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AS 2023 COMES TO AN END … By Peter Filichia

No, Oxford’s “Word of the Year” for 2023 is not a nickname for a character in GREASE.

But by now, you probably know that “rizz” doesn’t refer to Rizzo.

It’s a short way of saying “charisma.”

And that brings us to Time magazine’s choice for “Breakthrough of the Year”: Alex Newell, who had plenty of rizz in SHUCKED.

Tony voters agreed, as Newell became the first non-binary Tony-winner in the 76-year history of the awards. Granted, J. Harrison Ghee in SOME LIKE IT HOT would be the second a matter of minutes later, but Newell got there first.

Newell portrayed Lulu, an earthy and proud whiskey distiller who not only wouldn’t buy the book Why Do I Think I’m Nothing without a Man? but wouldn’t even deign to skim it in a doctor’s waiting room.

Longtime Broadway observers insisted that Newell’s name was engraved on the Tony as soon as its voters heard the performer’s delivery of “Independently Owned.” If there were an award for “Showstopper of the Year,” Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally’s tribute to self-esteem and self-reliance would have easily won.

But it was just a piece of sheet music until Newell got ahold of it. And hold it Newell did, getting the best kind of applause that any performer can hope to receive: a titanic explosion that gradually fades away and then – wait! – the audience realizes that it hasn’t given enough approval, and applauds even stronger than it did originally.

How could any audience not respond in this fashion after Newell brought the song to a close by saying that Lulu was “celebrated, liberated, calculated, educated, underrated, motivated, advocated, intimidating independently.” Those are words we’d all like to apply to ourselves, and Newell reminded us that we could if we just made the same choices that Lulu did.

(Interesting, too, to see “underrated” in the list. Lulu is essentially saying that as much self-actualization as she has, she still sees herself as underrated.)

To some, Time was tardy in naming Newell’s breakthrough this year. They felt that its editors should have bestowed the honor on Newell more than a decade earlier. In 2011, didn’t they see the performer in GLEE, portraying Unique Adams, one of the first transgender characters on prime-time TV?

But better late than never. However, if you find that you’ll only be in New York after Jan. 15, 2024, then you’ll be too late and it’ll be never to see Newell and SHUCKED at the Nederlander Theatre. SHUCKED will have closed a day earlier. Luckily, the show’s cast album is one way to keep Newell and “Independently Owned” vibrantly alive and well.

“Rizz” started me thinking of something else. What if Broadway annually announced a Word of the Year?

Certainly “Tin-Pan-tithesis” would have been selected. Cole Porter coined it for “It’s D’lovely,” which he wrote for RED, HOT AND BLUE! and later allowed it to be inserted into ANYTHING GOES. That’s where we far more often hear it.

“Tin Pan” refers to Tin Pan Alley, which was actually West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. From the 1880s through the 1930s, here’s where songwriters created and sold their songs to publishers.

“Tin-Pan-tithesis” is what’s known as a portmanteau: two existing words are joined to make an entirely new word. Another good one is “Beelzebubble,” which the smarmy Mordred mentions in CAMELOT’s “The Seven Deadly Virtues.” Either would be at the very least a contender for Broadway Word of the Year.

Arguably best of all, though, is the one that David Zippel concocted for “Paula (An Improvised Love Song)” in THE GOODBYE GIRL. As the parenthetical expression states, Eliot Garfield (Martin Short), in romancing his new love with music, is creating the words on the spot. If Eliot is really supposed to be doing that, he’s amazingly clever to describe good lyric-writing as a “Sondheimlich maneuver.”

The title character of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE mocks those who find her Roaring ‘20s clothes as “Sodom and Gommorrah-ble.” Alas, “Gommorah-ble” wouldn’t have been eligible for Broadway Word of the Year in 2002; the lyric comes from the title song that Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen wrote more than a third of a century earlier for the original film. Maybe it would have been Hollywood’s Song of the Year in 1967 if such an award existed.

Wait a minute, what am I saying? Such an award does exist, of course; it’s called the Best Original Song Oscar. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” got a nomination, but the Best Original Song Academy Award for 1967 went to Leslie (ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT) Bricusse for “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Dolittle.

Would Broadway’s Word of the Year Competition allow words that were formed simply to make a rhyme? In 1961, Frank Loesser, when writing “The Company Way” for HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, needed a rhyme for “fiscal.”

“Risk-al” – as in “never take a risk-al” – was his choice.

If it sounds like a cheat, well, they all do it. Cole Porter, in mentioning “vodka” in SILK STOCKINGS’ “Hail, Bibinski,” linked it with “God-ka.” Sondheim, in “Gee, Officer Krupke” in WEST SIDE STORY, rhymed it with “up-kee.”

Here’s betting that if anyone ever complained to Sondheim about it, he would have groused, “Give me a break! It was my first-produced show!”

(And he’d be right.)

In LITTLE ME, Carolyn Leigh had many a World War I doughboy think of the “Real Live Girl” each craved. One mentioned Susabelle, spurring another to want someone “more use-a-belle.”  

That’s a stretch, but it might have caught on if it had been named Broadway Word of the Year.

Would “Calown” – part of the title of HERE’S LOVE’s “The Big Calown Balloons” – have been seriously considered as a Word of the Year? Probably not. Meredith Willson, in putting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on stage, probably added the “a” to “clown” because his music demanded another syllable.

What Willson giveth Sondheim taketh away. Instead of adding a syllable, Sondheim dropped one in “Miracle Song” in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE; “Hallelujah!” was shaved to “Hallelu!” Hey, if “charisma” can drop two syllables to become “rizz,” then certainly “Hallelujah” can spare one.

Not only was “Hallelujah” cut; so was the run of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE; it played merely one week after the reviews emerged. So a stronger candidate for Broadway’s Word of the Year for 1964 would have been “Digguh.” It’s heard multiple times in “If I Were a Rich Man” in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

The competition for Broadway’s Word of the Year in 1965 might have been a hotly contested one. We’re back to Sondheim again with his delightful line in the title song in DO I HEAR A WALTZ?: “Such lovely Blue Danubey music; how can you be still?”

Soon after, Alan Jay Lerner was citing a number of flowers in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER’S “Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here!” His Daisy Gamble mentioned posy, geranium, peonies, azalea before turning the name of one plant into an adjective: “rhodadandy.” Dandy, no? 

In DARLING OF THE DAY, E.Y. Harburg created the word “succotashed” in “Panache.” Harburg also wrote the lyrics to the legendary THE WIZARD OF OZ. Wonder if he ever considered using “succotashed” in “If I Were King of the Forest”? Can’t you hear that Cowardly Lion, courtesy of Bert Lahr, deliciously delivering into “succotashed”?

So as 2023 comes to an end, let’s rejoicify, as Galinda urges us in WICKED, not only for all the words that lyricists have invented for us, but also for the words that rizz-strong Alex Newell sang in “Independently Owned.” Maybe Time called Newell’s achievement a breakthrough because Newell’s voice almost broke through the roof of the Nederlander.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.