Learning to write lyrics

I began writing David with only my experience directing school plays, my lifelong passion for musical theater, some books on playwriting, and the lyrics of the hundreds of Broadway songs I carry around in my head. I couldn’t find a book on writing musical theater, and I began to think there weren’t any. So, woe was me. Who was going to explain the purpose of the 11 o’clock number? Who was going to teach me all the structural peculiarities I hadn’t heard of, and hadn’t deduced for myself? Recently, though, the algorithm gods smiled upon me, and turned up books purportedly about musical theater lyrics, but really about so much more.

Lessons from Gershwin

I read Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions first, because why not be chronological? I knew Gershwin’s lyrics had a different purpose than those of the musicals of today; he wrote in a time before lyrics were designed to move the plot forward at one specific theatrical moment. Take one of his most enduring songs: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” He may say tomato and she may say to-mah-to, but still the song ends with calling “the calling off off,” in other words, with the relationship between the characters exactly as it was before the song began. Gershwin was writing top hits, meant to be universal, even interchangeable, rather than specific. Throughout his book, he calculates the success of a song by referencing the number of copies sold (copies of the sheet music, of course), not by the success of the show. From Gershwin’s point of view, even the shows themselves seem rather interchangeable.

Yet I learned some very important basics from Ira Gershwin’s book. I knew, at least subconsciously, that lyrics should sound more like conversation than poetry, though it was gratifying to hear this discussed in detail and confirmed. However, Gershwin’s assertion that lyrics are not poetry, not even light verse, and his detailed explanation of how rhythm differs from meter, showed me that I have been committing one sin of light verse–blame all the poetry I had to read to earn my degree in English! What does this mean? Basically, by sticking to a regular meter, on and on, da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum / da-dum da-dum da-dum, or whatever, I’ve created verse that, if set to music, would drive a person crazy with its repetitive sound. I always knew my lyrics were just placeholders staking out the shape and purpose of the songs, but now I know why. Lyrics escape the predictability of verse because they are set to a line of music, and don’t need to create their own music with meter. Gershwin’s solution is to start with a line of music…which only increases the frustration I feel at my inability to find a composer to collaborate with.

On the brighter side, though–and I have to paraphrase broadly, because the book went back to the library and I can’t find the quotation on the internet–Gershwin says that his methods may make interesting reading because surely the decisions, mistakes, heartaches, headaches, and joy of writing lyrics are in essence the same as those in any creative endeavor. So why shouldn’t a SF/F writer write a musical?

Next time: Lessons from Sondheim

Note: If for any reason you actually wanted to read Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions, be prepared for a significant amount of sexism, as well as occasional flashes of racism, homophobia, etc. I could write a whole blog post fuming about Gershwin’s portrayal of women in his lyrics, but what’s the point? Most of the lyrics were written almost one hundred years ago, and Gershwin is long dead. So I’d rather just learn what I can from him.

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