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.)