Question from a struggling lyricist: In an ASCAP workshop I recently attended conducted by
Stephen Schwartz, there was mention of 'struggling to make the rhymes work.' They gave examples
where it was obvious the song didn't click because of awkward sentence structure and poor
phrasing to create the rhymes. Is it best to outline the song in prose first giving structure to
the piece before fitting in the 'real' lyrics?
Monday, 26 November 2001
Complicated question. First of all, I feel very strongly that in musical theatre legitimate
rhymes are imperative, which is to say "dark" does not rhyme with "heart." In pop lyrics, there
is a lot of easy, reckless rhyming which actually works just fine in that world because the
effect there is meant to be casual, intimate. In the theatre, it's a bit like being a ballet
dancer. You want to present virtuoso moves or rhymes and not flounder around with
approximations. So that's my first rule of thumb. If I can't make a legitimate rhyme, I
discard it and go for a different rhyme.
Secondly, Stephen Schwartz was very smart in showing you guys examples of phrases where the
attempt to rhyme just created an awkward mess. My basic philosophy is: if the rhyme does not
work naturally and effectively for the song, do not rhyme. Often in a ballad I will use the bare
minimum of rhyming so that I know I have the freedom to say what needs to be said emotionally. I
actually think that with an emotional song, it's not a bad idea at all to first write out in
prose what it is you want to say. Often just the process of doing this will provide you with
your title or your key phrase when you go back and read it over. The worst thing you can do
with a ballad is to start with clever rhymes and then try to make an emotion fit into that
structure. It just doesn't work.
In essence, always make rhyme secondary to what the message of the song is and never rhyme
unless it's a good, legitimate rhyme.