The song is “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park With George. Most musical tragics adore it, because it’s about the impossibility of reconciling your artistic desires with a happy love life; and we all like to think we’re as talented as George Seurat, that any failures in our love lives are due to our uncompromising vision, that we could be dumped by a babe like Bernadette Peters …
I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but the older I get the more I come to admire the words in the middle of a line. Not the flashy rhyming ones at the end, like “paradoxical” or “isthmus”, but the unprepossessing ones that get the song there. And I feel particular reverence for the words which are not unusual, but ordinary words being used in an uncommon way. It’s what fine poets do pretty regularly, but songwriters have the additional burden of being understood aurally, so they have to be careful.
George is singing about how he can score the chicks but they never stick around, on account of all his painting and lack of people skills:
Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come through the window go
Until they ______ and die,
Until there’s nothing but sky
The missing word needs to have the same rhythm as “finish”, which occupies this spot in the preceding verse, and “nothing” which has the same notes and rhythm in the following line.
And the winner is … “distance”. I love it. I love it because it’s so singable (go on, say the word “distance”. Doesn’t that just feel good in your mouth?). I love it because it’s an ordinary word, nothing special, but when was the last time you heard it as a verb? “Go until they distance and die”. Lightly alliterative, too, but not flashy.
I could go on, like noting its French origins, in a musical about a French painter, but that would be too much.