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.

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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.

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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

                         ‘Lectro-biology

                         Mystic nosology

                         Spirit philology

                         High-class astrology

                         Such is his knowledge he

                         Isn’t the man to require an apology!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Not the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

downloadNot the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

Having once written a diatribe against “revivals” that are no such thing, I began to  consider how Hollywood treated some of our Broadway musicals in the past. Here the early record is even more lamentable.

When Hollywood found it could speak in the late 1920s, it seemed natural to turn out musicals. And musicals came in two varieties: those that already existed as stage plays and those that had to be created entirely for the films. When it came to the former, the title the audience saw flashed on the screen often bore little resemblance to the show they might or might not have seen on the stage.

download (8)Among the first musicals to be “adapted” for the screen was the 1926 “The Desert Song” with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg. Only three years later it became a film with John Boles, Carlotta King and Myrna Loy and kept almost all the great songs from that score. It appeared again in 1944, updated to bring in Nazis; but I cannot find any record of what songs were retained. A more familiar version appeared in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and again kept most of the score. So “The Desert Song” did not do too badly at least two out of three times.

On the other hand, “Rose-Marie” certainly underwent several changes. The 1924 production had book and lyrics by the same two who gave us “Desert Song,” while the score was shared between Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart. In 1928, it showed up as a vehicle for Joan Crawford (!) with background music but no singing. It is the 1936 film with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that is THE “Rose-Marie” for thousands. Casting MacDonald led to changing the title character from a backwoods singer to a Canadian opera star, while the plot was twisted to make Eddy the Mounty her love interest. A few songs were kept, others by different composers were added, and some Puccini and Gounod were jammed in for Jeanette to show off. And in non-singing roles are James Stewart as the brother and David Niven (you will have to keep from blinking to catch him).

downloadIn 1954, this musical appeared yet again, in Cinemascope no less, with Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Ann Blyth, and Burt Lahr. Again only a few songs were kept, but Friml himself was called upon to write some new melodies to lyrics by Paul Francis Webster; while two others supplied Lahr with an hilarious lament called “The Mounty Who Never Got His Man.” (And let us not forget that fabulous spoof of this musical and all the others like it, “Little Mary Sunshine”!)

So with three musical films of “Rose-Marie,” we still do not have the version that lasted 557 performances in its original run. “The product as advertised” strikes again!

51P17QNDXEL._AA160_Of course there were times when no one really expected to see what the title promises. When “The Bohemian Girl” came out in 1936 with a certain comic team, we all knew that the Balfe original would rest on its Laurels nor would any one be so Hardy as to complain. Two songs and one chorus were kept (one being, of course, “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls”) and the plot bore only the most fleeting resemblance to the original. (With Ollie married to Mae Bush, how could it be otherwise?)

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“Babes in Toyland” was given the alternate title of “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

The same goes for the Laurel & Hardy vehicle “Babes in Toyland,” which managed to keep several of the songs to be warbled by Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry in the 1934 vocal style. The unfortunate Disney remake in 1961 was pronounced “dismal” by the critics, even with such high-toned singers as Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello! But by that date, how many in the audience really knew the original score?

Typical Hollywood disdain was shed upon the Rodgers and Hart “On Your Toes.” When it opened in 1936 on Broadway, it stunned audiences with its two integrated ballets, the second of which is the immortal “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” and the hit song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Its stars included Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva and 31MsGdteLeL._AA160_Monty Wooly. Ironically, this show had been offered as a film for Fred Astaire, who waltzed out because he would not have had the chance to wear his top hat and tails! When the 1939 film came out, audiences saw a different plot, heard snatches from one of the ballets that was dropped from the film, enjoyed only three of the many songs, and the rest was pretty dull. Eddie Albert was no Astaire.

51KHnklpSTL._PI_PJStripe-HD-Only-500px,TopLeft,0,0_AA160_Soon things got a bit better with fairly faithful screen adaptations of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “How to Succeed in Business,” and too many others to list here. More recent is “Chicago,” which presents other problems but certainly remains fairly close to what people saw on Broadway.

To end with a trivia question, can you name a Cole Porter Broadway hit that retained only one song in the film version?

The Desert Song

The Desert Song” as It Was Televised in 1955A-VAI-Desert Song

Sigmund Romberg’s “The Desert Song” (1926) ran for 471 performances and was adapted on film in 1929, 1943 (the Nazis are the villains here), and in color in 1953. In 1955, it was shown on television as part of the Max Liebman Presents series; and that abridged version is now part of the invaluable series of DVDs of vintage television shows from VAI.

            This 75-minute black-and-white version drops two comic characters and their songs, but keeps what is left intact (although I cannot vouch for the dialogue). Those familiar with “The Mark of Zorro,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and even Superman will spot the creaky plot in which a hero poses as a coward. Here Pierre (Nelson Eddy), the son of a French General (Otto Kruger), falls for the beautiful Margot (Gale Sherwood). Disguised as the bane of the French, the Red Shadow, Pierre kidnaps her; and what there is of a creaky plot develops along very predictable lines.

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Romberg in 1949

But the essence of “The Desert Song” consists of “One alone,” “Romance,” the title song, and some lesser but pleasing numbers. There is a good deal of dance, a bit too much, considering how much plot had to be cut; but Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander justify the time devoted to the ballet.

It is a pity that the secondary pair of lovers had to be dropped, because the main plot is not all that engrossing. But face it: it is the music that counts in operettas and of that there is plenty.

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The 1953 film version

Eddy is not complimented by close-ups, but his baritone is still pleasant. Sherwood is described as his post-MacDonald partner. I find her easier to take than her predecessor. It is good to see the old opera buffa basso Salvatore Baccaloni as a Moroccan bigwig, but it is not easy to understand what he is saying.

The picture is a kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) and the sound is obviously not up to today’s standards. But it is such fun and a must for lovers of the old romantic times when Romberg gave the people what they wanted.

NOTE  Some of the other televised musicals in this series are “Naughty Marietta,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Dearest Enemy,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “The Yeomen of the Guard,” and the Groucho Marx “The Mikado.”