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Makin' Me Smile...


I had a lot of fun writing this week's blog. I got out the iPod and started scrolling through show after show after show playing my favorite songs obscure and popular in search of my favorite bits of linguistic play. Instead of just a playlist of 10 lyrics, though, I'm highlighting the work of five lyricists whom I admire. So what follows aren't necessarily the best songs, or even the best lyrics, but lyrics that give me some sort of genuine pleasure; either for their cleverness or outrageousness or they just make me smile. I've tried to avoid songs with lyrics I adore which I've highlighted in other blogs so no "Three Bedroom House" from Bat Boy or "Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits will be found here.

See what I did there?

Anyhoo, I've put them in random order because, well when there is so much fun to be had why make it a competition?

Tim Rice
It's quite possible that Tim Rice is the most financially successful theatrical lyricist of all time. Between Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Beauty and the Beast, and oh yeah, The Lion King, he's done ok. Surprisingly though when people write about the musical theatre's great lyricists his name, more often than not, doesn't appear. I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard, and yet, he's given us some extraordinary work over the years and he's a master craftsman. He rarely takes the easy way out. He has a way of winking at those members of the audience who are actually listening to the words of a song rather than being swept away by whatever spectacle is put in front of them. My two favorite bits of linguistic play of his are from none of those smash shows. The first is from the usually ill-fated musical Chess and the show's hit song "One Night in Bangkok:"

Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.

How can you not love that?

The second is from his (and Elton John's) Tony-winning score of Aida. Let's face it, Aida isn't a great show, but it is lots of fun and never more fun than in Amneris's introductory self-aware number "The Strongest Suit." It was this song, as smashingly performed by Sherie Rene Scott on Broadway, that I sat back and relaxed and allowed the show to just give me a good time, rather than have me analyze it to death. When a creative team is confident enough to put a number like this in their show, they clearly know what they're doing. But back to the lyric:

From your cradle via trousseau
To your deathbed you're on view, so
Never compromise, accept no substitute.
I would rather wear a barrel
Than conservative apparel
For my dress has always been
My strongest suit


David Zippel
The list of comic musicals where the lyrics are as smart and funny as the book is very short. Near the top of that list is City of Angels written by Larry Gelbart, Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Mr. Gelbart's libretto contains wit and triple entendre in virtually every line and one would have forgiven whoever the lyricist of the show was for not being able to keep up with him.  But in fact we don't have to forgive Mr. Zippel anything, his lyrics are as smart and biting as Mr. Gelbart's book and sometimes unexpectedly vulgar as in this excerpt from this book song with a beat, "It Needs Work" smartly sung by Kay McClelland:

With dangers cropping up
And sweet young strangers popping up like weeds
So if you wish official pardoning
You better do a little gardening
Ya know ya needn't be so gen'rous with your seeds
Your fertile lies don't fertilize
It needs work

There's a teeny bit of a yuck factor there, but golly it's clever.

Frank Loesser
One of the true giants of the musical theatre he's responsible for two of the best musicals ever written (Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella since you asked) and was capable of deep emotion as well as easy laughs. For me  though, the score of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the great achievement. The show was a deeply cynical and incisive indictment of corporate life in the early 60's or it was a simply a delightful though somewhat sexist musical comedy. Mr. Loesser, and his chief collaborator on the show Abe Burrows, let the audience decide which show they were seeing. The Pulitzer Committee saw the former and gave it their prestigious prize. The audiences of the initial four-year run of the show on Broadway saw the latter. I have always been in awe of the following lyric in the "Coffee Break"  number:

If I can't make three daily trips
Where shining shrine benignly drips
And taste cardboard between my lips
Something within me dies
Dies down
And something within me dies

I mean really: Where shining shrine benignly drips?  That's genius.

Noel Coward
Growing up I'd always heard of Noel Coward but never really knew his work until I saw A Noel Coward Revue at the small Theatre-in-the-Dell in Toronto.  (The revue later became Oh, Coward!) Soon I found a copy of the original cast album of Sail Away and devoured it. Listen to Elaine Stritch's gravelly voice croon these words from "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?"

Please do not think that I criticize or cavil
at a genuine urge to roam
But why, oh why do the wrong people travel when the right people stay back home

made me sit up and expand my world view. I'm sure at dinner that night I had to ask my father and step-mother what "cavil" meant. I only wish I remember what I said when they asked why I wanted to know.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green
The brilliance of Comden and Green is unquestioned. They wrote great shows, classic films, and were always wonderful guests on talk  and variety shows. Their lyrics could be heart-breaking ("Some Other Time" from On the Town), inspiring ("Never Never Land" from Peter Pan), or just plain smart ("I've Got it All" from On the Twentieth Century). But I think my favorite lyric is one that still has the ability to make me laugh more than 50 years after a first heard it. It's from Bells are Ringing and it's the end of the song "Drop That Name." The song itself always amused me: who were all those people: Daniel Mann and Lynn Fontanne; Bernie Baruch and King Farook; Carol Reed and Sammy Snead?  I had so much to learn! The genius part of the song is that the main character Ella is as much as outsider to the litany of celebrity as we are and the only "name" she can drop is "Rin Tin Tin" until the climax of the song which goes like this:

(Errol Flynn!) Rin Tin Tin!
(Edmund Gwenn!) Ren Ten Ten!
(Ali Kahn!) Rahn Tan Tan!
(Raymond Massey!) Lassie!

The name "Lassie" makes me smile every time. Even now as I type this - see I'm smiling.  Oh, to have been in the room when that happened!

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