De New York Magazine: Four Musical-Theater Composers Explain What Makes a Perfect Song
Cole Porter, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”
“There’s no love song finer / but how strange the change from major to minor / ev’ry time we say goodbye.”
It could only be written by someone who does both music and lyrics. It’s in the final sixteen bars of the song, and “major to minor” is on the subdominant and the minor subdominant—the four to the minor four—and it’s a thriller. He’s coloring the lyric in an incredibly clever way and also a way that’s really emotionally satisfying, in addition to having gorgeous harmony and a great tune.
Frank Loesser, “Joey, Joey, Joey” from The Most Happy Fella
“Like a perfumed woman / the wind blows in the bunk house / like a perfumed woman / smellin’ of where she’s been / smellin’ of Oregon cherries / or maybe Texas avocado / or maybe Arizona sugar beet / the wind blows in.”
It tells you everything you need to know about the character: his choice of words, color, his mood. The character himself is sort of louche, and there’s a sensuality to the music; you hear his longing and his desire to move on. He’s got a great appetite that can never be filled, and you feel that void. It’s a novel in a nutshell.
Stephen Sondheim, “If Momma Was Married” from Gypsy
Chosen by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray)
“Momma / please take our advice / we aren’t the Lunts / I’m not Fanny Brice / Momma, we’ll buy you the rice / if only this once you wouldn’t think twice.”
It’s so complicated but effortless. Look at all the inner rhymes there—“once” and “Lunts,” and all the “ice”s, and the wordplay of “once … twice,” you have to wonder what comes first. As a lyricist, I know you often start with the last line and work backward. And the playfulness of the Jule Styne music, a melodic waltz, is perfectly matched.
David Yazbek, “Here I Am” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Chosen by Jason Robert Brown (The Last 5 Years)
“I’ve been kinda missing Mom and Daddy / sort of been a spin since Cincinnati / the morning flight, a major bore / but then they open the cabin door and / zut alors! Here I am.”
Yazbek has to introduce this person, Christine, whom we don’t really know, set up that we’re on the French Riviera, and establish that she’s a klutz. In five or six lines, and you can understand it. The music has weird harmonic shifts you don’t expect, the melody itself rising in a very satisfying way: “Mom and Daaaddy, Cincinnaaati.”