The Song Isn't You
Jim Caruso asks three of the musical theaters' greatest writers: Is There A Song You're Furious You Didn't Write?
The grass is always greener. Even our most legendary musical theater composers, from Jerome Kern to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim, unabashedly covet other songwriters' finest efforts. I spoke with three great contemporary craftsmen to find out the objects of their envy.
Is there a song you've heard that you are furious you didn't write?
Holy mackerel, YES! There's hardly a musical that I see that I don't admire something and wish I'd written it. In Sondheim's Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum there's a song called "Love, I Hear". The lyric I adore is, "I pine, I blush, I squeak, I squawk, today I woke too weak to walk." The alliteration and the sheer invention of that are just breathtaking to me! How wonderfully it sits with the melody! When I heard it the first time in the theater, it surprised me so much that I made a rather loud "ooh" sound! I also made that sound during "Adelaide's Lament" in Guys and Dolls. The best lyric is: "You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk, you can give her a shot for whatever she's got, but it just won't work. If you're tired of getting the fish-eye from the hotel clerk." OOOH! There's that noise again! I do that noise a lot, I have to tell you. Once I had a man turn around in the theater and say, "Are you all right, sir?" - Fred Ebb
The genre of lyric that I admire and aspire to is a lyric that is very colloquial, very efficient, but emotionally full. Like "All alone by the telephone..." by Irving Berlin. Cole Porter's "So in love with you am I..." is a good one, too. Another macro-category in songs that I admire is the actual sound of the words. The whimsical quality of "Don't be a naughty baby, come to Papa, come to Papa do," in Gershwin's "Embracable You". Sometimes the actual sound of the words is as important as the meaning. Of course, the sound informs the meaning and makes it even more resonant. That being said, the one time I was actually jealous of a song title you might find rather startling: Toni Braxton's hit "Unbreak My Heart"! Unfortunately, what follows the title is nowhere near the level of the title itself, but it's a fantastic, first rate title! You don't get better than that. It's right up there with Johnny Mercer! - Adam Guettel
I think the best song I've ever heard is Adam Guettel's "How Glory Goes" from Floyd Collins. The first time I heard it I cried. In fact, we were recently having auditions for a show of mine that Hal Prince is producing, and somebody came in and sang the song and it absolutely wrecked me all over again. The song renders me speechless! It's transcendently beautiful and has a yearning quality that touches something in me that's so deep, I can't even articulate. Such potent emotional power is expressed in such simple language. Simple, but certainly not simplistic! It's the highest poetry to me. Not flowery, not overly poetic. That's the hardest thing for me as a songwriter. Being as verbose as I tend to be, it's really hard to edit and pare down. The need to embellish in writing, as well as singing, all stems from insecurity, I guess. It's the feeling of "If I don't throw every single trick, clever lyric or possible chord change into this piece, no one will like it." You just have to trust that whatever you do is not only good enough, but the very best thing to do. - John Bucchino