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Harold “Hal” Prince, producer and director, died at age 91 on July 31. It got me thinking about musicals and lyrics and how today’s aspiring writers, including humble magazine columnists, could do worse than study the old heyday Broadway songs. All writing is problem-solving, and it’s fun to see how the best of the best solved their “problems,” and had a blast doing it.
Take Sheldon Harnick (lyricist) and Jerry Bock (composer). Here’s your assignment boys, said Prince: Take the story of a poor Jewish milkman with attitude and five daughters, in 1905 backwater imperial Russia, and tell us how he felt and make us like him. Bock and Harnick’s answer was “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof that I still whistle 55 years later while washing the kitchen floor.
I learn more about the craft from this handful of verses than from a lecture: “I’d build a big, tall house with rooms by the dozen / Right in the middle of the town / A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below / There would be one long staircase just going up / And one even longer coming down / And one more leading nowhere, just for show.”
Nothing more to say. We love Tevye instantly, and none of us knows—’cause the songmeisters don’t want us to know—how coming up with these words was deceptively simple, like watching Ginger Rogers do everything Fred Astaire did but “backwards and in heels.” The creators had to rhyme, but that’s just for starters. They had to evoke character and Yiddish sense of humor, all while advancing the story.
An interviewer asked Bock and Harnick: “What is the happiest moment as a team that you can recollect?” Bock replied: “They came when a lyric is finished, and Sheldon sings the song for the first time. There is nothing like that moment.”
Please don’t miss the salient feature of that comment—that happiness comes only as the finished product passes the hearing test. Your piece of writing isn’t done till you can read it out loud and say “Ahhh.” This is because so much of writing (I am sometimes tempted to say 90 percent) is rhythm. That should give the most discouraged wordsmith courage: just pay attention to iambic pentameter (“That time / of year / thou mayst / in me / behold”) and dactylic hexameter (“This is the / forest pri / meval, the / murmuring / pine and the hemlocks”) and you’re halfway home.
Johnny Mercer had a fun “problem” to solve: write for an actress with serious voice limitations (Audrey Hepburn) playing a country bumpkin adventuring in the big city (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Mercer drafted not one, not two, but three different “solutions” to set to Henry Mancini’s tune. One was “I’m Holly / Like I want to be / Like holly on a tree back home / Just plain Holly / With no dolly / No mama, no papa / Wherever I roam.”
We should always be grateful that instead they chose the following lyrics for the homesick Hepburn strumming her guitar on a Manhattan fire escape: “Moon River, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style someday….”
There was some heated discussion about the “my huckleberry friend” detail in the last bar of the song, committee types balking at its out-of-the-blue specificity, and Mercer’s own friend Margaret Whiting suggesting he leave the words out. In the end, Mercer went with his instincts, the studio backed down, and forevermore we have the thrill of that impish insertion with all its rich conjuring of childhood summers and picking wild berries by the river, and subliminal allusions to Mark Twain and American innocence—dispensed in a three-word phrase.
Harnick recalls: “Jerry [Bock] would go into his studio, and write music. Eventually he would send me a tape. ... At some point in the writing I would have an idea …, ‘I don’t want to be handcuffed. ... I want the freedom to … change the meters. ...’ And when I gave him my first lyric, and when he gave it back to me, I thought, ‘This is wonderful.’ ... I thought of it as a waltz, he’s done it as something else, and it’s better that way.”
That was the sound of joyful problem-solving, the sound of writing.