As we kick off American Songbook 2018, Broadway legend, cabaret star, and American Songbook alum Liz Callaway offers a performer's perspective on the beauty and importance of the well-crafted lyric.
Of course a good song is the marriage of both music and lyrics, but I guess I’ve always been a "lyrics first" kind of gal. When I moved to NYC in 1979, I spent hours at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts looking for songs to sing at auditions, in my club act, and for my job as a singing waitress. I'd pore through stacks of Broadway scores, reading the lyrics. What was I looking for? A song that told a good story, or somehow reflected who I was: a wide-eyed, rather awkward, 18-year-old Midwesterner.
If I liked a lyric, I'd go to the records section to find the cast album. If the music enhanced the lyric, the song was a keeper. That's how I discovered two of the songs I used in my first club act at the Duplex: Harold Rome's "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" from Pins and Needles and Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife.
With some songs it's like falling in love: If you go looking for it, it's not there, but when you least expect it, a song will touch you deep inside and express what you didn’t know you were feeling.
Two months old, he looks up at me.
How his smile melts my heart.
I want to say, “stop, time, don’t move on.”
Even as I watch, that look is gone.
—"Stop, Time" from the musical Big
Music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr.
So What Makes a Good Lyric?
For starters, a good lyric allows singers to put their own stamp on the song. There's no "one" interpretation. Take George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away from Me":
The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea,
The memory of all that—
No, no! They can't take that away from me!
If you listen to Fred Astaire or Ella Fitzgerald sing it, it's a fun, swingy love song. Now look at the lyric again and imagine it's about someone you've lost recently. It's all about how you—the singer or the listener—choose to interpret it. In that sense, singing is a two-way street: I tell my story and you, the listener, take it in and add your own story to it.
Beyond that, a good lyric breathes…there's room to inhabit it. It has heart, gives us clues to the character, has clarity of thought, maybe teaches us who we are or expresses a universal truth in a unique way. It surprises. A good lyric is easy to sing and easy to memorize. It doesn't shout, "Look how clever I am!" It can make us laugh or make us cry. And after you throw all of those ingredients into the mix, the most important thing about a good lyric is that it's simple and succinct. Timeless.
Good Lyrics are Easy to Learn…and to Remember
Like a lot of performers, my biggest fear is forgetting lyrics onstage. I have my own rituals for learning songs, but the most important is writing out lyric sheets to everything. I write the words in prose form so I really see what the song is about. I do this first on the computer, and then eventually in longhand. That last, tactile approach can be the most helpful in making the lyrics a part of me. Once I learn a song, it stays inside me forever.
Try this: Take a song you've always liked and write out the lyrics, preferably in longhand. Separate the words from the music. Now read them. Speak or sing them if you like, but just reading is good. I bet you'll discover something you never knew about the song.
A well-crafted lyric is easy to memorize quickly because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It just makes sense, kind of like when you get the numbers right on a combination lock—a little of this, a little of that, and it clicks. Of course, sometimes my brain acts like a petulant two-year-old who plops down in the sandbox, arms folded, refusing to play. In that case it takes coaxing and perhaps few tricks ("A comes before D," for example) to cement the lyrics in my memory. It doesn't mean the lyric isn't good, just that it's going to take a lot longer to get it in my brain. Sigh…
Then there are patter songs. I'm very fond of them. I sing a parody of "Another Hundred People" called "Another Hundred Lyrics," written by Lauren Mayer, that laments how hard it is to sing Sondheim. I inserted excerpts of the title song from Sunday in the Park with George and "Getting Married Today" from Company within the song as examples. Audiences love the song and always marvel at how I can get out all the words. The irony is Sondheim is not hard to sing. To the contrary, I regard his music as easy to sing once I've learned it.
In "Getting Married Today," Steve actually wrote the lyrics with the anatomy of a singer's mouth in mind, going back and forth between vowels and consonants so the lyrics can fly off the tongue. Not only is he brilliant, he's considerate, too!
Pardon me, is everybody there?
Because if everybody's there,
I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding.
I'd appreciate your going even more,
I mean, you must have lots of better things to do,
And not a word of it to Paul.
Remember Paul? You know, the man I'm gonna marry,
But I'm not, because I wouldn't ruin anyone as wonderful as he is—
But I thank you all for the gifts and the flowers.
Thank you all,
Now it's back to the showers.
Don't tell Paul, but I'm not getting married today.
If lyrics are your thing, I highly recommend going to your local library to find Reading Lyrics by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, Sondheim's illuminating Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, as well as the series The Complete Lyrics of…, which includes Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and more.
The Love of Lyrics: A Family Tradition
My mom, Shirley Callaway, was a voice teacher and singer, and, in her later years, very well known on Facebook for posting lyrics. Almost daily she would post a lyric from a song—sometimes a standard, sometimes a little-known gem. It was something her followers looked forward to: "What will Shirley post today?" Reading those lyrics, I often thought, "I never realized what this song was about." Or, "What song is that? I need to try that one." Since my mom passed away in September, I've heard from so many people who miss those posts that I've decided to continue her tradition. One of the first lyrics I shared was Lynn Ahren's "Back to Before" from Ragtime, which seems especially fitting to me right now:
There are people out there unafraid of revealing
That they might have a feeling,
Or they might have been wrong.
There are people out there unafraid to feel sorrow,
Unafraid of tomorrow,
Unafraid to be weak. . .
Unafraid to be strong.
There was a time when you were the person in motion.
I was your wife.
It never occurred to want more.
You were my sky, my moon and my stars and my ocean.
We can never go back to before.
We can never go back to before.
When I got married, my mom sang Irving Berlin's "Always" at the wedding reception. It was a perfect sentiment for a mother to say to her daughter. In the last few weeks of my mom's life, I sang it back to her, probably a hundred times.
Again the sentiment was just right, and timeless:
Days may not be fair, always.
That's when I'll be there, always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
Tony nominee and Emmy winner Liz Callaway made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. She has gone on to star in Baby (Tony nomination), Miss Saigon, The Look of Love, The Three Musketeers, and for five years appeared as Grizabella in Cats. She has provided the singing voice for numerous animated movies, including the title character of the Academy Award-nominated Anastasia. Her extensive concert career has taken her to London, Paris, Sydney, Beijing, and just about every major city in the US. Liz has released six solo albums, including her latest CD, The Essential Liz Callaway.