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Stephen Sondheim: Could I Leave You?

This is absolutely my favorite musical theater lyric of all time.  Every rhyme, every word, each consonant and vowel is full of action and rich with subtext. The song shifts between 3/4 time, with understated and seemingly solicitous lyrics, and 6/8 time, at which point the emotions of the lyric are more articulate and fiery. The words have a lacerating effect as the character Phyllis makes a bold statement about her independence.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched this brilliantly savage performance by Donna Murphy. In addition to a stunning interpretation, you have Patti LuPone reacting in the background. Can’t get much better than that.

“Could I Leave You?” from Follies

Adam Gwon: I’ll Be Here

Earlier this week, I expressed my love for a repeated lyric that evolves throughout a song and takes on new meanings. One of my favorite examples of this is “I’ll Be Here” from Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days.

I’m currently working on a Spanish adaptation of Ordinary Days in Buenos Aires, Argentina and previously directed the show in Paris. This song always pulls people in and brings them to tears- no matter what continent you’re on! Before knowing anything about the show, I saw Audra McDonald perform “I’ll Be Here” in a concert. I’ll never forget how powerful it was watching her get to the heart-wrenching climax of this story song, while maintaining a sense of hope in her eyes. This could have easily been written as a doom and gloom number, but Adam Gwon captures the resilience of a New Yorker with these lyrics.

“I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days
Music and Lyrics by Adam Gwon

Ivor Novello / Dion Titheradge: And Her Mother Came, Too

The theme of the day is ‘puns.’ Good puns in song lyrics are certainly on the decline since the first half of the 20th century and it’s a shame! “And Her Mother Came, Too” was first performed in A-Z, a 1921 British Musical Revue.

First we have a cheeky story about an ever-present and overbearing Mother-in-Law:

My car will meet her—And her mother comes, too!
It’s a two-seater—Still her mother comes, too!
At Ciro’s when I am free, at dinner, supper or tea,
She loves to shimmy with me—And her mother does, too!

The song continues down this path, and then takes a cheeky turn:

She fainted just off the tee, my darling whisper’d to me
‘Jack, dear, at last we are free!—But her mother came to!

Ba-dum ching.

And Her Mother Came, Too
Music by Ivor Novello and Lyrics by Dion Titheradge

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

One magic trick performed by great musical theater lyricists I find particularly impressive is when a repeating lyrical hook, often found in the title, evolves throughout a song and takes on new meanings. Rather than just the usual redundant repetition, the same phrase progresses based off the goings-on of the verse, and it continues to shed light on a situation. I am always awestruck when a musical theater writer reaches this level of lyrical complexity. Usually an actor is left to come up with his or her own intention for each repeated lyric; in this case, the lyricist has made his intents obvious and draws a clear arch for the actor.

“Send in the Clowns” from Act Two of A Little Night Music is a perfect example. In this song, Desirée looks back at an affair she had many years prior with the lawyer Fredrik. He had asked for her hand in marriage all those years ago, but she rejected him. She has finally returned to tell Fredrik she is ready for the commitment, but he informs her he is now dedicated to a new, younger bride.

Desiree is an actress, so Sondheim uses theatrical vocabulary and imagery throughout the song. “Send in the Clowns” starts as a show business reference, which is to say, “This show isn’t going well, so let’s start giving them our best jokes!” As Desiree rummages through her life’s disappointments in this ballad, she realizes what fools she and Fredrik both are. The lyric “send in the clowns” takes on an entirely new meaning at this point- these two tired old people with a long list of regrets are the clowns.

Genius!

Derek Gregor and Sam Carner: Savin’ It

Words mean more to me than just about anything. I’m always researching some piece of text, either for work or pleasure. So it seemed natural for me to focus on lyrics as I make my contributions to The Song of the Day. I’ve dedicated much of my time in NYC to the development of new musicals, and I’ve gotten to know many of the form’s contemporary writers, including Sam Carner and Derek Gregor. If you’re a lover of musical theater, you should know these guys. Together they have won The Richard Rodgers Award, The John Wallowitch Award, been nominated for 11 Mac Awards, and Sam was also the recipient of the Kleban Prize. I could go on about both of their virtuosity, but since Sam is the lyricist I’ll focus on singing his praise.

First off, if you continue to explore Sam’s canon, you’ll find that every character he writes for has a unique vocabulary. He unearths a very specific vernacular for the setting of every one of his shows, from post-Katrina New Orleans to fictional far-off ‘back then-ish’ places. Sam’s lyrics are so specific, informative and character driven; they are a gift to an actor.

It was hard for me to choose just one song, but I thought “Savin’ It” would a perfect introduction to the brilliance of his perfect rhymes. (I also know myself, and there’s a risk of me writing about some serious ballads for the rest of the week, so let’s start with something light-hearted.)

I first heard “Savin’ It” while I was directing one of Sam and Derek’s musicals, Island Song, in Paris. (Although we live three blocks from each other in NYC, the three of us actually met in France.) Sam performed this self-written standalone piece at an open mic during a night off from rehearsal. Every punch line got a boisterous response from a bar full of musical theater-loving Parisians. You can always rely on Sam for unforeseen twists, uncanny puns, and some multi-syllable rhymes.

This lyric will always impress me:
“When you’ve chased a tiny waist,
it’s a waste if the waist
you’ve chased is chaste.”

“Savin’ It” Music by Derek Gregor, Lyrics by Sam Carner
Featured in the video is the very talented Stephen Christopher Anthony, (Book of Mormon and Dear Evan Hansen), doing great justice to Sam’s words.

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