A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a panel at a SXSW event where two master storytellers spoke candidly about their craft. Their stories inspired me to take a deeper look at the geniuses behind some of my favorite musicals. Today, I’m writing about lyricists in honor of the power couple that, on a very cold Tuesday night in Austin, TX, blew my mind with the most passionate conversation about the power of storytelling through songs. Their combined repertoire includes some of the most provoking songs I had the pleasure to watch perform on stage and they stand among many other writers that unequivocally master the power of the song.
A good musical revolves around a main story, a concept that drives the entire book, the songs, the choreography, and everything else you see on stage. It is important that the songs carry the arc of the characters and pull the audience into a transformational journey that accompanies the characters’ evolution throughout the show. For a moment, close your eyes and go back to that theatre where you saw your favorite musical for the first time. Put aside the flashy choreography, the period-appropriate costumes, the intricate set designs and focus on the lyrics alone. Think about how they made you feel, how they affected you personally. Place a hand over your heart and feel it pounding inside you, beating to the tune of the music, racing at the sound of the lyrics that touched your soul. I find myself doing that often, smiling at the memory of a beautiful song or drying up a tear or two more times that I can count. That is the power of the song.
Let’s take a look at a few of my favorites.
Engaging lyrics make us all part of the story. In “All Grown Up” (Bare), Ivy’s cry for help is heartbreaking and emotional. One can only imagine being a seventeen-year-old, whose life is about to be forever changed with an unwanted pregnancy, “dream a dream and end another. Life is there to interrupt. Someone out there tell my mother. Look at me I’m all grown up!”. A lot of songs in this show are emotional but carrying the child of a man that doesn’t love you back clicked with me. Life is about choices, good and bad. Musicals project such reality on stage and convey it through songs like those in Bare.
Even the most hilarious musicals (or dark comedies) have a message for the audience. It is with lyrics like “Seventeen” (Heathers The Musical) that we see hope in the eyes of a teenager with a dark soul, ”fine, we’re damaged, really damaged but that does not make us wise. We’re not special, we’re not different, we don’t choose who lives or dies. Let’s be normal, see bad movies, sneak a beer and watch tv … Can we be seventeen?” This song tells us that even in the darkest of souls, there is recognition of humanity and a ray of hope for the rest of us.
The lyrics of "He’s My Boy” (Everybody’s talking about Jamie) convey the unconditional love and understanding of a mother for her son, a connection so deep that it overcomes the challenges of single motherhood and embraces, without question, the uniqueness of a child. This song suggests to the audience in a very subtle way, that no matter what happens, Jamie is going to be ok because he has the support of this mother. What mother of a teen hasn’t said at one point or another, “he’s clueless, he’s clever, confusing, whatever. But oh boy, he’s my voice, he’s my chance, he’s my smile, he’s my day, he’s my life! He’s my pain, he’s my joy, he’s my baby, he’s my man, he’s my boy” ? It’s ok to shed a tear, I do it every time!
Musicals are capable of exposing us for who we are as human beings while allowing us to embrace our differences and overcome our flaws. The humanity of our imperfections connects us to each other. “Waitress” is a musical with plenty of flaws and a controversial storyline. As a married woman, I don’t find the love story between the doctor and the Jenna to be very appealing. It is hard to accept Jenna’s life choices until she reveals her little secret in the song “She Used to be Mine”. With those beautiful words, she accepts her imperfections, her fears, her pains and in return, we can accept her for who she really is and we can finally connect with her humanity, “she’s imperfect but she tries, she is good but she lies, she is hard on herself. She is broken and won't ask for help. She is messy but she's kind. She is lonely most of the time. She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie. She is gone but she used to be mine.” We are all broken in our own way, we just cope with our reality in different ways.
Lyrics carry the plot in a musical, they set the tone and the pace in which the characters tell the story. There is a pivotal moment in a musical where the lead character has to take ownership of her or his destiny. A true lead character doesn’t let things happen to him/her but rather drives the change. In the new musical THE PROM, Emma seems like a very passive character letting things happen to her. She faces the criticism of her classmates and the PTA alone because her girlfriend doesn’t want people to know about their relationship. She lets the Broadway stars butt into her life and push her into doing something she is not comfortable with. There is a moment when everything changes and she takes charge of her destiny. She is sitting in her room and decides to do things “her own way”. The lyrics of “Unruly Heart” make it happen with words like “And nobody out there ever gets to define, the life I meant to lead with this unruly heart of mine!”. We know in that moment, that no matter how hard life is going to be for this beautiful girl, she is going to be ok because she has the inner strength that gives her and all of us hope.
During the panel at SXSW, Laurence O’Keefe said something that caught my attention, "The best musicals have three tenets that engage the audience: a love story, a powerful message of change, survival, or overcoming adversity, and finally a story that starts on earth and ends in the Heavens.” As i look back at some of my favorite musicals, I can see it. The love story, the powerful message, and the feeling that life is about experiences, connections, and the beauty of being human with flaws, hopes, and a huge heart.
What are your favorite lyrics and why?
An ode to the lyricists: Bare: A Pop Opera. Lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr. Heathers, The Musical. Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe; Kevin Murphy Everybody Is Talking About Jamie. Lyrics by Tom MacRae Waitress. Lyrics by Sara Bareilles The Prom. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin