What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 2.

Ep2. Weak jokes made worse by having to sing them

Being funny is hard enough, but it’s even harder in a song. One of the reasons is timing: you, the songwriter, are effectively giving the actor a line-reading by dictating both the rhythm and inflection of the joke. And then you’re usually adding the demands of rhyme, just to make things harder.

In a perfect world, this occurs:

  1. The joke is funny to begin with.
  2. You deliver it with natural syntax, and an unforced rhyme.

Here’s Frank Loesser at work, in Adelaide’s Lament:

You can feed her all day with the vitamin A and the bromofizz
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the trouble is.
If she’s getting a kind of name for herself, and the name ain’t his …

See? He makes it look easy.

More often, this occurs:

  1. The joke wasn’t that good in the first place.
  2. The rhyme twists the syntax, which stuffs up the delivery, or
  3. The syntax is fine but the rhythm forces you to add extra syllables, which stuffs up the delivery.

Here’s a moment from David Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics for the musical of Shrek. Princess Fiona is telling Shrek how hard it was for her in the tower:

Twenty years I sat and waited
I’m very dedicated
On the walls the days were added
Luckily those walls were padded

Here’s what wrong with it:

  1. You don’t add days on walls. You scratch them on walls, you scrawl them on walls, you cross them off on calendars.
  2. Even if you do add days on a wall, that’s the order you’d say it, not the passive “on the walls the days were added”.
  3. Who says “the walls were padded”? You’d say “padded walls”, right? Or “a padded cell”, or “the rubber room”.
  4. The joke about padded walls is tired anyway.

Here’s another, from Amanda Green’s lyrics for High Fidelity. Rob is explaining his record store colleagues:

What can I do?
They came as temps.
But then they started showing up here every day!
It’s been four years.
They just won’t leave.
They never even ask me for a raise in pay.

The gag should be something punchy, like “They don’t even want pay”, or (weaker) “They never ask for a raise”. As it stands, it rhymes and it makes sense, but it has no chance of surprising you: with all those padded syllables you can hear the (very mild) gag coming a mile off.

I have a theory as to why this occurs so frequently. Actors, you see, will do anything to make a joke land. They want the laugh. So they mug, they caper, they grimace, they use their funny voice, and eventually they get a laugh. Then they do everything in their power to protect that laugh and get it again and again, every night.

And the lyricist, sitting in the audience in previews, thinks, “Hey, I was gonna tweak that line, but you know what? I’m pretty funny.”


6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 2.

  1. Yes, here I am off at a tangent … but perhaps you don’t care because it means people are reading your blog? Even worse for the actor, I reckon, is to try to project a deadly serious line that has become funny because it is dated. I recall a monologue from South Pacific – Nellie, on the beach, speaking to that French fool … “Oh, Emile, don’t die! Don’t die!” I struggled with it … really … and think I did an OK job because I never heard anyone snigger … but seriously it was soooooo hard.

  2. There may be a drama theory term for it but basically I said “oh, Emile, don’t die” but I thought “*&^% it Emile, you’re *&^%ing me off! This is a (*&^ing nightmare, when and where will it end? My cat’s just died, my grandmother is starving to death and I can’t find my house … “

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