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April 15, 2016

Rhymes Have I – Or Have I?

Had a great time at Penn State last week, thanks to Richard Biever of Fuse Productions. He’s the one who invited Jennifer Ashley Tepper (the Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below) Scott Miller (the Artistic Director of New Line Theatre in St. Louis) and me to State College, PA where we’d discuss whether or not we’re in a New Golden Age of the American Musical.

Although I didn’t answer the question with a simple “Yes” or “No,” I implied that my take on the matter was Yes AND No. I’m glad that more people are writing for the musical theater than seemingly ever before, but I do wish the ones from the world of pop and rock would enroll in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.

There they could learn to rhyme correctly and put the accents on the right syllables.

Tepper didn’t take as firm a stance on this as Miller, who insisted that rhyme doesn’t much matter. People, he believes, have over the last few decades become accustomed and inured to not having rhymes in pop and rock songs.

But, I rebutted, you can play recordings again and again or hear them repeatedly on the radio. Thus, you can understand the words at your leisure. Pop and rock singers are right on top of the microphone, which also makes lyrics easier to understand than in a theater, where acoustics aren’t ideal for every seat. What’s more, pop and rock – at least on radio or listening devices – offer nothing to watch, so one’s other senses aren’t “distracted.” Finally, most pop and rock songs don’t tell a story or move the plot forward, which musical theater songs mostly do. As a result, pop and rock songs don’t “need” to have rhymes in their songs.

Do I think they should? Sure. But non-rhymes at least aren’t as damaging in these cases.

Miller rolled his eyes when I brought up SPRING AWAKENING, which originally opened to virtually unanimous raves and won eight Tonys including Best Musical. Such a reception usually means scalpers and long lines in the lobby where people desperately hope to secure even one obstructed view ticket in the last row of the balcony. But SPRING AWAKENING didn’t do business commensurate with its reviews or its awards. Of the 111 weeks it played on Broadway, it sold out three. This season’s revival never went clean even one week, but mostly played to half-empty houses.

One can, if he wants, say that the Broadway audience is just too staid and/or stupid not to bow to a changing musical world and that it just can’t appreciate the contemporary brilliance of SPRING AWAKENING. Perhaps not having stars was a liability, too. And true, a case can be made that the show is a serious musical with deaths of young people.

But RENT was also a rock musical that contained death and had no stars – but it sold out for quite a long time. The way people acted after they’d won tickets in its lottery, you’d think they’d hit all six numbers in Powerball. With SPRING AWAKENING, you could have brought 50-100 of your friends to the theater 10 minutes before most any performance and everyone would have been happily accommodated.

My theory, which I invited Scott to dismiss out of hand (and he did): the lack of rhymes hurt SPRING AWAKENING. I’m not saying that the average audience member listens to the show’s second song and immediately says, “Wait a minute! ‘Idol’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘Bible!’” Nor does John Q. Theatergoer actively notice Steven Sater’s other 58 pairings of words that are supposed to rhyme but are so near yet so far away.

I say that theatregoers tend to respond more to lyrics that rhyme perfectly and have the stresses on the right syllables. The percentage of perfect rhymes that Jonathan Larson gave RENT and his audiences was commensurate with the musical theater giants of yore who routinely rhymed perfectly. As a result, people heard and understood them better.

In the theater, you get the lyrics once, not counting such excesses as the 76 times that Tony-winner Cyndi Lauper uses “Yeah” in her first-act finale. Both young and old people have told me time and time again that they often have trouble hearing and understanding lyrics in the theater. If they don’t understand enough of the words, the displacement adds up bit by bit as they CAN’T put it together and totally glean what’s going on. As a result, they don’t have as rewarding a time as they would have had if they could have understood everything that had been sung. Thus, when they get out of the show and later meet friends who ask “How was it?” they shrug and say, “It was all right” instead of “It was magnificent” – which they well might have said had they been able to understand every lyric (assuming, of course, that the lyrics were good in the first place).

But even if people feel that SPRING AWAKENING or any other musical with non-rhyming lyrics is the greatest experience they’ve ever had – full of immense truths and life-changing epiphanies -- would they have felt the show would have SUFFERED and been WORSE if it had had lyrics that rhymed perfectly and syllables that were perfectly accented?

I suspect ignorance and/or laziness are the main reasons why many of today’s lyricists don’t trouble themselves with rhyme. I’m reminded of a songwriter I met in the ‘80s who said, “A song shouldn’t take any more than 10 minutes to write.” Actually, her songs, without perfect rhymes and stresses, sounded as if they had taken FIVE minutes to write.

She never amounted to anything. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Writing a song where the words rhyme perfectly and the accents fall on the right syllables is a substantially harder task than writing a song that doesn’t strive for these values. As I’ve heard Sondheim say on more than one occasion, writing a song without perfect rhymes and accents is like building a table with three legs. It WILL stand, but it won’t stand as solidly as a table with four.

And if you rebut me with the belief that lyrics ARE easy to understand in the theater and that you personally never have a problem, why has there been a website totally devoted to misheard Broadway lyrics: “I’ve thrown a custard in her face.” ‘So long! Farewell! Our feet all say good-bye!” “He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat with Annette Funicello from the sea.” “Smoke on your pipe and go Latin.” “A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler’s. I’ll drink to that! And one firm olive!” “A hundred and one towns of fun.”

I’ll never forget one of my readers writing me and saying that for weeks he couldn’t discern that Peron sang to his dying wife “This talk of death is chilling.” He assumed that Peron was singing, “This taco tastes of chili.” As he admitted to me, “I thought Peron was a real boor for eating at such an emotional moment.”

Note, too, that these listeners made these mistakes even after they’d repeatedly listened to original cast albums. So how is a theatergoer expected to understand every lyric with one hearing in the theater? Rhymes, believe me, help.

         — Peter Filichia



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