Lyric Lens: “Love’s a Gun” by Michael Friedman
Hi, everybody! Lyric Lens is back! You know what else is back? Shaksepeare in the Park, and I’m so excited. Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies, and the production photos look beautiful. I can’t wait to see it. Walking past the Delacorte the other day, I got to thinking about some of my favorite past Shakespeare in the Park experiences.
Last summer, I have to say, ranks pretty high in my memories. The evening I spent in a torrential rainstorm at The Comedy of Errors was perhaps the single most magical night of theater I have ever experienced. You can read all about it in Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s wonderful Facebook post. And then the second production of the summer was Love’s Labour’s Lost: A New Musical, by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, which was exciting in a whole different way. I love some straight-up classical Shakespeare as much of the next person, and we all know I love new musicals, so it was a real treat that Shakespeare in the Park combined the two.
I didn’t know much about Love’s Labour’s Lost before seeing it last summer, but I’d heard a few songs that the Public Theater had posted on their SoundCloud account as a sneak peek. The standout for me was “Love’s a Gun,” sung on this particular demo recording by Lindsay Mendez (and in the show by Rebecca Naomi Jones), which haunted me and which I played over and over again in the days after I first heard it. Here’s that SoundCloud recording:
The lyrics of this song are so carefully crafted and so densely packed with meaning that at first I wondered if they were at least partly taken from actual Shakespeare text. Then, of course, I promptly felt like an idiot and wanted to smack myself in the head, because duh, there were no guns in Shakespeare’s time. But that’s neither here nor there. Either way the sentiment of the song feels intensely Shakespearean in its worldly, bittersweet take on love.
Let’s take a look at the first verse:
Love’s a gun.
The safety’s off.
And in the chamber there’s a bullet, but only one.
Spin it round,
Test your luck,
Pull the trigger and you’ll know what you have won.
It’s either bang, a bright red flash of light,
Then sweet oblivion,
Or a click that means another round
Of tense anticipation.
Is the pain worse than the waiting?
Only you can make the call.
Just one click, and you’ll see what you have done.
Love’s a gun.
There’s so much great stuff going on here on the word-to-word level. The rhyme scheme is unexpected but carefully followed and really helps the whole verse hang together. The words, for the most part, are small and simple words, many of them only one syllable. The result is a natural emphasis on longer words that I find just thrilling. Take a look at the list of two-syllable words: “safety, chamber, bullet, trigger, either, another, waiting, only.” It reads like a summary of the whole stanza.
And the only words of more than three syllables? “Oblivion” and “anticipation.” Just by choosing his words carefully, Michael Friedman is able to throw a bright spotlight onto the entire dilemma of the verse, and really the song. That’s the power of a lyricist. Use it wisely, friends.
All four of the song’s verses have a similar structure, and I love how it works. The statement that this (and every) verse starts off with is a pretty bold assertion, to which my natural reaction is to want to say, “What? No way. Love’s not a gun. What are you talking about?” But then, through his intricate, airtight lyrics, Michael Friedman tells me exactly what he and his character are talking about, and they make a very compelling case. By the time the verse comes back around to restate its opening line, I want to say, “You’re so right. Love is totally a gun.”
The second verse makes a whole new claim about what love might be:
Love’s a game,
With cups and balls.
You give your money, the ball is hidden, and the cups all look the same.
You watch each move,
You know the con,
You’ve been fooled before, so concentrate, remember why you came.
And this time you know your choice is right,
You’ve finally beat the odds.
But when he lifts the cup it’s empty.
You’re fooled again so hang your head in shame,
Love’s a game.
So love is a gun, but it’s also a game. I’m totally on board. This verse continues to do all of the stuff that I pointed out in the first verse, but also does some new things. A small thing that it does is to use words that rhyme with words that popped up in the previous verse, which makes the song cohesive across verses and not just within them. For example, “ball” and “all” in the second verse call echo “call” at the end of the first, and all of the “-ame” call back to the first syllable of “chamber” at the very beginning of the song. Even if you’re not cognitively aware of these matchups (I wasn’t until I listened to the song about 25 times), I promise you’re vaguely aware of something that makes the whole song hang together.
The big thing this verse does is introduce information about the character who’s singing. The first verse operates on pretty general terms, but in the second we hear a lot about a “you,” who I’m pretty sure is actually a coded “I.” What I mean by that is, when the singer says, “You know the con, / You’ve been fooled before,” she’s actually telling us that she’s the one who’s been fooled before. The content of her statements tells us that past heartbreak has shaped her cynical outlook on love, but so does her choice of oblique phrasing. She’s guarded now. She has to pretend she’s telling someone else’s story and not her own.
That’s where I’m going to leave you. If you love analyzing Shakespeare, musicals, or both, dig into the latter two verses on your own. There’s tons more to pick apart. To me, this song works so well because it expresses intensely Shakespearean ideas in a contemporary musical theater format, and the two genres mesh perfectly. Yes, on the surface, the song makes a case for a whole bunch of things that love is like. But I think that on a more subtle level, the song also makes a case for the viability of contemporary musical adaptations of Shakespeare.