Photo by Mary Henebry


In His Own Words: Writing Lyrics

by Sheldon Harnick

What I am concerned with is how the lyrics help tell the dramatic story. So it's a matter of becoming deeply familiar with the characters and the situations, and what those characters are feeling, and knowing the book, knowing the librettist and how he has developed those characters, what he's written for them.

It's my job to find a voice that matches the characters' dialogue, so that when they start to sing, it's the same person singing. Then it's up to my intelligence and talent to write the most interesting, economical and effective lyric that I can for the person who is singing. I think it was (W.H.) Auden who said that poems must consist of memorable language. That's what I look for.

Lyrics have to have form and structure because, otherwise, if you give a free-form lyric to a composer, he has to write a free-form melody. In the theater, in popular music, what the audience has to hear is something it can hang onto. If the melody just keeps rambling along and meandering and going in different directions, it may be pleasant enough, but the audience won't be able to remember it.

Most popular forms are rather short and have some kind of easily graspable structure. For example, there's AABA form, where the first and second stanzas are more or less identical rhythmically, melodically and in their end rhymes; then the third stanza introduces variations of some kind and, finally, the last stanza pretty much repeats the structure of the first two stanzas. There are a wide variety of forms, luckily, because in musical theater, scores have to have a good deal of variety.

As for content, my preference is to work on shows that present recognizable human beings acting in what I consider sensible, understandable and comprehensible ways. I try to put real, three-dimensional human beings on stage.

So content has to do with studying the script and trying to figure out what the characters would say in the situations in which they find themselves — something that's emotionally relevant to the story that's being told.

And then style has to do with several other matters. The nature of the song has to be considered. Is it a comedy song? A love song? A point song? Also to be considered is the character of the person singing. How would this person express himself or herself? This brings a number of things into play, such as the character's social position, education and temperament.

Then there's language. Will the song be simple or cleverly rhymed? One has to be careful not to give characters rhymes that are so clever they draw attention to themselves — unless, of course, there's a valid reason to make that choice.

And then I have to understand the period, so that when people "speak" in lyrics, as they must in dialogue, they speak without anachronisms. They speak so they will sound as though they are living in 1890 or 1920 or whenever the period is. That demands a certain amount of research and also a general sense of what's appropriate language.

One doesn't have to be a stickler for absolute accuracy as long as the audience will say, "Yes, that suggests the period enough. I accept that." I hate it in a show when an 18th-century character will say, "OK." As you can see, form, content and style call for a good deal of thought.

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