Today, naturally, another look at what makes a great love song. Your musical, most likely, needs to have one. I’m not going to go into all the reasons but I can think of only one successful musical theatre writer who’s written shows sans love songs. That, of course, is that perverse model-buster, Stephen Sondheim. And I get that you admire Sondheim, and might want to write shows just like Sondheim. But this is not an aspect of what he does that’s worthy of emulation. Your audience wants a bit of ardor. Your audience isn’t gaga over Into the Woods and Company. Your audience is looking for love.
Speaking of which…
I recently got to work on a 1950s ballad by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh that was once named Most Romantic Song About New York. Many years ago New York Magazine decided to name The Most Romantic New York this or that: novel, street, bar, film. In selecting I Walk a Little Faster, they pointed out that you really wouldn’t know it’s about New York if you don’t know the rarely-heard verse, which name-drops Madison and Park. Leigh’s lyric presents the metropolis as a cornucopia of romantic possibilities. Every corner you turn – and God knows there are a lot of them – you may bump into the one who’ll be the love of your life. And, playing the odds, that’s more likely to happen in Manhattan, with its dense, overpopulated sidewalks. You can’t picture such a serendipitous meeting in San Francisco, for example.
But enough knocking Not New York. The brilliant part is treating the crowded street – a million faces pass before your eye – as the locus of infinite romantic possibilities. I Walk a Little Faster is an apostrophe – that is, a communication with someone who is not there – it addresses a future lover. With unshakable confidence: thinking you’ll be there – nay, knowing it.
This may seem unrelated, but Comden & Green once described Bells Are Ringing as the story of a woman who treated New York as if it were a small town. A pretty good premise for a show, but I Walk a Little Faster, from the same era, goes it one further with its idea that Gotham is cupid’s slot machine, ready to blow.
Maybe, though, I’ve a sentimental attachment to this song because, for so many years, I was this single New Yorker who never went on dates. That sounds depressing, I suspect, and yet I, too, viewed my home town somewhat the way I Walk a Little Faster does. Eventually, that dry spell was broken, and when Joy reached my doorstep, I knew I’d never be lonely again.
Musical writers go through dry spells too, and there have been a couple of periods in which Joy doubted I’d ever write a musical again. Yet I did, and Joy’s been the inspiration for many a song, and, now, two whole shows. But, in case you don’t have someone like Joy to inspire you, back to the method of operations for creating a great love ballad: familiarity with the genius of I Walk a Little Faster has often spurred me to search for the expression of ardor I’ve never heard before. And, as should be obvious, I know a really large number of numbers. So, what can I think of that others haven’t?
In writing Our Wedding: The Musical, I felt it imperative that Joy and I sing about our feelings for each other, and this should be separate from our vows. (The vows, after all, would clearly be a trio with the preacher.) A lyricist naturally pores through source materials, things that could be points of departure for the writing. I knew Joy’s romantic history, but, even more clearly, I knew of my own long string of lonely years. (This had once been put, if you’ll excuse a little ribaldry, as “During the Bush years, you didn’t see any.”) But a depiction of privation seemed out of place. Joy would roll her eyes at my long-lasting famine. Didn’t she understand?
And, in that question, I found my grail. I’ve never heard a romantic duet in which people are incredulous that previous flirts and flings failed to appreciate the person. And so, with the even-handedness that audiences seem to want in duets, I set about answering the question “How could they have missed…?” Your beauty, your wisdom, etc. Once I’d come up with a list of attributes for us both, the song sort of wrote itself.
Of course, the whole thing is very sincere, but, if you can be truthful, nine times out of ten you can find something funny to undercut all that earnestness. “I pity those idiots” doesn’t quite pass as an internal rhyme, but it got a laugh when Joy sang it, as did my spin on “them thighs,” which works because the slight grammar lapse is so unexpected. And lest you think the success of the song has something to do with our performing abilities, or the fact that we were truly singing about our own lives and loves, the duet’s gotten the same reaction in two revues of my work. And the men who stepped into my shoes later went on to step into roles in Broadway shows. Could be coincidence, but I manage to feel inordinately proud about that.
That can’t be the goal, of course, to provide a springboard for performers’ careers. No, the way I see it, the goal of any love song in a musical is to get the audience to experience the passion your characters feel. That’s what the great Golden Era Broadway romantic numbers managed to do. I’ve the feeling I seem tremendously old-fashioned when I urge you to keep your eyes on that particular prize. But then, I love the moonlight, I love the old-fashioned things, the sound of rain upon a window pane…