Trying to get a grip on paraphrasing…

Warning, these thoughts aren’t quite fully-formed yet, but I’m hoping the blogging process will help me make sense of the issue.

“The sun comes up, I think about you.  A coffee cup, I think about you.” 

I know Lonny Smith just winced.  Did any of the rest of you?  Because the lyric from the Sondheim song Losing My Mind isn’t “a coffee cup,” but “the coffee cup.”   Does it make a difference?  Well, sorta, yeah.

As an actor, I have a really terrible tendency toward paraphrasing.  And it’s something that I’m confronting right now as part of the rehearsal process for Mother Courage.  I do get annoyed with myself, because with as few lines as “the second soldier from the right” has, you’d think I could get them right.  (No matter how awkward the translation feels

Once when directing a 10-minute play that I wrote and was acting in, Ron chided me for paraphrasing my own writing.  And I paraphrase Shakespeare convincingly, too.  And at the last DC Cabaret Network open mic, I found myself blanking on the “filling you with life, creativity, etc.” lyric in Die, Vampire, Die – so who knows what came out of my mouth.

Now Rosemary Clooney always tells the story about Margaret Whiting, that being a songwriter’s daughter, that when Whiting forgets a lyric she can sell utterly nonsensical words with amazing conviction.  The prime example is “… treetops on a carousel, moonlight in Vermont.”  As the saying goes, talent is what you can get away with.

But I remembered being appalled when seeing the recent production of Mame at the Kennedy Center – I felt hit on the head over and over with how many of the lyrics I’ve been singing incorrectly in piano bars all these years.  (And they’re Jerry Herman lyrics!!! I mean, c’mon!)  And since I’m  generally the only person getting to the third verse of Mame anyway, it’s not like anyone is gently correcting me.  And worse, I’m spreading misinformation.

And that’s how people come to think that the lyric in Lush Life is “distant gay traces” rather than “distingue traces.”  Or the lyric in I Get a Kick Out of You is “…everytime I see you standing here before me” rather than “…everytime I see you’re standing here before me.”

OK, I really get covering a performance flub (like accidentally switching verses) or making a deliberate substitution (like “some like a Bach-type refrain” rather than “some get a kick from cocaine”).  But when I see performers who have mis-learned songs, it really bothers me. 

And I think it bothers me, because it does make me think less of the artist.  The other night, I heard a performer paraphrase a word in a lyric—substituting out a word that is key to an interpretation of the song.  I had twice heard the same performer switch out a (to me) important word in another song; this bothered me so much I had to check the sheet music to see if I, myself, had mis-heard the lyrics for all these years.  (I hadn’t.)  And it really made me question this otherwise talented performer’s commitment to the work, since it seems obvious that anyone who really understands these songs wouldn’t make these particular mistakes.  (It also made me wonder why the performer’s music director didn’t give that as a note, but that’s a whole other story.)

And so anyway, I think it is fair to ask “Does it really matter?”  Yes, the lyricist may have debated whether it’s a “but” or an “or” for hours, struggled with “which” versus “that” – but does an audience really care?

I think perhaps the answer is that the person in the audience who cares, may really care.  And that’s why I’m struggling to clean up my lines.  (And no, the director and stage management have not been giving line notes – yet.)


7 Responses to Trying to get a grip on paraphrasing…

  1. Lonny Smith says:

    I winced. But I would argue that there are different degrees to this crime. An actor who substitutes “a coffee cup” for “the coffee cup” is also probably missing the singleminded focus of Sally Durant Plummer. But, if Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook mislearned the lyric, would that one word lessen the resolve of their performances? If you knew they were going to change the word, would that stop you from buying a ticket???

    Also, when you consider the practice “paraphrasing” music, that generally is not considered a crime at all. But isn’t a singer who elongates an eighth note or inserts a pop riff just as guilty? And how would you judge Sinatra, who flagrantly broke all of these rules?

    I think, in the end, the words are not more important than the story being told. It’s better to get the words right than not, but the words and the playwright (and the actor and the performance) is in service of the play. Sometimes, you have to get the words and music precisely to tell the story in all its complexity…but sometimes concentrating too much on precision and accuracy will kill the story.

    But you should still learn your lines.

  2. Emily says:

    i think some of it has to do with personality of the performer. like some people are meticulous about their houses and some are not…but both sets of people probably care as much for the people who live there.

    if this was not written about me, it very well could have been. i learn things (notes and words) wrong, on accident, all the time. it’s not for lack of commitment or care for the material…but more as a person who loves these words, this music (and the amazing mountains of what interest me)…trying my best in a world that kicks my ass daily, lucky to make it through the day with a shower or brushed teeth.

    i guess it partly takes the fun out of this whole business of performing (for me, at least) to fear being judged negatively for something that is easily correctable if someone just told me…in an art that demands so much time, heart, soul…and everything else of being human. that’s life, of course, the unavoidable risk an artist takes…but it still smarts like a switch on a bare ass.

    probably what’s most needed in a situation like this (what i would hope for) is someone to gently (in friendship) tell that person. everybody gets by with a little help from their friends.

    the person might have a specific reason for the change (…i’m guilty of this…when a word or the built in meaning doesn’t suit my needs, i change it…in which case folks can agree to disagree) or maybe a person doesn’t care (in which case commitment or respect for material could then be called into question).

  3. Joe says:

    Well, I have to agree that there are degrees of paraphrasing. Some is inadvertent, some is accidental, some is purposeful and serves a show, and – perhaps – some is due to lack of care and diligence.

    As a performer, I hope audience members are taking the trip with me at that moment in that song. So if paraphrasing does occur, it isn’t a stumbling block but part of the live performance experience. The bottom line – whether as an audience member or performing – for me is always whether or not the song/story is communicated effectively. Of course, we should all strive for perfection in our performances, and should do everything we can to avoid impedences to reaching our audience – like annoying them with avoidable paraphrasing or singing wrong notes.

    I must admit that I have learned songs completely, thoroughly, and to the letter only to have my own mind inadvertently rewrite a lyric in mid-performance without my ever realizing until afterward as I look over the video. Oops! Surprise! And I’ve been happily singing along when suddenly – to my utter amazement – a completely unexpected lyric comes flying out of my mouth. And then what? Well, I do my best. LOL And if the audience is with me, they are just as invested as I am in striving for a positive outcome.

    Song interpretation is interpretation. I think both Emily and Lonnie have put it well above. And I hope there is room in the hearts of cabaret audience members to allow the necessary license for fresh, exciting, creative performances. That being said, I also trust that those who perform in cabaret will strive to maintain the highest level of integrity and professionalism when we share our creative efforts with others.

  4. Karen says:

    For me the biggest challenge is when you are doing new material that is not released to the general public, yet. Recently, my group did a Scott Alan song and we had to listen over and over to the singer and I am still not sure we got it right! In any case, I also believe that in a book show, you cannot take liberties with words or notes, but in your cabaret show, you have more artistic license to actually create a song to fit what moment you are working to create….most of the time for me that means changing a pronoun to suit me or if I am singing a “man’s” song then I rearrange all the gender stuff. I do think its our duty as performers to do the “work” of learning correctly so that when you make a change it will be less noticeable, because you did it with intent. 🙂

  5. Matt H. says:

    Interesting! I think there’s various ways this can happen, though. If I go up on my lyrics and substitute the next best thing that pops in my head, then that’s one situation where you’re just covering to keep the song going. However, I think there’s something to be said about learning the song correctly to begin with. When I learned “Bein’ Green” I was amazed how many liberties had been taken with those lyrics over the years by other singers doing their own versions. It made it hard for me to study the lyrics on the sheet. And, when I got down to specifics, I wondered if there really *was* a difference in how I would interpret “it’s not *that* easy being green”, which is the first way Joe Raposo wrote the phrase, versus “it’s not easy being green”, which is how he wrote it the second time it’s sung. I don’t know if an audience would ever realize or know that the word “that” does not appear a second time. But maybe it colors the interpretive work I do on the song. And if I don’t pay attention to details like that, I may never ask myself the question or consider it.

  6. Judy says:


    Bravo for a very thoughtful commentary on the foibles of lyrics and the retention thereof. As a person who works very hard to learn the exact lyrics for every song, I have been guilty of flubbing a lyric on many occasions. It is after all, a LIVE performance and we are all only human, sadly, and prone to mistakes. That being said, I think it is extremely important to honor the lyricist and the gorgeous, focused words that they use and we blissfully get to sing. I am always fascinated by the very specific words that the lyricist chooses to convey what they want to say. As singers we must decide what they mean to us and what we want to bring to our interpretation of this song. I believe that we must be accurate and we must use the lyrics as they are written. I am bothered when I know the lyric and it is changed by the singer for whatever reason. To me, the wrong words rarely fit the song as well as the actual lyrics.

  7. JIll Leger says:

    As a lyricist, I’d say my passion is primarily logic and flow. I want the ideas and their progression to make sense. But here’s the funny thing, and we’ve all experienced it: If the *idea* is conveyed, the audience ‘gets’ what is meant. So when I hear any flubs on what to me is the all-essential “but” or “and,” I know in my heart it’s probably confused no-one.

    On-purpose adjustments made to suit the singer? I tend to love them if they’re minor (e.g. changing the gender) and/or humorous (“I hang out in Dupont where I decorate the bars!”), if only because they represent someone trying to bring the material a little closer to their heart and their own experience, which can ideally translate into an overall delivery that is more personal and heartfelt.

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