Saturday, January 1, 2011

Poetry, Lyrics, and Sondheim

Not long ago I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim, the composer of the music and lyrics for so many great American musicals. Not having a great interest in musical theatre, I was only listening peripherally, with half an ear so to speak. Toward the end of the interview, the questioner praised him effusively for “the poetry in your lyrics. How words and the way you use them become much more meaningful.”

Sondheim claimed that the ambiguity inherent in his lyrics were not a deliberate poetic device but a means of expression demanded by the music and story or “book.” He explained that the “clowns” in his song “Send in the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music did not, as is commonly misperceived, refer to circus clowns or acrobats. It was especially written for the character who sings it in the musical, a woman who is an actress. He reminded the listeners that with Shakespeare as well as others, when the plot became too complicated or emotionally oppressive, the drama was lightened by the use of comic relief through a “fool” or clown, a buffoon or common character. He stated simply that “send in the fool” did not sound or feel the same; therefore he used the synonym. The actress' use of the term, with her intense feelings of anger and regret, would at once imply that theatrical reference. Those nuances are lost when the song is performed in a concert setting by singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins or recorded apart from the soundtrack.

He ended the discussion with a statement whose truth I immediately recognized. Just because the lyrics of a song feel like or seem to be poetic doesn't make them poetry. A song lyric is written for and with music. Its impact only holds true when the two are together. He pointed out that for something like the song from Oklahoma the words “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day” are nothing, are quite banal, until you connect them with the music they are associated with. That holds not only for musical theatre but for most pop music.

On the other hand, he pointed out, the words that make up a poem, that drive it with its own special power, are not dependent on music; instead they have an inherent sense of music within the poems' composition. A poem feels complete without ever having been dressed in melody but in a song words and music must be melded together.

I understood and was instantly enlightened. And although most songwriters understand that they are not poets, I do wish more poets were aware of those internal musical qualities that should be part of every poem, that make the poem so much more than an arrangement of words.

1 comment:

Laurie Miller said...

Odd, Jefferson, that you should mention the confusing title, "Send in the Clowns." I vaguely wondered for years what it meant. The music pacing the lyrics doesn't seem to evoke a circus. Quite recently I happened across this performance, in an interview setting, by Dame Judith Dench. She is a consummate actress, you know the character she is representing is an actress, and in this performance you know that those clowns are the dramatic fool type. As you suggest, it's far more satisfying when a song's lyrics and its music are pulling in the same direction.