Musical theatre used to be the last refuge of perfect rhyme.
June 11, 2013 9:26 AM   Subscribe

such strict rhymes as “Oklahoma” and “melanoma”

I looked up the actual lyrics:
'Cause that freckly on your skin
Can do a feller in
And the shade is mighty thin in
And our leading cause of death
is Melanoma
It works better than I expected.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:32 AM on June 11, 2013

And while this article complains about Tim Minchin's Matilda, one of my favorite newer theatre songs, "Bruce", has this wonderful bit.

The time has come
To put that tumbly tum to use.
You produce, Bruce,
Fantastically enthusiastic gastric juice.

Eat it up. Lick it up. Suck it up.
Whatever you do, don’t chuck it up,
And muck it up!
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:36 AM on June 11, 2013

This is when the Twitter account AngrySondheim comes in handy:

"I could have used a blackboard to write my lyrics so people could understand them. Instead I wrote ones that scanned perfectly."

"Sometimes I go into a Hallmark with a Sharpie and correct the scansion in the greeting cards."

"Find me another lyricist who would have rhymed "precis" and "messy" and I'll eat my hat. #firstiwillhavetomakeone"

"Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings? Every time a false rhyme is sung, an angel's wings shrivel and fall off."

Balm to the perfect-rhyme-loving soul, I tell you.
posted by ilana at 9:44 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

traditionalists insist that nothing rhymes with “orange,”
But I'm all out of pot so I'm off to my dealer to score gange
I've just caught the clap, or what some folks refer to as whore mange,
And my sideboard is busted, it needs a repair to the drawer flange
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:53 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have to say I'm a bit baffled that anyone would complain about 'miraculous' and 'calculus' but maybe it's an accent thing there?
posted by edd at 9:54 AM on June 11, 2013

But at the same time

Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
That rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
We've surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Right here!
Gotta figger out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!

posted by shakespeherian at 9:57 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rhyme is dead. Long live rhyme.

Look, anyone who can listen to Eminem and not acknowledge that rhyme has undergone a tranformation for the better doesn't deserve to call themselves a poetry critic.
posted by 256 at 9:57 AM on June 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

edd, miraculous and calculus don't rhyme because of where the stressed syllable is. miRACulous would rhyme with cuRACulous.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:57 AM on June 11, 2013

Well I think if that's the worst non-perfect rhyme they could find in Matilda I'm going to be pretty happy when I see it in a couple of weeks.
posted by edd at 10:04 AM on June 11, 2013

To me, there have only been three good lyricists in all of Broadway history: Hammerstein, Porter and Sondheim. Musical lyrics from about the early 90's on (with maybe the exception of Floyd Collins) are generally just awful. Now get off my stage!

Also, this article reminds me of a story. Sondheim has this story of one of the great moments of his career, when he's sharing the lyrics of Gypsy with Cole Porter on his death bed. Cole Porter apparently laughed at this line, and it made Sondheim's life: No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos, amigos
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:05 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ya bro, what kind of asshole would rely on the crutch of slant rhyme? Just leads to bs like rhyming "The oldest have borne most; we that are young" with "Shall never see so much, nor live so long." LAZY.
posted by prefpara at 10:09 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I mean, it's just been a long time since I heard a Broadway tune that had lyrics that could just bring me to tears with their brilliance. Like this one (and sheesh, I get a little teary just pasting it here what is wrong with me):

Yes, she looks for me-good.
Let her look for me to tell me why she left me-
As I always knew she would.
I had thought she understood.
They have never understood,
And no reason that they should.
But if anybody could...
Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky
And how you're always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait's
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.

Studying a face,
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see-
It's the only way to see.

posted by Lutoslawski at 10:11 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a songwriter, I find this conversation fascinating, and I find myself able to relate to both sides of the issue. I was into musical theater when I was younger (although I wasn't yet writing songs), and since then I've written and recorded pop songs. Although I'm not sure how much it was a conscious effort, I feel like I tended to prefer imperfect rhymes in many of my early songs because perfect rhyming struck me as stodgy, old-fashioned, or trite. I remember being surprised the first time I encountered expressions of distaste at imperfect rhymes; to me, they felt fresher and more interesting. I wrote one song in particular, called "Julia," that sort of spotlighted imperfect rhyme with verses like this:
you are so beautiful
I'm waiting for you to fall
in love with me

do you remember when
we went to Holland and
smoked skinny cigarettes
and tasted cheese

you've got a lovely uvula
I wanna take you to Florida
so please say yes

we'll start a family
play lots of D&D
and watch the Goonies
on VHS
As I've gotten older and written more songs though I've come to understand the other point of view. While my familiarity with musical theater songwriters is far from encyclopedic, I'm somewhat familiar with Sondheim, and I'm a major devotee of Stephin Merritt, who is an admirer of Sondheim. In fact I just found this Merritt interview which touches on this very subject:
[Tom Lehrer] went to summer camp with Stephen Sondheim. He had a sort of parallel, though shorter, career in some ways, as the (other) faction of strict rhyme. Tom Lehrer disapproved of my loose rhymes.

Just after that, I started doing theater music, which requires strict rhymes. So I fell out of the habit of doing loose rhymes at all. The loose rhymes that you will find on “Realism” are all signs that that part of the song was written before the year 2000.
Anyhow, I find the pleasures of strict rhyme to be parallel to many of those in pop music, i.e. in going along for the ride as the songwriter creates an expectation in the listener (by setting up a word to be rhymed, a harmony to be resolved, or a melody to be answered) and alternately satisfies and confounds that expectation. Sometimes you hear the first half of the line and, because of your familiarity with the form, you can predict exactly how the line is going to end, and there's a pleasure in that recognition as your expectation is confirmed. But sometimes, you think you know exactly how the line is going to end, but the writer goes somewhere else with it, while still managing to maintain perfect rhyme and communicating something meaningful. Or when you hear the first part of the line and you think that surely the songwriter has painted himself into a corner, but aha, he pulls a trick and tidily gets out of it, e.g. the Oklahoma/melanoma line. It's like watching a magician escape from a locked box while wearing handcuffs or something. That sort of deftness demonstrates an impressive mastery of form that I find enjoyable to witness.

I just took a look at the lyrics of my more recent songs, and there are still plenty of slant rhymes, but I think there's a trend towards more perfect rhymes. Here's a couple of verses and a chorus from one of my recent tunes called "Narcissist" that I think is a bit showtune-y in a way, or at least very Stephin Merrit-y:
a ghastly looking pair
her massive derriere
his thinning greasy hair
it's hard to see why they don’t try

try to be
a little more like me
such a lovely sight to see
that I ought to charge a fee
of passers by

cause I'm a narcissist
said my therapist
I see my reflection and I can't resist
I'm a narcissist
trying to subsist
and you're so lucky that I exist
So yeah, this is interesting to me at least.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:22 AM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am totally guilty of using slant rhymes in my own musical theatre compositions - because I generally don't mind them, but they have got to 1) sound like they aren't trying too hard and 2) generally be limited to the verse.

What I mean by the first point is that sometimes slant rhymes sound like a first draft, or that it's reaching too far for a joke. That always makes me cringe. There has to be a cleverness to the rhyme.

By the second point, I mean that the move from slant rhymes to very strict rhymes in the chorus can have a sort of gravity effect, like giving the sense of arrival. For example, since we're sharing, here's something from one of my own shows:





The rhyming has to sort of follow the weight of the song. Sondheim does this a lot to, which is more or less where I stole the idea from.

At the end of the day, though, it has to sound good, and that just requires a certain subjective thing. The difference between an odd rhyme that makes you cringe and one that makes you want to hear it again is often kind of inexplicable. It is the difference between Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:33 AM on June 11, 2013

Listen to enough Sondheim, and near and bad rhymes really start jumping out at you. In musical theater, they're more obvious just because you (or I, at least) expect better. Just like we now expect characters' songs vocabularies to match the characters. Something I liked about Matilda was the kids chorus song that rhymed "when I grow up" with "when I grow up", because they're kids, and can't rhyme well. We have Sondheim to thank for stuff like that too.

I don't expect good rhymes from pop or rock music, and as far as I can tell, rhyming in country music is like dressing in professional golf - a lot of people are doing it very badly very deliberately. It's too bad that musical theater is going down that road, but it's not new. Maybe more prevalent - or obvious - now than in the past, but not new.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 10:45 AM on June 11, 2013

By the second point, I mean that the move from slant rhymes to very strict rhymes in the chorus can have a sort of gravity effect, like giving the sense of arrival.

Totally, I think slant rhyme can weaken the impact of a chorus, which should be the sort of "thesis statement" of the song. But that's if the song has a true chorus -- I used to more frequently write songs with verses and choruses (examples from The Beatles canon would be "Drive My Car," "With A Little Help From Friends," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer") as opposed to verse/bridge songs where the hook is in the verse and there is no real refrain (lots of Beatles examples, e.g. "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "A Hard Day's Night," etc.).
posted by ludwig_van at 10:47 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

A Letter To My Aunt Discussing The Correct Approach To Modern Poetry

To you, my aunt, who would explore
The literary Chankley Bore,
The paths are hard, for you are not
A literary Hottentot
But just a kind and cultured dame
Who knows not Eliot (to her shame).
Fie on you, aunt, that you should see
No genius in David G.,
No elemental form and sound
In T.S.E. and Ezra Pound.
Fie on you, aunt! I'll show you how
To elevate your middle brow,
And how to scale and see the sights
From modernist Parnassian heights.

First buy a hat, no Paris model
But one the Swiss wear when they yodel,
A bowler thing with one or two
Feathers to conceal the view;
And then in sandals walk the street
(All modern painters use their feet
For painting, on their canvas strips,
Their wives or mothers, minus hips).

Perhaps it would be best if you
Created something very new,
A dirty novel done in Erse
Or written backwards in Welsh verse,
Or paintings on the backs of vests,
Or Sanskrit psalms on lepers' chests.
But if this proved imposs-i-ble
Perhaps it would be just as well,
For you could then write what you please,
And modern verse is done with ease.

Do not forget that 'limpet' rhymes
With 'strumpet' in these troubled times,
And commas are the worst of crimes;
Few understand the works of Cummings,
And few James Joyce's mental slummings,
And few young Auden's coded chatter;
But then it is the few that matter.
Never be lucid, never state,
If you would be regarded great,
The simplest thought or sentiment,
(For thought, we know, is decadent);
Never omit such vital words
As belly, genitals and -----,
For these are things that play a part
(And what a part) in all good art.
Remember this: each rose is wormy,
And every lovely woman's germy;
Remember this: that love depends
On how the Gallic letter bends;
Remember, too, that life is hell
And even heaven has a smell
Of putrefying angels who
Make deadly whoopee in the blue.
These things remembered, what can stop
A poet going to the top?

A final word: before you start
The convulsions of your art,
Remove your brains, take out your heart;
Minus these curses, you can be
A genius like David G.

Take courage, aunt, and send your stuff
To Geoffrey Grigson with my luff,
And may I yet live to admire
How well your poems light the fire.
posted by prefpara at 10:50 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lutoslawski, I couldn't disagree more. Only 3 good lyricists? How about David Yazbek and Michael John LaChuisa? Grey Gardens and Violet? Their rhymes probably aren't always perfect, but neither were Cole Porter's. There's a ton of good new stuff in musical theater; I hate to see it all lumped in with the bad.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 10:52 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:01 AM on June 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ugh, I really do not like David Yazbek at all. Some of his lyrics are alright but the music just ruins it.

Michael John LaChuisa has his moments - that's totally fair. I shouldn't have been so hyperbolic about the "only 3" thing, because there are new shows that I really do like (like Floyd Collins that I mentioned). And I really did like See What I Wanna See (The Greatest Practical Joke is a great tune). I don't love all of MJL, but perhaps that's because I had to music direct Wild Party once and I wanted to jump off something playing that show.

Part of it for me is that the pop stuff that seems to have really overtaken Bway, especially in the past 5 or 7 years, has just been really awful. You don't see much creativity, like LaChuisa, on Broadway, and that's pretty sad. Broadway seems to be etching out a niche for itself of the worst possible music out there at times. There is great, great pop music happening right now. And there are some really good, creative musical theatre things happening too. But the stuff that surfaces on Broadway is this awful, homogenous genre crap that's not good pop or good theatre (I have high hopes for Monkey though).
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:03 AM on June 11, 2013

To me, there have only been three good lyricists in all of Broadway history: Hammerstein, Porter and Sondheim

No Lorenz Hart? Or his inspiration, P.G. Wodehouse?

Even Cole Porter flubbed from time to time. Consider one of the lesser verses from Anything Goes!

"So Mrs. R. with all her trimmin's.
Can broadcast a bed from Simmons
'Cause Franklin knows...."

Now that just hurts. Compare it to a throwaway verse from Wodehouse:

"When courts decide as they did latterly
We can read Lady Chatterley...."
posted by BWA at 11:38 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to salute Lutoslawski for invoking Floyd Collins.

Seriously, such an amazing show.
posted by grabbingsand at 11:57 AM on June 11, 2013

It seems churlish to demand perfect rhymes from Matilda, based on Roald Dahl's book; Dahl rhymes "orange" with "door hinge" and "purple" with "maple syrple."
posted by klangklangston at 12:23 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seriously, such an amazing show.

Yeah, it was Adam Guettel's golden moment. Never really took hold. I blame Rent.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:44 PM on June 11, 2013

PeterMcDermott: traditionalists insist that nothing rhymes with “orange,”
But I'm all out of pot so I'm off to my dealer to score gange
I've just caught the clap, or what some folks refer to as whore mange,
And my sideboard is busted, it needs a repair to the drawer flange
Since you've broken one of the Seals on the Covenant, I'll go ahead and note
Another rhyme for 'orange'
Is written on the doorhinge.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:44 PM on June 11, 2013

Eminem told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that near-rhymes like “storage” and “porridge” are acceptable

Checkmate musical theatre.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:47 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Or Macleans I guess since apparently musicals copped Em's steez already.

I look forward to musicals loosening up and embracing alternative words and non-traditional pronunciations as well.

Actual examples include: "I use a word that don't mean nothin, like looptid", "Eatin good vegetary with the brown rice"."I maneuver through the great wall of China, I done came through I got a girl she look albina"
posted by Ad hominem at 12:54 PM on June 11, 2013

I'm currently rehearsing a production of Ruddigore, in which "west wind" is pronounced to rhyme with "maidenkind," and "we do" is pronounced to rhyme with "just so." Gilbert was a slave to the rhyme, but he had fun with it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:54 PM on June 11, 2013

Ya bro, what kind of asshole would rely on the crutch of slant rhyme? Just leads to bs like rhyming "The oldest have borne most; we that are young" with "Shall never see so much, nor live so long." LAZY.

I doubt this is a slant rhyme. It's probably a result of changing pronunciate since Shakespeare's time. Most of his apparently off-kilter rhymes are instances of that.

For instance ...

My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.

The Elizabethan's pronounced that last word "melo-die."

See this video on Original Pronunciation (OP).
posted by grumblebee at 5:11 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the one hand, these people in the article seem absurdly pedantic. On the other hand, I sure don't think people are going to Broadway musicals for inventiveness and emotional rawness, so there better be some perfect fucking rhymes.
posted by threeants at 8:05 PM on June 11, 2013

Not this one, grumblebee, unless you know something I don't know. I'm aware that pronunciation has changed, but I'm pretty sure the end of Lear was slant in Shakespeare's time as well as in ours.
posted by prefpara at 6:25 AM on June 12, 2013

You may be right.

I'm friends with Ben Crystal -- the young guy in the video I liked to. He's one of the world experts on OP. I'll run it by him.
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on June 12, 2013

Cool! But taking a step back, even if this particular example were incorrect, I would stand by my two broader points which I made via illustration above: first, that if Shakespeare wasn't too good for slant rhyme, then maybe neither are modern musical theater lyricists; second, this is pretty much the same angst that the poetry world experienced when there was a cultural movement away from strict form and true rhymes.
posted by prefpara at 2:41 PM on June 12, 2013

I have no argument with your point at all, though I'm not a fine of slants that just seem sloppy. I was just pointing out that what often seem like slant rhymes in Shakespeare were pure rhymes at the time.
posted by grumblebee at 3:51 PM on June 12, 2013

I haven't heard back from Ben yet, but from what I can tell via my own research, you're right: it's a slant. It original pronunciation of the vowel in "long" was probably similar to the "a" sound in "father." The sound in "young" was like the "oo" in "book."
posted by grumblebee at 10:46 AM on June 13, 2013

For some reason, the person I imagine when I mentally pronounce it that way is a young and very drunk Anthony Hopkins.
posted by prefpara at 3:51 PM on June 13, 2013

Also almost your entire post was pentameter. SO CLOSE
posted by prefpara at 3:52 PM on June 13, 2013

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