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Michael Cerveris on Stephen Sondheim: Legends of Broadway New Video


By Peter Filichia

Sure, listen to Sondheim’s “Uptown/Downtown” (cut from Follies) and you’ll be astonished by the rhymes and wordplay. Pull out E.Y. Harburg’s “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” (from Finian’s Rainbow) and you’ll be equally dazzled.

These are the easy lyrics to admire. But what about the ones that pass by so quickly that we don’t realize how brilliant they are? Many deserve second looks and their first first-rate rounds of applause.

“Wait” in Sweeney Todd certainly illustrates this. Mrs. Lovett tells the former Benjamin Barker “Time’s so fast! Now goes quickly; see, now it’s past.” There’s no denying that of the three time demarcations – past, present and future — the present is of course the shortest. After all, it only takes a moment.

Considering that both Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein both took credit for the West Side Story lyrics, which one wrote “Smoke on your pipe and put that in” (for “America”)? I’ll guess Sondheim.

To say that Puerto-Rican immigrants would mangle “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” may seem cruel. But most of us who have toured a foreign country have screwed up at least one idiom.

Let’s deconstruct: Sondheim was probably looking for a rhyme for “Manhattan.” His rhyming dictionary didn’t offer much, so he went through the alphabet and after “satin” found “that in.” But what could fill the rest of the line? How magnificent that such a young man (26 or 27) could come up with this unique solution. It was a good indication of the genius that was to come.

Take “Soon — I want to!” (“Soon” — A Little Night Music). Oh, no, Anne doesn’t “want to” have sex — not with Frederik, anyway. Which of us, when trying to seduce someone, hasn’t heard this line that’s meant to keep us both interested and at a distance?

Have you noticed the two different meanings Lee Adams found in “Bearing? Just unbearable!” (“You’ve Got Possibilities” — It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman)? How about the pair Fred Ebb stressed in “I can circle the globe with my circle of friends” (“How Lucky Can You Get?” — And the World Goes ‘Round via Funny Lady)? I love when a lyricist finds two different meanings for a word.

But Ebb wasn’t just clever. Note “The lie you told they all believed” in the title song of The Happy Time. Here in a nutshell is the difference between him and Oscar Hammerstein II. While Ebb did fill “The Happy Time” with charming images that delineated bliss – the compliment you once received; roller-skating down the hill — he also was cynical enough to add fibbing, which is not usually associated with happiness. Imagine Maria von Trapp singing that one of her favorite things was the successful whopper that she told some clueless nun.

On a different plane is Ebb’s “And you learn how to settle for what you get” (“So What?” — Cabaret). Ebb hadn’t yet reached forty when he wrote this wise lyric that shows a knowledge far beyond his years. Most of us learn only when we’re older than Ebb that all our dreams are NOT going to come true and we have little choice but to come to terms with our disappointments.

Speaking of age-acquired wisdom, there’s “Someone leaving your life could always return” (the title song of My Favorite Year). Good point, Lynn Ahrens. When we’re younger, we’re much more inclined to be forgiving of people who have wronged us. But after we’ve lived a substantial number of years and have experienced too many hurts or betrayals, we’re far less likely to forgive and forget even the smallest slight.

“Where’s the love I’m supposed to be in?” (“Something Doesn’t Happen” — Two by Two). So sings Rachel, who knows that her husband no longer cares – a situation many spouses experience only a few years after they marry. Martin Charnin’s lyric establishes that married loneliness can be worse than single loneliness.

“Boston: land of the free, home of the brave, home of the Red Sox. (“Boston Beguine” — New Faces of ’52). Non-sports fans may view this sudden mention of the Red Sox as a non sequitur. But in 1952, Boston still had two baseball teams: the American League’s Red Sox, and the National League’s Braves.

Ten months after the show opened and only fifteen days before it closed, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee (and later to Atlanta, where they remain today.) So much time has passed that many don’t get Sheldon Harnick’s excellent pun. And in case you think I’m reading too much into the lyric, let me assure you that I’ve asked Harnick if linking “brave” with “Red Sox” was intentional; he gave me an emphatic “Yes!”

Harnick was also remarkably clever with a quick exchange between Tevye and potential son-in-law Lazar Wolf in “To Life” (Fiddler on the Roof). After Tevye sings “Here’s to the father I tried to be,” witness the profound difference in the rhyme “Here’s to my bride-to-be.” To paraphrase another Fiddler line, “For a lyric that’s been around for 50 years, it certainly doesn’t look bad.”

Less subtle is “I love to run my fingers and toes through all their curls.” (“Black Boys” — Hair). While previous generations were content to do the missionary position and little to nothing else,

James Rado and/or Gerome Ragni accurately observed that ’60s Baby Boomers were turning sex upside down — literally. Contrast this to Ruth Stein, a member of “The Greatest Generation,” who in “That Was Yesterday” (Milk and Honey) more demurely sang “When my hair was up, my morale was down.” Jerry Herman is best known for his hummable tunes, but here we see he knows how to write an incisive lyric. Many do think of women with upswept hair as less sexy beings, and Ruth admits there may be something to it.

Here are two brilliant ones from Tim Rice. First, ” I’ve been your right-hand man all along.” (“Heaven on My Mind” — Jesus Christ Superstar). So Judas thinks that he’s Jesus’ favorite! Seeing Peter continually rise in Jesus’ estimation could put a man on the road to betrayal.

Second, there’s “But one thing I’ll say for me.” (“High Flying Adored” — Evita). Eva Duarte Peron starts out minimizing her achievements, but she can’t submerge her big ego for long. Her “one thing” is meant to make the listener realize that she has MANY attributes.

Was it Mark Hollmann or Greg Kotis who came up with “We — we never fail” (the title song of Urinetown)? One of them knew that people often repeat a word when speaking, so in a show where “It’s a privilege to pee,” the repetition not quite inadvertently yields another meaning: “wee-wee,” the euphemism for the byproduct of urination.

On a loftier note, there’s “The raging tide we held inside would hold no more” (“I Loved You Once in Silence” — Camelot). The married Queen Guinevere sings this to her lover Lancelot. Alan Jay Lerner certainly found an elegant way — nay, regal way – for her to say “We had the hots for each other.”

Saying that Lerner’s My Fair Lady – often called the best of musicals — has any underrated moment may seem strange. After all this time, what could possibly be unappreciated?

I’ll cite three brilliant but overlooked lines of “A Hymn to Him.” Have you caught just how much slack Henry Higgins gives men when often wondering “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

First he says “One man in a million may shout a bit.” I’d daresay that the percentage of male shouters is higher than .000001%. Notice too that Henry doesn’t even fully admit that one shouter even exists; he only suggests that there MAY be one who shouts – and not a lot or even substantially, but only “a bit.”

“Now and then, there’s one with slight defects.” Henry doesn’t say that offenders can be found “all the time” or even “quite often” but that they only crop up “now and then.” Don’t you think he’s minimizing the situation?

And how many defectives are there? Henry will only give you “one.” And how egregious are this one man’s flaws? They’re not “severe” but merely “slight.”

“One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.” Again, Henry wants us to believe there’s only “one” offender — and his existence isn’t even a certainty, for “perhaps” this one male liar exists somewhere in the universe. Thus, we shouldn’t suspect him let alone accuse him; the most we should do is “doubt” his truthfulness — and only “a bit” at that.

Henry concludes “But by and large we are a marvelous sex.” And by and large, Alan Jay Lerner was a marvelous lyricist. Don’t let it be forgot – or the achievements of any of the others.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at and and each Monday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at