November 7, 2014
Stephen Sondheim, who needs no introduction, says in his book “Finishing the Hat”…
“Finding appropriate rhymes that haven’t been used before is one of the few pleasures of lyric writing, an occupation consisting chiefly of tedious list-making and frustration.”
The word “tedious” does not capture the experience I’ve had this week of devoting thirty hours of concentrated labour to lyrics for a song that lasts two minutes and twenty-five seconds (2:25). When you spend this amount of time with a tune it becomes a lot more than an earworm. It becomes a brain drill. I became a slave to the music. I ate, slept, walked, and talked with the song playing in the background. I lay in bed in the middle of the night tapping out the beats on my chest (harder taps for the emphasized syllables) until my wife told me to stop.
In my defense, it is a complicated tune. It has six verses, two bridges and an extended coda. It’s going to be a solo for Lisa in the middle of Act Two (of Double Trouble) and it has the potential to be a showstopper, which only raises the stakes for the lyricist. So it was with some anguish that, having finished a complete set of lyrics, I realized they were often fighting with the song. Like early Bruce Springsteen, I was trying to cram too much in. It’s not easy to start all over again, and of course you aren’t really, but it can also be a relief. I realized that it was (a) just a song (b) that it shouldn’t be this difficult and (c) that I should “try a different approach”. Zen. Sometimes you have to not want what you want and then, like a cat, what you want wants you.
P.S. I think the different approach is to be as emotionally honest to the character as I can. The music is funny. As Slava Polunin says (add Russian accent) “Don’t make funny, funny”.
And on that ‘note’ I wish you a glorious weekend.