When he wasn’t busy composing musicals as impressive as On the Town, Candide,
West Side Story and Wonderful Town plus a slew of orchestral works including three symphonies and the score for the Elia Kazan/Marlon Brando picture On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein wasn’t slow on proffering an opinion or three. Heaps of those opinions are there for all to see in Nigel Simeone’s superb 600-page collection of The Leonard Bernstein Letters and anyone interested in 20th-century music, theatre, culture and politics – often all at once – should devour them.
All manner of works come under Bernstein’s piercing scrutiny. One of the yardsticks he used when it came to evaluating what was original and good – and, certainly, what wasn’t – was that the elements of the work in question should seem “fresh yet inevitable”. That’s an observation he used over the years in conversations with Sondheim. It’s an argument easily applied to the appreciation of the nuts and bolts of songwriting.
Bernstein’s line recognises some of the ways a composer can combine being original while pleasing audiences. That can manifest itself in all sorts of ways: a new melody line travelling somewhere unexpected while at the same time feeling satisfying; or the way a more traditional-sounding vocal line can be expressively changed by a succession of unexpected harmonies.
His adage rings in my head whenever I find myself at new musicals, but although it’s applicable to the music, the place it’s most needed is in lyrics. This is because, with extremely rare exceptions, I’d argue we are in the era that has seen, if not the death of great musical theatre lyricists, then certainly a dearth.
The genre has always depended on combining content and craft. Even as far back as 1931, writing with his brother George, Ira Gershwin delivered a spoof in a song for an abandoned musical, East Is West, which finally came to the stage when Kathleen Marshall included it in her 2012 Broadway musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.
“I studied all the rhymes that all the lovers sing / Then just for you I wrote this little thing / Blah blah blah blah moon / Blah blah blah above / Blah blah blah blah croon / Blah blah blah blah love.
“Tra la la la / Tra la la la la / Merry month of May / Tra la la la / Tra la la la la / ’neath the clouds of grey…”
Of course, not all musical theatre rhyming is that inane, but one of the reasons people say they hate musicals is because the rhyming is so often lame, with simple-minded rhymes that express nothing but the fact they have been culled from a rhyming dictionary. The wearying air of predictability they conjure up leads audiences into a place where they are ahead of the game. That slows down the action, rather than deftly deploying words that spring surprises and keep audiences alert, thereby maintaining momentum.
The other problem that arises with weak lyricists is the business of mis-stress. My favourite of these comes from Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s lyrics for High Spirits, the almost forgotten 1964 musical version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Overcome with delight at the news that she will finally meet Elvira, a genuine ghost, local medium Madame Arcati sings Something Is Coming to Tea including the deathless lyric, complete with mis-stressed climax: “My beads are all a-jangle / My heart is in a spasm / I’m finally going to entertain / A genuine ectoPLASM.”
I was reminded of it in the otherwise musically wildly adventurous Ghost Quartet, which has opened the hugely impressive Boulevard Theatre.
The production boasts a host of virtues – most particularly the power of all four startlingly gifted performer-musicians singing while playing 27 instruments from alto
metallophone and autoharp to triangle via Celtic harp, dulcimer, cello and erhu – a
Chinese upright two-stringed violin, since you ask.
But along with the odd mis-stress that makes you jolt out of the sense of the lyric – a character is forced to sing: “It belonged to my grandMOTHER” because the correct GRANDmother wouldn’t rhyme – the lyrics meander.
Expressive though they are of moods, they lack convincing shape to lodge them in the ear and, crucially, specificity. Ideally in musical theatre, lyrics illuminate or anchor character or help define a dramatic moment, but Dave Malloy’s lyrics merely waft about. In a song-cycle looking to capture more than just generalised moods, that’s a problem.
Having seen both Ghost Quartet and his subsequent Preludes, I am lost in admiration for Malloy’s ambition in writing book, music and lyrics. Would it be sacrilege to suggest he collaborates with a first-rate lyricist?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict