From Aeschylus to Suzan-Lori Parks, language has been the foundation of theatre, and the best playwrights have used words to forge recognizable voices that make their plays personal and direct artistic expressions. Musical theatre, however, is a bit more complicated. A much more collaborative form, it combines the voices of many artists—not only the lyricist and the book writer (often not the same person), but also the nonverbal contributions of the composer, choreographer, director, and designers. (Yes, plays also have the latter two, but the work they do in musical theatre is usually more prominent and visible.)
How important an element is the text—spoken and sung—of a Broadway musical? What functions do the words fulfill? And what are the techniques for crafting a book and lyrics for the commercial theatre today? Back Stage spoke with three who have been there and done that—repeatedly—on the Great White Way. Tim Rice, Lynn Ahrens, and Michael John LaChiusa represent three very different artistic sensibilities, but each has done what Alan Jay Lerner once defined as "writing every word that is spoken or sung from curtain up to curtain down."
Rice, in conjunction with former collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber, revolutionized the form with his popularization of the through-sung pop musical in shows like "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "Evita." More recently, he has worked as a lyricist only, in shows mixing spoken dialogue and song such as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Aida" (the first with composer Alan Menken, the last two with rock star Elton John).
Ahrens prefers to work in that same mix, and her shows include "Once on This Island," "Seussical," Off-Broadway's "Lucky Stiff" (all with her long-time partner, composer Stephen Flaherty), and the annual Madison Square Garden "A Christmas Carol" (with Menken as composer and the late Mike Ockrent as co-book writer and director). Like Rice, Ahrens has also sometimes limited her role to that of lyricist in shows like "Ragtime," "My Favorite Year," and the upcoming "A Man of No Importance" (all, again, with Flaherty).
LaChiusa, who is also a composer, has the most eclectic resume, having written everything from opera libretti to another composer's music ("Desert of Roses" with Robert Moran and "Tanya" with Anthony Davis), to songs for a campy Off-Broadway spoof ("Buzzsaw Berkeley," with book by Douglas Wright, who went on to write "Quills"), to book, music, and lyrics for such diverse shows as the eclectic, thematically-related collection of one acts, "First Lady Suite," the more opera-like "Marie Christine," and the jazzy, song-filled, 1920s-influenced "The Wild Party" (collaborating on the book with director George C. Wolfe).
They Just Don't Write 'Em Like They Used To—Or Do They?
Traditionally, the Broadway wordsmiths who have made the strongest impressions have been lyricists. Names from the '20s, '30s, and '40s like Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, E. Y. Harburg, and Johnny Mercer still resonate today. Their songs remain familiar long after most of the shows that contained them have drifted into obscurity, and each has a distinct and immediately identifiable voice. And if a good lyricist was also a good composer, as in the case of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, their fame tended to be even greater. Book writers, however, were then and remain today largely unknown, unless they were also lyricists, like Alan Jay Lerner and Oscar Hammerstein II; or well-known playwrights, like George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; or both, like Maxwell Anderson. No doubt part of this was due to the relative importance of the book vis-à-vis the songs. The early American musical comedy was largely a lightweight confection with paper-thin characters in credulity-stretching stories. They existed to entertain, and did so by showing off performers and songs, which often had a tenuous relation to the story. With only marginal concerns of character and plot to accommodate, lyricists were free to write quite personally, much as the pop singer-songwriters of a later age would write.
Yet even then, concerns of character and plot could sometimes also produce unique and memorable language, as Michael John LaChiusa points out in the case of Hart's lyric for "Thou Swell" from "A Connecticut Yankee," based on the classic Mark Twain novel about a 20th-century American who gets knocked out and wakes up in medieval England. " 'Thou swell, thou witty/Thou sweet, thou grand/Wouldst kiss me, pretty?/Wouldst hold my hand?'—that's character. He's trying to speak in the language of the time he finds himself in. And, as a good American, he finds a way of twisting it up and making it American, his experiences there."
Tim Rice notes that today "you don't get quite as many songs with the lyrical style of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think songs in general in theatre are much more realistic than they used to be. A lot of modern musicals are singing lines that could be spoken and could make sense if you read them out." Rice attributes this to the needs of dramatizing stronger stories and more realistic characters. "The Rodgers and Hart characters, by and large, were very sophisticated people who were almost doing a turn when it came to those songs. And those songs are wonderful. But if you have a fanatical woman [Eva Peron] addressing workers in a meat factory in Buenos Aires and it's realistic, she doesn't want to sing 'Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered' to them. It won't go down very well." He elaborates further in his 1999 autobiography, "Oh, What a Circus": "Most people have forgotten that 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina' is first and foremost a speech within a play. It has become so well known that it is now a victim of its own success, almost a cliché. It has been slammed by many for being a string of meaningless platitudes, but that is precisely what it was meant to be in the first place. As a speech by a megalomaniac woman attempting to bamboozle half a million people, it is right on the button; it is meant to be low on content and high on emotion, just like Evita herself. That doesn't stop it from being a beautiful song, nor Eva from being an irresistible icon. If millions around the world love the song at face value, we are delighted, but maybe they have been fooled as Eva's adoring descamisados were."
Ahrens agrees that as the musical became a more complex form, lyricists changed the way they used language, becoming less pyrotechnical. "I wish, in a way, that I could be more of a showoff and write those witty, Cole Porter-ish things that people notice. But I don't seem to be able to do that comfortably. I could do it if I tried, but I get very uncomfortable when I'm showing, so I try not to do that. I think there is a sensibility that Stephen [Flaherty] and I both bring to each piece that we write, which is that we really try very hard to inhabit the characters and inhabit the world and not impose our New York City selves on it. If I'm ever aware that I can hear my own personal wit getting in the way, I try and get rid of it. I think I generally hide pretty well within the characters and let them speak."
LaChiusa, however, is a bit skeptical that things have changed all that much. "Take P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Hammerstein's lyric, 'Bill,' [from 'Show Boat']—'He's just…I don't know... Because he's just my Bill.' I find that utterly deep. The lyric just goes crack, fuck all that, 'I don't know.' I mean, gee, that's character. Those writers all knew what character was. You can't really plug those songs into any old situation. It's hard to make it work." And as for his own writing, "The character is extremely important, but it has to be my character. It has to be told, to have my take on it."
The Nuts and Bolts of a Theatre Lyric
The language of a lyric is inevitably heightened from that of conversational speech, because a lyric is confined in the more rigid structure of a melody, so it feels punchier, more packed. With fewer words available to a lyricist in a single lyric than to a playwright in a scene, each word carries tremendous weight. And most importantly, as Stephen Sondheim said in his seminal lecture on the subject in 1971 at the 92nd Street Y, "a lyric exists in time." Unlike poetry, which you can read and reread at your leisure on a page, a lyric goes by in the theatre like a freight train. You hear it only once and then it's gone, making clarity crucial. Nevertheless, it should also have enough substance to provide additional resonance in return hearings. And that's not an easy balancing act.
Ahrens avoids consciously thinking of craft while writing, which, for her, is an intuitive process. "I can't really tell you that we do it in any conscious way. As we're writing, we generally perform for each other, we sing and we talk and we improvise at the piano, and it kind of bubbles up, that's the only way I can put it." Still, she does have ways of refining her craft after the initial creative impulse. "I generally read my lyrics out loud. And if things bother the ear, I change them; if they seem to want to have more of that sound in a particular area, I add some. I can't really articulate a rule other than just whatever sounds good coming out of that character's mouth and what seems to get the point across."
Alan Jay Lerner once defined the essence of lyric writing as finding "the new cliché, fresh but inevitable." Rice agrees, and goes on to stress the importance of specificity. "I think by being specific through a character you make the general point much better." He cites Mary Magdalene's song from "Jesus Christ Superstar," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," as an example. "She could have sung a song that said, 'Isn't it strange how it's very difficult to approach somebody whom you're fascinated by and love is very difficult.' That would have been wishy-washy and not so good. 'I don't know how to love him/What to do, how to move him' is very direct and says, 'This is my situation, and I'm only thinking about me.' That, I think, paradoxically gives it a universal appeal."
Rice also believes in the power of the simplicity of a single idea. "I think, by and large, the best songs—songs, not whole shows or scenes—tend to stick to only one theme. I've found myself when trying to get too complex or too many messages in one song that it often just collapses. I think you have to be pretty direct, even in theatre songs. There are exceptions but, basically, a song should get just one dynamic point over."
According to LaChiusa, his language choices vary "depending on the subject that I'm musicalizing, and also to all the parameters of the show. In 'Marie Christine' [the story of 'Medea' relocated to New Orleans and Chicago in the late 1890s], there's very little rhyme and I use very expansive words. Very simple words. Because the story is incredibly complicated, but with very, very large emotions. I needed fewer words for it to get that sort of expansiveness of the music. I let the music provide the subtext, not the words. For 'The Wild Party' [based on Joseph Moncure March's caustic and cautionary jazz-age poem], which had to be a cluster of Americans in a room stifling each other, strangling each other, closing in on each other, everything became very, very tight and packed. And they're also show business people from Tin Pan Alley, so there's a definite lingo, a take on the material where it's all very arch. There's a lot of rhyme in 'Wild Party.' "
The Uses (and Misuses) of Rhyme
Rhyme is undoubtedly the most powerful linguistic weapon in a lyricist's arsenal. LaChiusa cautions that "rhyme shouldn't draw attention to itself. You shouldn't know the rhyme is coming from a block away." For Ahrens, "There's an old maxim that says when a character is in control and/or is a very sophisticated character, they get to rhyme more. When they are more emotional, more out of control, or a less articulate sort of a character, they get to rhyme less. Rhymes make us think of intellect, of wit, of sharpness, of control." She goes on to note the difference between two of her shows. "Lucky Stiff" is full of playful rhyme because "it's a farce. It has to be sharp and funny and click, click, click, and you get to do that with those kinds of characters in that kind of form." "Once on This Island" is based on a novel in the form of a Caribbean folktale and "has a lot of internal rhyme. And I didn't even do it on purpose, it just happened that way. I think it's because the people are not educated people. They're not particularly sophisticated characters, but they have a great deal of musicality and a great deal of heart. The internal rhymes seem to emphasize that, without rhyming at the ends of every line."
Rice warns that rhyming "can make a thing seem rather trite, particularly in a serious song, though it also can be quite moving. But you often don't need rhyme with ballads and serious songs." He finds it particularly useful "in comic songs, [where] for some reason [it] becomes quite funny. It's always rather nice and satisfying when a rhyme hits home." He elaborates on the dichotomy between ballads and comedy songs by noting his experiences in translating a French musical, "Starmania." "The French have only about five or six common endings so, in a way, the skill of rhyming in France doesn't really exist. Consequently, they're not really good at comic songs, but they're brilliant at ballads. Whereas in England, to a certain extent, the reverse is true."
In "Chess," Rice's musical love story set against the background of the Cold War (music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the composers of the pop group ABBA), he effectively contrasts the absence and presence of rhyme within a single song, "Mountain Duet." A male Russian chess star and the female second of his American archrival are romantically attracted despite themselves. When they soliloquize internally about each other, they never rhyme; when they engage in sung conversation, they rhyme. It sets up a perfect tension, suggesting their nervousness and uncertainty, but also the connection that is happening despite their best efforts.
All three writers are passionate in their dislike of imperfect, or false rhyme. (A true rhyme is one in which the initial consonant sound is different, but all the following vowel and consonant sounds in the subsequent syllables are identical.) "One should really try and avoid rhymes like 'girl' and 'world,' which are not proper rhymes," laments Rice, who once committed such sins. "I was very young. And also, I thought 'Joseph' was only something for a school. I did it in 'Superstar' once or twice, and I've since changed a few of those. I've tried to in 'Joseph,' but they say, 'Oh, "district" and "biscuit" is our favorite line, you can't take that out.' But I don't think since 'Evita' there've been any howlers in that direction." (Rice is in very good company. Irving Berlin also publicly regretted the false rhymes he employed in his early work.)
Ahrens worries about false rhyming accidentally. She once wrote a lyric where "a character sang a very long 'I': 'But I———/Wouldn't waste my time.' " A friend pointed it out to her as a false rhyme. "It had never occurred to me that it would be heard as a wannabe rhyme. And he was right. Once in a while I make those kinds of mistakes, but I usually catch them."
LaChiusa calls himself "a real classicist, a real traditionalist. I teach at NYU now. My students know not to bring in something that's a crummy rhyme. If it's daring, that's a whole different thing. As long as they know how to do it, that's great. But if they bring it in and they don't know what they're doing, then they're just being sloppy. I don't like bad rhyme; I prefer not rhyming. Ninety percent of the work out there today is the absence of craft."
All three also reject the suggestion that false rhyming is required in some cases because it's endemic to the pop music that would be the language of contemporary characters. Rice agrees with the contention theoretically, but then counters, "You're being too clever by half. I don't think anybody would go through that thought process. Viewing it from your theatre seat, you would just say, 'Oh, that's not a very good rhyme.' You have to accept the fact in musical theatre that even the roughest peasant will at times come up with a great rhyme." Ahrens cites "West Side Story": "In 'Officer Krupke,' they're street kids and they rhyme perfectly. And you still think that they're street kids and funny. I don't think it's necessary to dumb down." LaChiusa insists "the whole point of being a lyricist is putting your own take on it all. You have to transcend it in some way, shape, or form. That's why the calling is so goofy; you want to try to transcend, to a certain degree, colloquialism."
Sitting on the Music
All three writers were adamant about the importance of the proper marriage between words and music. Says Ahrens, "One thing that I think is really important is the setting of the words. When words are mis-set, it's very jarring to the ear. If you can get the natural accents to flow naturally on the notes, that's half the battle right there." Ahrens' process with Flaherty usually takes place simultaneously in the same room. Sometimes music comes first, sometimes words. With the exception of his collaborations with Elton John, who always wants the words first, Rice has spent his career putting words to music. Rice is the only one of the three who has written words to fairly heavy rock music, which is less fluid at mimicking the patterns of speech than more traditional theatre music. He acknowledges that making heavy rock verbally comprehensible for a character is "sometimes very difficult. It's a question of saying, 'Well, I have to say something in nine syllables, and the emphasis has to come on the six and the fifth, or whatever.' It's just like doing a long crossword puzzle." And the kind of music influences the word choice. "It absolutely does. With gentle ballads, there are words you can't use, like 'greenhouse' or 'lawnmower,' 'warthog' or 'blockbuster.' It's harder to write a love song; almost every cliché's been used. And you have fewer syllables, usually. In a comic song, almost any word will work. Often the more weird the better. But I doubt in most love songs there's more than about 25 percent of the language that can be used." He laughs. "That still leaves you with a lot of words."
LaChiusa normally serves as his own composer, but offers some advice from his experiences writing the text of an opera libretto for another composer to set. "Some things in English are easier sung than other things. There are a lot of closed sounds in English. You want to give as many open sounds as you possibly can in a libretto when you offer it up to the composer to musicalize. And you've got to really ride the composer if you have closed sounds or consonants. It can't be melismatic, drawn out over 50 million notes. There are certain words that you have to understand and, if you break it up too much in terms of the music, it doesn't make sense." When told that it is very hard to divorce his words from his own music for consideration apart, he smiles. "I don't want a divorce. I think they all live together; they're all a happy family that one tries to create."
Oh, Yes, and About the Book
Book writers in the musical theatre long ago got used to being ignored when a show is a hit and blamed when it is a flop. And yet, Rice says, the book is the linchpin of it all. "The storyline, the actual plot, whether it's told primarily through lyric or through spoken word, is the most important thing of any musical—even more important than the tunes and the lyrics. You've got to have a really good, strong story. That is the key thing. From that, all other things flow."
Writing a book for a Broadway musical is often considered a thankless task because, as LaChiusa describes it, "the book writer is cannibalized. He writes the most beautiful words and scenes and the most interesting character interactions and all the high points of the drama—and then the lyricist comes in and takes all the best stuff. And the composer takes it all out and makes it into the best theme. And what's left of the play is the beginning and the end. In the middle, if they do it right, the best moment of the book writer's scene has been turned into song."
Ahrens calls herself "a book writer under duress. Book writing is really two things: structure and dialogue. I love structure and think I'm pretty good at it; I enjoy the puzzle-solving nature of it—what comes next and how to go from one scene into another, what would be unexpected, what needs to happen. What I'm not as fond of doing is writing dialogue. I tend to enjoy it more when it can be very heightened—as in 'Seussical,' where it's all in rhyme, or as in 'Once on this Island,' where it's very poetic in nature. When it comes to real scenes and real gutsy dialogue between people, that's when I want to work with a great book writer who can do that sort of thing, like Terrence McNally [with whom she collaborated on 'Ragtime' and the upcoming 'A Man of No Importance']."
The book is probably what has changed the most over the 100 years or so that the Broadway musical has been in existence. The florid romances of operetta and the strung-together vaudeville jokes of early musical comedy increasingly gave way to more coherent stories with substantial characters and dialogue. Oscar Hammerstein II wrought one revolution with "Show Boat" and "Oklahoma!," making the integrated musical play (with which a number of writers had been toying) into a highly commercial form. In the mid-'60s, at the height of its popularity, Arthur Laurents (whose credits already included the books for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy") said that the trick to writing a good book scene was to "get to it and run from it. There's much less palaver than in a play. It's a shorthand kind of writing."
Thanks to Tim Rice, that shorthand has gotten even shorter. Rice likes to say that he "got rid of the book" in his early successes with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, he didn't (he even won a Tony for Best Book for "Evita"), but he did get rid of the dialogue. This innovation came out of his strong background in pop music fusing with Lloyd Webber's great knowledge of musical theatre. "People who try to emulate and obey all the conventions, as we did when we started out with our first musical even before 'Joseph,' end up being a pale imitation of somebody who is good. We made it big by breaking the rules. I think my own ignorance of musical theatre was actually a plus," offers Rice.
In essence, Rice and Lloyd Webber conflated the forms of the pop record album and the stage musical. But it wasn't just a series of songs. Connections between the songs were sometimes narration (Rice's use of a narrator figure in "Joseph…" and, particularly, "Evita," is another innovation he brought to the form), sometimes in scene form, but always sung. The music for these bits was not traditional opera "recitative," but pieces of the melodies from the score. This allowed Rice to vary line length, number of words, even rhyme scheme or how the accents fall, all things that prick the ear of an audience. "Sometimes in the linking passages I say, 'Well, we have to get this idea over and we therefore need an extra bar or two, it just won't fit into the formal structure of the tune. That often makes it a bit more interesting. Sometimes it's the composer's doing. It's often born of necessity rather than deliberate, but I think it actually adds something."
The tremendous commercial popularity in the '70s, '80s, and '90s of the "pop opera" pioneered by Rice/Webber has had its fallout. People have a harder time these days accepting the convention of moving from the speech of a book scene into singing (a convention that "Urinetown," the current hit deconstruction of the Broadway musical, treats with particular derision). In Ahrens' view, "The change is toward a more through-composed form, less book scenes per se, more sung work, more narrative carried in lyrics. In that sense, I think the words become even more important in a way." Ahrens, however, resists having it all sung. "We think the ear needs a rest from singing, and now and then a spoken word or two can be very refreshing. But in our shows, a lot of the spoken words are incorporated into the songs, they're broken up in between, so it's not like you stop for a scene and then move on to a song." She believes that the right piece of dialogue in the right place in the music can be of great impact. "It's like setting a diamond in the right band. If the band is simple and beautiful and just stops at the diamond, the diamond will shine."
LaChiusa agrees, and goes further: "I like the idea that [going into dialogue] is unsettling sometimes." He gives an example from "The Wild Party," in a song called "The Lowdown-Down," where Queenie, who is in an abusive relationship with her lover, is simultaneously putting on a performance for and beginning to fall for her best girlfriend's lover and kept man. Sings Queenie, "Some are born to rise above/Sleepless nights and sloe gin love, love, love/I was born to ask why I was born/and the answer is…[speaks] Gimme some more ice." Says LaChiusa, "And he does. I love that. It was my 'Bill' moment."
More recently Rice has written lyrics for musicals with dialogue (written by others), but his heart seems to remain with the form he pioneered. "If you have a different team doing the book from the lyric, they often don't help each other as much as they perhaps should. I get annoyed when some of the songs are interrupted by chat. There's a song in 'Aida' called 'Not Me,' which for my money is one of Elton's best, a beautiful pop song. It keeps almost taking off and then, suddenly, they stop singing it and somebody says, 'But gee, Radames, what are you doing?' and you think, 'Oh, no.' I sometimes feel that people don't trust the songs." He offers another example from his experience writing lyrics (to composer John Farrar's heavy rock score) for "Heathcliff," a West End musical based on Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," starring Cliff Richards (the English Elvis) as the title character. "The book, I think, made the mistake of just quoting great chunks out of the novel and, consequently, there was a bit of a jolt between a fairly contemporary lyrical approach and a fairly traditional approach. I don't wish to be rude, but I think the structure of it was a little bit shambolic [British slang for 'a shambles'] and, in the end, I concentrated on trying to get some nice songs for Cliff."
What Will the Future Bring, I Wonder?
In the 35 years that the Tony Award has been given separately for best book, music and lyrics, and musical, there have been 10 Best Musicals that won not a single writing Tony, with seven of those coming within the last 14 years (this year's "Thoroughly Modern Millie" the most recent example). Does this suggest that the words of a Broadway musical are less and less important today?
All three writers reluctantly agreed that American culture is increasingly less literate, less verbally and more visually oriented, and that the text of a musical finds it harder to assert itself in these days of grand theatrical spectacle and liberal musical amplification. Ahrens goes on to say that "the entertainment world has changed quite a bit and you can't expect theatre, at $100 a ticket, to be a mass-market form the way it used to be when you could go for two bucks. What holds true is that people want theatre to be a visceral experience, and have from the Greeks on. They want to feel something. If what that takes these days is high amplification and big pop ballads, well, I guess that's what it takes. I know it's harder these days to do a dark musical or a quiet musical and have success with it." And yet, that's exactly what she's risking with her next show, "A Man of No Importance." "It's a much more play-like piece than anything else we've written. There's a wonderful lead character, a Dublin bus conductor with a secret. He's rather silent because he's very withheld."
In his autobiography, Rice writes some surprisingly pessimistic words: "The foyers of theatres bubble with more and more foreign languages. This means that most of the time the audience won't have a clue what the words are banging on about. Of course, with most musicals these days this does not matter—the sheer spectacle compensates and the basic storyline is pretty obvious. Above all, there is little or no spoken dialogue to confuse the non-English-speaking tourist. So, by introducing a new era of popular musicals without books, I have contributed to the downgrading of the importance of lyrics in the contemporary musical—as Homer Simpson would say, 'Doh!' "
Still, he can summon some optimism. "I am today more convinced than ever that the only great musicals are writer-driven rather than producer- or director-driven. The next big thing in musicals will not emerge from the offices of any of the characters who have dominated the genre for the last 20 years—it will be totally unexpected and created by unknown writers who break all the rules that our generation made, the rules by which our generation has been eventually and inevitably stifled, creatively if not economically."
LaChiusa, the only one of the three to pointedly define himself as "not a commercial writer," talks about a veritable Balkanization of American society. "What perspective are you coming from? A gay white man perspective? A homeless mother on 125th Street? A Puerto Rican school child? A country-western person from Nashville? What is there in American language anymore that a lyricist can synthesize and put into the theatre? What is colloquial? Fifty percent of the country now speaks Spanish. There is no more definitive Broadway lyric anymore. That is all gone. Because the audience is gone for it. And nothing has so far replaced it."
That said, his belief in the power of language remains unshaken. "It's an intensely profound human achievement that we've put words with music. When you hear a song, you find yourself simultaneously thinking and feeling something. [But] words are the hardest. They're tools to use, but they're dangerous tools. They can harm, they can hurt. They can also stroke and soothe. It's like a caveman with a gun if you don't know what you're doing with words. And yet, one word can tell you an entire story if it's perfectly placed. One word. It's amazing."