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.