It was time to shake it up a bit.

I’d written songs that followed strict structures for The Music Playing, just like I usually do. My last post detailed how songwriting choices can be guided by formal elements. But often, during the writing of The Music Playing, I had an impulse to do things differently than my usual modus operandi. I always want my new shows to be as different as possible from my many previous shows, and a change in methodology might ensure I do just that.

Many years ago, working on On the Brink, I’d come up with all sorts of strict-format numbers, a fact that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the director/performer Stephen Gee. Late in the writing period, I sketched out a lyric, wrote music to the chorus, and, letting him in on what I had so far, improvised music to the verses, which, at that point, contained no structure in common. Not a rhyme scheme, or a metrical scheme: they merely used the name Washington in the first line. Before Steve could react to what I’d just played, I assured him that I’d clean up the verses, and make them all match. “Don’t you dare!” he blurted. He liked the fact that they rambled, sans schemes. And that departure from my usual way of doing things led to what I consider my best song, Madison Avenue Is Calling Me.

But back to 2014: Here’s what I knew before I started the lyric to Blue Caribbean:

The song didn’t need to convey much information. It was just a chance to show my two characters enjoying a vacation, enjoying each other, childless and carefree. It would need to be sexy – in the tradition of many musical comedy numbers where the singing of a duet in a stand-in for sex – and conclude with a sensual dance getting interrupted by a phone call. It would need to be evocative: In a movie, one could show images of the area’s physical beauty; this song would need to depict the place with music and lyrics. Generally, we’d need to see the characters relating to each other effectively, affectionately, without the subsurface tension that would be in much of the rest of the play.

So, with that in mind, I set about creating a lyric that wouldn’t lean on meter. Where the lines could be of jagged lengths. And I thought it might be nice, for a change, to minimize the use of rhyme. I began:

In the blue Caribbean
All your care is left behind
All your usual anxieties
Out of sight, out of mind

There’s a rhyme there, but it’s four different lines, when you look at the metrical feet. (And here you might think of looking at feet, in flip-flops, at the end of a beach chair.)

“Out of sight, out of mind” suggested a pair of rhythms that would match each other. Which got me to thinking of similar pairs. I came up with “Simmer down; simmer off,” I think, because they kept the repetition of the first two syllables. Might have use for that somewhere.

Next, I thought about how to make this into a playful dialogue:

It’s so blue (What?) The Caribbean

This would use the two words of my title, but it was hard to justify why someone would ask “What?” at that point. And how, in composing, would I deal with the extra syllables? In thinking about the stresses of my words, it struck me that people pronounce the proper noun in two different ways – CaribBEan and CaRIBbean. This led me to use the discrepancy as the topic of a meaningless and mild argument. One pronounces it one way, the other, the other.

And – wouldn’t you know it? – my desire to use rhyme sparingly led me to come up with a clever rhyme I’ve never heard anywhere else before, which is a pretty irresistible realization:

You can share significant time with a starfish
Or swirl in a whirlpool till you’re feeling barfish

Now, I wasn’t confident anybody would appreciate this rhyme other than me. But, once I knew rhyme wasn’t being overused, I felt I could go for a three-syllable rhyme in some key location, like the end of the bridge. So, my entire bridge became:

Simmer down; simmer off
But do your simmering
Where the blue is shimmering

I liked that quite a bit because the use of “blue” as a noun is justified by the context. With a bridge containing so few syllables, I’d need to sustain notes, and I’d slipped in a singable internal rhyme with “do” and “blue.”

At the bottom of my first page of lyrical notes, I wrote a set of chord symbols – Gmaj9 C6/9 Gmaj9 G#m7/C# C#7. But when it became time to come up with the tune, I completely forgot those existed. In fact, there were all kinds of melodic and harmonic sketches that I’d forgotten about by the time I felt I had enough lyric to start on the music. In order to hit the right mood, I knew I wanted to use a Jobim-like sexy Latin dance rhythm, nothing too energetic. And it might add to the hypnotic nature of the thing if I could repeat a set of chords. There’s a chord progression in a love song I wrote about 15 years ago that I always thought was cool: in the key of C, a high E is sustained while the accompaniment goes from an F# Minor seventh with a flat fifth to an F Minor plus major seventh. I wanted to do something like that, but not exactly that, and so came up with this quartet of chords, also in C:

Cmaj7, Bbmaj7/C, F#m7-5, Fm7

One chord per bar in a moderate samba, and I had music as evocative as I’d need to set the mood. Eventually, I had the clever idea of truncating the post-bridge sections by a couple of bars, which allowed for an extended ending.

It’s very likely I’ll fix things in rewrites of the show, but – and I promise you it’s exceedingly rare I say this – I was pretty happy with the song, in general, at the initial reading.


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