Never take your eye off the highway

Call ‘em mantras, if you must, but during this present period of productivity there are certain phrases I say to myself over and over:

The more specific, the more universal.

My director uttered this phrase in our first conversation, which signaled me that I’d picked the right one. Rather than wasting time worrying that no audience will ever relate to the tale you want to tell, get particular about details, and excise anything that’s generic. When we criticize a super-successful writer, like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Alan Menken, “generic” might be used as an insult. But it’s foolish to draw the conclusion that writing generically will lead to applause from the masses. I think it’s all a crap shoot, and Lloyd Webber has been crapping out for twenty years.

Also, the more specific, the funnier.

There’s a whole bunch of stand-up comedians who get gales of laughter from talking about their lives in precise anecdotes. A friend of mine produced an off-Broadway show that consisted of one funnyman talking about his experiences, and the title always struck me as particularly wise: Only the Truth Is Funny. When I studied improv, the text we all bought and bought into was called Truth In Comedy. Sometimes it seems that humor is not a matter of writing jokes, but finding hysterical things that dwell in the details.

Here’s an example from my work. When I was writing the show that was also my wedding to Joy Dewing, I blew away the usual solemnity by having the four bridesmaids sing wedding night advice for Joy. One of the biggest punch-lines was so obvious, you could have read it on the wedding invitation:

I know you’ll be like acrobats
On your wedding night
And find out the true meaning of Dewing-Katz
On your wedding night

That didn’t involve thinking up a pun (as staged, it was a triple-entendre); it was just there. (Of course, had I married someone not named Dewing it wouldn’t be, but don’t believe those rumors I proposed just for the play on words.)

Let the spewer spew before the editor edits.

I think I’ve talked about this before, but not in a long while. The creative mind has two parts, one that spits out a zillion notions, words, tunes, concepts; one that limits, that says “that’s not very good” or “not worth sharing.” I have this tendency to come up with all sorts of reasons an idea can’t work. I must shove that aside while the outpouring of ideas is bursting out like an open hydrant. Get creative output down on paper; there will be plenty of time to edit later.

Don’t be ruled by rhyme

In lyrics, and not in life, you hear the phrase “on the shelf” an awful lot. The word “strife” is used far more often. That’s because the need to rhyme too often boxes lyricists into a corner. They want to use “self” or “life” or “wife” and there’s a limited number of words ending in an f sound. You need to tell the story, to express what the character is feeling, and if you use a word just because it rhymes, you’re in danger of getting off track. William Finn does this all the time – “easier than the recipe for making Jello” – and, charmingly, once had a character call himself out on it. (“Biblical times?”)

We have to use rhymes with some regularity, they can’t be false, but they also can’t be forced. I’ve a heretofore unused three-syllable rhyme staring at me, now, from my notebook, and the limiting editor side of me isn’t so sure the song can stand such cleverness. When I teach people to improvise songs, I point out that, when we speak, we’ve the entire dictionary of our vocabularies to pull from. If we’re rhyming, we can only pull from the specific column in Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary, and some sounds have damn few entries.

All this reminds me of a parody of But Not For Me I wrote in my teens:

As Linda Ronstadt says
To Jer, the Gov
Say, Jer, don’t run for Pres
Just take my love

So that particular column isn’t as small as you might first think.


Don’t get stuck in eight-bar phrases of four beats each

My love of order and structure is such that it can be very hard for me to get out of this four-square thinking. But, in life, people’s thoughts are rarely so ordered that they come out evenly. Your character, most likely, isn’t reciting some speech they’ve carefully written and memorized in advance. Last night in a cabaret I played Cy Coleman’s Lost and Found, which has two bridges, of different lengths. The second one’s the big surprise, as it’s truncated. On the words, “teasing lips, pleasing thighs” it rises to a new harmonic place, as many bridges do. The next line has the same shape, “easy on private eyes,” but the listener doesn’t realize, right away, that this is starting the final A section.



Go someplace.

Harmonically and textually. If the action of your play is in the same place it was before you started the song, there was no reason to sing it.

Don’t think I’ve the time to explain the musical sense of traveling, but boy, a lot of the contemporary songs placed in front of me stay exactly in the same place. Many of today’s young writers, with extensive followings, seem wholly unaware of the concept. And so we get a lot of overly verbose lyrics, set on uninteresting snatches of tune that repeat and repeat in my ear. Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win.


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