going to be a rhyme, your mind automatically goes through possible words that might complete it, and, so you only really need to listen to the first consonant of the rhyme, if that.
I asked out a girl
I thought was groovy.
I thought I’d take her
To a m–
The moment “M” forms on the singer’s lips, we know the next word is “movie”. And once we know this, we don’t have to listen so hard. During the time that’s filled by “ovie” we can sit back and relax. The ear gets a break.
Once you use an imperfect rhyme, or don’t continue a rhyme scheme you’ve started, all that aid-to-comprehension stuff flies out the window.
I asked her name
And she said “Jill”
And then I asked her to a film.
The ear got no break here. I hear that “F” and I’ve no idea what follows. “Filling station? Why would he take her to a filling station? Or a “filbert shelling plant” – seems mighty unlikely. Maybe he’s taking her to a philodendron garden – that must be it. Oh, a film. That doesn’t rhyme. No pleasure of a good rhyme. No time off from thinking. And my previous thoughts were for naught.
And there’s another by-product to bad rhyming: the character singing sounds stupid. Honestly, I thought every character in American Idiot WAS an idiot. Of course, the trouble there is that none of those songs was meant to be heard in a Broadway theatre, but that’s a different blog entry.
The completion of a rhyme is like punctuation at the end of a sentence. It tells you to pay attention, to stop and consider what’s just been said. Using false rhymes is a little like talking in run-on sentences, sans cadence, sans comprehensibility.
In those golden years when most of the great musicals were written (the two dozen or so beginning with Oklahoma! In 1943) no self-respecting lyricist would have even entertained the thought of using a false rhyme. I aspire to be like Loesser, Lerner, Sondheim, Porter, Fields, Berlin, I. Gershwin, Dietz, Rome, Comden & Green, Leigh, Ebb, Maltby, Carnelia, Zippel and the four whose names begin with Ha- Hart, Harburg, Hammerstein and Harnick. You’d rather write like Steven Sater or Bill Russell, be my guest. Just don’t invite me to your shows. Deal?