Friday, March 14, 2008

Sondheim Week: Favorite Lyrics

In his fifty-year career Sondheim has written so many clever or profound lyrics that it's easy to have a dozen favorites. Sometimes his lyrics do not even yield up their brilliance at first glance: nobody ever ranks "Love, I Hear," from ...Forum with Sondheim's greatest ballads, but I once read an article (perhaps this one?) calling my attention to the line "Today I woke too weak to walk." A simple declarative sentence, you think at first. But when you realize the woke/weak/walk alliteration, and the repeated "to-day/too/to," and the implied pun on "weak" and "week"--it becomes mindboggling!

I blogged about some lyrics from "Epiphany" (Sweeney Todd) a few months are additional favorites. I've avoided some of his most clever and intricately rhymed songs like "A Little Priest" or "I'm Still Here" because I can't possibly choose an excerpt--also his philosophy-of-life songs like "Move On" or "Now You Know" because there, too, the effect is cumulative and I can't very well quote the whole song.
It takes trust
It takes just
A bit more
And we're done
We want four
We had none
We've got three
We need one
It takes two
"It Takes Two," Into the Woods. This lyric has a patterning kind of like the "today I woke too weak to walk" lyric discussed above--with its "four/none/three/one/two" finale. Mathematically precise, and perfect.
Ladies in their sensitivities, my lord
Have a fragile sensibility
When a girl's emergent
Probably it's urgent
You defer to her gent-
Ility, my lord
Personal disord-
Er cannot be ignored
Given their genteel proclivities
Meaning no offense, it
Happens they resents it
Ladies in their sensit-
Ivities, my lord!
"Ladies in their Sensitivities," Sweeney Todd. This is the song I am most annoyed they cut from the Sweeney Todd movie--it's got clever lyrics like this one, and it turns into a musically gorgeous Quartet.
I'll get Leontyne Price to sing her
Medley from "Meistersinger"
And Margot Fonteyn to dance "Giselle"
Won't it be perfectly swell?
"Bobby and Jackie and Jack," Merrily We Roll Along. One of my favorite Sondheim trick rhymes. (By the way, how do you think Sondheim feels about how his own name doesn't rhyme easily with anything? Even trick rhymes--what do you get? "Wand-heim?")
De Maupassant's candor
Would cause her dismay
The Brontës are grander
But not very gay
Her taste is much blander,
I'm sorry to say,
But is Hans Christian Ander-
Sen ever risqué?
Which eliminates A!
"Now," A Little Night Music. Sets up the joke perfectly, but at the same time, the rhymes are so intricate that it's impossible to predict the punchline.
As I've often stated
It's intolerable being tolerated.
"Later," A Little Night Music. One of my favorite "angsty" Sondheim lyrics. I liked this one a lot when I was in high school.
He flies off to California
I discuss him with my shrink
That's the story of the way we work
Me and Franklin Shepard, Inc.
"Franklin Shepard, Inc.," Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim does have a reputation as the poet of angst and neurosis. What I love about this lyric is how Charley deftly skewers Franklin while also skewering himself ("I discuss him with my shrink") for putting up with Franklin for this long.
You said you loved me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind?
"Losing My Mind," Follies. Makes the seemingly innocuous words "just being kind" sound absolutely devastating.

I'm still puzzling over whether there's a rhyme for "Sondheim" and I think I may have found one--which also sums up his talent in writing lyrics:
The words of Stephen Sondheim
Are pleasing far beyond rhyme.
They zing and sting and linger
Delighting listener and singer.
What's that you say? That "Sondheim" doesn't perfectly rhyme with "beyond rhyme" because according to the rules, you can't insert that extra "r" sound in there--it only works with "beyond-heim" or "beyond-I'm"? Oh well, that just proves why he is the master and the rest of us are left far behind.

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