Shall I drift away with the sea?

Six months ago, I stated the reasons theatre lyricists must employ perfect rhymes.  Last week I sat across a table from a songwriter who defended the use of false rhymes to me, saying there are times when a theatre song needs to sound like a pop song.  And now I’m trying to imagine the situation in which a song with false rhymes would be preferable.  I suppose if you had characters on a road trip run out of gas, and they walk into a scary gas station mini-mart, and you successfully set up that the attendant is a crazed murderer, and the air is so full of foreboding, nobody in the theatre is going to notice what sort of hillbilly music is playing on the radio…

The theatre is a place where people pay attention to the lyrics.  But in the scene I just described, they wouldn’t be.  So, go ahead and go sloppy.  If you’ve made every element of a scene so fascinating, you’re absolutely sure the words of a song aren’t going to be heard, feel free to slip in a home/phone rhyme.  But if you haven’t done that, then you’re just lazy.  And deep down you know you’re lazy, and whatever excuse you’ve conjured up for yourself as to why you’re rhyming badly is just that – a paltry excuse.

Look, I know writing musicals is hard.  I understand the impulse to make it easier.  I also understand that musicals sail off like leaky vessels.  You’ve got to plug up all sorts of holes that threaten to sink the thing.  None are perfect, but the writer must be a perfectionist.  The more minor flaws you let by, the more the audience is likely to think the whole thing is flawed, too leaky to enjoy.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t consider imperfect rhyming a minor flaw.

Because it’s a stupid flaw, one that could have been easily avoided.  A minor flaw is when you’ve written a joke that makes a character seem callous, and you need them to be lovable.  And all along you thought you had a fine joke, but it took getting the entire piece in front of an audience to reveal how it’s truly going over.  Replace the joke; plug that leak.  Move on.

Five weeks ago, prior to the Tonys, a writer I very much admire named Jaime Weinman wrote, in Maclean’s, about this issue.  He wonders whether the Broadway musical has changed, at the end of a season full of not-quite-rhymes. So I’ll acknowledge something: in recent years, shows have succeeded despite atrocious rhyming.  The Book of Mormon, for one, is a phenomenon because it delivers an unusually high quantity of seriously funny jokes, coming at you every few seconds. Imagine laughing so hard, your body isn’t bothered by the sound of fingernails scraped across a blackboard.  Well, that was my experience at the show: As I’ve long said, false rhymes are fingernails on a blackboard to me.

But every show that succeeds despite its live mine of nigh rhyme (see how annoying that is?) has some other factor propelling it forward.  You chug forward fast enough, a small hole in the bow won’t sink you, and if you compensate with children dancing or some other impressive spectacle, the customers are more likely to remember that than your shortcoming.

The great musicals of the past, of course, (as well as the higher quality musicals of today) used perfect rhymes.  Audiences unfamiliar with their stories took in all this previously-unheard music, lyrics, dialogue and story, and apprehended it with glee. Good rhyme, ultimately, aids comprehension; it helps the ear. The false rhyme crowd isn’t giving their audience any help.  To my mind, they don’t respect the audience.

And where were they, as children, the day they taught the tale of the three little pigs?  It’s harder to build a house of bricks than a house of straw, but only one is going to stand up to the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf.

Also known as the critic for the Times.


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