By Peter Filichia
“There are words to which I lift my hat,” says Emily Dickinson -- well, at least the Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s one-woman play The Belle of Amherst. It’s now being wonderfully played by Joely Richardson at the Westside Upstairs Theatre.
Richardson beautifully conveys Dickinson’s joy when citing such atypical words as circumference and phosphorescence. She says each as if it’s a Godiva chocolate lolling around her tongue. The actress certainly makes us see Dickinson’s point – that such words do look more interesting on a page and sound more delightful to the ear than June, moon or spoon.
Those three words are often used together to represent the ultimate cliché in songwriting. But they don’t preclude Broadway musicals from having plenty of atypical words that have spiced up songs. As proof, I tip my hat to these words, submitted in alphabetical order:
Listen to the playlist of the songs here while you read along …
Absobloominlutely (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” – My Fair Lady): For the record, when a word (such as blooming) is inserted in the middle of another word (such as absolutely), it’s called an “infix.” Another example can be found in “Abie Baby” in Hair — Emancimothafuckinpator – but somehow I don’t see that as a word to which either I or Emily Dickinson would lift our hats. And while Alan Jay Lerner wasn’t the first to use Absobloominlutely – it was long a British mainstay before he had Eliza Doolittle sing it — I daresay he was the first to employ our next hat-doffer:
Beelzebubble (“The Seven Deadly Virtues” – Camelot): Mordred may have literally been a bastard, but his low birth didn’t exempt him from inheriting a way with words from his lofty daddy, one King Arthur. Although writing a song for a villain is perilously hard, for figurative bastards aren’t inherently musical, Lerner managed to do it magnificently here. (And because villains aren’t prone to song, Lerner was smart to limit this ditty to one minute and twenty-six seconds.)
Brummelly (“You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” -- Annie): George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840) became an idiom as England’s ultimate fashion plate from his taking five hours a day to dress properly. Many of us first came to know his name through a Stephen Sondheim lyric in Gypsy(“Said this bum’ll be Beau Brummell), but many more came on board when Martin Charnin turned the dandy’s name into an adjective (“Your clothes may be Beau Brummelly”). However, in the soon-to-be-released new Annie film that’s been updated to the present, Brummell’s name has been unceremoniously dropped from the song. He’ll nevertheless live forever on the original cast album.
Danubey (“Do I Hear a Waltz?” – Do I Hear a Waltz?): This occurs in the felicitous lyric “Such lovely Blue Danubey music; how can you be still?” It’s not only a fine example of Sondheim’s immense talent at wordplay, but it also once again shows Richard Rodgers’ skill in creating a melody for three-quarter time. This is definitely one of musical theater’s most underrated title songs.
Gommorrah-ble (“Thoroughly Modern Millie” – Thoroughly Modern Millie): Granted, the title song of this musical is a second-hand show tune, for it had originated in the 1967 film, which spurred a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Sammy Cahn wasn’t always that flashy a lyricist, but he rose to the occasion here with comparing the then-younger generation (“What we think is chic, unique and quite adorable”) to the older one (“They think is odd and “Sodom and Gomorrah”-ble”).
Mal-de-merable (“The Contract” – Gigi): Lerner again, in his last great lyric, as Gigi’s Aunt Alicia (Agnes Moorehead) represents her (Karin Wolfe) while dealing with Honore (Alfred Drake), who’s negotiating for Gaston (Daniel Massey) to make Gigi his mistress. Horrified at the bantering, bickering and bartering is Gigi’s Mamita (Maria Karnilova), who uses this five-hundred franc word to express how aghast she is.
Micier (“They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore” – How Now, Dow Jones): Are guys who work in New York’s financial district men or mice? Carolyn Leigh, to a swinging waltz by Elmer Bernstein, had her leading ladies complain that “Wall Street are where men are men – but they’re micier.” Of course, there are those who would call them rats, but that’s another story.
Rhodadandy (“Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here!” – On a Clear Day You Can See Forever): Lerner yet again, in the most charming of charm songs. Daisy Gamble confides that she talks to her flowers and that they respond – well, absobloominglutely. The fetching list song includes the rhododend, as Daisy chummily calls the rhododendron.
Rockerfellative (“When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” – Finian’s Rainbow): You didn’t think that you’d get through a list such as this without a reference to E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, did you? Few lyricists could legitimately be called unique, but Harburg can. Who was better at massaging words to make more interesting ones, such as unbatched (“Pretty to Walk With” – Jamaica) and succotashed (“Panache” – Darling of the Day). Here he envisioned a day “when everyone’s poor relative becomes a Rockerfellative.” It’s not only a nice word, but it’s a nice thought — to which I say “Yip, the sooner, the better.”
Sondheimlich (“Paula? [An Improvised Love Song]” – The Goodbye Girl): Here’s Martin Short playing journeyman actor Elliot Garfield, who’s become enamored of his roommate, dancer Paula McFadden. Now they’re on an official date, and because they both have a Broadway affinity, Elliot will unabashedly sing to her. “And if my lyrics make you gag, I’ll apply the Sondheimlich maneuver.” What a nice maneuver from lyricist David Zippel, no?
Tin-Pan-tithesis (“It’s Delovely” – now in Anything Goes, but originally in Red, Hot and Blue!): Let’s not forget Cole Porter, who often played with words, too: Shuberty, swellegant and even Essel when referring to Ms. Merman in Out of This World. Granted, he coined all those to make perfect rhymes, respectively for puberty, elegant and nestle. But here he didn’t need a rhyme and put this enticing portmanteau (as blended words are called) in the middle of the lyric “This verse I’ve started seems to me the tin pan-tithesis of melody.” Porter was referring to West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues; that was Tin Pan Alley. Those with tin ears were not welcome, for in the early twentieth century, here’s where pop composers wrote songs and tried to sell them.
Way-way-upness (“Make Way” – The Apple Tree): In writing for the subjects in King Arik’s domain, Sheldon Harnick put his tongue in his cheek to casually mock such terms as “Your Highness,” “Your Royal Highness” and “Your Serene Highness” – although, frankly, when we speak of Harnick and all the other lyricists cited here, we should use at least one of these honorifics to pay homage to their immense talents.
(And we should lift our hats while we say it.)