Writing the words
Writing lyrics is really hard. Deceptively so, which I guess is why so many people think they can do it. Composing music is no walk in the park either, but maybe because music is written in what to many of us is a foreign language, we can often appreciate the composer’s talent more readily.
But lyricists write in our language. And when they’re good at their craft, they write in a conversational, simple way. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sentimental but either way, at their best, the lyricist’s job is to make it all look simple.
A lyricist in musical theater sets out to write a very specific kind of song. It has to be in the character’s voice and style, it has to be direct and move the story forward, it has to be emotionally honest and it has to be natural while using a very unnatural vernacular.
And for extra credit, it should be clever, too.
Back in the other century, I was a comics editor. Really. I actually edited comics, and developed new ones that would amuse newspaper readers and make wealthy the newspaper syndicate that employed me. Sometimes the cartoonists I signed made decent livings, too.
I mention this because it used to strike me as funny (I got the job because a lot of things strike me as funny – people with no idea of funny make lousy comics editors). Sorry, it used to strike me that the hardest thing in the world to find was people who could write short form and funny. It was much easier to find people who could draw well, less easy to find those who could draw well and draw funny. It was nigh onto impossible to find people who could write well, draw well and draw funny.
But, and not to take anything away from the artists who cartoon, most people I talked to about my work thought that finding the artists must be hard, finding the writers would be a cinch. They were wrong.
So many people think they can write the words to songs but so few people actually can. This site is about Howard Ashman, so of course, I’m going to send you to listen to some of his lyrics and really parse them. It’s fun. And we all know about the double whammy of Stephen Sondheim. But Howard introduced me to the work of so many others. Here are a few of my particular faves: Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, Lorenz Hart, and of course Cole Porter. Oh yes, and some guy named Hammerstein.
I’d love for you to weigh in and add your own favorites – both lyrics and lyricists.