An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
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Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
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Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
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1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.

How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?

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The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.

What differences are there between musical theater today and musical theater 20 years ago?

Answer by Peter J Casey:

If we look specifically at Broadway twenty years ago, we can see that a new stage version of a Disney animated film (Beauty and the Beast), with a score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, was enjoying good box office despite mixed reviews.

This year, a new stage version of a Disney animated film (Aladdin), with a score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, is enjoying good box office despite mixed reviews.

Twenty years ago, a musical with a lush, romantic score (Cyrano) closed after only 137 performances, but was still nominated for the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

This year, a musical with a lush, romantic score (The Bridges of Madison County) closed after only 137 performances, but was still nominated for the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Twenty years ago, Audra McDonald was Tony-nominated.

This year, Audra McDonald is Tony-nominated.

(OK, I cheated on that last one, because she’s in a play.)

View Answer on Quora

Southern Hemisphere Love

Many years ago, I started writing a song.

It’s a song about how love is not, as songwriters would have you believe, a purely above-the-equator pursuit (“the lusty month of May”, “as cold as Christmas”, “the leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September in the rain”, “Summer, you old Indian summer, you’re the tear that comes after June-time’s laughter” etc. etc.)

Last week, I finished it:

 

And by “finished it”, I mean I did up a nice shiny piano-vocal chart too. It’s here.

A New Song, Both Charming and Scurrilous

Like many of our mothers, mine thinks I’m cleverer than I am. So when she lent me the CD sets pictured below …

highly recommended

… it was with the words “You probably know everything on there anyway.”

I did not. And sometimes I knew things, but Professor Bill Messenger put them in a different light and made me slap my forehead for not seeing them that way myself.

For instance, he points out, while covering the period beginning in the 1890s, that “in Tin Pan Alley, mother songs fell to the earth like ivory snow”, but that “to my knowledge not one mother song has been written during the past fifty years”.

So I thought I’d write one. A modern one. Yes, I’m aware that my own mother’s generosity has led me to writing the following. Like many of our mothers, I think she’ll forgive me:

Oh, you want the sheet music? For piano and voice? Right here.

 

 

Dear Mr Croce ….

Many thanks for your submitted song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.

We feel the song has great promise musically, but we would like to see further work done on its characters and dramatic arc.

The setting is well established at the outset, and the character of Leroy is effectively drawn. However, many of his personal details are extraneous to what follows. You state that Leroy “stan’ about six foot four”, but his height doesn’t factor into the ensuing action. Is it possible that, in the conflict that follows, Leroy’s height might become pertinent? Perhaps there could be some amusing comedy involving a ceiling fan?

Similarly, Leroy is a gambler, and he likes his fancy clothes, and he likes to wave his diamond ring in front of everybody’s nose, but none of these is developed later. Perhaps Leroy’s later conflict with the “jealous man” might be over gambling and fashion, in addition to Doris, the girl who looked nice? This would considerably raise the dramatic stakes in what follows.

In much the same way, Leroy’s cars are mentioned, but not used again. Might there be a thrilling chase scene involving the custom Continental and the El Dorado? And could Leroy actually use the .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and the razor in his shoe? It seems odd that he is so heavily armed, but never uses his weapons in the song’s climactic fight.

This brings us to our greatest concern: Leroy, for all that he is badder than old King Kong, and meaner than a junkyard dog, is not the victor in this fight. The listener knows a great deal about him, including his basic desires, but we know nothing of the “jealous man”, who proves to be even badder and meaner than Leroy. Is the song, in fact, about the wrong person? Leroy demonstrates an appealing vulnerability by losing, and we wonder if he could be re-written as “Good, Good Leroy Brown”? Perhaps he was looking to rescue Doris, the girl who looked nice, because she was a prostitute who married her pimp, and he knew and loved her when they were younger? If the two characters had this kind of backstory, we could feel more invested in the fight, and Leroy’s eventual fate could spring from a powerful conflict with his image of himself.

Meanwhile, the “bad” character, the “jealous man”, needs more detail, so we can see him. Who is he, and what is his name? What does he want? What is his inner motivation, in contrast to his simple external desire to maintain status by holding on to his wife? Is there also something vulnerable about him, to offset the rage he feels when another men merely casts his eyes upon Doris?

Your details and imagery are excellent, and we’d like to see them retained. But, in order for you to enjoy the commercial hit that your talents warrant, we feel that more attention must be paid to these characters, and in particular their inner lives.

Regards, etc.

 

Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 2)

For background (and a TL;DR summary), see the previous post.

Now, I didn’t go looking for the following songs; I kept my ears open, and they found me. I listened for effective rhymes away from the world of show tunes, and I tried very, very honestly to find a better part of each song that didn’t rhyme properly.

Standard Excuse No.1 – The Unschooled and Ephemeral Nature of Teen Pop

(Note: rhymes are red, off-rhymes are blue)

Here’s how ‘My Boyfriend’s Back‘ (Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer) begins its first refrain:

My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
You see him comin’, better cut out on the double
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Three things to notice, this early in the song. One, that the “hey lah-day-lah” response puts extra pressure on each rhyme, because the listener has more time to hear it coming. Two, that the most telling word, in terms of the singer’s character is a non-rhymer, “cut”. That “cut out on the double” rings true to me. Three, that each rhyming line ends with a two-syllable rhyme (I won’t use the term “feminine rhyme”, even though it’s tempting here), and that this two-syllable rhyme challenge is dropped almost immediately, to the song’s detriment:

You been spreading lies that I was untrue
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
So look out now ’cause he’s comin’ after you
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

This obliges the singer to sing “untrue-oo”, and “you-oo”, and there are no compensating additions, in terms of fresh ideas or subject matter, to make up for this loss of craft in the rhyme department. It’s just a weak follow-up to the first refrain.

Hey, he knows what you been tryin
And he knows that you been lyin

The two-syllable rhyme returns in the bridge, but it’s not ideal, since both words (tryin’ and lyin’) are, as W K Wimsatt would have pointed out, the same parts of speech, and so not as effective when paired. Sondheim would add that words with the same spelling aren’t as surprising. Yeah, I just made reference to Wimsatt and Sondheim in a blog post about ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’.

He’s been gone for such a long time
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Now he’s back and things’ll be fine
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Really disappointing. The words don’t rhyme (in fact, they’re a clichéd non-rhyme), the syllables again have to be stretched to fit the notes, and nothing new is said. Happily, better times are ahead.

You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Cause he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

These are still non-rhyming words, and they’re still lazy one-syllable non-rhymes, but “kinda” and “awful” are perfectly in character.

Hey, he knows I wasn’t cheatin
Now you’re gonna get a beatin

That’s more like it! Wimsatt would approve, because a verb rhyming with a verbal noun is better than two verbs. And the rhyming words are in character, too.

What made you think he’d believe all your lies?
(Wahooo, wahooo)
You’re a big man now but he’ll cut you down to size
Wahooo, wait and see

A second bridge! This is actually where the single syllable rhymes belong.

My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
If I were you, I’d take a permanent vacation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

That’s it. That’s how good the whole song should be. There they are, two-syllable rhymes, perfectly in character and the syntax is spot on. This is, unsurprisingly, the last couplet: the song closes with ad-libbing over the refrain.

Standard Excuse No.2 – Folksy Insouciance (aka Being Authentic, Staying Real etc.)

This is ‘For the Ages‘, from Paul Kelly’s 2012 album Spring and Fall. The song is credited to Paul Kelly and Dan Kelly.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
I’m glad you live here in mine
Your face and figure belong
To centuries been and gone
Those Renaissance and Roman times

Wise, this, because if you’re gonna not rhyme, you should be a not-rhymer right from the beginning. Notice there are two single-syllable off-rhymes set up here, between the second and last line of each stanza, and between the third and fourth line.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
Long may you live in my rhyme
The years will cut us down,
But they won’t keep us in the groun
Out of the grave we’ll climb.

But wait, now these are true rhymes, since “ground” loses its terminal letter (and rhyme is mentioned explicitly, so it’s probably just as well). Notice, though, that the idea is trite, and a little bit gross?

Oh, darling you’re one for the ages
You’ll never go out of style
You walked into the ball
Dressed by St Vincent de Paul
With that shy, serious smile

This is superb. This is a marvellous example of rhyme leading the mind in fresh directions (a paraphrase of Goethe, I think, but I can’t find a source). The “shy, serious smile” is shopworn, yes, but rhyming “ball” with “St Vincent de Paul” is gorgeous. It scans beautifully, it’s surprising (you won’t find it at rhymezone), and it’s effortlessly in character (unlike, say, “forestall” or “Nepal”).

After a guitar instrumental, this:

Darling you’re one for the ages
Your beauty suits ev’ry clime
There’s a mystery deep within
And in the light upon your skin
I could study for all time

True rhymes all the way, but it’s weak for four reasons. One, nobody says “clime” when they mean “climate”. Two, this rhyme has already been used, but as “climb”. Three, the “mystery deep within” and “light upon your skin” is hackneyed – and no, I don’t care how many listeners swoon at it (having already mentioned face, figure, and smile, the song is now perilously close to a shopping list). Last of all, the syntax means I can’t make sense of it: could you study in the light upon the skin, as if it’s a sort of lamp? Or is there a mystery in the skin-light, and you could study that mystery?

Even though it doesn’t end well, I love this song for demonstrating, so neatly, that not all off-rhymes are bad (the opening verse works well), and that not all true rhymes are good (the last verse is the song’s weakest). But when everything is done just right (tone, prosody, syntax and a perfect rhyme), the song has its finest moment.

Standard Excuse No.3 – Rock Swagger

Now, when it comes to rock, I’ll admit it: we should rhyme sparingly, and rhyme carefully. If rhyme tends to indicate presence of mind, or forethought, or intelligent analysis, then a song encouraging abandon, gettin’ loud, or gettin’ wild, has little use for it.

For example, in a song about boredom, frustration and alienation, Jagger and Richards demonstrate the value of repetition:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

Count the rhymes – none. But notice, also, no off-rhymes? And look at that beautiful variation in vowel sounds (vowel-boredom can be a real trap when you’re adopting repetition): short a, short e, long o, short i, long i. I don’t think Mick and Keef said “Man, we better, like, vary the vowels if we’re gonna, like, eschew traditional rhyme in this fashion.” I think they opted for what sounded good, and maybe for what felt good to sing. And they were right.

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say

And so the rest of the song goes. There are some rhymes (their position moves about in different verses, but they’re true rhymes), and there are off-rhymes, but there’s more repetition than anything else.

Incidentally, my favourite line in the song has always featured one of its few rhymes:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girlie action

Except that’s not the line. I’ve been wrong for forty years, because the line is

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girl reaction

At the risk of presumption, I think the first version is better – and I wonder, how many other people think it’s “girlie action”?

We have all heard the opening of ‘Sweet Home Alabama‘ (Ed King, Gary Rossington,Ronnie Van Zant) far too many times, and so we have all forgotten how good it is. Pretend this was written for Assassins, by Sondheim:

Big wheels keep on turnin’
Carryin’ me home to see my kin
Singin’ songs about the southland,
I miss Alabamy once agin, and I think it’s a sin

Look at how beautifully a truck or a bus is implied, while character is created (‘kin’, ‘agin’ and ‘Alabamy’ are terrific), and even religion gets a nod. It’s superb, and all the rhymes are perfect. I think it’s the best part of the song, but I’ll admit that many listeners probably prefer: 

In Birmingham they love the governor
(Boo, boo, boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth

This has only one off-rhyme, but the song has started to weaken at this point, because the verses have begun using the same “oo” rhyming sound as in the chorus:

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord I’m comin’ home to you

Vowel-boredom! It’s a shame, and it continues into the next verse about the Swampers of Muscle Shoals. I’m happy if people think the Watergate verse is the best, but I’d like to see a rehabilitation of the opening lines’ reputation, because they’re enviably good.

One more rock song which, like Paul and Dan Kelly’s “For The Ages”, demonstrates the virtues and pitfalls of rhyme:

Back In Black
(Angus Young/Malcolm Young/Brian Johnson)

Back in black
I hit the sack
I been too long I’m glad to be back

It’s a pity that “back’ is repeated, but still, there aren’t many rock classics with an inner rhyme in the title, and on a good, hard “ack” sound to boot. I have never understood “hit the sack”, though, because to me it means going to bed, and that’s not very rock. Maybe it’s “hit the sac”?

Yes I am
Let loose
from the noose
That’s kept me hanging about

Best lines in the song. It’s a perfect rhyme, on a fresh vowel sound, it’s in character, and it makes a pun about hanging.

I keep looking at the sky cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse cause I’ll never die
I got nine lives, cat’s eyes
Using every one of them and runnin’ wild

Some say it’s “abusing”, not “using”, but that’s not important: how many cat’s eyes do you have? How impressive is using or abusing all of them?

After the refrain, which is largely made up of the title, this:

Back in the back of a
Cadillac
Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack

I don’t mind the repetition of “back” so much here, but it’s used in two different senses, and it’s an inner identity, rather than an end rhyme. “Cadillac” is excellent, and those bullets are a great image, but power packs? Not so much. That sounds like a prepared nerd to me: “It’s alright, everyone, I function as a power pack!”

Yes I am in a bang
With the gang
They gotta catch me if they want me to hang

A new rhyming sound, which is good, but this image was used up earlier, in the much better “oose” rhyme.

Cause I’m back on the track and I’m beatin’ the flack
Nobody’s gonna get me on another rap
So look at me now I’m just makin’ my play
Don’t try to push your luck just get out of my way

You can see the Young brothers and Johnson trying to stick to the “ack” rhymes here, but they know they’ve used several of the good ones, and in any case they know some variety is in order. I think “rap” is a particularly weak off-rhyme, and the clue to what they should have done is right there, in that little word, “luck”. By changing the vowel, while keeping the consonant, they could have mentioned a neck (which you can stick out), and “stick” rhymes with kick, or trick, while neck rhymes with deck (which you can hit, or deal), and if you duck those earlier bullets then duck rhymes with … luck.

Standard Excuse No.4 – The Iconoclastic Nature of Hip Hop and Rap

I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop or rap, and I freely admit I don’t know a great deal about either. I’m middle-aged, so I think Chuck D and Busta Rhymes are really talented, and I can’t understand the fuss over Eminem or Kanye West. But here’s what I hear rappers doing all the time: matching lazy rhymes with lazy ideas. And the better ones also do the converse.

This is the refrain from “Chum” by Earl Sweatshirt (credited writers are Sweatshirt, Taiwo Hassan, Kehinde Hassan, and Hugo), which I heard on NPR’s All Songs Considered – see, I told you I was middle-aged:

Something sinister to it,
pendulum swinging slow, A degenerate movin
through the city with criminals, stealth
Welcome to enemy turf,
harder than immigrants’ work
“Golf” is stitched into my shirt

This last line might seem arcane, but it’s a reference to Sweatshirt’s hip hop collective Odd Future, and its meaning would be clear to his fans. That aside, notice that this opening image is presented in slightly overworked terms, is a little pretentious (to be fair, the performer was only 18 when this released), is made mostly of weak off-rhymes, and is one of the most well-worn in literature: the sensitive poet, alone, an outsider.

It’s probably been twelve years since my father left,
left me fatherless

Personally, I imagine this is devastating, but in literary terms, the absent father is a faithful standby. The lyric improves when the ideas turn to specific details of self-loathing and rebellion, and “fatherless”, which was a clumsy off-rhyme with “left”, rhymes with what comes next [Warning: the N-word is coming]

… left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jes
When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six
And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it
Sixteen, I’m hollow, intolerant, skip shots
Storm that whole bottle, I’ll show you a role model

I realise that poring over every rhyme like this in a rap, and deciding whether it’s true or off, is a bit like listening to Steve Reich for the chord changes. Most rap fans would prefer to let the words flow at speed, but look at how the song gets better as the imagery and observations become more specific and original. That inner rhyme of “hollow” and “intolerant” is good stuff and, since bottle is pronounced “boddle”, its rhyme with “role model” is, I think, excellent. If it’s a rap cliché, I stand corrected, but it’s new to me.

Momma often was offering peace offerin‘s
Think, wheeze, cough, scoffin’ and he’s off again
Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that
And plus he liked how I rap,
The blinded mice in the trap:
Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks
From honor roll to crackin’ locks up off them bicycle racks

And there they all are again: specific image, tone, implied character, natural syntax, perfect rhyme, best lines in the song.

But as I said, I don’t know enough rap or hip hop. If anyone can show me an artist who does everything I suggest with true rhymes, but still produces their best work with off-rhymes, I’d be wiser than I am now. At this point, though, I feel perfectly confident saying:

If you get everything right – prosody, tone, syntax, and agreement in sound – a perfect rhyme will always be better than an off-rhyme, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 1)

This Maclean’s article came out last May, and I nearly wrote about the matter right away, in a high-handed manner. But I decided to try being thoughtful instead, and I’ve been trying ever since.

First, here’s the TL;DR version …

There’s more to a perfect rhyme than merely getting the sounds to agree. Perfect rhymes didn’t become the norm in musical theatre until around the 1940s, and they didn’t hold sway for very long. Perfect rhymes are still worth pursuing, though, in every genre of songwriting. I can back this up with examples.

To address two assumptions in Jaime Weinman’s first paragraph of that article – and these assumptions are made pretty much everywhere, so I by no means lay them at Weinman’s feet:

1. “the last refuge of perfect rhyme”

There are many elements to a perfect rhyme, especially in theatre, and agreement in sound is only one of them. There are also prosody and scansion to consider (songwriters tend to use these terms interchangeably, but what I mean is singable syllables, naturally stressed), syntax (words in the right order should be), and tone (you can’t whip out just any old word, simply because it rhymes). Different songwriters and different eras have valued these elements differently. Early in the last century, for example, this sort of thing was pretty common:

He: In every foreign country I have met my fate.
I’ve met her so much, I am tired.
She: Can you remain quite neutral and to me relate,
Which you most admired?

That’s part of ‘Some Sort of Somebody‘ from Very Good Eddie (1915), music by Jerome Kern, lyric by Elsie Janis. Notice the phrase “to me relate”, which I bet no-one has ever said, ever. It’s there to set up the rhyme. Before the First World War (and, indeed, until well after the Second), rhyme often trumped natural syntax in this way.

While I’m using tunes by Kern, ‘How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?‘ was the equivalent of a pop hit in 1905, and interpolated into The Earl and the Girl for that show’s Broadway run. Behold:

I don’t know why I am so very shy,
I always was demure,
I never knew what silly lovers do,
No flirting I’d endure; [syntax]

How’d you like to spoon with me?
How’d you like to spoon with me?
Sit beneath an oak tree large and shady,
Call me little tootsy wootsy baby

“Shady” and “baby” don’t rhyme; here the jazzy-slang attraction of “tootsy wootsy baby” has upstaged rhyme, and this process still goes on today, especially in pop. Entire songs are built upon it.

Here are two more examples, with music by Kern – although you can do this with many composers of the teens, twenties and thirties – from Roberta. By 1933 Kern had worked with better lyricists, and better lyrics were starting to be the fashionable thing. But in Otto Harbach’s lyric for ‘Yesterdays’, there’s this:

Yesterdays,
Yesterdays,
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days [toneprosody]

Then gay youth was mine,
Truth was mine,
Joyous free in flame and life
Then sooth was mine [tone, prosody]

Roberta also offers, in ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes':

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed …
[prosody, tone and syntax!
This is a category 5 rhymestorm]

The examples could go on, because there are many music theatre lyrics prior to, say, those for Oklahoma!, that demonstrate rhyming without much regard for syntax, or rhyming without regard for a character’s vocabulary. And there are some that don’t rhyme at all, because they’re too busy being slangy. The best lyricists of the ’40s and ’50s (Berlin, Loesser, Porter, Hammerstein) demonstrated that it’s possible to rhyme deftly without sacrificing character or syntax – and the greats often invented slang. By the late 1960s, though, the various elements had shifted in importance to the point where syntax and character started to matter more than rhyme (look at my favourite song in Hair, ‘Frank Mills’). And that’s what I think we’re hearing in many theatre lyricists’ work today: rhyme dropped in favour of something considered more important, like making a character “authentic” or “relatable”.

So, musical theatre isn’t really the last refuge of perfect rhyme. There’s a corner of musical theatre where perfect rhyme sits, hoping to be offered a drink; just as there are corners of country music, cabaret, comedy, and political satire, where perfect rhymes wait shyly while other more brazen considerations get all the attention.

Which leads me to the second assumption in Weinman’s opening paragraph:

2. “… poetry, which hasn’t had strict rhyming rules since Emily Dickinson”

This is true, but only because poetry didn’t have strict rhyming rules before Dickinson, either. Some forms have developed traditional rhyme schemes, yes, and poets often change or subvert or vary these schemes, for their own reasons. This means there’s now a standard argument, usually heard in defence of the techniques of modernism, which non-rhyming songwriters have learned to use: “I’m attempting something shocking, and new, so why would I soothe the listener with the familiar?”

My problem with this argument is that it’s almost never true of the non-rhyming song. Far from attempting something shocking, the non-rhyming songwriter is usually succumbing to cliche, and trotting out ideas heard in dozens of other songs. Furthermore, every time I hear false/slant/near/off- rhymes defended as “modern” or “acceptable these days”, I cannot help but note that:

Rhyme Has Never Been Denounced By A Songwriter Who’s Really Good At It

At this point, music theatre types tend to produce a list of off-rhymes in some writer’s work and leave it there, as if to say “Really, what can we do? Why can’t the people hear?”

I think that’s dogmatic, and snobby. But what if I could look at some standard excuses for not rhyming properly, and at some successful popular songs where those excuses are in evidence? And what if I could then demonstrate that the best parts of those songs are still the parts with proper rhymes?

Coming Soon, In Part Two …

On Palindromes, On Artwiculate


@spikelynch has written (gracefully, as usual) of his palindrome creation process on artwiculate. I’ll try to explain mine, as per @attentive‘s request – not because my approach is any better (or much different), but because I had a different experience with a different word.

Yesterday’s artwiculate word was “citadel”, and I wouldn’t normally bother doing a palindrome with “citadel”, because it seems a bit … I don’t know, dull? I attempted it anyway, on-and-off throughout the morning. By lunchtime there was this:

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How I Produce a Series of Unsatisfactory Artwiculate Palindromes

I begin, obviously, by writing the artwiculate word of the day backwards, and playing with whatever turns up:

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Now, while there are plenty of words that end in “led”, I know that “tic” will be a challenge. Not a lot of words that start with “tic”. So I’ve reminded myself of one alternative, “led at ic”, and I might come back to that. For now, though, I play with “led a tic”:

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I love “tictac” because I’ve never seen it in a palindrome, and it seems anachronistic next to “citadel”. That makes me smile, but I don’t know what to do with “cat citadel”. There are other possibilities here, but I don’t see them until later.

Now I start thinking about where the hinge of the palindrome might go. Palindrome purists are very serious about their hinges. For example, this:

Stinker reknits.

with one word simply the reverse of the other, produces that double “r” in the middle. This:

Reknit, stinker.

with the palindrome hinging on the letter “s”, is considered superior.

Bearing that in mind, I start looking for words ending in “led” that might provide a good hinge.

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OK, so I admit I googled here, because there are just too many words ending in “led”. And this showed up:

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Look at that hinge! And now I’m interested, because a citadel is something you can actually assail, and the word is nicely archaic too. If I use the word “tic”, as in nervous tic, I can stop here.

“Citadel I assailed? A tic.”

But that’s pretty weak.

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“Tickler” is nice (oh, how I wish I could have worked “elk” and “tickler” in there somehow). “Ticklish” is good, too, although I have no idea what a silk citadel might on the way back. Undaunted, I carry on in this vein, trying a ticklish spot, a ticklish prospect, and so on.

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Frustrated, I remember “led at ic” and see what words starting with “ic” I can use. Obviously, there’s ice, icy …

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This has yielded two possibilities, but they’re grammatically weak, even for palindromes:

Pace, citadel I assailed at icecap.

No citadel I assailed at icon.

I miss “tictac”, and I wish I could make “cat citadel” work. Then I remember (and this is a blunder I make all the time with palindromes) that it doesn’t have to be “cat”. A word ending in “cat” will do. Scat, muscat, or …

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Regretfully, I give up on “magnificat”, but I refuse to give up on “tictac”. So, instead of “cat”, I consider “c at”:

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“Stoic” and “antic” are also lovely and old-sounding, but not much use in reverse. I suppose that last effort could be a diary entry after a siege, by some typically laconic Caesar, and complete with an anachronism:

Panic, at citadel I assailed. A tictac. I nap.

But now I’m weary, and I find it less than marvellous, so I don’t tweet it.

It’s worth noting, though, that an unavoidable letter grouping (in this case, “t i c”) will always dominate the finished palindrome. Likewise, some choices I’ve made (“tictac”, and “assailed”) will affect everything else to come. With different, better choices, others might make better palindromes. I never tried, for example:

led at, I c

Bawled at, I crumple …

Drawled at, I castigate …

Tag! It’s a citadel, Ward …