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What Makes Good Song Lyrics? Sean Hartley Responds to Stephen Holden


In the New York Times on 11/9, reviewing a cabaret performance by Marilyn Maye, Stephen Holden referred slightingly to Jerry Herman’s lyrics, saying “his upbeat lyrics” were “barely a step above greeting card homilies.” This is not a total surprise, since Herman has long been underappreciated by the New York theater press, but it is surprising coming from Stephen Holden, who is one of the city’s most intelligent and discerning critics. It is also unfair.

Why does Jerry Herman continue to get no respect? Is it that the popularity of a song like “Hello, Dolly” makes it seem simplistic? The fact that anyone can remember the lyrics after hearing them only once doesn’t mean they’re bad lyrics; in fact, it’s the opposite. Speaking as a lyricist, I can attest that it is much harder to write lyrics that are easily memorable than the opposite.

In my role as the host of the family concert series Broadway Playhouse, I often lead audience singalongs. Even a room filled with children who have never heard the songs “Hello, Dolly” or “The Best of Times” can quickly pick up both the tune and the words. Try teaching a room full of children – or adults for that matter -- a song by Cole Porter, or Stephen Sondheim. The words may be more sophisticated and subtler, but they just don’t stick in your head as easily.

Lyrics are poetry that are meant to be heard, and understood, in real time. A song lyric that needs to be studied to be understood has failed. All the great lyricists understand this. Most lyricists I know strive to be simple and clear, to express the feelings of the heart and the head in a way that is effortless, original and succinct. “Just One Of Those Things”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Moon River”, “Over The Rainbow”, “Summertime” – these are all simple lyrics. They use vivid, colorful language, but not for the sake of “sophistication”; colorful language helps the lyric to be more easily memorable and understandable.

In another context, Holden cites the lyrics to “I Won’t Send Roses”, one of Herman’s best. Look at them now, and see if the greeting card label is fair:

I won’t send roses,
Or hold the door.
I won’t remember
What dress you wore.
My heart is too much in control.
The lack of romance in my soul
Will turn you gray, kid,
So stay away kid.

Forget my shoulder
When you’re in need.
Forgetting birthdays
Is guaranteed,
And should I love you
You would be the last to know.
I won’t send roses
And roses suit you so.

If that’s not a perfect lyric, I don’t know what is. Simple, clear, concise, and yet evocative. The title (and “hook”) of the song, “I Won’t Send Roses” is an original and colorful way to make the main point: I’m not a romantic man. The final line “And roses suit you so,” is the twist at the end to which every lyricist aspires. There’s not an extra syllable anywhere, or a single line that is hackneyed. If Hallmark is capable of this elegance, I’ve got to start buying more greeting cards.

Consider too these lyrics from Dear World, which, as a show, was not a critical success, but which contains many of Herman’s most sublime lyrics and melodies:

For if you let a moment come between you now,
It soon becomes a day, a year, a lifetime.
Blink your eye, turn your head, and you’ve lost her.
And you’ll spend half your life wondering how.
So before you forget how you loved her,
Kiss Her Now. Kiss Her Now. Kiss Her Now.

Superficial critics claim that Jerry Herman is a simpleminded optimist, but in fact, he is an elegant and incisive writer of character songs. Some of his most famous characters are optimistic, so when he writes songs for Mame or Dolly, they can be counted on to look for the bright side of life. But think about a song like “We Need A Little Christmas.” Mame isn’t being stupidly optimistic. She is trying to cheer up her depressed, Depression era household in a totally original way. (Shall I point out, too, that her character’s behavior was created by Patrick Dennis, who wrote the original book, and that Herman is simply musicalizing a key moment in the action?) And listen to these lyrics from that song, that show the depth of feeling Herman is capable of instilling in even the most optimistic song:

For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder.
Need a little Christmas now.

Looking at those lyrics again, I’m struck by how artfully he transforms the list of the first four lines into something more with the addition of the angel. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this stanza eloquent and moving.

I could go on, but maybe I shouldn’t bother. Jerry Herman has his three Tony awards and his Kennedy Center honors. He doesn’t need me to defend him. And I’m presenting a concert in Merkin Hall on Monday night, December 5, in which I will have the chance to praise Jerry and to present some of New York’s best singers singing his songs. But it occurs to me that this undervaluing of Herman’s lyrics reflects, in fact, a general lack of respect for lyric writing. Composers are routinely given more respect. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein famously retorted, when someone said that Jerome Kern wrote “Old Man River,” “Jerome Kern wrote da-da-da-dum. My husband wrote “Ol’ Man River.”

Good lyrics don’t draw your attention to them. They draw your attention to the story, or the character, or the point of view, and away from the lyricist. The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim are the exception of course; everyone notices them, everyone admires them for their sophistication, and everyone praises them, deservedly. But there is actually one kind of song Stephen Sondheim can’t write, or hasn’t written yet in his extensive career. I’m talking about a simple song, with a memorable “hook”, that is easily learned in one sitting. Something like “Hello, Dolly!”