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Can You Say “Sempre Molto Rubato”? By Peter Filichia

Although directors aren’t supposed to give line readings to actors, composers and lyricists seem to be allowed to “direct” their singers and orchestras.

Take a look at sheet music for various songs, and far more often than not, you’ll find a word or two at the top of Page One that says exactly what’s expected of those who’ve chosen to perform these ditties.

Most of the sheets I surveyed had “moderately” written all over them. PINS AND NEEDLES (which you must hear – and not just for Streisand) has that word on the vast majority of its songs.

GREASE’S “Summer Nights,” THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’s “Forget About the Boy” and ‘PROMISES, PROMISES’ “Half as Big as Life” all use the term, too. But “moderately” for the HAIR’s “The Flesh Failures” and the title song of ALL SHOOK UP? Wouldn’t you assume that those songs would ask for more than that? And “moderately” for ‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ “Luck Be a Lady” and for GYPSY’S “Rose’s Turn”? Out of the question!

Onto “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl” from MOVIN’ OUT. Which would you think Billy Joel marked “moderate rock ‘n’ roll” and which “bright rock ‘n’ roll”? I’d think “Longest” would be moderate and “Uptown” bright, but it’s just the opposite.

Some songwriters embellish their “moderatelys.” SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS’ beautiful “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” is “moderately flowing”; SHOW BOAT’s “You are Love” is “moderately fast” and MARIE CHRISTINE’s “Cincinnati” is a “moderate cakewalk.” Leaving no room for doubt is STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW’s “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Life”: “moderately with suppressed excitement.”

Other songwriters preferred the Italian word “moderato”: Oscar Hammerstein labeled ME AND JULIET’S “The Big Black Giant” as such but THE KING AND I’s “Shall We Dance?” as “moderato brightly.” Other variations on the theme include PURLIE’s stirring opening number “First Thing Monday Morning” (“moderato intense”) and ON YOUR FEET’S “Mi Tierra” (“moderate salsa”). RAGS’ “Blame It on the Summer Night” – one of the subtlest sexual songs ever – is “moderate bluesy.”

All this moderation would seem to bolster the arguments of those who’ve always said that musicals are middle-of-the-road entertainment.

Italian is used quite a bit. THE PIRATE QUEEN’S “She Who Has All” is “adagio”: slowly. URINETOWN’s “It’s a Privilege to Pee” is “agitato.” Penelope Pennywise may well be agitated, but she’s not nearly as agitato as those waiting in a long line to relieve themselves.

What song from SWEET CHARITY is tabbed “rhythmically”? No, you’re wrong: “The Rhythm of Life” has that designation of –here’s that word again – “moderately.” It’s “Where Am I Going?” that’s labeled “rhythmically.”

There are some notations that lend themselves to editorial comment. TICK, TICK … BOOM’s “Real Life” calls for “a slow pulse.” Yeah, real life is like that sometimes. Did Bernstein, Comden and Green purposely label ON THE TOWN’S “I Can Cook Too” “hot and fast” because it’s a good description of Hildy Esterhazy, who sings it?

In that musical about Jesus Christ, “Superstar” is labeled “maestoso”: majestic. Little did Lloyd Webber know then that the word would also be the name of the theater where he’d have his biggest-ever hit.

Some describe their songs by the dances they inspired. BYE BYE BIRDIE’s title song requires “a twist beat.” WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN’s “You’re No Good” asks for “beguine tempo.” ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S “Veronique” demands “French can can,” while MY FAIR LADY’s goes farther south with its “tempo di habanera” for “The Rain in Spain” as does MAN OF LA MANCHA’s “tempo di bolero” for “The Impossible Dream.” THE PAJAMA GAME’s “Hernando’s Hideaway” doesn’t just note “tango tempo” but also adds “with a voice of mystery.”

It’s “Fox trot tempo” that Cole Porter heard for “All of You” in his SILK STOCKINGS. But it’s also what Kurt Weill stated for “Army Song” in THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Could you see yourself cutting a rug to this song? (If you don’t know it, you should; it’s grimly funny.)

Many uses “polka” in their descriptions. For HIGH BUTTON SHOES’ “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” is correct, for that’s the dance that takes place mid-song. Less easy to discern are FANNY’s “Be Kind to Your Parents” (“rhythmically, like a polka”), JACQUES BREL’S “Marathon” (“tempo di polka”) and WILDCAT’S “Give a Little Whistle” (“polka tempo”).

Jerry Herman labeled MAME’s “We Need a Little Christmas” “brightly, as a polka.” As for his title songs, we might well expect to see “with spirit” for MILK AND HONEY’S and “with a lilt” for MAME’s. We may question “moderately” for “La Cage aux Folles” and “medium strut” for “Hello, Dolly!”– a bit tame for one of Broadway’s greatest production numbers. But would you have guessed that “Dear World” would be tabbed “with dignity”?

Celebrities often say they really knew they made it when they became a crossword puzzle clue. Fine, but another way is being mentioned in sheet music. GODSPELL’S “Turn Back, O Man” is “a la Mae West.” KINKY BOOTS’ “Take What You Got” is called “Mumford-esque,” referring to British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons. THE WEDDING SINGER’S “A Note from Linda” loftily notes “a la Pachelbel’s Canon.”

And then there’s THE PROM’s “It’s Not about Me,” which starts off “recitative, a la Eva Peron.” But if we get technical, what’s meant is Lloyd Webber and Rice’s Evita, and not actually the former First Lady of Argentina.

Some titles belong in the Department of Redundancy Department. ONCE’s “Falling Slowly” is marked “Slowly.” HOW TO SUCCEED’S “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” offers “happily,” although it does also caution “but not too fast.”

The longest description? Probably LITTLE ME’s “On the Other Side of the Tracks” which has “Deliberate tempo, intense and driving (not too fast and done with a gradual build).”

The shortest? Many have no notation at all. Richard O’Brien did few for THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, probably assuming his songs would speak for themselves. And if you were looking forward to seeing how Mel Brooks described “Springtime for Hitler,” you’ll find no notation at all, which is the case for most of his songs in THE PRODUCERS. However, “Betrayed” is labeled “freely,” which is rather ironic, given that Max sings it in prison. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’S “Ti Moune,” sung by our heroine’s foster parents, also is labeled “freely” although both mom and dad don’t want her to be free.

What are Stephen Sondheim’s labels? We have COMPANY’s “Marry Me a Little” (“allegro appassionata”: fast, with passion); FOLLIES’ “Losing My Mind” (“sempre molto rubato”: always very much with some feeling of time); A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’s “Send in the Clowns” (“lento”: slowly); PACIFIC OVERTURES’ “Pretty Lady” (“andantino dolce”: slightly slowly but sweetly); SWEENEY TODD’S “My Friends” (“misterioso”); MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG’s “Our Time” (“andante”: on the slow side); SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’S “Move On” (“tranquillo”); INTO THE WOODS’ “On the Steps of the Palace” (“allegretto e grazioto”: moderately quick as well as pretty); ASSASSINS’ “The Ballad of Booth” (“larghetto”: slightly faster than largo but slower than adagio).

For a guy who doesn’t much like the musical he wrote that was set in Venice, Sondheim sure uses a lot of Italian. What’s more, he marked “Agony” in INTO THE WOODS as “a la barcarolle,” which roughly translates to “in the way gondoliers sing.” And considering his battles with Richard Rodgers, you’d think he’d even avoid “allegro.”

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at He can be heard most weeks of the year on