Musical Theatre: My Friend the Dictionary
The other day I was walking around campus listening to The Last Five Years— as per usual—my school is built on hills so how could I pass up the opportunity to listen to “Climbing Uphill” as I walk to class? “Climb Every Mountain” is often too intense to listen to at 9AM and “I Miss The Mountains” is too emotionally draining.
Anyway. I’m listening to the score when it dawned on me how much of my vocabulary comes from musical theatre songs. Below are some of the words I learned from the dictionary of musical theatre. (And if you guys think of any mountain-themed songs let me know I’ll add them to my morning playlist).
1. Catatonic, “A Part of That,” The Last Five Years
So this is the song that started the epiphany. The first time I heard it I didn’t really process catatonic because I was so engrossed in the beauty of the score, but by around the 4th listen it was driving me crazy and I finally looked it up. And now I feel extra smart when I use it in a sentence. PS The above clip is from a production in Barcelona…does the Spanish-speaking audience know what catatonic means? Was I just really behind on that? Damn public school system.
Catatonic (cat-a-ton-ic), adj: of, relating to, being, resembling or affected by schizophrenia characterized especially by a marked psychomotor disturbance that may involve stupor or mutism, negativism, rigidity, purposeless excitement, and inappropriate or bizarre posturing
2. Akimbo, “Give Them What They Want,” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The year was 2005. My Dad had gone to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway and this score was on constant loop in my household. Not exaggerating. The opening number was a great, suave exposition song but right from the beginning I was lost by what Lawrence meant by “right arm, akimbo and relaxed.” Akimbo? I was so lost. By the time I finally got to see the show (and watch Norbert Leo Butz prove he’s hands down one of the most talented actors today) I couldn’t wait to see what Lawrence did with his arm.
Akimbo (a-kim-bo), adj, adv: having the hand on the hip and the elbow turned outward
3. Caftan, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” Company
What was a caftan? Something fancy ladies lounged in but a car? A penthouse? Gown? Turns out it was one of those long drapey dresses socialites wear when they want to be comfy. What a perfect, specific item of clothing that encapsulates the rich and vain so well. Who needs a robe when you have a caftan? Wait, am I seriously surprised? Of course Sondheim picked it with genius purpose.
Caftan (caf-tan), n: a usually cotton or silk angle-length garment with long sleeves that is common throughout the Levant
4. Unprepossessing, “Popular,” Wicked
Okay, I’m not a total idiot. I got the context clues to figure out what unprepossessing meant. Unprepossessing features, Elphaba is the ugly one, okay. What I didn’t quite realize when I was ten was that it’s a real word…I thought it was made up! I know, pretty embarrassing. But in my defense, Winnie Holzman invented so many new words in the dialogue for the Ozians that I just assumed it was one of them! (I also thought many Harry Potter spells were actual words…maybe my intelligence didn’t kick in until middle school.)
Unprepossessing (un-pre-pos-ses-sing), adj: Not particularly attractive or appealing to the eye
5. Sodomy, “La Vie Boheme,” Rent
I remember googling this in 5th grade on a school computer one day after lunch and getting in trouble. All of my friends were singing from this edgy show really fast with so many words I didn’t know! Honestly, this song was a great catalog of references to learn I think I spent an entire afternoon with the printed lyrics looking everything up. It’s like the musical theater 90’s version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
Sodomy (sod-om-y) n: anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex
And there’s so many more, I could probably write another list just with the education of vocabulary through Sondheim, and an even longer one with the words I’ve learned in different languages through musicals. Thank god for theatre, right?
Also, shoutout to Merriam-Webster for making this list possible.