During my relatively short time in the theatre industry I have learnt one absolutely mind boggling thing... that not alot of people really know what a theatre lyricist actually does...
In almost all original contracts I am sent I am referred to solely as composer. Despite the fact that music is only half of my job, and to be honest, for me the music is the far more enjoyable and easy part of my job than the lyric. I would say that when I'm working on a song I would spend 90% of my time working on the lyric and 10% of my time working on the music. This is just me. I have enormous respect for lyricists who can't go and hide in their music for 10% of the time, and spend literally all their time battling for the perfect way to say the perfect thing, then make it rhyme in an interesting way and fit music. Sound easy? It's frickin not.
I suppose what is bothering me is that for some reason the theatre industry at large seem to think that good lyrics just happen magically along with the music. I can understand where this misconception comes from in the UK. Who is more famous?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe (Lyricists of Phantom of the Opera)?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Don Black & Christopher Hampton (Lyricists of Sunset Boulevard)?
Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice (Lyricist of Joseph, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar)?
Elton John or Bernie Taupin (Lyricist of almost every Elton John song you ever heard)?
And don't even get me started on opera. Ever heard of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Look them up. They wrote half of La Boheme. Ever see their names on the poster beside Puccini?
Of course, I'm painting broad brushstrokes, but that's only because the majority of us do. It's how we make sense of the world. The simple fact seems to be that England romanticises its composers and practically ignores its lyricists.
I'm sure people are going to be shouting STEPHEN SONDHEIM and STEPHEN SCHWARZ in my face. And yes, absolutely the "Stephens" are clearly venerated for their work in lyric as well as music... but the important difference is that they are American. And in America the theatre industry clearly values the work of the lyricist in the way it should be valued, ie highly. In England however, the state of play seems to be vastly different.
America has produced brilliant writing teams (composers & lyricists): Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb and more recently the force that is Lin Manuel Miranda. England has the brilliant work of Stiles & Drewe (Mary Poppins, Honk) but I would be hard pressed to name any other writing teams that have had the same success that they have.
In my conversations with people in the industry it seems to be a pervading thought that anyone can bash out a lyric; as long as the music is good, it'll be fine. Simply not true.
An Art Form On It's Own
The work of the theatre lyricist is an art form all on its own. In the same way that painting differs from sculpture, play writing differs from screen writing, bookwriting differs from poetry. And indeed, the most common misconception is that a poet can easily be a lyricist, surely they are just rhyming words? Again, not true. Poems are as different from lyrics as a Big Mac is from chicken nuggets. Sure, they are both available from McDonalds at a reasonable price and they are both (arguably) food. But the similarity stops there.
Asking a playwright with no experience of lyric writing to write world-class lyrics just because they have written world-class plays is simply madness. It's like putting Ronaldo on an Olympic Games hockey pitch with a stick, telling him "You're good with balls. I'm sure you'll be fine." and then have your eyes widening in surprise when he fails miserably on the world stage. Sure, he might be able to run fast and have an instinct about being in the right place at the right time, but does he have the technical ability to wield and control the ball with a stick in the same way that he does with his feet? Probably not. And certainly not as well as someone who has been doing it for years.
What Does a Lyricist Do?
Yes, playwrights and poets use words, just as lyricists do, they have a way with words, they have rhythms and turns of phrases and beautiful images. But, that is only a very small part of the lyricists arsenal. A lyricist needs to turn dramatic moments into music. I use the word music because a lyricist is just as much of a musician as a composer is. I don't mean that they need to know how to write music or play an instrument but they need to understand the musical rise and fall of a lyrical phrase. They need to be utterly precise in their use of scansion, they need to be succinct and clear but also have a fascinating perspective on things. Their choice of words needs to not only reflect interesting and musical rhymes but the sound of every word and where it falls in the music. What words sing well? What words don't? What words can I hold on a long note, what words lend themselves to fast patter. How to make a joke land not only lyrically but musically. These are just a tiny part of what a good lyricist needs to be able to do and above all they need to be a strong collaborator.
Of course a playwright or poet can learn these things, give Ronaldo five or six years of training and he'll be a decent hockey player I'm sure. But why is our industry ignoring those who are already trained in this most precise of art forms.
So What's Going On?
There are organisations that are stalwart supporters of Musical Theatre and champion the work of lyricists in the UK,including the brilliant Mercury Musical Developments and BML (Book, Music, Lyrics - a practical training programme for composers and lyricists that has literally changed my life). But it seems that at the very top of our industry that the theatre lyricist is not being taken into account as it should be.
It is even presumed (and reasonably) that pop songwriters (music & lyrics) should be able to write a decent musical, they use music and lyrics and have succeeded on international levels with their songs. Again, not true. The pop song or studio album is completely different to the lyrical attitude required to write for the theatre. Often pop songs focus on an emotional centre which is great. What they don't do (and what is the hardest thing for even a trained theatre lyricist to do) is move a plot forward or change someone's mind so that the person singing them ends up in a different attitude from the one they started in. Also, vitally, they are the singers thoughts, pop writers are not trained to write from character perspective, another vital difference.
Of course pop song writers can be trained to do that as well, but why not take a chance on someone who already knows how to do it. I'm not talking about myself by the way, I have been extremely fortunate to have been offered some brilliant opportunities throughout my career, but I suspect this is principally because I am a composer AND lyricist, so I am often hired because it makes alot of economic sense to producers.
Cole Porter once famously said upon encountering Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein at a party: "What? It takes two of you to write a song?"
Now, I love Cole Porter's songs, they are wonderful pieces of work. But If I'm honest, Mr Porter's musicals leave ALOT to be desired. They are essentially vehicles for his brilliant songs. The historical record speaks for itself... Carousel, Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma.... all acknowledged classics of the canon. All by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Kiss Me Kate, High Society by Cole Porter In my opinion brilliant songs, but have always left me cold. And certainly not even closer to the heights of the former.
Why Is It a Problem and What Do We Do About it?
My thoughts on the problem are this:
A composer can compose music and it can live by itself.
A poet can write a poem and it can live by itself.
A lyricist can write a lyric but it cannot live without music.
Therefore it is very hard to give any awards to lyricists without also awarding their composers (which is only right as it is a collaboration), but it is my belief that at the very top of our theatre industry, anyone wanting to create world class musical theatre, needs to know that theatre lyrics aren't just something anyone can do.
There needs to be a shift so that our top theatres start budgeting for brilliant theatre lyricists (and they exist here, of course they do, it's just no one's ever heard of them) and billing them equally with composers and playwrights. Some of them are already starting to do it, but it's a conversation that needs to be started and heard at the very top.