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Musicals Say the Darnedest Things

August 3, 2008

By Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aug. 3–The vivid image … the unexpected rhyme … the witty play on words …

With all of those assets, song lyrics can be one of the signal pleasures of musical theater. That’s not true just for audiences, but for performers, too.

But on the other hand …

Bad lyrics — lyrics that make no sense, that make you wince with their sheer awfulness, that make you wonder how the singer can possibly get through them — are hardly lacking. And they don’t come only from hacks. Even the greatest lyricists have howlers to their credit.

We’ve been talking about bad lyrics with some people who should really know: performers, directors, musicians, all veterans of many musical shows. They didn’t exactly have to wrack their brains to come up with examples.

But their choices did seem to fall into several distinct categories.

WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

“More I cannot wish you

Than to wish you find your love

Your own true love this day

With a sheep’s eye

And a lickerish tooth

And strong arms

To carry you away.”

(“More I Cannot Wish You” from “Guys and Dolls,” lyrics by Frank Loesser)

“On nights when my lord looketh listless

And black is the hue of his gloom

His handmaiden hath what he lacketh.

And what doth he lack?

Rahadlakum!”

(“Rahadlakum” from “Kismet,” lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest)

Rahadlakum turns out to be something to eat. What Frank Loesser meant about sheep’s eyes and lickerish teeth is still anybody’s guess.

ACTUALLY, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS MIGHT BE A PLUS

“And if he likes me

Who cares how frequently he strikes me

I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling

Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.”

(“The Very Next Man” from “Fiorello!,” lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)

“Chick-a-pen,

Gonna have to whop you right on top of your head.

And when I get through whop-whoppin’ you

Right on your head

I’ll make your other end twice as red

Or kiss your lily-white hand instead.

Chick-a-pen,

Gonna have to whop your head.”

(“Chick-a-pen” from “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” by Meredith Willson)

As one performer who should know observes, “Try to get through that with a straight face.” Or an unslapped one.

DID YOU EXPECT SOMEBODY TO STAND ON STAGE AND SING THIS TO MUSIC?

“Easy to be proud

Easy to say no

And especially people

Who care about strangers

Who care about evil

And social injustice

Do you only

Care about the bleeding crowd?

How about a needing friend?

I need a friend.”

(“Easy to Be Hard” from “Hair,” lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni)

“Bad is good for me — I’m bored, so clean and so ignored

I’ve only been predictable — respectable!

Birds fly out of here so why oh why

Oh why the hell can’t I

I only want variety of society!

I want to be a part of B.A. — Buenos Aires — Big Apple!

Chorus: She wants to be a part of B.A. — Buenos Aires — Big Apple

(“Eva Beware of the City” from “Evita” lyrics by Tim Rice)

These songs are quite a mouthful. On top of everything else, the second one turns Buenos Aires into the “Big ApPUL,” with the accent on the second sylLABle. So not only does it need a geography lesson, it’s nearly impossible to understand.

PAINT-BY-NUMBERS

“I gotta say what’s on my mind

Something about us doesn’t seem right … these days

Life keeps getting in the way

Whenever we try

Somehow the plan is always rearranged

It’s so hard to say

But I gotta do what’s best for me

You’ll be OK … “

(“Gotta Go My Own Way” from “High School Musical 2″)

“Blah, blah, blah, blah moon,

Blah, blah, blah above,

Blah, blah, blah, blah croon

Blah, blah, blah, blah love”

(“Blah, Blah, Blah” from “My One and Only,” lyrics by Ira Gershwin)

Does the breakup number from “High School Musical 2″ — written, presumably, by one of the many, many people on its creative team — involve a single phrase or image that you couldn’t express at least as well in a text message? No, probably not. At least Ira Gershwin tried to turn his formula song into a joke.

WHY SONGWRITERS MAKE LOUSY DIAGNOSTICIANS

“Suddenly —

Agony —

Filling me!

Killing me!

Suddenly —

Out of breath!

What is this?

Is this death?”

(“First Transformation” from “Jekyll & Hyde,” lyrics by Leslie Bricusse)

“It must be the heat

Or some rare disease

Or too much to eat

Or maybe it’s fleas.

(“I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

They say that Sondheim hated this song, “I Feel Pretty.” Of course, when he wrote it, he had not heard “Jekyll & Hyde.” He would have felt better.

WE CAN THINK OF OTHER EXPLANATIONS

“I could hurt someone like me

Out of spite or jealousy,

I don’t steal and I don’t lie,

But I can feel and I cry

A fact I’ll bet you never knew.

But to cry in front of you,

That’s the worst thing I could do.”

(“There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from “Grease,” lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey)

“There must be someone up there watching over me.

Talk about a four-leaf-clover me!

Peter Rabbit’s missing footsie

Means I roll without a Tootsie!

What do I need with love?”

(“What Do I Need With Love” from “Thoroughy Modern Millie,” lyrics by Dick Scanlan)

WHOSE SONG IS THIS ANYWAY?

“A song

Played on a solo saxophone

A crazy sound, a lonely sound

A cry that tells us love goes on and on”

(“Solo Saxophone” from “Miss Saigon,” lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.)

“Day and night,

Under the hide of me,

There’s an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me”

(“Night and Day” from “The Gay Divorcee,” lyrics by Cole Porter)

A solo saxophone may indeed have a crazy, lonely sound, but not one that an American soldier and a Vietnamese country girl would have heard a lot of in 1975. Right sound, wrong war. Since Cole Porter was not actually writing a love song for buffalo, many of the famed singers who have covered his hit “Night and Day” just left the “hide” verse out.

IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN

Who could write bad lyrics redeemed by brilliant lyrics in the space of a single song? Try Ira Gershwin.

The song, “But Not For Me,” debuted in “Girl Crazy” (later revised as “Crazy for You),” with a stanza straight out of Roget’s Thesaurus:

“I was a fool to fall

And get that way,

Heigh ho! Alas!

And also lackaday!”

Maybe Gershwin meant to work on that some more but never got around to it. Perhaps he was too busy polishing the song’s ending, a perfect jewel of his art:

“The climax of a plot

Should be the marriage knot,

But there’s no knot for me.”

jnewmark@post-dispatch.com — 314-340-8243

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