Grammar In, Grammar Out by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
I’m not the only one who celebrated Alan Jay Lerner 97th birthday on August 31st. Dozens of others went on Facebook to honor the bookwriter/lyricist of My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gigi, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — and a few other musicals.
More than one Facebooker recounted the story of Noel Coward’s seeing My Fair Lady and then approaching Lerner to take issue with one lyric in “Why Can’t the English?” The lyricist had Henry Higgins, that “expert dialectician and grammarian” say that Eliza Doolittle “should be taken out and hung for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.”
“Dear boy,” Coward said, “it is ‘hanged,’ not ‘hung.’” Lerner always claimed that he responded with “Oh, Noel, you know it and I know it! Now shut up!”
So why did Lerner settle for “hung” when he knew it was grammatically incorrect? Well, of course the reason was that it was a rhyme for “tongue.”
The need to rhyme is one of the main reasons why lyricists choose to make grammatical errors. When everyone in On the Town tells Gabey “You Got Me,” that’s one thing. But rhyme is the only reason they sing “You got she!” and “You got we!” and not “You got her” and “You got us.”
Rhyme is the reason for the tense shift when Cissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn insists of her former beau that “He Had Refinement” (which, for my money, is the funniest comedy song of all time). Cissy sings “One time he said, ‘May I suggest you call a lady’s chest a chest, instead of her points of interest?’ Dainty, ain’t he?” No, “Dainty, wasn’t he?” would be correct, given that Cissy started out speaking in past tense. But Dorothy Fields couldn’t resist that rhyme.
Oscar Hammerstein II might have argued that he did not make a mistake in Carousel’s “A Real Nice Clambake” when he wrote “The vittles we et were good, you bet” for the Ensemble. True, “et” is not the past tense of “eat” and “the vittles we ate” would be grammatically correct. And while one could accuse Hammerstein of going for a quick ‘n’ easy rhyme, he could easily make a case that these New Englanders with far less education and grammar-consciousness than Henry Higgins might very well believe that “et” is the actual past tense of “eat.”
Hammerstein titled an Act One song in Oklahoma! “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” Actually, the article “a” shouldn’t be before a word with a vowel sound; an “an” should. But rural people are doing the singing here along with Ali Hakim, a Persian for whom English is a second language.
In South Pacific, Hammerstein had Nellie Forbush in “A Cockeyed Optimist” claim that “Every whippoorwill is selling me a bill and telling me it just ain’t so.” This time Hammerstein didn’t need a rhyme — and given that he penned lyrics first and then handed them over to Richard Rodgers, he could have just as easily written “and telling me it just isn’t so.” Ah, but Nellie, a self-described “little hick,” would probably use “ain’t,” wouldn’t she?
As for Hammerstein’s protégé – one Stephen Sondheim – when writing “Mr. Goldstone” in Gypsy, he had Rose proclaim “There are good stones and bad stones and curbstones and Gladstones and touchstones and such stones as them.” If she’d really wanted to impress Mr. Goldstone, she should have said “such stones as they.” Of course, then Sondheim wouldn’t have been able to hook it with “Goldstone is a gem.”
We might infer that Rose would indeed say “them,” for we assume she didn’t have much education; she certainly didn’t worry about June or Louise having any. And while Carolyn Quinn does detail in Mama Rose’s Turn — her excellent biography of Rose Thompson Hovick – that young Rose enjoyed skipping school and may not have spent many of her teenage years in a classroom, the author included a contest-winning essay that Rose wrote in the seventh grade. It displays no grammatical errors (and it’s pretty good writing for a kid, too).
Sondheim had Mary in Merrily We Roll Along purposely make a grammatical error to make a point. “God don’t answer prayers a lot,” she sings in “Now You Know.” Believe me, Mary knows that the third person singular takes “doesn’t” instead of “don’t” for Mary was a professional writer long before she became a professional lush. But she’s making the grammatical error to stress that she’s really coming down to brass tacks.
“Everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” Sondheim had The Proprietor as well as the Assassins sing in the opening song of their show. But somewhere along the line, finicky grammarians decided “Everybody” should be singular, so the sentence should read, “Everybody’s got the right to his dreams.”
I know, I know; that sounds sexist. I say that if we’re going to stick to “everybody” being singular (which is stupid), a male writer should use “his” in these circumstances and a female writer should use “her.” If that choice accomplishes nothing else, it’ll at least tell the reader what sex the writer is without, um, his having to check a by-line.
In “I Know Things Now” (in Into the Woods), Sondheim wrote “And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good” for Little Red Ridinghood. Well, she’s just a kid, so we’ll excuse her for not knowing that “different from” is the correct phrase.
For that matter, does this child even go to school? James Lapine never establishes if all those midnights when she’s out are school nights. Or does the show take place during summer vacation? If the latter is the case, I say that Little Red, as she’s chummily come to be known, should be in summer school and not in the woods.
“Strut down the street and have your picture took” urges Mrs. Levi in one of the great show songs of all time: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! Alas, the correct word is “taken,” not “took.” I’m glad that Horace didn’t hear Dolly make this mistake; he might have considered the matchmaker too far beneath him. After all, notice how grammar-conscious Horace is in “It Takes a Woman,” for he puts the preposition before the pronoun in “To whom can you turn when the plumbing is leaking?”
But that’s a different kind of error: when an uneducated character uses grammar beyond his ken. Horace is a self-made man who probably hasn’t had much formal education, so he wouldn’t know enough to place the preposition where he puts it. But Jerry Herman needed a rhyme for “practically speaking,” didn’t he?
Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse did the same type of thing with their big hit “What Kind of Fool Am I?” in Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. Littlechap, our hero (or, more accurately, anti-hero) at the end of his life describes himself as “an empty cell; a lonely cell in which an empty heart must dwell.” Granted, Littlechap certainly came up in the world from his lower-class Cockney origins, but I’m still not sure that he’d put the preposition in front of the pronoun.
Did Newley and Bricusse take this into consideration when they wrote their next musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd? Here a possibly even less-educated character named Cocky sings in the show’s Big Beautiful Ballad “Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?” and not “To whom can I turn when nobody needs me?”
In The Pajama Game, “Her Is” describes “a kinda doll what drives a fella bats, isn’t her?” Of course, “she” should be used in both instances, for “her” is used for direct objects. But my question is: has anyone anytime, anyplace, anywhere ever heard anyone use “her” in this context? I certainly haven’t. (And I’m very glad of it.)
College graduate Wreck (in Wonderful Town) doesn’t know that the verb he’s looking for is “drank” when he says that he “always drunk the water from the finger bowl.” Of course, Comden and Green did want to reiterate that Wreck had learned precious little while in class and didn’t need to know more because he could “Pass That Football.” Considering that Ruth Sherwood has already chastised herself for telling men “I’m afraid you’ve made a grammatical error,” we see that she’s learned something and refrained from criticizing Wreck.
The grammatical error that always makes me laugh the most? It came courtesy of Bob Merrill when in 1957 he took Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie and musicalized it as New Girl in Town. In “You’re My Friend, Aincha?” Thelma Ritter, in her Tony-winning performance as bar owner Marthy, tells frequent customer Chris “A guy said you weren’t fit for pigs down Harry’s bar.” The misplaced modifier suggests that there are pigs in Harry’s bar. Well, there may very well be, although probably not of the porcine kind. What Marthy means is “A guy in Harry’s bar said you weren’t fit for pigs.” But here’s another one where the rhyming tail wagged the dog; the next line is an equally funny, “But I say, ‘Yes, you are!’”
By the way, there’s a fascinating footnote to Coward’s castigation of Lerner on the hung/hanged issue. Five years later in 1961, Coward was readying Sail Away, his new Broadway musical. For the show about a cruise from North America to Europe, he wrote a song called “The Customer’s Always Right.” One lyric had the Captain ask his crewman about a passenger: “Where the devil is Wang Hi Chung?” — only to hear “He’s deported and his brother got hung.”
Guess Coward figured that if “hung” were good enough for a show that had just passed Oklahoma! as the longest-running musical in Broadway history, it was good enough for him, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.