Essays Lyrics

The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWSome time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.

There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.

Example from “The Desert Song”:

                   Why waste your time in vague romancing

                   When life itself is at your call?

                    I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.

One from “The Red Mill”:

                    Only because you are you, dear.

                    Not that you are fair, dear,

                    Not that you are true.

                    Not your golden hair, dear,

                    Not your eyes of blue, etc.

Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.

Opening night program for the first authorized production

Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been  hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.

Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”

Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.

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The entire cast of “Cox and Box”

Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:

 My master is punctual always in business

          Unpunctuality even slight is in his

          Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his

          Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.

Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.

The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!

[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]

On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.

So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of  William S. Gilbert.

 During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.

Program for the “lost” and first G&S opera

Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]

“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of  “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:

                         Barring tautology

                         In demonology


                         Mystic nosology

                         Spirit philology

                         High-class astrology

                         Such is his knowledge he

                         Isn’t the man to require an apology!

Rutland Barrington, the first Pooh-Bah

Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”

And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.

When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:

                            When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose

                                       is taboo’d by anxiety,

                            I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in

                                       without impropriety.

In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation

    When exigence of rhyme compels

                         Orthography forgoes her spells

                         And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”

Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:

                          To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,

                          In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,

                          Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,

                          From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood  and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.

One of the expanding and shrinking Lady Jane’s

One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.

For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.

A true blue Englishman–but by choice?

But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.

At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.




Essays Lyrics

Sing a Sexy Song for the Well Dressed Armed Forces

Your_king_and_country_want_you_sheet_music_01Sing a Sexy Song for the Well Dressed Armed Forces

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience,” a chorus of Dragoons lament the fact that the ladies of the neighborhood prefer the “Early English” dress of the local aesthetic poets to “a uniform that has been as successful in courts of Venus as on the field of Mars.” Part of the first stanza states, “Gold lace has a charm for the fair/And I’ve plenty of that and to spare/While a lover’s professions/When uttered in Hessians/Are eloquent everywhere!”

Indeed the soldier has always been given the gaudiest of parade costumes to put them above the common (non-military) male population, to disguise the darker nature of their profession, and to impress the populace, especially the ladies.

Now while giving my talks on the songs of the two World Wars, I keep noticing one type of song that keeps cropping up among all the love ballads. It is designed for a sexy female chanteuse to praise the way a man looks in a uniform in order to make him run to enlist.

Cover of EMI “Patience” highlights the Heavy Dragoons

In the First World War the female singers appealed to the male sense of virility, so we had “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go” which stressed the role of Duty, so dear to every Englishman, and “I’ll make a man of any one of you” in which the singer details her “recruiting scheme” which consists of dating a chap from a different branch of the service (including the Boy Scouts) on different days of the week.

If you saw the old film version of Noel Coward’s “Cavalcade,” there was a nightclub sequence in which these two songs were sung by vapid females to a crowd of tuxedoed gentlemen out with their gowned women. In an earlier sequence, a very similar song had been sung about running to enlist to fight in the Boer War. The more things change, etc.

Dinah Shore about the time she helped win WW 2

The Second World War, the one that the First World War was supposed to make impossible, had its share of “uniform songs”; and while I used to joke that Dinah Shore played a larger part in winning for our side than did many combatants, I began to take the concept more seriously as I repeated the talk and got feedback from men and women who were active teenagers and adults during those years.

The very title “A Boy in Khaki–a Girl in Lace” tells it all. It is the FUNCTION of the male to wear the uniform. It follows that it is the function of the lacy female, delicate and helpless as the adjective implies, to be protected. The old “Me Tarzan, you Jane” syndrome is right there.

A similar idea was also expressed by Dinah Shore when she recorded “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings.” This not only gave equal time to the Air Corps but introduced another aspect. The silver wings implied a more god-like quality to the wearer of that uniform, since the American symbol is the eagle and the eagle was the symbol of Jupiter in ancient myth. (In “Superman II,” the arch villain comments when seeing the eagle on the floor of the Oval Office, “I see you worship things that fly” or words to that effect.) Small wonder that men consciously used their garments as a strong aphrodisiac–and were successful a good deal of the time!

19420700_You_Cant_Say_No_To_a_Soldier-Joan_MerrillHowever, the song that seemed to have made the deepest impression on the bobby socks crowd was sung in a film called “Iceland” and later recorded by Nancy Norman and the Sammy Kaye orchestra. The title alone–“You Can’t Say No To a Soldier”–gave the message clearly enough to all those “nice girls” whose hormones were contradicting everything they were told by parents, school, and church–and here was a popular song telling them it was all right to go all the way because “If he’s going to fight, he’s got a right to romance.” It goes on, “Get out your lipstick and powder; be beautiful and dutiful too.” This is potent stuff–and the lyrics were written by a male.

A salute to the best uniform of all

The power of these songs has always been implied in documentaries of the times that use period recordings as part of the soundtrack, but seldom does the narration examine the subliminal messages contained in the lyrics. Gilbert was able to see through the nonsense, although he himself posed for the customary photographs in military outfit. Perhaps as more of us stop looking at  war as a glamorous venture, the desire for it might stop. It is revealing to note that toward the end of the war, Vaughn Monroe put out a record in which he sang that all he wanted to put on once more was a blue serge suit and a tie!

Essays Lyrics

Hear the Song, Read the Book

BerlinHear the Song, Read the Book

            I have on my shelves several very large and heavy tomes with titles that contain the “Complete Lyrics” of some well known lyricist. Sometimes I think, paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson, “what can be the use of them is more than I can see.” As the years pass, I do indeed find several uses for them, each one helping me to understand better the development of the American popular song and musical.

By definition, a “popular” song is written for “the people.” That is to say, not for a small elite audience but for most of the public whose lives need a little or a whole lot of reassurance that their thoughts, hopes, fears, points of view, are shared by most of the population. Hearing them expressed in rhymes to a memorable melody bucks one up, lets him know (or at least think) that he is not alone.

In his book “Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim” (Praeger, 1991), Thomas S. Hischak points out that the music is so integrated with the words in many songs that “it is a disservice to the lyricist to have his words sitting there on the page naked without benefit of the music.” Be that as it may, but I feel that some naked lyrics can stand on their own without shame.

In “The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin” (Knopf, 2001), we see for the most part seemingly ingenuous lyrics, using mostly “strong” rhymes. Picking at random, I see in his 1912 “When I lost you” the end rhymes of the refrain: roses, blue, rainbow, dew, me, through, gladness, sadness, you. Skip to the 1950 “Call Me Madam” to find a stanza with these end rhymes: princess, guy, day, princess, guy, pay, another, bring, another, sing, window, sang, say, today. This only seems to show little improvement in his rhyming skills over the years.

However from the same show we get these: analyzing, surprising, nice, patter, matter, twice, shoulder, older, glove, take, ache, love. The “weak” rhymes make things a lot more interesting, as does the a-a-b-c-c-b-d-d-e-f-f-e scheme.

Yes, I know it is unfair to pull out three of the more than 3,000 lyrics Berlin wrote. But my point is that reading his lyrics is not nearly as rewarding as reading those of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Larry Hart. His songs seldom “tell a story,” as did “Cohen owes me ninety-seven dollars” from 1915. Berlin’s specialty was to express an emotion in the simplest terms

Like many of Gilbert’s lyrics, much written by those three can stand alone as pure poetry, a claim that cannot be made for most of Berlin’s. Cole Porter’s “The tale of the oyster” from his “Fifty Million Frenchmen” can be read as a party piece and bring down the house if read well, with its wonderful punch line, which I’ll not reveal here. (You can find it on pp. 87-88 of the Knopf “The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter” or hear it on the New World CD of the complete score.)

Now and then, Gilbert would set up a challenge to himself by necessitating rhymes for such unrhymable words as “executioner.” Those familiar with “The Mikado” will recall his solutions: ablutioner, diminutioner, so you shun her. Porter posed a greater challenge in having to make a long list of things that rhyme with (to give one example for now) “can-can.”

His solution was to finish each end-phrase in the first refrain with the word “can” while having the penultimate syllable rhyme with it. The first few results run thus: Dapper Dan can, Irish Callahan can, Afghanistan can. In the second refrain, he gives us the following: swell can, Ravel can; custodian can, Republican can; Cézanne can, Sudan can, Aga Kahn can, caravan can.

That is, of course, nothing compared with his use of titles in “Brush up your Shakespeare,” in which he now and then cheats as in “kick her right in the Coriolanus” to get a rhyme for “heinous.”

Again, a good actor could render many Porter lyrics as straight poems with no recourse to the music at all, except of course for the natural meter of the verses. So a book of Porter lyrics is something of a Golden Treasury of Sophisticated Poetry.

Mention should be made of Ogden Nash, whose poems are remarkable but whose lyrics for such shows as “One Touch of Venus,” “Two’s Company” and “The Littlest Review” are little quoted out of context. Perhaps “Poems are like liquor but lyrics fade quicker”!

download (2)In the first part of this essay, I took a look at how following in print the collected lyrics of a few song writers could increase our appreciation of their talent. Larry Hart is a particularly good lyricist to study, because his versatility in rhyming where no man has rhymed before (sorry, Capt. Kirk) is his most outstanding characteristic.

But so is his cynicism. Not many lyricists would write that “This can’t be love because I feel so well” or “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe” or “Kiss me and say goodbye, that’s love.” I think an analyst would have a field day with his view of the tender passion. But those aware of his bitterness over his short body topped by a normal sized head and possibly over his sexual preferences can understand his attitude towards love. They can also understand lines like “Though your figure’s less than Greek, though your chin’s a little weak” in the aptly titled song “My funny Valentine.” I think I enjoy reading his lyrics almost as much as I do hearing them sung.

IMG_20150612_0002_NEWHowever, I have considered Hart in past essays and had best pass on to Ira Gershwin. George’s brother did not try for tricky rhymes but for slightly different ways of expressing ideas that had long since become clichés with other lyric writers. His own reminiscences and analyses of many of his songs are contained in his book (and I give the full title) “Lyrics on Several Occasions: A Selection of Stage & Screen Lyrics Written for Sundry Situations; and Now Arranged in Arbitrary Categories. To Which Have Been Added Many Informative Annotations & Disquisitions on Their Why & Wherefore, Their Whom-for, Their How; and Matters Associative” (Limelight Editions).

One of his few bitter comments is directed at those singers who take “’S Wonderful” and supply the missing “it,” thereby ruining the effect entirely. He also says that his greatest challenge came in “Lady Be Good” when George gave him a melody that was so syncopated as to leave Ira at a loss for lyrics that would fit. But the very problem provided the answer. And so the first line of the refrain became “Fascinating rhythm” and the rest flowed easily from there.

Happily, Knopf also has “The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin” in its catalogue. Here one can appreciate every lyric from his first recorded try in 1917, “You may throw all the rice you desire” to those he wrote in 1964 for the film “Kiss Me, Stupid.” Without being self-consciously novel—Hart and Porter do tend to show off their cleverness—Ira gives his lyrics a more colloquial sound and a generally optimistic tone. In fact, one of his really downbeat songs, “But not for me,” could easily be taken for a Hart lyric were it not for lines that end with a pun like “The climax of the plot should be the marriage knot, but there’s no knot for me”.

51tdhuRmF3L._SX469_BO1,204,203,200_“Noel Coward: the Complete Lyrics” is published by The Overlook Press (1998) and uses the identical format to that of the Knopf editions. Coward comes closest to Gilbert in his use of satire, light and keen. His most popular fun song is “Mad dogs and Englishmen” who go out in the midday sun, which laughs at the Brit in the far flung parts of the Empire. His most popular sexy song is “Let’s do it,” which boasts of music by Cole Porter and which is performed to perfection by Coward himself on several recordings. Interestingly, he nearly speaks the lyrics, making it sound like a poetry reading more than a song recital, which is my very point in these essays.

His nastiest lyrics must be “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” (1943) in which he devastates any post-war pleas for “forgive and forget.” I point out only two examples to give the flavor of this song: “Let’s help the dirty swine again/To occupy the Rhine again”; “Let’s let them feel they’re swell again and bomb us all to hell again.”

For the most part, however, reading Coward’s lyrics is like reading the Jeeves novels of that other lyricist, P. G. Wodehouse. They conjure up an Oscar Wildean world of useless but amiable upper class twits expressing themselves with the utmost sophistication and laughing at themselves without realizing it. Even non-satirical songs like “Somewhere I’ll find you” are aimed at an audience a little more sophisticated those of Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin.

I would like to pursue this line of thought in other essays with other lyricists. However, I still recommend reading lyrics divorced from the melodies as a source of innocent merriment or as an insight into the personalities of the authors and the times in which they lived.

Essays Lyrics

Words, Words, Words…and Music

IMG_20150611_0002_NEWWords, Words, Words…and Music

I always like to play some quiet music while dining in the evening to help the mood and digestion. One very evening, I was playing a CD set with 40 selections of love songs from those old Andre Kostelanetz LPs; and by the time we were halfway through “I don’t know why I love you like I do,” that old nagging question arose in my mind, What makes songs like this last so long?

Of course, there were no vocals in these musical settings, but the words to many of them have become so inextricably bound to the melodies that it is impossible to hear the latter without the lyrics (or as much of them as one recalls) flowing right along. It is like trying to hear the last section of the overture to “William Tell” without hearing “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” far in the back of whatever part of the brain stores these things.

I might have mentioned in an earlier article that a childhood friend of mine had a recording of classical music with childish lyrics written for the selections. And to this day, I cannot hear Offenbach’s “Barcarole” without also hearing “When I float my little toy boat.” And this was back in 1945!

alfred-31120-f (1)Yes, there are surely lyrics that stick in one’s mind as well as the melody to which they are set. Take “Tea for two.” Those three words make little effect alone; but when combined with the rest of the line—“Tea for two and two for tea”—the seven words form a strong DNA-memory link in the synapses of the brain. The line is the next best thing to a palindrome. Another song title that comes close is “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”). These see-saw sentences are not super-clever but they do stick in the memory. In fact, they do not necessarily have to appear at the start of the song at all. It is enough that they come at the end of a refrain, as does the Finian song.

In the past, I have written essays about the clever lyrics of such artists as Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Noel Coward, and Ira Gershwin. Examples of the clever lyric are all too easy to find, but they do not make the entire number into a memory-lingerer. “I’m bidin’ my time because that’s the kind of guy I’m” (from “Girl Crazy”) certainly calls attention to itself, but again the song is seldom if ever sung out of the context of the show.

551561385In some cases, parallelism has no part of making a fragment of lyric memorable. What about “All alone, by the telephone” (Irving Berlin)? Why the devil does that stick around in the memory? It is followed by “Waiting for a ring, a ting-a-ling,” which follows the same pattern: a phrase, a pause, a rhyming phrase. Is it that little pause that does it? Or the anything but clever rhymes of “alone/telephone” and “ring/ting-a-ling”? Who can account for these things?

Another attention-getter title uses a rhyme, “Rock around the clock” and the 1911 Harry Lauder standard “Roamin’ in the gloamin’” being good examples.

Nothing made Ira Gershwin more angry than some vocalist singing “It’s wonderful” instead of the “’Swonderful” that is in the printed lyrics. After all, Ira knew what he was doing in using an unusual form of a phrase, while the singer obviously did not know or did not care.

1943_SM_Mairzy_DoatsTNImage-Lottie_Collins_sings_and_dances_to_the_tunes_of_Ta-Ra-Ra_Boom-de-ay_in_a_Bromo-Seltzer_adThis reminds one, of course, of the nonsense songs like “Mairzy Doats” (which is explained later as “mares eat oats”) and “Hut sut song” (which starts with a lot of Swedish expressions, later explained). The former is always fun to sing to a person not in on the joke, while I have yet to meet a person who understands the latter. With “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” we have simply a catchy nonsense line that has its own appeal without any translation needed. An older example of the nonsense phrase is the 1891 British “Ta-ra-ra-boom-der-e,” a song of which everyone knows the title and not a single word of what comes after it!

i_found_a_million_dollar_baby_music_song_art_invitation-rb13e1fbdf6b14281899fa972d7569309_zk91q_512And what about the use of antithesis? “I found a million dollar baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store” gives a neat contrast between lots of money and a few coins and is therefore memorable. “Red roses for a blue lady” is just as good. And “When the idle rich become the idle poor” is an example of a song (again from “Finian’s Rainbow”) that is never sung outside of the context of the show.

Now there are plenty of songs that have even more clever titles or tag lines but never lasted any appreciable time. But those that have just might owe their longevity to the very elements I have touched on in this essay.

If any Reader can think of more examples for each category—or indeed more categories with examples—I would be most grateful and I thank you in advance.

Essays Lyrics

Gilbert Was There First

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWGilbert Was There First

The more I listen to my Gilbert & Sullivan records and attend all too rare performances of those “Savoy” operas (operettas? musical comedies?), the more I marvel at how William S. Gilbert anticipated so many bits that show up in musicals written long afterwards.

For example, we have what I call the Negative Love Song. Tired of composing lyrics of the I-love-you variety, Oscar Hammerstein II decided to let the male lead in “Oklahoma!” tell the female lead “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” and so on, as you well know. That done, he could not return to the clichés of yesteryear; so when “Carousel” came along, the smitten male lead had to sing “If I loved you” in what we might as well call the Conditional Mode Love Song.

However, Gilbert had already invented that sort of thing in “The Mikado.” Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum cannot be intimate in any way, since she is already engaged to Ko-Ko. Therefore the best he could sing back in 1885 is “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in tender tone….” and set the standard that Hammerstein was to take up half a century later.

To end the film version of a particularly plotless musical called “Roberta,”it was  decided to accompany an extended fashion show sequence with a new Jerome Kern song titled     “Lovely to Look At.” In much the same way, the Ascot sequence in “My Fair Lady” opens with what amounts to a fashion show in which the Very Very Rich parade to the tune of “The Ascot Gavotte.” Again Gilbert was there first.

Act II costumes for “The GrandDuke” in the original production

The second act of “The Grand Duke” opens with these stage directions: “Enter a procession of the members of the theatrical company (now dressed in the costumes of Troilus and Cressida), carrying garlands, playing on pipes, citharae, and cymbals….” In short, a costume parade–and this in 1896.

Praising a character for his bad traits goes back at least to Aristophanes. One of the more memorable numbers in “L’il Abner” is Marryin’ Sam’s hymn to Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose cowardly conduct during the Civil War made him into a local hero in Dogpatch. Yet who is this Cornpone other than the Duke of Plaza Toro who sings his own praises in “The Gondoliers” like this:


In enterprise of martial kind

When there was any fighting,

He led his regiment from behind–

He found it less exciting.

But when away his regiment ran,

His place was at the fore, O–


and like that.

Of course, any playwright worth his salt must know his theatre history; and certainly anyone working on the book or lyrics of a musical must know his Gilbert & Sullivan. Few lyricists, however, can stand in the same class as Gilbert when it comes to tricky rhymes. Now and then, he would set himself a rhyming challenge such as that in “The Mikado” when Pooh-Bah has to come up with perfect rhymes for the word “executioner.” Results? “Ablutioner,” “diminutioner,” and finally “you shun her.”

Cole Porter learned a lot from Gilbert

Cole Porter decided to see what he could do with the word(s) “Can-can” in the musical of the same name: “If a sultan in a caravan can” and “If a kilted Scottish clan can” are only two of the incredibly many he produced. (I was urged to mention also “puberty/Schubert-y” from “Kiss Me Kate” by a Porter fan.) And do not forget what Larry Hart did in “To Keep My Love Alive,” in which he rhymes “possibilities/ill at ease/kill at ease” and most notably “a wreck to me/horse’s neck to me/appendectomy.” Now that is in the same class as Gilbert’s “din afore/Pinafore” “strategy/sat a gee” couplings in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

And speaking of patter songs, the only one that is worthy of that description in a 20th century musical is the polysyllabic list of wonders to be seen under the big top in “Barnum.”

One last reminder. Gilbert was at his best in social and political satire. The one musical worthy to stand beside the best of the Savoy series was written in respectful imitation of G&S by the brothers Ira and George Gershwin and is called “Of Thee I Sing.” But that is worth an article all on its own.