Looking Closely at Lyrics, or “God is in the Details”
Hi there. My name is Margaret, and I love musical theatre lyrics. Like, really love them. I love to listen to them, read them, write them, and through it all, to break them down into tiny little pieces and analyze what I love about them. Like any good lyric enthusiast, when I headed out for the evening a few Mondays ago I made sure my DVR was set to catch HBO’s “Six by Sondheim” so that I could watch it as soon as I got home.
The documentary stirred a lot of thoughts and feelings in me, among them a fierce craving for a Merrily We Roll Along movie to exist sooner rather than later. But what stayed with me in the days after my first viewing (yes, of several so far) was something that Stephen Sondheim said, in a video clip from a 1980 interview with British journalist Bernard Levin, about what distinguishes lyrics from poetry:
Poetry seems to me to exist in terms of its conciseness, how much can be packed in. Lyric writing has to exist in time. The audience, the listener, cannot do what the reader of poetry does. He cannot go at his own speed. He cannot go back over the sentence. Therefore it must be crystal clear as it goes on. That means you have to underwrite. You have to lay the sentences out so there’s enough air for the ear to take them in. …The lyric must be, in that sense, simple. It can be full of complex thoughts, and it certainly can have resonance, but it must be easy to follow. That is not true of poetry.
This is completely true, of course. But I believe that just because lyrics have to be able to be understood in real time, on one hearing, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be listened to again—and again and again—and understood and appreciated in new ways.
This is something we talked a lot about in Adam Gwon’s Lyric Writing classes at Primary Stages when I took them last year. Each week we would listen to a song or two that Adam had chosen, and then discuss what moments or turns of phrase were especially remarkable to us. Hearing new songs for the first time, I learned about the lyricist’s burden of making lyrics clear and simple enough to be, as Sondheim said, “easy to follow.” But as we picked them apart, I also learned the value of taking care, as a listener, to appreciate the tiniest features of a lyric, the nuances of rhyme, meter, or imagery.
Sondheim acknowledges this, I think, in the third of three writing principles that he lays out in his book Finishing the Hat: “God is in the details.” Anybody can have an idea for a song, but musical theatre magic is made in the way that idea is expressed. Will the lyric have some kind of recurring structure, or will it be through-composed? What about rhyme scheme and meter? How does it change everything to choose one word instead of another that means almost exactly the same thing?
Because it does change everything. It’s like the butterfly effect. Every single sound and syllable was chosen for a reason, however large or small, and plays a vital role in making a song what it is.
All of this is to say that my next post will be the first in a series taking a close look at some of my favorite lyrics, and what makes them my favorites. I’m not talking about the kind of close reading you probably did in English class, where we talk about the writer’s motivations and intentions behind the art. As a writer myself, I know that I can’t pretend to know why other writers make the choices they do, what exactly they were thinking when they put a bunch of words together to make a song. I’m more concerned with how I, you, or any other listener experiences what that person wrote. What does this line gain by coming right after that one? What does a phrase or word choice tell me about the character who’s singing? How does it make me feel?
In my next post, I’ll examine some of these questions as they relate to an actual song by an actual musical theatre writer. In the meantime, I encourage you to see what happens if you listen even more closely to the lyrics around you. Listen to them over again, if you want. And consider how each tiny detail of a lyric contributes to the whole. Take your favorite lyric, and imagine if one word was different, even the smallest word.
It wouldn’t be the same song.
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