A thimbleful of good advice

If you’re aware I write these things in advance, then you know that while the holidays are over for you, they’re actually going on as I write this. So I’m not going to come up with my usual thousand words this week. I’ll let Tracy Letts have the floor, and then add a few brief ideas of my own.

Helpful, wasn’t that?

I could never have given that talk, because I don’t have particularly good habits, haven’t figured out any sort of method of getting into the writing zone. There’s no warm-up exercise I turn to again and again.

But I do make lists sometimes. You could say these are lists of things that might go into the lyric. But sometimes they’re lists of rhymes. Or chord progressions. Or jokes.

I was thinking, today, about Sheldon Harnick, whom I consider the greatest lyricist alive. In some of his songs, I get the feeling he started with a list of jokes, turns of phrase, puns and double-meanings. For instance, in his torch song send-up, Garbage, part of the verse is a set of synonyms he could have found in a thesaurus. “You treated me like dirt. Like trash! Flotsam! Jetsam! Refuse…” Then, Harnick gets clever. “Behind my back you called me ‘garbage’ but I stayed calm, cool, and collected.” Seems to me the product of sitting with a pad and thinking of all the things one can say about garbage. And the bridge ends with a pun that, in context, is not a groaner, for the character is so distressed, it seems to be affecting her pronunciation: “You slandered me… Don’t think I wasn’t burned up by your incinerations.”

Another thing I do, sometimes, is ask myself if there’s an antecedent for the song I’m creating. When a book scene had a character waxing romantic about the lass he’s fallen for in the presence of his lawyers who are warning him about his dire financial state, it reminded me of the duet, To Look Upon My Love, from Kean. Now, I tweaked that idea considerably, bringing in the rival for the woman’s affection and not having the lawyers sing, but it helped to look at how something vaguely similar had been done before. And yes, I know To Look Upon My Love is a very obscure show tune: It helps to know really obscure show tunes.

I like to improvise within a pre-chosen harmonic palette.  Given the setting of the show and the mood of the scene, I’m bound to have a few ideas of what chord sequences I’m likely to utilize. So occasionally I’ll go to the piano and just play chords, and this leads to tune ideas.

Pure conjecture, and probably fantasy on my part, but since it’s part of the annual musical theatre history lecture I give I’ll mention it here: In preparing to write Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, where the show is set, to soak up the musical landscape. I picture him returning from the trip and remembering he’d heard a slowly alternating A-minor sixth chord and B-minor sixth chords. So maybe he went to the piano and played them slowly on half notes. Do that long enough, and, sooner or later the first line of Summertime is going to seem inevitable.

One last suggestion, and you may have heard it before: Raid the libretto. All sorts of dialogue in the book scene or source material would potentially work as a song title or just part of a lyric. Dale Wasserman came up with six words that he intended to have spoken, the credo of Don Quixote. Lyricist Joe Darion songified them, “To dream the impossible dream” and added a dozen matching phrases. The song became so popular, Wasserman regretted he’d ever written the phrase. But this is probably because he’s not paid royalties every time the song is played.


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