Oct 31, 2004

Lyrics From Hell

There are a lot of execrable musicals out there whose biggest fault is cheesy music written by hacks or incompetents--people who either know the form too well and cynically turn out the same pump-organ crap every time (Jerry Herman comes to mind) or people who don't understand the form at all and write songs with zero theatrical traction (the through-sung poperas of Boublil and Schoenberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jonathan Larsen, ad nauseam).

But by far the most glaring deficit of bad musical theatre is lyrics. Just as the music of musicals needs to have a self-evident reason for being--an extreme emotional state is a good one--lyrics should somehow sound like a kind of heightened dialogue, sung by characters to other characters or, occasionally, to us. They must also be intelligible on first listening, which is why prosody--the way lyrical phrases sit on musical beats--is an essential skill for a lyricist.

Too many lyrics for musical theatre not only lack any trace of this basic craft, they lack any sense of specificity or urgency or need to be sung. Bad musical theatre lyrics traffic heavily in abstraction, cliche, tastelessness, and basic meaninglessness.

I'm no lyrical snob, mind you--I don't believe that rhymes have to be perfect ("time" and "fine" is OK by me), or that lyrics even have to rhyme at all ("A Bowler Hat" from Pacific Overtures is a great example). But lyrics shouldn't sound like third-grade forced-rhyme doggerel, and I'm afraid the form has been so debased that audiences now expect bland, generic, often ridiculous lyrics--lyrics that sound, as Michael John LaChiusa put it in a very circumspect consideration of Lloyd Webber's ouevre in American Theatre a few years back, like they've been translated from another language (as, in some cases, they have).

I have already noted some of the infelicitous phrases perpetrated by THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I will herewith share with you some of my favorite examples of bad lyrics from musicals I've had the misfortune of hearing.

"Monotony past, suburbia departed
Who could ever be fond of the back of beyond?"

"Yeah, just one shell and governments fall like flies, kapow, die
They stumble and fall, bye bye
Backs to the wall, aim high
We're having a ball
The tank and bullet rule as democracy dies"

"Eyes, hair, mouth, figure
Dress, voice, style, movement
Hands, magic, rings, glamour
Face, diamonds, excitement, image"

"More bad news from Rome; she met with the Pope
She only got a rosary, a kindly word
I wouldn't say the Holy Father gave her the bird
But papal decorations, never a hope
She still looked the part at St. Peter's, caught the eye"

"Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin' "

"There is evil, ever around
Fundamental system of government
Quite incidental"

"I could find job satisfaction in Paraguay"

--From "Evita"

Ughhhhh- I can't think
Ughhhhh- I need a drink"

"You want to produce films and write songs?
You need somewhere to do it!
It's what we used to dream about
Think twice before you pooh-pooh it"

"Take your powder
Take your candle
Your sweet whisper
I just can't handle"

"Excuse me if I'm off track
But if you're so wise
Then tell me
Why do you need smack?"

"You're a sensitive aesthete
Brush the sauce onto the meat
You could make the menu sparkle with rhyme
You could drum a gentle drum
I could seat guests as they come
Chatting not about Heidegger, but wine!
Let's open up a restaurant in Santa Fe
Our labors would reap financial gains
We'll open up a restaurant in Santa Fe
And save from devastation our brains"

Moo with me"

"A tiger in a cage
Can never see the sun
This diva needs her stage
Baby - let's have fun!"

"You're always preaching not to be numb
When that's how you thrive
You pretend to create and observe
When you really detach from feeling alive"

--From "Rent"

"Tell me what you think about your friends at the top
Who you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop
Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?"

"One thing I'll say for him
Jesus is cool"

--From "JC Superstar"

"Buffy at your service
Ever open wide
My microwave is cooking to warm you from inside
A lotta locomotion will do the trick
Come and bite my burgers
I'm hot and cheap and quick"

--From "Starlight Express"

"It's easy to be royal
If you're already leonine
It isn't just my right
Even my left will be divine
The monarchy is waiting to go zing
Oh, I just can't wait to be king"

"He called us slobbering!
Said we were mangy!
Did I hear stupid?
Tell us again-- gee
It's so incredible
That you're so rude
When you're so edible
When you are food!"

"So prepare for the coup of the century
Be prepared for the murkiest scam
Meticulous planning
Tenacity spanning
Decades of denial
Is simply why I'll
Be king undisputed
Respected, saluted
And seen for the wonder I am
Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared
Be prepared!"

"Yeah, you're our savior, thanks a bunch
But how about some lunch?"

--From "The Lion King"

"Something is missing
I'm looking for something
Something not clear"

"Waiting for someone
Someone to touch me completely
Someone to set my heart free
From all of this waiting"

"Where does it go, the purity?
Where does it go, the innocence?"

--From "Dorian, the Musical"

I invite you to send me your favorite bad lyrics from musicals you love to hate. If we can't laugh about this stuff we'd have to cry.


Paul Birchall said...

My goodness, a casual observer can't help but notice that your list of foul musical lyrics seems rather heavy on Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes. What an eerie coincidence! Isn't that startling.

Kiff said...

Okay Rob - you asked for it. Theatre of NOTE almost hosted a production of "Lovelace: The Musical" starring sweet Tina Yothers, until we kicked them out. Had we read the script, it never would've even been cast. Check out this tripe:

"So I sit here in my room
When I should be eating cake
Blowing candles, lot's of presents
How much more God can I take?"

"There should have been a party
Happy Birthday! We love you!
I want for them to love me
But they don't - really it's true."

(skip to) Chorus:
"Look how big the world is
All there is to do, to see to be
Instead I live in a prison
God, I wish I was free"

"Life is a kaleidoscope
Full of colors that rearrange
I live my life in black and white
on one channel that doesn't change."

And that's just the opening number. Believe it or not - it gets MUCH worse.

Keep up the great work, Rob.