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Stephen Schwartz on Writing Lyrics for Musicals

How can I stay concentrated in the idea and meaning of what I want to say, with having to deal with rhyme and rhythm?

Stephen Schwartz: Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), that is the exact challenge of being a good lyricist. One has to be able to concentrate on both form (that is rhyme and rhythm) AND content. The ability to do that comes with experience and practice, and as you are discovering, it is not easy. The best lyricists make it look easy (just as Barishnikov makes doing an incredible jeté and then landing perfectly look effortless), but that apparent effortlessness is what talent and craft is all about.

Do you create a stanza of lyrics in a poetic form, or create first a melody then try stuffing lyrics into the various rhythms, or do you concoct the lyrics and tune simultaneously?

Stephen Schwartz: When I am writing both music and lyrics, it varies. I like to start from a lyric idea, at least a title, and maybe a quatrain or so. But as I am coming up with the lyrics, they will suggest music anyway. So fairly early in the process, as I say, I tend to write at the piano. Therefore, the music tends to lead, and therefore lyrics will get "stuffed", as you put it, into the various rhythms. Of course, there is a back and forth involved; where a lyric is particularly important to character or story-telling, the music has to be tailored to accomodate it. But usually I let music lead, and when I am writing just lyrics, as in my collaborations with Alan Menken and Charles Strouse, we pretty much always work music first, though usually I would bring a "starter lyric" (again, a title and four lines, say) to get the process started.

It's my belief that music has a certain internal emotional logic, and therefore it should rule the song. The craft of lyric writing, to me, involves making the words fit on the music in a way that seems inevitable.

I hope these somewhat technical answers are of interest and perhaps even of use to you. Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz


Dear Stephen,

I am primarily a musician, but just a year ago, I fell in love with the craft of lyric-writing. One thing that struck me about your lyrics is your use of repetition. To illustrate my point, let me quote some of examples:

from Colors of the Wind:
"How can there be so much that YOU DON'T KNOW YOU DON'T KNOW..."
"You think you own whatever LAND you LAND on..."
"YOU THINK the only PEOPLE who are PEOPLE are the PEOPLE who look and THINK like YOU..."
"You'll learn things YOU NEVER KNEW YOU NEVER KNEW..."
"You can OWN the EARTH and still all you'll OWN is EARTH until..."
from Just Around the Riverbend:
"...for a HANDSOME STURDY husband who builds HANDSOME STURDY walls"
from Deliver Us:
"There's a LAND you PROMISED us, deliver us to the PROMISED LAND"
"...you're SAFE now and SAFE may you stay"
"Send a SHEPHERD to SHEPHERD us..."
from When You Believe:

I've looked around in lyric-textbooks and I can't find the technical name for this kind of devise. (Could it still be alliteration? or is it simply repetition?) How do you call it? Did you devise it yourself? Is it a devise that you are consciously fond of? I think two of the examples I mentioned are particularly peculiar since the words (or sounds) are arranged symmetrically. Do they have another name? I know this may sound silly (or trivial), but please bear with me! Thanks.

--JUDE a.k.a. T-rex


Dear Jude (or T-Rex, whichever you prefer): I don't know the official name for that device of repetition of words (I'm fairly sure it would not be classified as another form of alliteration), but it is indeed one I consciously try to use, particularly in a situation such as "the only land you land on", where the words take on different meanings each time. Because lyrics, unlike poetry, are meant to be received in real time and have to be understood immediately as they go by the ear, I find this device useful for clarity of meaning and intellectually stimulating at the same time. One of my proudest achievements ever as a lyricist is the line you cited: "You'll learn things you never knew you never knew". Thanks for noticing, and best wishes with your own lyric writing. Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

Q: how do you plan the rhythmic scheme in your songs? It seems, that in a lot of songs (They don't come to mind right now, but part of "A Balancing Act), with no music, I can't make out the scheme of the rhythm for myself. Why is this? (is it a lack of rhythmic sense, in me?)

Stephen Schwartz: I think nearly everybody has trouble figuring out the rhythmic scheme of most songs without knowing the music, at least songs that are rhythmically interesting. In the case of a song like "Balancing Act", the music came before the lyrics, so that when I wrote the lyrics, I already knew what the rhythm of the song was and matched the words to it.

Sondheim many times, uses no rhymes for lines and lines. Especially (where I noticed) in Sunday In The Park With George. How can you not rhyme so many lines, Is that possible, or am I just not finding all the rhymes?

Stephen Schwartz: It depends on the song and the situation. Rhyming is a matter of instinct and taste. Certainly Mr. Sondheim tends to rhyme very often -- a lot of his lyrics are based on the cleverness and suppleness of his rhymes. But I guess in the case of the songs you are citing, his instinct told him not to. I am another writer who tends to rhyme pretty heavily, but I have also occasionally written a song that is virtually rhymeless -- an example would be "In Whatever Time We Have" from CHILDREN OF EDEN. The reason in that case was that I wanted the song to feel very honest, very simple, and very real, and rhymes tend to have a bit of artifice to them, so I decided not to use them in that case.

Q: You said Mr. Strouse helped you a lot and completely changed your writing"can you tell me a little about that?

Stephen Schwartz: One of the challenging things about writing with Charles (Strouse) was that we always worked music first, and just as you have suggested, sometimes the rhythmic scheme of the music was difficult to figure out how to put words to. But having to work hard at that really helped me, in my opinion, to hone my craft as a lyricist.

I hope this has been informative, and I wish you the best with your own writing, if that is why you were asking.

Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim includes comments on Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, Show Boat, West Side Story, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, Stephen Sondheim...


Read more tips and stories from Schwartz in Defying Gravity--



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