So far, 351 people have given their opinions on a question I asked on Facebook.
And, my, have I been surprised with what so many wrote.
Let’s start at the very beginning. My beloved Linda approached a well-known lyricist at a party. She said that she adored a certain song of his. Linda even put her hand over her heart and half-closed her eyes to express her admiration for one of her all-time favorites.
The lyricist barely nodded in response and looked away.
When she broken-heartedly told me this, I theorized that when people speak of their favorite songs, they usually mean the music. Perhaps he felt that she was really complimenting the composer’s work and not his.
Linda disagreed with me – not, incidentally, for the first time in our relationship. She said that “favorite songs” mean the lyrics to people who, like her, are words-centric. (She’s written many books and has been on the staffs of several magazines.)
So, I asked my Facebook followers a variation of the question posed in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. When you think about songs, what comes first into your heart and soul: the music or the lyrics? Which is foremost in making a song a song that you love?
I was certain the virtually all musical theater enthusiasts would agree that the music is what sends them reeling.
That didn’t overwhelmingly turn out to be the case: so many respondents said “Lyrics.” True, I haven’t made a detailed list of how many preferred one over the other. To paraphrase another Sondheim lyric, “But who has the time to count the votes?”
Now, of course, musical theater has had many great lyricists over the last century. Maybe my feeling that music would easily be the answer is truer of the musical world at large than it is in musical theater.
Although we do call such shows musicals and not lyricals, don’t we? Go to the “Songs” section of ibdb.com, punch in “music,” and you’ll find 168 entries with that word. Try “lyrics,” and you won’t see even one entry.
Okay, you say, try “word” instead of “lyrics.” I did: 39 entries.
Let’s look at other art forms. As I stated on Facebook, most of jazz is instrumental. That spurred one Facebook friend to rebut that Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were jazz artists, too. No argument there – but really, when you think of jazz, don’t you first and foremost think of instrumentalists?
His rebuttal spurred me to go to the Jazz Hall of Fame established in 1952 by Down Beat, the esteemed monthly magazine of the jazz world. True, the first honoree was Louis Armstrong, who was arguably just as well known for his vocalizing as his trumpet-playing; both were shown to good use in songs from THE THREEPENNY OPERA and HELLO, DOLLY!
But after Armstrong received that honor 72 years ago, the next eight annual winners were all instrumentalists, until Holiday was elected in 1961. However, in the next 19 years, 18 instrumentalists were named before Fitzgerald was heralded.
I also pointed out that most of classical music is instrumental. The rebutter cited opera. Yes, centuries-old opera can be described as classical music, but I daresay that if one asked any classical musical lovers what their favorite pieces are, they would mention instrumental works long before they’d get to opera.
For that matter, does anyone really think that lyrics are what makes opera lovers love opera? It’s the music. I’d say that’s true of operetta, too.
There are thousands upon thousands of instrumental albums from big bands to rock bands, but I don’t know of many or any albums of someone simply reciting lyrics. Famous poems, yes; famous lyrics, no.
There are published collections of lyrics, yes, but there’s plenty more pieces of sheet music published that don’t have lyrics.
If there are musical theater recordings of people speaking lyrics, I’ve missed them in my years of intense collecting. I do, however, have lyrics-less orchestral recordings of ALL AMERICAN, SWEET CHARITY, and FLORA THE RED MENACE (among many others). True, most get to live in my apartment because they offer songs that were dropped before the shows reached Broadway. And while I wish that they’d had lyrics, too, I’ll take what I can get and what the recording companies cared to offer me: music, for which they felt there was a market.
I can only think of one solo-disc recording of words that even approach lyrics: Columbia Records’ selections from Richard Burton’s 1964 revival of HAMLET. The company had recorded the entire play, but it did offer a “Highlights” album.
Not only that, probably just for fun, the company even issued a single record on which Burton delivered the famous “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy on one side and the certainly more famous “To be or not to be” speech on the other.
The Ginger Man, a Lincoln Center-area restaurant that opened shortly after this HAMLET had debuted at the Lunt-Fontanne, sported this record in its jukebox for quite some time afterward.
(We’ve all heard of and have experienced jukebox musicals. Can we say that The Ginger Man made HAMLET a jukebox play?)
There have been many albums that have been collections of Overtures. Jule Styne, composer of GYPSY, FUNNY GIRL, DO RE MI and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, has had more than one. And if we’re talking Overtures, we’re talking music only, aren’t we?
All right, a few Overtures do include a few lyrics:
- IRENE begins with the cast singing the verse (and the verse only) of “Alice Blue Gown.”
- ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER includes a vocal of much of the title song. It’s a nice teaser for the four-minute version that John Cullum gives three tracks later.
- BRAVO GIOVANNI has its title song sung in the Overture. And while this song did make a later appearance in the Tony-nominated score, it didn’t make the album because of time constraints.
- IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN doesn’t quite offer lyrics in its Overture, but a bit of banter between The Man of Steel and steely reporter Lois Lane.
Other than those (and probably a few others), overtures offer music, music, music.
Oh, there is NINE, which has “words” in its overture. But each word is “la.” And when we think of “la,” don’t we think of it in musical terms – a note to follow “sol”?
Many times when I’ve walked on the streets of New York, I’ve overheard people whistle. Do any people walk down the street reciting lyrics?
I’ll make my final case with this story. I was once at a musical theater exhibit at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts where the sound system was playing selections from Broadway musicals. As the music swelled near the end of “Make Our Garden Grow” from CANDIDE, I suddenly heard from behind me someone humming along.
I was startled to the point where I instinctively turned around quickly. The hummer, realizing that she’d unnerved me, blushed and said, “I’m sorry.”
I was even more startled now, because I had recognized the hummer. “That’s all right,” I told her. “Betty Comden can sing along with anything she wants.”
Now the possibility exists that Ms. Comden was responding to the music because it was written by Leonard Bernstein, her longtime friend and collaborator on ON THE TOWN and WONDERFUL TOWN. Yet I’m betting that Comden, who’d undoubtedly heard that melody dozens if not hundreds of times before, was moved by its glorious music and not nearly as much by Richard Wilbur’s lyrics (excellent though they may be).
I wish she were here to validate or rebut my assumption. But wouldn’t it be something if a four-time Tony-winning lyricist agreed that the music had the music that made her dance?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.