I Wish I’d Written That
Musical theatre writers, by and large, are musical theatre nerds first, whose natural proclivities have led them to their craft. They know their Alan Menken and their Cole Porter, and they may not remember all the words to the national anthem, but they could recite the lyrics to “Getting Married Today” in their sleep. But lest we think of musical theatre writers as robots who do nothing but listen to showtunes when they’re not writing their own, it’s important to remember that every now and then they slip in a Springsteen or Wilco album, because man cannot live on cast recordings alone. Since you don’t necessarily have to be one of the Gershwin brothers to write an amazing song, today we check in with some of our NMT writers to find out what non-musical theater song they wish they had written.
Drew Gasparini: “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
I like to think of myself as pretty knowledgable when it comes to pop music. I write a lot of my own pop stuff outside of my theater writing, and I find myself constantly listening to pop music. The evolution of pop is always so fascinating to me. It has gone from straight forward, clean cut, to obscure and prolific, and now we are living in a world where pop is so eclectic, it’s hard to define. The list of songs that I wish I had written goes on and on forever, but one that I really wish I had gotten to write would be “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. This song is so timeless. It made such a large stamp in our culture because of the famous scene in “Say Anything” where John Cusack holds the boom box above his head. Peter Gabriel has done this song as part of his encore in his concerts for almost 35 years now, and though it is a love song with African influence in the music, it has become such a joyous anthem, and you can’t help but be filled up by the feelings this song allows you to have. Peter did it perfectly, but I wish I could have the love song anthem that he created.
An artist I have a major talent crush on is Andrew Bird. Beyond being a gifted singer-songwriter, he is a virtuosic violinist AND whistler. No fair. The song I chose is called “Masterswarm” from his 2009 album Noble Beast. Beyond being musically interesting at all times with a surprising, hypnotic pizzicato groove that makes you feel cooler simply by having heard it, Andrew Bird is playing with the contrast of coherence vs. incoherence on many levels.
A certain Stephen Sondheim talks a lot about how content dictates form, and I think this is a pretty stellar example of that concept. The song works like this: out of a spiky opening verse of mind-bending wordplay that seemingly signifies nothing, there is a kernel of what you might call a conventional lyric in the chorus that suddenly takes flight. Then an instrumental with a breathtaking violin solo (bonus points), and then a gradual return to the verbal chaos in which we began, decaying as the loop he’s been looping fades into nothing. Here’s the chorus:
So they took me to the hospital
They put my body through a scan
What they saw there would impress them all
For inside me grows a man
Who speaks with perfect diction
As he orders my eviction
As he acts with more conviction
Out of a tongue-tied chaos comes an eloquent cry to be understood, to be seen, to connect – only to then be swallowed by the chaos again.
The construction of the song itself seems to be exploring in real-time the rise and fall of consciousness to unconsciousness and back again. Coherence to incoherence. Order to chaos. Confusion to purpose. Don’t get caught up in the verbal pyrotechnics. You aren’t supposed to “figure it out” or dutifully google “radiolarians” (though it does make for an interesting couple of minutes/potentially game-changing Scrabble entry.)
Andrew Bird is deconstructing language (beautifully) and using the form itself to show our humanness, and as a songwriter I think that is incredibly daring and exciting – and I wish I had written that.
I tend to wish I’d written songs that are simple or songs that I never could’ve written – stuff that’s slightly outside my wheelhouse. Here are three that jump to mind:
“Ramshackle” by Beck
Gorgeous, mysterious, weird, warm. Like so many great Beck tunes, the lyrics and images are so clear and articulate, but I still have no idea what the song is about. The meaning of the song changes depending on the mood I am in when I listen to it. It sounds homespun and otherworldly at the same time. If I ever find an E.T.-like alien hiding in the forest, I would bring him home and sing him to sleep every night with this song.
“Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The hook of this song is so exquisite I just can’t believe that someone actually wrote it. It sounds as if it’s been living at the center of the earth since the beginning of time, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs just stumbled upon it one day in 2004. As perfect a rock’n’roll love song as has ever been written. And I find the instrumental bridge/coda insanely inspiring. I’ve been ripping it off since I first heard the song.
“Bye Bye Love” by The Everly Brothers
Because it’s so malleable. And simple. And catchy. And it’s one of Joe Gideon’s favorites as well.