FINISHING THE HAT: “Just Not Now” – A Conversation with Lyricist Ryan Cunningham
Note from David: For Fall 2015, I am launching a new series taking a specific look at the craft of lyric writing. As a librettist and lyricist myself, this is a particular passion for me and I wanted to explore what went into the new musical theatre lyrics that we all know and love. So with my new series, FINISHING THE HAT, each installment will focus on one song with the complete lyrics – and an insider’s perspective from the writers themselves. The interviews are insightful, reflective, and in all cases, a master class in lyric writing for the theatre.
This week, we begin the series with “Just Not Now” from the musical I LOVE YOU BECAUSE, with music by Joshua Salzman and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham.
THE STORY: I LOVE YOU BECAUSE is a modern twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, set in New York City. A young, uptight greeting card writer’s life is changed when he meets a flighty photographer named Marcy. Along with their eccentric friends and siblings, they learn to love each other not in spite of their faults, but because of them.
THE SET-UP: “Just Not Now” comes at the end of the first act. The romantic lead, Austin, tells Marcy that he loves her. She is not ready for that much of an emotional commitment, and “Just Not Now” is her response.
STOP THERE AUSTIN. HOLD IT. FREEZE.
GIVE ME A SECOND. WOULD YOU, PLEASE?
YOU SAID A LOT THERE.
AND I’M JUST NOT THERE.
I NEED TO THINK.
YOUR HONESTY IS REAL AND IT APPEALS TO MY EMOTIONS.
WHICH IS GREAT BUT I’M SURE
NOW’S NOT THE TIME FOR
But Marcy, I love you.
I WANT TRUE LOVE SOME DAY,
BUT JUST NOT NOW.
A PICKET FENCE CLICHÉ,
BUT JUST NOT NOW.
HOW CAN I MAKE YOU SEE
THOUGH THIS FEELS RIGHT TO ME
NOW’S NOT THE TIME TO BE
QUITE WHERE YOU ARE?
YOU’RE HERE TOO SOON.
AND THOUGH I KNOW IT SOUNDS UNFAIR,
IF YOU WOULD WAIT FOR ME,
I SWEAR, I’LL MEET YOU THERE.
I NEED SOME TIME TO HEAL.
AND THOUGH YOUR LOVE SEEMS REAL,
I’M NOT PREPARED TO FEEL
THE WAY YOU DO.
LET’S TAKE THIS TIME.
WE’LL WAIT IT OUT,
OR ELSE WE’LL CRASH AND BURN.
I’M LOST AND I DON’T KNOW
WHAT TRUE LOVE’S ALL ABOUT.
PLEASE GIVE ME TIME TO LEARN.
I WANT SO MUCH TO SAY,
“OKAY I LOVE YOU TOO.”
I WILL BUT NOT TODAY.
YOU KNOW. I KNOW YOU DO.
AND THOUGH IT’S HARD YOU MUST
CONTROL YOUR HEART, AND TRUST,
I WANT TO BE WITH YOU
JUST NOT NOW.
DB: Tell us a little about the creation of the lyric generally.
RC: This is a song based on a real letter I wrote to the woman I was dating at the time–in the letter, I said I wanted to settle down one day, but that day was not today. I never sent the letter, but once I was no longer in the relationship, it struck me as an interesting idea for a song. I like to write songs like this–where the lyrical content fights the musical setting. In this case, it sounds like a beautiful love song, but the lyrics are saying that she doesn’t really want to be with him. She’s protecting him from herself–which is actually a loving thing to do–but in such a way that it hurts him. That all brings a lot of push and pull to the song, which gives us a lot to write about and a lot of places to go.
DB: Was there a rhythm pattern you were looking to achieve in this song? What was the goal of the flow of the text?
RC: A challenge for young lyricists (which I was at the time) is to break their natural patterns–to find ways to force your lyric matrix into another pattern. A solve for young lyricists is to borrow a lyric matrix from someone else. (For the record, I don’t do this anymore.) Hopefully, your composer messes with your lyric enough so that the song is fundamentally altered and takes on a life of its own–which is what happened with “Just Not Now.” I wrote it to the lyric matrix of the brilliant Gershwin song “But Not for Me” (give it a try, much of the lyric still sits on that tune), but Josh changed it enough so that it is very much its own song.
DB: Thematically, where does the lyric reach its “moment”…meaning, is there a particular line that serves as the heartbeat of the song?
RC: As is often the case, this lyric really makes its case in the bridge–specifically the last line. Until then, Marcy is describing her situation and her feelings. It is in the last line of the bridge that we understand what she is asking for from Austin: “I’m lost and I don’t know what true love’s all about. Please give me time to learn.”
DB: If you had the chance to re-write this lyric, knowing what you know now, what if anything would you do differently?
RC: Once a show is done and out in the world, I try not to spend too much time second-guessing myself. I prefer to put that energy towards the next project. You could drive yourself to madness re-writing your imperfections.
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