When Stephen Sondheim died just after Thanksgiving last year, one of the great art forms of the twentieth century may have died with him: the Broadway lyric. With roots in the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the form flourished in the middle years of the last century, the golden age of the Broadway musical, thanks to the work of such masters as Irving Berlin, Fred Ebb, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, E. Y. Harburg, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, and, of course, Sondheim himself, perhaps the most talented of them all.

In grand opera, everything is subordinated to the music and, because of the way opera is sung, the words can be largely unintelligible even if you speak the language the opera is written in. Therefore the words don’t matter all that much. Hammerstein once joked that operas often have wonderful stories and that the producers should think about letting the audience in on the plot. (Opera companies have taken him up on the idea in recent decades with chyrons on the backs of the seats or over the stage.)

Gilbert, however, always insisted that his words be plainly understandable to the audience for, with his verbal dexterity and great wit, they were well worth hearing. Indeed, they are, in their own way, the equal of Sullivan’s wonderful music. After all, no one would want to miss these lines:

Then a sentimental passion

Of a vegetable fashion

Must excite your languid spleen,

An attachment à la Plato

For a bashful young potato,

Or a not-too-French French bean!

By making the words equal to the music, Gilbert and Sullivan created a wholly new form of musical theater, which later evolved into the Broadway musical. It is a form where music, dance, and lyrics are equally important and tightly integrated, each part advancing the story and deepening the characters.

Thus it is not an accident that while the names of Broadway lyricists are often as well known as those of the composers (when they are not the same person, as they not infrequently are), opera librettists languish in obscurity. Do you know who wrote the words to La Bohème or Madama Butterfly? Neither do I.

The essentially English roots of Broadway lyrics can be seen in the frequent use of wordplay, which is common in British humor but almost unknown in America outside of Broadway. Consider these lines by Cole Porter, a master of wordplay:

Mister Harris, plutocrat,

Wants to give my back a pat.

If a Harris pat means a Paris hat, okay!

But I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion.

Yes, I’m always true to you, darling, in my way.

Or, a favorite of mine,“Have you heard about Mimsy Starr?/ She got pinched in the ass-tor Bar.”

In a song from Girl Crazy (1930), “Bidin’ My Time,” Ira Gershwin wrote, “I’m bidin’ my time/ ’Cause that’s the kind of guy I’m.” Well-educated native speaker though I am, before I first heard that song I had not realized that there is a rule in English syntax that forbids the use of a pronoun-verb contraction in the predicate of a sentence. It made me laugh out loud.

Golden-age Broadway lyrics are also known for their intricate and often vernacular rhymes. Early Broadway lyricists, such as P. G. Wodehouse (yes, that P. G. Wodehouse), largely stuck with traditional rhymes such as

Oh, the rain

Comes a-pitter-patter,

And I’d like to be safe in bed.

Skies are weeping

While the world is sleeping

Trouble heaping

On our head.

It is vain to remain and chatter,

And to wait for a clearer sky,

Helter-skelter

I must fly for shelter

Till the clouds roll by.

But then came Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart with their first hit, The Garrick Gaieties,in 1925. The most famous number, “Manhattan,” has rhymes that could be found only in songs about New York City: “We’ll have Manhattan/ The Bronx and Staten Island too”; “It’s very fancy/ On old Delancey Street, you know/ The subway charms us so.”

And Hart soon proved the first great master of the polysyllabic rhyme. In the song “On Your Toes,” from the musical of that name, he spoofs Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Remember the youth ’mid snow and ice

Who bore the banner with the strange device,

Excelsior!

This motto applies to folks who dwell

In Richmond Hill or New Rochelle,

In Chelsea or

In Sutton Place.

But no one can top Stephen Sondheim when it comes to polysyllabic rhyme:

Is he saintly?

Even faintly?

No.

But who needs Albert Schweitzer

When the lights are low?

Even Hammerstein, who usually kept rhyming to a minimum, could do it when he thought it appropriate:

Many a light lad may kiss and fly,

A kiss gone by is bygone;

Never’ve I asked an August sky,

“Where has last July gone?”

Never’ve I wandered through the rye,

Wonderin’ where has some guy gone—

Many a new day will dawn before I do.

Literary allusions, such as the one to Longfellow’s “Excelsior” above, are, in fact, not uncommon in Broadway lyrics, whose authors were usually very well-read. Hammerstein based “Ol’ Man River” on Tennyson’s “The Brook” (“Men may come and men may go/ But I go on forever”) and swiped its most famous line, “Ah’m tired of livin’/ An’ skeered of dyin’, ” from St. Augustine’s City Of God.

Porter even put literary allusions into the mouths of mafiosos:

If your goil is a Washington Heights dream,

Treat the kid to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

If she then wants an all-by-herself night,

Let her rest every ’leventh or Twelfth Night.

But even if you overlook the verbal pyrotechnics that so mark the Broadway lyric, they are not easy to write for technical reasons as well. Indeed, of all forms of poetry, from free verse to villanelles, no form has so many constraints upon it as the Broadway lyric.

The first constraint, of course, is that, unlike modern poetry, which is largely accessed through the eye, lyrics are accessed through the ear, and often there is only one chance to catch what is sung.

Hammerstein, for instance, had originally written in “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!” that “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye.” Then he walked over to a neighbor’s cornfield, in late August, and saw that the corn was much higher. That didn’t bother him very much. Oklahoma! (1943), after all, is a Broadway musical, not a lesson in agronomy. But while “cow pony’s eye” fit in with the Western setting of the play, he felt the phrase would be hard for the listener to catch, so he changed it to “elephant’s eye.”

The other major constraint is that lyrics are sung, not spoken. Some vowel sounds, such as the i sound in “why,” close the throat and make it difficult to sing at full voice. That doesn’t mean the sound can’t be used at all. (Consider Porter’s “Flying too high/ With some guy in the sky/ Is my idea/ Of nothing to do./ But I get a kick out of you.”) It only means that its use is restricted.

And singers (and composers) usually want to end a song on an open vowel or a soft consonant, so that the note can be held. Hammerstein, however, always willing to challenge a rule to see if it was indeed inviolable, ended “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?” from Carousel (1945) with the words,

So when he wants your kisses

You will give them to the lad,

And anywhere he leads you you will walk.

And any time he needs you,

You’ll go runnin’ there like mad.

You’re his girl and he’s your feller—

And all the rest is talk.

Despite the fact that the accompanying music is one of Rodgers’s most beautiful tunes (which is really saying something) and that, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Sondheim, “the words just sit upon the music,” the song never proved very popular on the radio or in sheet-music sales.

As Hammerstein wrote about breaking the rules in his “Notes on Lyrics” (from his first collection of lyrics, published in 1949), “Sometimes you succeed and this is the way the most exciting things in the theater are done. Sometimes you fail. This time a good and sound rule slapped me down. I will not break it again.”

Still another constraint on lyric writing is the fact that singers must breathe. The lyricist has to allow time for a breath before asking the singer to hit and hold a high note. Glynis Johns, who starred in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1973), was very short-breathed, that is, she couldn’t sustain high notes for long. To accommodate this, Sondheim gave her a song with no sustained notes at all:

Isn’t it rich?

Are we a pair?

Me here at last on the ground,

You in mid-air.

Send in the clowns.

Isn’t it bliss?

Don’t you approve?

One who keeps tearing around,

One who can’t move,

Where are the clowns?

Send in the clowns.

“Send in the Clowns” turned out to be the only mega-hit for which Sondheim wrote both the words and music.

Although Gilbert and Sullivan had pioneered a words-first musical theater in the late nineteenth century, for much of the first half of the twentieth, Broadway songs were almost always written music-first, with the lyrics added after. Hammerstein thought that there were two reasons for this. First, many early Broadway composers were European by birth, such as Gustave Kerker (The Belle of New York, 1897), and thus they were sometimes flummoxed by the stress patterns of a second language, especially one as idiosyncratic as English. Second, the “dance craze,” which erupted about 1911, made the songs’ danceability, rather than their intelligibility, the paramount commercial concern.

The composer Jerome Kern (1885–1945), another frequent Hammerstein collaborator, set only one lyric to music in his whole career. He did a pretty good job of it, however. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” won the Academy Award for best original song in 1941.

Rodgers and Hammerstein and subsequent teams mostly changed that order, although for many of their most famous songs, such as “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “If I Loved You,” and “Edelweiss,” the music was still composed first. (Many people think that “Edelweiss” is an Austrian folk song, which would have pleased Rodgers and Hammerstein. And the Marine Corps Band once played it at the White House for the president of Austria, thinking it was the Austrian national anthem, which would have amused them.)

Composing the music first can present lyric writers with problems. In crafting Sunny (1925), for instance, Kern gave Hammerstein a melody that begins with a note held for no less than five bars. Thus the first word of the song would have to be one syllable with an open vowel. Hammerstein’s solution was “Who stole my heart away?/ Who makes me dream all day?” (Imagine how awful another question word, “why,” would sound sustained over five bars.) “Who?” became one of the biggest popular songs of the decade.

Yet sometimes the music supplied instant inspiration. When Hammerstein first listened to Kern play a melody intended for Show Boat (1927), the words “Couldn’t you, couldn’t I, couldn’t we?” just popped into his head, and the rest of the lyric to “Make Believe” soon followed.

All art forms have limited lifetimes. Classical music, ballet, and grand-opera composition began to fade in the early twentieth century. The most recent grand opera still in frequent repertory around the world is Puccini’s Turandot, which had its first performance in 1926. In 1950, any well-educated person could have named half a dozen living poets. Today, many can’t name a single one.

As those who had created the modern Broadway musical died off (Hammerstein, the most important of them, died in 1960) and the cost of mounting a major musical began to climb—making creative experimentation more financially risky—the form began to lose much of its dynamism. Today movies are more likely to be made into musicals than the other way around.

But the glory days of the Broadway musical have left us a national artistic legacy of staggering proportions, both musical and literary. No small portion of that is due to the geniuses who mastered that most technically demanding of poetic forms, the Broadway lyric.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 77
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