Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Monday, 22 November 2010

Let's get rid of the clowns

This is almost a coffee-table book and I hate those. But three columns of song lyrics per page justify the layout and it is meant to be read, not displayed.

Sondheim is a perfectionist which may be why he’s only had one real hit – Send In The Clowns. He applies perfectionism to others and attacks most of the greats including my favourite, Lorenz Hart (“jaunty and careless”), Noel Coward (“the master of blather”) and Ira Gershwin (“rhyming poison”). But none ends up more wounded than Stephen Sondheim himself; notably for the early songs in his most famous show, West Side Story.

Not many of us write song lyrics but most of us want to write better. This books tells you how. Sin No. 1 Verbosity (“For me the hardest sin to avoid… unless a character is hyperarticulate for a reason, cleverly rhymed logorrheic patter draws attention to the lyricist, not the character”). Sin No. 3 Redundant adjectival padding (“using a series of synonyms to fill out a line because there’s not enough to say. Eg, Expensive and choice and rare.”) Examples of these and other sins are taken from his own songs.

He agonises over exactness, as we all should. And his arrows hit home. Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics in My Fair Lady have “an appearance of high gloss” but how about Henry Higgins’ “I’d be equally as willing/For a dentist to be drilling/Than to ever let a woman in my life”. This, says Sondheim, is “a syntactical train wreck, especially noticeable coming from a professor of English so meticulous about the language that the plots depends on it”. Get someone to buy it you for Christmas (it costs £30), laugh and learn.

3 comments:

christopher said...

I learned my craft writing engineering reports and meeting minutes. That kind of writing is more spare than Hemingway.

FigMince said...

I'm not sure, BB, about the propriety of Mr Sondheim's going public with his personal evaluations of the work of his peers. Mind you, I'm the guy who once told an industry workshop that peers are people you're expected to pretend to consider to be as good as you are – and didn't get the laugh I'd hoped for, probably because the room was full of lesser mortals. (Note the verbosity of three consecutive infinitives in that sentence.)

But anyway, in regard to Mr Sondheim's critical analysis of musicals, he in particular should be aware that there's a difference between execution and audience reception, between the deconstruction of the raw material and the eating of the pie. If it tastes good, maybe the composition doesn't matter.

Barrett Bonden said...

Christopher: As to meeting minutes, virtually all of mine were contained on one sheet of A4

FigMince: I was in two minds about Mr S. I was impressed by his willingness to chase down character, plot and wit in his lyrics, also to ditch whole songs because the show would have been too long, also to re-write, often for the tiniest of reasons. I also recognised the failings in others he pointed out. But he appears to elevate show tunes to the level of grand art and is less concerned with what is memorable.

He knocks Lorenz Hart for a nonsensical line in My Romance:

Or a waltz to a constantly surprising refrain

and I can see his reason. But the fact is neither Sondheim nor anyone else ever bettered:

When love congeals,
It soon reveals,
The faint aroma of performing seals,
The double-crossing of a pair of heels,
I wish I were in love again.


For which I would forgive him all sorts of easily forgotten errors.