Lyric Lens(ish): “Beautiful You” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler
When I was in ninth grade, my friend Rachel and I went to Sutton Foster’s first-ever solo concert, a part of the 2004 American Songbook series. It was also the first solo concert we had ever been to. It was a great evening, and we heard lots of wonderful songs, but one of the ones that stuck with me most was a song that I thought must be called “Beautiful You,” since that was the phrase most repeated in the song. But there was no setlist in the program, so I never got to find out what it was actually called or who wrote it.
Cut to ten years later. I’m browsing NewMusicalTheatre trying to decide what song to write about for the next edition of Lyric Lens, and on Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s page, I come across a song called “Beautiful You.” Can it be? A quick check of the lyrics confirms that the first verse matches up with the verse I’ve been singing over and over in my head all these years. Musical theatre mystery solved.
The song is published as part of the Goldrich and Heisler Songbook, but as far as I have been able to discover, there is no professional recording of it available for purchase. All you singers out there, please get on that. It’s such a lovely song. There are a couple of versions on YouTube, but it doesn’t feel right to link to one here because my memory of Sutton Foster’s version is kind of important to this post. (I know, a lot of Sutton Foster on Lyric Lens these days. I didn’t plan it that way, but she picks good songs!)
There are a lot of little technical things that I could point out as working well in this song. Take that first verse I mentioned above:
I don’t know what makes the wind blow.
I don’t know why the rain comes down.
I can’t tell you why stars shine high
Over everybody’s hometown.
I don’t know what moves the river,
Or why roses bloom as they do.
Don’t know much, but I know there’s a God,
And I thank him for beautiful you.
I don’t think you have to be a particularly religious person to appreciate the simple beauty of these lyrics. I love the way the first two lines set me up to think this is going to be a straight list song, but that third line deviates just the slightest delightful bit from the tight repetition by substituting “I can’t tell” for “I don’t know.” I love that after six lines, all this character has told me is what she doesn’t know, and yet I feel like I know who she is. And I love most of all how the word “beautiful” takes me by surprise. When I first heard the line, I expected it just to say, “I thank him for you.” The way that “beautiful” is slipped into that line still takes my breath away.
There are several more equally gorgeous verses that I could break down in my usual way, but I’m not going to. This is an unconventional installment of Lyric Lens, because the technical things are not what I really want to talk about today. When I think of this song, I don’t think about line structure and character development. I think of clutching Rachel’s hand and grinning to her as we shared an elevator with Broadway fancies on the way up to Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse. I think of giggling when the waiter asked us if we were interested in ordering cocktails, and mumbling an order for a Diet Coke as I wrapped my mind around the concept of being able to order food and drinks at a concert. I think of that night, May 15, 2004.
I read a post on Serious Eats recently in which blogger Jamie Feldmar revisits Strawberry Pop Tarts, her favorite childhood treat, to see if they’re as good as she remembers. She writes: “Strawberry was the flavor my mother purchased on the one occasion every year she allowed Pop-Tarts in the house…I can still smell the biscuitty bottom layer browning in the toaster, still feel the smooth motion of sliding the frosting top off with my teeth.” For Jamie Feldmar, the experience of eating Pop Tarts comes hand-in-hand with specific, detailed, memories. Just like with me and “Beautiful You.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in these Lyric Lens posts talking about my observations and feelings that stem from a very specific word or phrase, a choice that the lyricist has made. But it’s important to acknowledge that we often have responses to lyrics that have nothing at all to do with the words a writer chose, and those responses are valid—even valuable—as well.
I like to think of lyrics as vessels in which I can store my memories. I don’t hold every one of my memories in my mind all the time. I couldn’t possibly. But sometimes when I listen to, or even just think about, a song that I haven’t heard in a long time, it’s like unlocking a box and pulling out the feeling of being in a specific moment in my past. I’ve come a long way from that wide-eyed teenage Broadway fangirl, but for me, the box called “Beautiful You” will always hold the memory of one thrilling night almost ten years ago. What lyric-boxes hold memories for you?
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