Words and music

Good songwriters

As a longtime listener to songs of all kinds – but especially those from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Broadway and Hollywood (around 1920–1945) – I hope to stuff this page with links to the large number of informative sites covering such figures as Gershwin, Kern and Rodgers & Hart. (I’d also like to write about them: see ‘Songwriting’ below.) An obvious start is:

(Not) all my own work

I have written a large number of songs in collaboration with my old friend Jamie Hitel – he’s the music, I’m the words – all of which are connected with three musicals (for which I have also written, or am supposed to write, the book):

  • That Pig, Morin. This, written between October 1990 and February 1991 and extensively rewritten in the past few months, is currently the subject of a workshop in Akron, Ohio (where Jamie lives). More details on this can be found here.
  • The Perfect Fish. This disgraceful piece of work – the plot of which, bizarrely, Jamie dreamed one day back in 1991 – involves adultery, bisexuality, disease and death. A comedy, of course. It’s also been credited with turning at least one man who read it back into a homosexual. (I don’t suppose I should be proud of that, but I am.) I wrote the first version of the book – designed to be a short, late-night entertainment for the 'sophisticated’ (ie depraved) – at high speed in autumn 1991: I suspect its blackheartedness and downright vulgarity were a little before their time. Since then, I have cleaned up some of the filthier lyrics (hey, I have grown up a little) and am currently reworking it as a full-length musical in two acts. This is a pretty huge job and may extend as far as the title song (and hence the title): ‘the perfect fish’ is regarded as too obscure – in the gay slang of the early 90s, I was given to understand, a fish was the girlfriend of a desirable man (the corresponding lesbian word was chicken, though I gather that now means something quite different for gay men) – and so we are currently casting around for new words to fit both song and title. My current favourite is A Stranger Love, with its usefully ambiguous possibilities, but Jamie doesn’t seem too keen…
  • The ‘Budapest’ musical. This monumentally delayed ‘work in progress’ was begun, at least in theory, shortly after the other two, and makes use of music Jamie wrote at around the same time. As the lack of proper title suggests, this is still at a fairly preliminary stage: there’s a sort of plot (though one which gets increasingly difficult to work with as the years pass) and around half a dozen songs. After two rather small-scale pieces, we conceived this as a big musical, with a huge (and in this case real) event at the centre: the Hungarian uprising of 1956. (It has not escaped my notice that this is the fiftieth anniversary year, and we still have nothing to show…) I always liked the idea for the setting, which was one of those classy, Hapsburg-era restaurants with a Hungarian band (including violin, clarinet and, of course, cimbalom) on stage throughout.

Jamie and I are working on getting some of the songs from these musicals online. (Details to follow: for the time being, selected lyrics from ‘Fish’ and ‘Budapest’ can be found on my Verse page.)

Of the many (mostly) stillborn ideas for musicals we have had since then, two strike me as plausible, both with children in mind: a version of the George and the dragon story (for which I’ve been thinking of doing a Lionel Bart and coming up with my own tunes) and a retelling of the Passion, using new words to English folk tunes.

I suspect that there’s a good deal to be written about the ‘cultural contribution’ of the best lyricists (Hart, Sondheim, Porter, Loesser, Mercer, Ira Gershwin… – I wonder whether this list disqualifies me from doing any of the writing?). I’ve also been throwing around a few ideas about lyric writing in general (perhaps tying it in with lyric poetry), so hopefully I can come up with something – eventually.