Rachel Zakuta

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Sondheim’s 3 Maxims (and 1 song of mine)

Sondheim has three guiding principles so essential to his philosophy of lyric writing that they are printed over and over on the inside cover of his collection:

  • Less is More
  • Content Dictates Form
  • God is in the Details

Since you could easily read what Sondheim has to say about these principles by picking up his book, I’d like to explain them along side a problematic song from my work-in-progress musical, David: A Retelling for Our Time, and show how they’ve aligned with my writing, or suggested revisions. In case you are new to my work, the musical is a loose adaptation of David Copperfield that brings forward the issues relevant today: the injustice of the income gap, and the stories of the three abused women in the book. And yes, I’d been writing it for quite some time when I heard there was a movie version coming out. It’s hard to believe both versions are based on the same book.

“Are you a Dream?”

In this song, David proposes to Dora, a 16-year-old who is devoted to him but is not his perfect match. The challenge of these particular lyrics is that David has to be utterly romantic, completely sincere in his love, and yet the song must also foreshadow the problems in their relationship. So, while David questions Dora’s reality because she seems too good to be true, the song is revealing that he is more in love with the idea of Dora than with the actual woman:

I am yours. You are my dream,  
What I see when I close my eyes.
You are the voice, when I'm in doubt,
Telling me that happiness should not be a surprise.
Saying that love is real and lasting,
A voice of sunlight and music and wine. 
Can you be real? Are you a dream?
And if you are real can you be mine?

Is there truth in the dreams that I dream at night?
A new home that's filled with love and life,
My ideal, finally real, in the new day's light?
And can you be my wife?

Of course, David’s troubled past also informs these lyrics — to him, happiness is always a surprise, and is rarely lasting.

Less is More

While not my best writing (it’s a bit generic), this opening fulfills Sondheim’s advice that less is more, because every line has something new to say, some nuance in David’s character or feelings to reveal. (Plus the actual proposal, a plot point). Of course there is repetition for emphasis (“You are my dream” / “Are you a dream” / “Is there truth in the dreams”), but that is fine, and different from what Sondheim refers to as redundancy. There was a time, in musical theater history, when songs were built on redundancy. The purpose of the song was to come up with some clever way to say the same thing (I love you, you should love me, etc.) over and over in endless variation. Some of these songs are wonderful: Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” (a list of funny and entertaining ways to say “You are great”); Ira and George Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (a list of reasons why the singers shouldn’t be together, including “You say potato, I say po-tah-to”); and many more. But they don’t fit in a modern musical, where we expect the song to reveal unique character and advance the plot. So, less is more: each line needs to be saying something that must be said.

Content Dictates Form

In the next section of the song I completely violate the “less is more” principle. I say the same thing (“You are everything to me”) four times, without even unique metaphors. Bear with me and I’ll tell you why this has to be so.

In the light of your smile I won't need the sun,
And darkness will cease to be.
I'll drink in the sight of you every day,
No other wine for me.
The music of your voice and your easy laugh
Will be my symphony,
An the touch of your hand that I hold in mine 
Is all the world could hold for me.

The reason I have to include old-fashioned variations on a theme here is because content dictates form. In this case, the content I have to express is that there is something missing in this relationship, an emptiness David fills with his ideals rather than Dora’s real characteristics. So these lines are somewhat empty, one-size-fits-all expressions of love. They are sincere, but immature and cheesy. David and Dora are too young, and they don’t know each other well enough. When David sings to the right woman, Agnes, at the end of the play, each line has something new to say, because David actually has things to say. But here, “content dictates form” trumps “less is more.” The song has to match the character and the moment, even if that means abandoning cleverness to a degree that Sondheim admits he has trouble doing. But of course, it’s harder for Sondheim because he is the epitome of clever.

God is in the Details

Basically, Sondheim votes “yes” in favor of neurotic perfectionism when crafting lyrics. I doubt that comes as a surprise to any Sondheim fan. I am a perfectionist, and it is very frustrating to me to have delay that drive because I know I’m going to have to rearrange all the lyrics to fit melodies once I find a composer, so why spend time on the details now? (And if you know composer who might be interested, use the contact me button on the main website!!!). However, there are details that just need to be fixed, because they are too embarrassing to represent my writing, and the first draft of the last section of this song happens to sport quite a few. In this section, Agnes, the woman David should be with, reveals her feelings for the first time. David is dancing with Dora and does not hear her.

I am yours. You are my dream,
What I see when I close my eyes.
You are the voice, when I'm in doubt,
Saying I'm strong enough, and capable, and wise.
You are the one who truly knows me,
And accepts all that I am. 
But you don't want an equal partner, 
You want your mother back again.

You think this time you will save her, 
You will spare her every pain.
And I could never be that helpless.
I'm not a bird, who would love its cage,
For giving shelter from the rain.

Yep, that’s embarrassing. Agnes definitely understands David’s psychology, but God is in the details. Let’s take it piece by piece.

I always knew that “am” and “again” made an imperfect rhyme, ending in similar sounding consonants (m and n), but not the same consonants. Sondheim is against imperfect rhymes, though he admits that modern audiences are acclimating to them more and more due to their use in popular music. When I looked back at this song, with Sondheim’s permission to be neurotic, I realized that the rhyme only exist because of the way I pronounce “am” as “em” — a habit from my mother’s New Jersey accent, I’ve been told. So, “em” and “again” might be close enough, but “am” and “again” are certainly not. I still haven’t fixed this one.

In the third verse I added an extra line (“I could never be that helpless”) just because I wanted to say it, even though it breaks the rhyme scheme, thinking, “Oh, the melody will take care of it.” That’s just sloppy and unexcusable. Cut!

And now, for the absolute worst writing of all, the last metaphor. It doesn’t make sense. Cages do not protect their inhabitants from rain. The most important tenant in “God is in the details” is that a writer should never, ever put the rhyme above making sense. Sondheim also notes that the writer shouldn’t violate conversational syntax (shouldn’t reverse word order) in the name of a rhyme, but luckily that’s not one of my bad habits. Also, the metaphor of a woman as a bird in a gilded cage is so cliché. What was I thinking? And why am I showing it to you? If you are an aspiring writer, take this as evidence of the comforting truth that everyone’s rough drafts are horrible.

I’m thinking of fixing the last two lines like this:

I'm not some fairy tale girl, lost in a wood,
Looking for shelter from the rain.

Or I could let go of the metaphor completely, like this:

I'm not a helpless young girl, afraid on her own,
Just waiting around for you to train.

But that second line is lousy.

God is in the details, or, in other words, rhymes should be as perfect as possible while not encouraging poetry-like grammar or distracting from the meaning of the song. And so I shall revise, revise, revise.

The last section involves Agnes singing lines like: “I don’t need your protection / Although I crave your heart” while David sings to Dora: “I will protect you.” I like the contradictions, and I think that section does its job.

Thanks for your patience with a sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally weak song!

Sondheim, Steven. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. Alfred A. Knopf. 2010.

Learning To Write Lyrics 2

Lessons from Sondheim

I love so many Sondheim shows, and I do think he’s a genius lyricist. I know some people have difficulty with his music (he writes of being incessant told it’s not “hummable”), but I’ve been humming it since my mother taped, with an actual tape, a broadcast recording of the original Into the Woods in 1991. I’ve been hunting obscure Sondheim songs ever since. And whatever you think about his melodies, I can’t imagine who you could propose as a more clever, inventive, influential, moving lyricist of his generation. Sondheim’s advice can be found in the annotations of his collected lyrics; so far I’ve read the first volume, Finishing the Hat, and all the page numbers below refer to that book.

The opening number

Hammerstein taught Sondheim about the importance of an opening number, but Sondheim didn’t fully believe him until he’d proved it for himself. The story goes like this: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened out of town, more or less the same hysterical bedroom farce we can see in the 1966 movie, but beginning with the first scene, rather than a song. And guess what? Nobody laughed. It was a flop. The problem, Sondheim and his collaborators realized, was that the audience had no idea what to expect — a classical Greek tragedy? A serious history? So Sondheim wrote an opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” and suddenly the show was a hit. “Nothing with kings / Nothing with crowns / Bring on the lovers, liars, and clowns” (83). Sondheim told the audience exactly what kind of show was coming, and if you need convincing of his genius, just take a moment to reflect on the way he says exactly what he wants to say while also rhyming and playing with the /k/ and /l/ songs in those lines.

Early in my reading of Finishing the Hat, I misunderstood this principle to mean every show needs a BIG opening number, with the whole cast involved. So I took the older-David-looking-back-on-his-birth opening song, “Hero,” (click on the “Three Songs” button at the bottom of my website’s home page) and began to expand it, as if everyone in the show has the same central, internal conflict as David does! (“Will I be the hero of my life story? / Or will I let others chart that course for me?”) My big version spiraled more and more out of control…until Sondheim brought up Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” as a perfect example of an opening number. Only one character sings, but what is he doing? “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…All the sounds of the Earth are like music” (Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, 1943) He’s setting the scene. So the opening doesn’t have to be big, though audiences like big: for example, “The Greatest Show,” “Alexander Hamilton.” It has to be right.

Sondheim writes, “Hammerstein also claimed that the opening number is the most important song in a musical because it establishes tone, character, information, and everything in between” (333). So there you have it, secondhand, from the man who invented the modern musical (i.e. one in which the songs are specific to character, place, and time, and move the plot forward). So how do I need to change “Hero,” based on what I’ve learned? Well, I think David can “tell” the first scene as it’s acted out, rather leave that as actual dialogue — those new verses weren’t bad, and the show is too long, so I think that’s a good way to tighten. With just that change, the first song now introduces character, story, and setting. I’m still considering a brief interruption by the women of the show, because a focus purely on David does seem like a misrepresentation, since I’ve tried so hard to bring the struggles of the women from background to foreground in my retelling. Yet I still feel it’s right to start with David and his birth, because (to quickly switch hats to the book writer), the fact that he is born a boy and therefore is rejected by Aunt Betsy (an abuse survivor) is the inciting incident from which all else follows.

Honestly, I don’t know anyone writes the lyrics to a musical without writing the book, too. Or rather, I do, after reading Finishing the Hat, but it involves a lot of back-and-forth and rewriting that I sometimes get to do entirely in my head. Sondheim is very open about the fact that he could never write a musical book: structure the scenes, create the characters, etc. For me, that is the part most like novel-writing, and so, the easiest part. (I’m still working on making the dialogue more snappy, though). However, I do notice in Sondheim’s reflections, sometimes, a sort of story-blindness. He occasionally wonders about problems that seem obvious to me, such as why the audience never laughs at a particular funny song in Pacific Overtures, despite rewrite after rewrite (303). To me, the obvious answer is that it comes too soon after the death of a character the audience likes, and people can’t emotionally boomerang that fast — a story problem no amount of tinkering with the lyrics will ever be able to fix. Probably the most endearing aspect of Finishing the Hat is the way Sondheim is constantly working to give the credit for ideas he is often complimented on to the book writers whose ideas they actually were.

Coming Next Time: Sondheim’s 3 Maxims: content dictates form, God is in the details, and less is more.

Sondheim, Steven. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

The OA: Part 2

While The OA did, as I suspected, leave the liminal space of the fantastic and dive headfirst into actual supernatural narrative in Part 2, the show improved so much that the particular tension from an unreliable narrator wasn’t needed. We could still argue about whether the show is original enough to be worth watching for most SF/F buffs–and about exactly where that line falls, now that the plot is complicated enough that I’ve never seen all those particular tropes combined in just this way–but I’d rather point out some of the writing techniques the show used well this time.

An actually mysterious beginning

Part 2 opens with characters we don’t know, in a dimension we don’t know: specifically, with a private eye, a desperate client, and a missing girl who is a female version of Buck, one of the OA’s listeners in Part 1. This beginning wouldn’t work half so well without Kingsley Ben-Adir as the private eye protagonist, inhabiting the character so completely and (it seems) effortlessly. He has some help from the writing, though. In this new season, we start again with a mystery, but a mystery seen through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the answers. Remember, the mystery in Part 1 is the story of Prairie’s captivity, but Prairie knows her own history already, and it’s hard to over-emphasize how that drains a narrative of urgency. Even when Prairie arrives in Part 2, she doesn’t have the memories of her alternate self, so she doesn’t have the answers, either. Without answers, our main characters can ricochet from stressed to desperate and back again. Thank God.

So why start with Karim, our private eye, and not the characters we know? This allows the writers to employ a technique that science-fiction and fantasy novels use all the time: the gradual widening of the world. Personally, this is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, because it’s often tied to a sense of wonder that comes with each step farther into the unknown. The idea is to start very simply, with a situation that is small and somewhat ordinary (in this case, a bare three characters in a well-known fictional plot: private eye, client, missing) and to gradually let the story open up into something bigger and weirder. It’s as if the audience is climbing a mountain through layers of cloud and each new break in the fog allows them to glimpse a wider world that is not only stunning, but also redefines each previous view. They could only do this with a new character, because our returning friends are already deeply steeped in weirdness.

An end to static situations

Exactly how many static (read: unchanging) situations were featured in Part 1? Let’s see: there’s Prairie’s captivity in the past; the boys listening to her story in the present, and the gradual revelation of how horrible their home lives really are without any real change to them; and Prairie’s adoptive parents’ doubts about her sanity (and who can blame them, when she literally goes blank in every scene with them in it?). In fact, looking back, Part 1 seems to completely confuse “bit by bit revelation” with “plot.” Sorry, but no. Learning new information is exposition; goals, conflicts, decisions, and disasters that change the situations the characters are in (leading to new goals, etc.) is plot. In a book it would be much harder to disguise exposition as forward motion, but since actors were acting it out–wow! It kind of looked like plot. But when you compare it to the ever-changing situations in Part 2, the steady progress towards ultimate goals and confrontations, it’s easy to see the difference.

Of course, the devil’s advocate in my head is telling me that Part 2 could move so quickly only because of all the set-up and character development in Part 1. To which I say, yes, but it’s better to do them at the same time. Go watch Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Stranger Things, etc. to see how.

Learning to write lyrics

I began writing David with only my experience directing school plays, my lifelong passion for musical theater, some books on playwriting, and the lyrics of the hundreds of Broadway songs I carry around in my head. I couldn’t find a book on writing musical theater, and I began to think there weren’t any. So, woe was me. Who was going to explain the purpose of the 11 o’clock number? Who was going to teach me all the structural peculiarities I hadn’t heard of, and hadn’t deduced for myself? Recently, though, the algorithm gods smiled upon me, and turned up books purportedly about musical theater lyrics, but really about so much more.

Lessons from Gershwin

I read Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions first, because why not be chronological? I knew Gershwin’s lyrics had a different purpose than those of the musicals of today; he wrote in a time before lyrics were designed to move the plot forward at one specific theatrical moment. Take one of his most enduring songs: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” He may say tomato and she may say to-mah-to, but still the song ends with calling “the calling off off,” in other words, with the relationship between the characters exactly as it was before the song began. Gershwin was writing top hits, meant to be universal, even interchangeable, rather than specific. Throughout his book, he calculates the success of a song by referencing the number of copies sold (copies of the sheet music, of course), not by the success of the show. From Gershwin’s point of view, even the shows themselves seem rather interchangeable.

Yet I learned some very important basics from Ira Gershwin’s book. I knew, at least subconsciously, that lyrics should sound more like conversation than poetry, though it was gratifying to hear this discussed in detail and confirmed. However, Gershwin’s assertion that lyrics are not poetry, not even light verse, and his detailed explanation of how rhythm differs from meter, showed me that I have been committing one sin of light verse–blame all the poetry I had to read to earn my degree in English! What does this mean? Basically, by sticking to a regular meter, on and on, da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum / da-dum da-dum da-dum, or whatever, I’ve created verse that, if set to music, would drive a person crazy with its repetitive sound. I always knew my lyrics were just placeholders staking out the shape and purpose of the songs, but now I know why. Lyrics escape the predictability of verse because they are set to a line of music, and don’t need to create their own music with meter. Gershwin’s solution is to start with a line of music…which only increases the frustration I feel at my inability to find a composer to collaborate with.

On the brighter side, though–and I have to paraphrase broadly, because the book went back to the library and I can’t find the quotation on the internet–Gershwin says that his methods may make interesting reading because surely the decisions, mistakes, heartaches, headaches, and joy of writing lyrics are in essence the same as those in any creative endeavor. So why shouldn’t a SF/F writer write a musical?

Next time: Lessons from Sondheim

Note: If for any reason you actually wanted to read Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions, be prepared for a significant amount of sexism, as well as occasional flashes of racism, homophobia, etc. I could write a whole blog post fuming about Gershwin’s portrayal of women in his lyrics, but what’s the point? Most of the lyrics were written almost one hundred years ago, and Gershwin is long dead. So I’d rather just learn what I can from him.

The OA: Part 1

Though I didn’t find the first season of this Netflix show as compelling as, say, a great Syfy primetime creation such as Killjoys or Dark Matter, I was interested in a couple of the techniques the writers used to keep me watching (other than the pandemic).

First, the two stories–the lives of the present day listeners and the story of Prairie’s kidnapping and captivity–balance each other. Though many of Prairie’s fellow captives lacked character development, and are somewhat cookie-cutter in their shape and predictability, the present day group includes nuanced characters with many sides to them. In fact, what passes for plot in the present day story is basically the slow revelation of details about these characters’ lives. As you can imagine, this present day story is a bit lacking in urgency, so that is provided by the sensationalist plot of the past story. This kind of balancing is trickier than it looks, because it involves allowing both stories to be lacking on their own, yet complete together. It would’ve worked as intended for me if “OA”–,I won’t spoil it for you–had turned out to be an original concept and not some thing we’ve all heard of before. Now to the fun stuff.

The much more enjoyable tight rope act this show demonstrates actually has a name, used to describe the classical French literature that first made it famous: la fantastique. This genre is not synonymous with fantasy; instead, it is fiction that deliberately makes it impossible for the reader to tell what is real. There is always a supernatural explanation of events which is in someways easier to believe, and a realistic interpretation which involves more convoluted explanations. Often, as in The OA, the doubt springs from an unreliable narrator (so fun!). The realistic explanation is that Prairie is, and always has been, crazy; the supernatural explanation is…well, no spoilers.

Since there is a second season/part to this show, I have a feeling the writers are going to jump off the high wire, and the truth of the supernatural explanation will be confirmed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Of course, if you really want to play with an unreliable narrator, you should read Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. But you’ll have to start with the excellent Gideon the Ninth, or you won’t even know when to be suspicious of Harrow’s narration.

Narrow-Minded Alien Race Needed (+ Evolution)

For my MFA, I’m beginning an adult science fiction novel, working title Equilibrium, that takes place in a galaxy full of alien races. More on the novel later, I’m sure. But right now, what I’m thinking about is that I need one more set of aliens for a small appearance to promote a rigid viewpoint at a key moment. I already have:

— the greedy Vogul, desert-dwelling creatures in shells who survived by hoarding

— the clannish Gath, a prey species of the prairies who banded together to defend themselves from large predators

— the sophisticated Fanari, flying predators who evolved in a gas giant in symbiosis with a kind of floating plant

— the laid-back “Monkeys,” an arboreal species who communicate entirely through visual means (so humans gave them that silly knickname)

— the Servants of the Repository, dedicated to the collection of knowledge, a race of beings controlled by/in harmony with (depending on your point of view) a sentient library who can download and upload directly into their brains.

— wise and caring slug-like creatures who communicate chemically, as yet unnamed…

— The Family, a species-hopping group of diplomats whose original form is lost to history. They maintain their identities by recording and absorbing memories when transferring from one genetically engineered body to another.

— ??????? One more species to vote humanity ineligible to sign the The Treaty

The Evolution Part

You might have noticed that many of these thumbnail descriptions include a hint as to how the species evolved. I can’t help but think that different evolutionary paths would lead to different cultures–that’s the interesting part, the amazing variety of cultures the story allows for. Of course what I have here is a very simplified version, but I particularly felt I needed to mention how those species who aren’t predators like us rose to be the dominant, sentient races on their planets. (In fact, if I didn’t mention anything, you can assume the species evolved as predators). On our world, evolutionary pressures have made predators more intelligent than their prey, and I can’t forget that truth when I’m making up alien races. So if I want to race that’s going to think fundamentally differently than us because they’re not predators, I need a reason why they were able to flourish way back in their prehistory. And this in turn provides a point of inspiration, a starting place for me to imagine a whole society.

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