Oh we usher at the Shu-

I’m a man of few words.

I know: you want to call shenanigans on that one. After all, the average size of these essays is about a thousand words, WAY longer than what you find on a lot of people’s blogs. So what gives?

As a lyricist, I like to think I appreciate the value of concision. My songs tend to be WAY shorter than other people’s songs. But what’s on my mind now is the issue of wordiness. I’m finding a lot of the new crop of musical theatre writers are far too wordy for their own good. They never use just one word when three, seven or twelve will do. This is leading to songs going on far too long. Certainly, the performer who’s able to stand and sing a gargantuan ditty will garner much applause, but it’s of the sort given to marathon runners, just for completing the run, not for a good time.

But is the audience having a good time? That’s what’s most concerning. To me, a good time involves a certain state of relaxation. You lean back in your seat and soak up a well-harmonized tune wedded to a lyric with winsome turns of phrase and a soupcon of cleverness. It’ll wash over you, with ease.

Now, what might the opposite experience be like? An unpleasant, or tuneless tune serving up a fusillade of syllables like a baseball pitching machine gone berserk. Lyricists who are in to proving they’re clever far too frequently pack a song with way too much verbosity; you have to ask whether that’s really clever at all. Composers fall into the trap of setting these to rarely-relenting strings of eighth notes, sometimes all on the same pitch. Why, in Jason Robert Brown’s most famous number, do we hear “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you” all set on an A?

Back in my twenties, I fell into this trap with a number that needed to tell a lot of story, off-stage stuff we hadn’t seen. I had two comic characters to write for, but the quantity of syllables made the damn thing a chore to listen to. So, we cut the song, and the librettist provided a far-shorter couple of spoken lines that conveyed all we needed to hear. I learned a valuable lesson.

So imagine my surprise that, so many years later, overstuffed songs have become common, and, in certain circles, praised. I wonder if these musical motormouths realize what they’re doing.

When you unleash a torrent of syllables, you’re inevitably taxing the audience’s ears. The existence of music says, in effect, “Listen to this!” and then, cruelly, you give a much bigger bite than they can comfortably chew. The ears work hard to recognize each word. The brain works hard to make sense of run-on sentences. And that’s a hell of a lot of work to ask an audience to do. These good people have paid good money to see your show: Why do you have to treat them so miserably?

I keep running into people who disagree with me on this, but I believe you get just one chance to affect an audience. Those people who’ve carved out time from their busy lives to sit in the theatre absolutely must appreciate your song the first time it’s heard. Now, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of misapprehending a lyric the first time we hear it, then we get a cast album, play it over and over again, and, eventually, it’s all digestible. When you know a song well enough, your brain needn’t shift to overdrive in order to take it a complex concept. In this way, many a song that didn’t land in the theatre, seems brilliant and becomes beloved after hearers hear it again and again. How much money has the crowd that listens over and over forked over for the privilege? (What price Spotify?) Compare that to the price paid by the theatre-goer, and do include the cost in time and transit fares if they don’t live next door to your theatre. Where does your responsibility lie, writer?

There’s something I don’t understand, so I’ll put it out in the form of a question: Why are the melodies thrown at verbose lyrics so dull? I just read someone’s opinion that Sondheim, in Into the Woods, didn’t want to distract from his lyrics by pairing them with an interesting tune. Now, I realize that the text that forces listeners to listen hard must be supported with proper cadences and stresses, and that can be a huge compositional burden, but what is gained by saddling a song with an ugly melody?

Which brings to mind Gilbert and Sullivan. As the original funny lyricist in our language, Gilbert could be the most prolix writer of them all. Sullivan, historians tell us, loathed having to set the long-winded ones, and he ran the gamut. I don’t consider The Model of a Modern Major-General to be a good tune. But I find My Name Is John Wellington Wells passably winsome, and If You Want a Receipt – a Gilbert list whose lyric I don’t enjoy – to be the rare comedy song whose music I enjoy far more than the words. (The ultimate in that rare category for me is Kander and Ebb’s Class. Never been tickled by that class-less text, but Kander’s send-up of Schubert is rather gorgeous.)

One more word about Gilbert and Sullivan: I’ve lived to see appreciation of the Victorian masters dwindle from widespread to a rare little affliction a few people have. Which makes it even more surprising to me that people today dig this shapeless chant:

Puppy dogs with droopy faces,
Unicorns with dancing mice,
Sunrise in wide open spaces,
DisneyWorld – I’ll go there twice!
Butterflies and picnic lunches,
Bunches of chrysanthemums,
Lollipops and pillow fights and Christmas eve,
Sugar plums!
String quartets and Chia Pets,
And afternoon banana splits,
Angels watching as I sleep,
And Liberace’s Greatest Hits

Is what you find amusing about that the adjective before “banana splits?” I tend to think of them as an anytime snack, myself.


2 Responses to Oh we usher at the Shu-

  1. Peter J Casey says:

    A passionate polemic, Noel, and not at all too long!

    I wanted only to add what I’ve often noticed about wordy theatre songs, which is that when the lyrics are made the star, they have to be flawless, since every other fault in the song will now be made that much more obvious. You’ve already mentioned dull melodies, so:

    I’d never heard ‘The Actuary Song’ before, but it opens almost immediately with the identity of “recovery” and “discovery”. Then, in the second verse, this earlier identity is replaced with an even weaker non-rhyme of “consider” and “configurated”. I call this “dropping the rhyme ball”.

    Also, on a separate but related matter, “clear as black and white”: are black and white pictures in your mind necessarily clearer than other pictures?

    Lastly and tellingly, the funniest line in the song is a spoken one, and it’s a joke about character, rather than wordplay: “But now it’s proven!”

    Still, at least ‘The Actuary Song’ goes somewhere! My problem with ‘Stars and the Moon’ (and I confess I never wrote anything as good in my 20s) has always been that I know how the song will end by the time it’s a quarter done. Then, sure enough, that’s how it ends. And the woman is so passive! She marries rich, then observes:

    And the years went by
    And it never changed
    And it never grew
    And I never dreamed

    And I think, “Well that is entirely your own fault. Get off the pot, princess.”

    Similarly, the list you’ve quoted from ‘Pulled’ should move forward until it hints at the matter at hand (love’s awakening), but instead it stays where it is and puts all its eggs into a one-joke basket of Liberace’s Greatest Hits. And wouldn’t an Addams enjoy the horror of kitsch?

    The imagery should progress from puppy dogs and unicorns to things we associate with first-time passion, like holding hands and heartbeats, or smiling at nothing and the boy’s hair, and getting kissed on the neck … just … there.

    (The mention of which, incidentally, would terrify Pugsley far more than being stretched on a rack.)

  2. Jon88 says:

    Funny you should say. This has been on my mind lately also, having watched the 2011 JRB concert aired by PBS on New Year’s Eve. I have a higher tolerance for his work than you, but I had to watch the show in shifts. All of those rambling, wordy songs in a row wore me down. (I wonder if the broadcast version reflected the concert’s set list accurately.)

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