The fight

Peter Filichia’s column last week argued in favor of perfect rhyming. I’ve written about the issue before and often find myself debating with those who feel false rhyming is somehow more authentic, or modern, or not so necessary for audiences today. The question inevitably boils down to comprehension: If you want your audience to have an easier time understanding words that are sung, you’ll help them out by using words that truly rhyme.

I’m busy, these days, preparing a new production of my revue, The Things We Do For Love for an upcoming national tour. So, I hope you’ll excuse my taking the course of least resistance, creating a post made up of old notes that were drafted on my phone. I look at them and wonder what point I was rebutting. You might, too.

But here’s what I hear:

  • That rhyming correctly is a “mode” that worked in the twentieth century, but no longer.
  • Today’s audiences, accustomed to the assonances of pop songs, don’t need perfect rhymes in order to enjoy a show.
  • The success of jukebox musicals made up of old rock songs is proof that misrhymed material engages viewers.
  • That my insistence that the craft used by Sondheim, Hammerstein, Harnick, et al continue to be employed will inevitably bring about the death of musical theatre.

I wish I was making any of this up. I’m not.

Here are some of my responses:

All the great lyricists – Loesser, Hammerstein, Harnick, Sondheim – used perfect rhyme and had at least four Broadway hits. Perfect rhyme, demonstrably, aids comprehension; it makes a new score more understandable on first hearing. Pop writers don’t get this because they’ve had success, with false rhymes, in a field where repeated listenings are common. Once you’ve rhymed badly, the audience can’t trust you’ll ever rhyme well again and so is forced to listen harder. And can you name an American misrhymer who’s had four shows on Broadway?

There’s a distinction between lyrics that call attention to themselves and those that flow out of the mouths of characters just as naturally as dialogue would. I’ve been talking about the latter. I’m in complete agreement about the squabble rhyme — (Sondheim: Should there be a marital squabble/Available Bob’ll/Be there) –sounding more like a lyricist showing he’s clever than birthday party guests communicating organically. One can (and I’d say one should) utilize perfect rhymes in a way that the audience is never thinking about the writer because they’re totally engaged by what the character has to say. Good writing isn’t noticeable as such. But bad rhyming usually makes me wince: I’m taken out of the play, thinking about some creator who couldn’t bother to do another draft.

Rap is a genre in which slant rhymes and assonance are employed and the listener does think, admiringly, about the cleverness of the lyricist. Fans of hip hop are used to listening with a greater degree of concentration than typical theatre-goers because they derive enjoyment from the rhymes. Stage shows don’t do that much anymore, and the heyday of that sort of thing was the 1930s. After Rodgers & Hart amused with cleverness, Rodgers & Hammerstein taught the world to react to personages on stage, not behind the scenes.

Hamilton is positively a perfect storm of different genres. Like no musical in recent memory, we prick up our ears and appreciate rhyming and verbal wit. There’s also a meta component: In a freestyle rap performance you cheer for the clever improviser. Here, you watch brilliant lines pour forth from various Founding Fathers and applaud Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s right there on stage. The cabinet rap battle is explicitly a contest: Which character can rhyme with greater wit, brains?

You might not know: I love rap battles. Miranda has spoken in detail about different types of rhymes, when to employ them, and he’s written in many genres. He knows what he’s doing, and gets rewarded with full audiences ready, willing and able to really use their ears.

It’s likely that the topic comes up repeatedly because of our mass obsession with Hamilton. I’m often asked, by those who know my distaste for false rhymes, how I could have enjoyed (nay: loved) the latest Pulitzer Prize winner. My answer is that the boatload of bad rhymes in Hamilton is the flaw in the diamond. Lin-Manuel Miranda intended to draw a parallel between Founding Fathers and recent rap artists so he chose to include the sort of near-rhyme commonly used in rap. The result is a sort of a chore for the audience: We have to listen hard, with far greater than usual concentration to make sure we hear every word. We don’t get the familiar aid to comprehension real rhymes provide. But we’re rewarded for our attention. So much of the text is so brilliant in so many ways (other than rhyming), it’s worth pricking up your ears. Paradoxically, sometimes we’re even amused by the cleverness of a near rhyme:

lock up your daughters and horses; of course it’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets

But here’s the thing: Lyrics have to do a lot of things – fit on music, be “singable” by a human voice, forward the plot, convey subtext as well as text, sound natural coming out of the mouth of the character singing them, use vocabulary reflecting the show’s setting, eschew cliché for clichés are too easily dismissed, make the audience feel emotions, etc. – rhyming is merely one of them. We could talk about those other things (in other posts, when I’m less busy) but rhyming is so much easier to discuss. You can always tell when you’ve heard a false rhyme. Never, ever, in a song of mine.

A revue of my songs, The Things We Do For Love, plays the Duplex May 25, 2016.

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