On ‘Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Libretto’ – Lehman Engel

I don’t usually post reviews on goodreads, because I’m tired. I don’t usually provide reading reports here, either, because everyone’s read the same books, and I don’t have anything interesting to add.

But for this book, I think the two predominant responses (“Engel had some good ideas, but we’ve moved on” or “Yes, if only shows could be what they once were”) both miss the point. And so …

If you’re seeking a How-To manual for creating a musical libretto, this ain’t that book. Engel’s approach is a How-It-Was-Done manual, and he clearly wishes it were still done that way.

Engel examines classic musicals (‘Fiddler’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘My Fair Lady’) in order to lay out what he believes are the principles of good musical theatre construction. He urges you to do consider these models when making your own shows. Some useful sections include a side-by-side scene comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with ‘West Side Story’, and an analysis of how well contrast is used in the opening scenes of ‘South Pacific’.

Engel’s principles are worth your attention. You will have to put up with a great deal of shaky generalising and straw-man erecting before you get to them. This edition contains comments after each chapter (Engel’s original was published in 1972) written by the critic Howard Kissel in 2006. Kissel points out where Engel’s opinions have not always dated well, and provides his own opinions, which haven’t always dated well either.

Many readers will be turned off by the fact the Engel loathed ‘Hair’, and ‘Man of La Mancha’. Heck, he didn’t even like ‘Cabaret’ much (he calls it a “success-failure”), but if we indulge in rage-blindness over our favourite shows, we’ll miss the troubling and interesting questions Engel raises about what’s possible and what’s not possible in a musical.

For example, Engel says all musical theatre is essentially lyrical, and so a purely intellectual exercise cannot succeed on the musical stage, as it can on the non-musical stage. Is he right? If he’s wrong, where are the counter-examples?

Because of the time necessarily given over to song, Engel also argues, the principal characters’ storyline in a musical cannot be too complex, and will therefore be too thin to occupy the entire evening. A subplot will almost always be necessary. Now, sure, we can all think of exceptions – Engel provides some himself – but we have to admit the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on his side.

These considerations are the most valuable parts of the book, but they’re not the noisiest, and they don’t occupy the most pages. Engel rails against rock throughout; Kissel gently points out rock’s endurance, then commits the same sin by dismissing hip-hop. These are the silliest parts of the book, and should remind us all of how silly we too could sound in ten or forty years.

Best Songwriting Book, Hands Down, That I’ve Ever Read

And it’s only about lyrics, but it’s still the best.  Better than Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions, better than Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, better than The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, The Singer and the Song, The Song is Ended, or Fascinating Rhythm.

This is the third copy I’ve owned:

The other two were each leant to an aspiring songwriter with the words, “This is just a loan”.  Foolish, I know, but they were pretty.

Arrogantly, I thought for years that I need not buy this book again, that I had absorbed its knowledge and could now pursue my own Zen master path.  A quick look at the index shows how wrong I was. 

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off …

Underrated Song: Photographs (Me In Love With You)

Alec Wilder wrote a highly opinionated book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. Gosh, it’s a good book.  He has the chutzpah to criticise Rodgers, Berlin, Kern – all of the greats – whenever he feels they’re not at their best.  Pfft, you might say – who’s Alec Wilder, apart from the writer of that lovely 1942 jazz standard I’ll Be Around?

Alec Wilder is the co-writer of this song, to a lyric by Fran Landesman.  Pfft, you might say – who’s Fran Landesman, apart from the co-writer of that lovely 1955 jazz standard Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most?

If you want a few laughs
Old photographs
Are fun to rummage through

Here’s our house in the snow
So long ago
And me in love with you.

Please, cabaret singers, start doing this one.  A tiny, modest little song, and it makes me ache with envy. Amongst other things.

The Continuing Saga of Early Peter Allen Albums

I wrote earlier about the surprising difficulty of finding a copy of Tenterfield Saddler, Allen’s second solo album as a singer-songwriter, and then I reviewed the album.  But now that I’ve read a few bits of Stephen MacLean’s The Boy From Oz, permit me one minor boast:  I can pick a cabaret ballad.  I thought the song Harbour was asking for it, and it turns out Liza (Minnelli, that is) paid Allen the compliment of recording it, and More Than I Like You as well.  Moreover, the passages on the album that seem to be about their time together are, in fact, about their time together.  But any fool could have spotted that.

MacLean describes Allen’s penning of the album’s title song on the roof of the Shangri-La apartments, in the winter of 1971, on Campbell Parade, across the road from Bondi Beach.  Courtesy of Google Maps, here’s that building:

I don’t know if the landlords have put up a plaque, but they should.

MacLean also writes:

Peter chose minor, almost maudlin chords for this melody, and made mention of kangaroos, jackaroos and emus.  Australian songs had done this before, usually descending to the level of kitsch.  Peter’s song, in its honesty, side-stepped vulgarity.

This is, apart from the business about the chords, spot on.  Here is Tenterfield Saddler‘s chord progression, simplified for clarity:

Verse:  F               C/E         Dm

Bb             F            C7

Bb             C/Bb       Am7          Dm7

C7sus4    C7           C7sus4   C7    F

Chorus:  F       F/E     Dm7   Dm7/C    Gm7   C7   Gm7  C7

Gm7   C7   Gm7   C7   F

As you can see, there aren’t that many minor chords (those Gm7s in the chorus really function as a C7sus), and the song’s in a major key. 

If it makes you feel almost maudlin (because a person can be maudlin, but a chord can’t), I reckon it’s because of two things: the waltz time and that descending bass line, one of those step-at-a-time bass lines that falls and falls, and falls, until it ends up exactly where it started.  That’s the sound of a merry-go-round, that chord progression is, whirling around and around, ever moving, ever coming back to where it started.  It fits the lyric’s theme of time’s ever-meddling presence beautifully. 

It’s a very, very good song; I’d be proud to have written it.

A Fact-Checker? Why? And What’s a Sub-Editor?

Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith is one of those songwriting books that gets better as it goes along.  It’s scrupulous about crediting songwriters whenever they’re quoted, and the Publishing Credits at the end are commendably anal.  Nevertheless, this, on page 133 of my 1998 paperback edition, where Webb is recommending that songwriters study unconventional structures:

If you are uncertain as to the labeling of a particular section, make up your own name for it.  As John Lennon wrote: “There’s nothing you can hear that can’t be heard” (“All You Need Is Love”, © 1967 Lennon and McCartney)

Now Webb wrote All I Know, and has probably survived more drugs than I ever will.  So I doff my hat, I do, but is that line even in “All You Need Is Love”?  Where?  Even if you didn’t know the song by heart, think about it:  what would Lennon have rhymed it with?

Nothing you can blur that isn’t blurred
Nothing you can fur that isn’t furred
Nothing you can poo that isn’t turd

Or the square root of two is a surd, a blooger’s a nerd, flip you the bird, Duchamp is absurd, Grease is the word. You can see why Lennon chose a different path.

The rest of the book, by the way, is very good.