These are a few of my favorite...lyricists

edited July 2012 in Theater
Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter. HA, of course.


  • Sondheim, Fred Ebb, Sheldon Harnick, Frank Loesser. There are plenty of others, but those are my top four-- at least, today.

  • William Gilbert, Robert Sherman, Alan Jay Lerner, and of course Hammerstein II.

    I especially enjoyed the Sherman Brothers because they invented words that endeared me to their work. And finally, a little bit of advice from Dorothy Fields:

    "Sounds and rhyming can be beguiling only when they state exactly what you should say. Don't fall in love with what you believe is a clever rhyme – it can throw you. Think about what you want to say and then look for the most amusing or graceful way you can say it."
  • edited July 2012
    Stephen Sondheim (who seems almost sadistic in his writing's treatment of it's singers), Fred Ebb (who managed to turn the daughter of one of the greatest entertainers of all time into another one of the greatest entertainers of all time), Alan Jay Lerner, Hammerstein II, Anthony Drewe, and, of course, Howard.

    Also, I seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Sherman brothers; I seem to go through periods where I consider their songs a bit childish, but then I become obsessed with their works again.
  • Mikhail - Great Dorothy Fields quote.
  • I swear, not trying to suck up or anything, but the first place my mind went was Howard Ashman,

    But then it went to Lopez, Parker, and Stone, so I guess I'm not much of a musical fan. :(
  • I'm really glad Dorothy Fields is finally starting to get the praise she deserves. Maybe Sondheim's essay on her in his book started people jumping on the bandwagon, but I always liked her work before that. What other sixty-something year old lady could start a song, "Man, man, oh man..." and make it sound as fresh and hip as a twenty-something like she did in SWEET CHARITY other than Fields?

    I'd also like to mention, other than Fields and the first four I mentioned, Carolyn Leigh, and among the younger lyricists, Lynn Ahrens, Michael Korie and Adam Guettel. All excellent.

    The Sherman Brothers strike me as peculiar: The whole "making up words" thing worked well in POPPINS, but by the time they got to "Substitutiary Locomotion" in BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, I felt they were repeating themselves. Some good work from them, though, especially in MARY POPPNS. (Sometimes I wish they'd use their rhyming dictionary though-- a few false ones in their songs, not in POPPINS though.)
  • I've found that I have very little knowledge about musical theatre and the likes, so in that sense I can't name many lyricists (in other music forms, however...), but I do love Sondheim.

    And I The Sherman Brothers, too. Just by seeing their last name I got "it's a small world" stuck in my head....... Then again, I have a soft spot for almost all the lyricists who's contributed to the Disney canon. Howard more than any, though.
  • edited July 2012
    Besides lyricists who wrote for Disney, I really love Jim Steinman's lyrics, they're powerful, emotional, dramatic and over-the-top, which to me, is what makes them so great :) His music is beautiful and stunning, but I enjoy reading his lyrics even without the music. I was happy to see that he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year!
  • The Sherman brothers have written some of the most infectious theme park tunes... "One Little Spark" is my personal favorite! And of course there's their movie scores. If you can't sing a song from Mary Poppins, then I have no words for you.

    And Omega, I could hug you. It may just be because I'm a snot-nosed kid, but Parker and Stone's lyrics never fail to have me both laughing and crying. Have you listened to anything from "Cannibal: the Musical?" Trey wrote the whole thing while still in college! He has a serious amount of respect for the traditional American musical; in that respect he and Howard are very similar.
  • I heard them interviewed (Parker and Stone) and was also taken with their respect for musical theater and for their audience and subjects (Mormons included) and in the interview, they did remind me of Howard. I have to admit I don't think that respect comes out all that well in their work, though. And I don't think they spend enough time on their wordsmithing. That may just be a function of my age, though.
  • I must agree with you, Sarah. The ideas for songs in BOOK OF MORMON (the "Turn it Off" number, for example) really struck me as terrific, but the craft was missing. I'm surprised, because their co-writer, Bobby Lopez, showed enormous respect for craft in AVENUE Q.

    It's okay to have a false rhyme in a pop song, as far as I'm concerned, simply because you can listen to the song or album again and "get it" a second or third time. But the true rhymes in a theater song guide the ear along and make points. (And they're fun too!) I wouldn't want to use false rhymes in pop songs, but there IS a distinct difference between pop and theater songs...at least today.

    Because so many current theater songwriters grew up with Billy Joel and Elton John records, not just the cast albums of COMPANY, MY FAIR LADY and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, they don't really know the difference. I grew up with those two singer-songwriters too, but MY FAIR LADY got more CD-player time than "Captain Jack" or "Piano Man", as good as those songs are.
  • edited July 2012
    Well, it's understandable to me why Trey and Matt didn't put in as much effort into their songs than Howard, Sondheim, Ebb, and some others did/do. Because of South Park, their instinct is to make their writing as efficient as possible while, at the same time, putting as little effort into it as they can.

    If you go on Netflix and watch "6 Days Till Air: The Making of South Park", you'll see that, as the title implies, they produce an entire episode, from the first draft of the script to the final airdate, in six days. So, that means that they don't have time to over-think the script, a fact that Trey loves. He thinks that if he had more time to over-think everything, the show would be of lesser quality.

    Now, I'm not saying they rushed the writing of the songs at all, but I don't think they went over everything with a fine-toothed come a hundred times like Howard did. They make sure the lyrics they write work and are funny, make sure it isn't too long and doesn't take up too much space, see if there's anything they absolutely need to change, and then lock it in, unlike Sondheim, who changes lyrics to this day.

    Also, I forgot to mention Mel Brooks in my list. The Producers and (in my opinion the underrated) Young Frankenstein, not to mention songs like "Hope For the Best (Expect the Worst)" and "The Inquisition" are just so wonderful.
  • I have seen 6 Days, and I thought it was fascinating! But I agree with you when it comes to the lyrics. They may not necessarily be rushed, and they do indeed "work," but they do have sort of a rough edge to them. It may be their weakest area, in my opinion.

    Mel Brooks is one of my favorites, especially after seeing Young Frankenstein this year. Talk about catchy...
  • I think the South Park movie, as well as some of the songs in Book of Mormon, really show off Trey Parker's music and lyrical skills. I wouldn't list them in my favorites.

    My number one favorite lyricist has always basically been a tie between Sondheim and Howard Ashman. I grew up with my parents listening to (and performing in community theater productions of) Sondheim shows, and then I discovered Howard's work in early middle school and FELL IN LOVE. :) I can't really say I prefer one over the other; they're also sufficiently different that I tend to like different things about them. My favorite thing is that they are both so CLEVER. My favorite thing is clever lyrics.

    I've been trying to find any lyricists who come close in quality to Howard in particular, so I love this thread. I'm honestly not super-familiar with a lot of the other lyricists mentioned...I'll have to remedy that!!

    Who was Howard's favorite lyricist?
  • edited July 2012
    This is turning into a great and thoughtful thread.

    Andi - I don't know if Howard had one favorite lyricist but, other than Mr. S and the others mentioned, check out Frank Loesser (Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls).

    John, thank you for bringing up craft. That's the word I was looking for.

    I understand the deadlines of animation (really I do). We all have deadlines, and sometimes we don't put out our best work. But to my mind, craft is craft and coasting is never okay.
  • As much as I really like Howard, some others I like as well are Sondheim--not all of his stuff, but a good number--Danny Elfman, Mel Brooks.

    Teenagefan and Justin, I agree with you whole heartedly. His stuff is very remaniscent of the 40's and 50's style of music. When I hear a song from The Producers, it seems like he's paying a sort of respect for people such as King of Broadway, or That Face, I think of someone like Cole Porter, or Irving Berlin, and a hint of Fred Astair (hopefully I spelled that right) would dance to in Singin' In The Rain.

    Danny Elfman has a sort of playful creepiness to his stuff: with the rock band side of Oingo Boingo, it somehow has a good ballance between the melancholy and playfullness. The playfullness are songs like Dead Man's Party, No One Lives Forever, and even some playful songs that have something of an ironic sense to them like Little Girls, Only A Lad, and When the Lights Go Out. Other times he brings in the saddning and somewhat slightly creepy mood to his work such as Insanity and Mary. Though when it comes to his solo career, the best thing he's done is Nightmare Before Christmas, since it's the best example of him doing a full fledged musical.

    I also enjoy a little bit of Tim Rice here and there, though is it just me or does it seem like a lot of his songs--I don't know how to love him, Don't cry for me Argentena, Circle of Life, Can You Feel The Love Tonight, One Night in Bangkok--are written as one hit wonders? Well, in any case, at least he's someone Elton John can go to when he's not working with Bernie Tampon.

    And of course Howard Ashman is a big influence on me, but here's something that I've been wanting to ask for a while: in an interview he did--I can't remember what it was for-Alan Menken said that Glen Slater, his most recent colaberater, is the closest person to remind him of working with Howard. For me, while he does have a couple of good songs behind his belt I don't think he's as good as Howard, since a lot of his songs just seem to be bland. But what do you all think? Is he the closest person to having Howard's spirit?
  • I know exactly what you're talking about; he said it in the first part of his two part Theater Talk interview for "Sister Act" and about his career. And, when he said that, I don't think he meant that Glen's as good as Howard. He was just saying that Glen is the closest to Howard because they both love getting lost in a specific style of music.
  • Howard, like all good lyricists, had his own voice. In terms of someone who has the technical skill of Howard and pays attention to craft like he did, Jack Feldman (NEWSIES) comes closest. "Watch What Happens" is a dazzling lyric. I also think Stephen Schwartz's work on HUNCHBACK is quite wonderful, and the blend of music AND lyrics in the "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" sequence is marvelous. Alan pastiches TOSCA better than Andrew Lloyd Webber steals from it!

    Re: Mel Brooks-- Certainly he's a comedy legend and a really funny guy, but I'd hardly cite him as a great lyricist and certainly not a great composer. (That's not because he doesn't read or write music-- neither does Jerry Herman!) THE PRODUCERS is a really funny show, and I never cease laughing at Gary Beach's Judy-homage in "Springtime for Hitler", but does it rank with ...FORUM, or HOW TO SUCCEED..., or LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS for that matter as a really great musical comedy?

    I think David Yazbek of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and the recent WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN is a far superior comic lyricist. And he proved a very fine dramatic lyricist with some of the more dramatic moments in WOMEN... . (The show, sadly, was a mess, but the score was great!)

    Regarding SOUTH PARK: It's fine, I think, when you need to write a really funny song for a cartoon series within a week's time, to write a lousy lyric, despite some great jokes. But I think it's somewhat...lazy?...to spend three years working on a musical, with all the workshops, readings and developmental productions, etc., and have a false rhyme. ESPECIALLY in a musical comedy.
  • edited July 2012
    I just realized I have to plug another one of my favorites. :)

    My dad writes music, and a while back he and one of his best friends who is a super-talented lyricist wrote a musical called Boomers. I just found one song, one of their best from the show, on YouTube.

    When I was growing up they wrote 4 or 5 little hourlong or so childrens' musicals for the mid-Michigan Opera in the Schools program, and I think they are kind of brilliant. Their collaboration honestly always reminded me of Alan and Howard, both in style and in how well they worked together. Dick writes fantastic lyrics - it's too bad he's not famous! (And I love my dad's music, but that's not really what this thread was about...) ;)
  • Just remembered - I have the Boomers CD and I've got permission to share it online. :)

    Please don't post the songs on YouTube or anything, though - I don't know if I have permission to share it that widely.


    Boomers was written in the late '90s, and it's a musical basically about the Baby Boomer generation (but don't let this scare you off if you're younger than that, LOL!) My dad and Dick asked a bunch of people about their experiences and wrote a musical using their stories as inspiration. Some of the songs are funny, some are really sad. The musical doesn't so much have a plot, per se, but each song is basically a vignette. There are monologues that go with each song (you can hear an example on the YouTube link above), but the monologues are not on the CD (unfortunately, in my opinion).

    The recording is basically a demo. The singers are my mother Emily Clark (then English), my dad Jeff English, Dick Hill (the lyricist), and his wife Susie. My dad is the tenor, my mom mostly sings soprano, Dick is the bass, and Susie is mostly the alto. I don't think the songs are labeled with who sings them.

    If any of you out there listen to this and want to get the sheet music or produce the show, let me know and I can pass along the request to my dad and Dick. I don't know who technically owns the rights at this point (I think Dick is mostly in control of them), but it would be easy enough to find out, especially if someone was interested in the show.

    Hope this isn't an inappropriate post or anything, but I think some of these songs rank up with other great composers, so I figure it's fair to share. Hope you all enjoy! :)

    (Sarah, if you like this show, and want to pass a copy along to Alan Menken...I would LOVE to tell my dad and Dick that he'd heard their show!!!) ;)
  • Well, since we're all talking about favorite lyricists, I just had to ask something:

    Sarah, did Howard have any favorite lyricists? Or did he ever say which lyricists he drew his inspiration/influence from?
  • I don't know about people he drew inspiration from - inspirations comes many ways. But a short list of lyricists would include: Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields...all for different reasons - not necessarily their way with a rhyme. ANd this is a really short list - Howard's enthusiasms were many (also Bruce Springsteen, just to keep you on your toes - but that was the whole rock and roll romanticism thing).
  • @John_Verderber I may be biased, since it's one of my favorite musicals, but I truly do think that The Producers will hold up as one of the great musical comedies. For one, it was a love-letter to every musical comedy, and Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, and Susan Stroman worked tirelessly to transform a beloved, if a bit overrated, comedy film into a musical comedy, taking out and completely changing things about it that would make the film's fans angry. (And, if you look up reviews of the musical's albums and film, they despise it!) They scrutinized every single aspect and line until it was completely trimmed from all it's fat. (Right after the Chicago previews got reviews so glowing that they glowed in the dark, they cut so much stuff that Nathan Lane exclaimed "For god sake, what would you have done if we got bad reviews?!") There is absolutely nothing in that show that doesn't work; everything is funny and works toward either setting up a character or moving the story forward. The plot is simple and straight-forward, and the characters are written flawlessly.

    Secondly, the songs are simply great. I currently have 28 albums and recordings of musicals on my iPhone, including 4 for Little Shop and 3 of Phantom of the Opera, and yet, I find myself listening to The Producers OCA and soundtrack the most. They are simple, brilliantly written, meaningful, funny (the line "Our leading man was so gay, he nearly flew away!" gets me every-time), and there is not a single song that's out of place or unnecessary. Yes, Mel Brooks isn't a songwriter, but neither was Howard! They're both simply writers who can't write music. The only difference is that Mel hums the tunes to his songs into a tape recorder and works it out with someone who can read/write music. (On the same note, I have a feeling that, though he is truly great in his own right, Howard used Alan to channel and put down what he wanted.)

    Thirdly, like most truly great musical comedies, it got a film adaptation that was only pretty good at best.

    And finally, it's simple and easy enough to allow it to be performed to generations to come. The songs are great, the script is swell, and the only thing performance wise to worry about is the comedic timing and the bond between Max and Leo.

    I think, as time goes on, it'll be considered one of the greats, along with How to Succeed and Little Shop.
  • Justin, I must disagree with you on on point, though respectfully--

    "Yes, Mel Brooks isn't a songwriter, but neither was Howard! They're both simply writers who can't write music."

    Howard WAS a songwriter. He COLLABORATED. He wrote lyrics with the brilliant Alan Menken as composer. That's songwriting too, you know. And that's what's missing in theater songwriting. Here comes the soapbox speech.

    As much as I love Steve Sondheim, and as much as the work and the man have affected my career personally through his work and kind advice, his HUGE---GIGANTICO (made up word, there)--influence, made the writers following him want to "do it all" alone. Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, William Finn, you name it-- all great, but all without collaborators. And perhaps because as a one time composer-lyricist, full time lyricist (I gave up the notes, kept the words), I realize how important collaboration is, and how people ought concentrate on one craft rather than emulating Sondheim.

    There are two young guys-- Pasek and Paul-- who have recently written A CHRISTMAS STORY and DOGFIGHT (both scores available on CD from Sony and Sh-K-Boom respectively), and I urge you all to check their work out. They're just starting out (to great success ), and they know collaboration is important, and it shows. I think "going it alone" is difficult, and few can match the brilliance of a Sondheim, or Cole Porter, or Frank Loesser. (Today, I only think Adam Guettel can, honestly-- no offense to the others.)

    So words of advice from someone who probably shouldn't be giving advice-- COLLABORATE!
  • edited January 2014
    I'm really fond of the lyrics for the recent musical version of Roald Dahl's Matilda. I admit that the lyricist, Tim Minchin, may have crammed too many words into certain songs, especially since the show has a child cast, but just look at the lyrics for this one (skip to 0:45):

    That he was able to hide the alphabet in the lyrics while the lyrics still made sense within the context of the show without forcing it is *impressive*. I'm just sad that this soundtrack has been so ignored by American award shows, because both the Tonys and the Grammys gave the award for best musical theater score to Kinky Boots by Cyndi Lauper. Not to say her lyrics for that show are bad, but I just admire the cleverness inherent in the lyrics for Matilda, much as I've always admired the cleverness in Howard Ashman's work, even when aimed towards children.

    I've also been recently impressed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez's (wife and collaborator to Bobby Lopez, mentioned above) lyrics for Disney's Frozen, particularly in "Let it Go"'s bridge:

    My power flurries through the air into the ground,
    My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around,
    And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast:
    I'm never going back, the past is in the past.

    I mean "fractals." Nobody uses that word, but it works so beautifully here, especially sung by Broadway legend Idina Menzel.
  • Totally agree about Matilda. I was just sorry that at the show itself, I couldn't catch any of the lyrics. I was wowed by the show but had to go home to hear what they were singing.
  • Yeah, the sound mixing at Matilda was so bad that even critics wrote about it in their reviews. I probably would have appreciated the score in the theater more had the sound design been better. It was, at least, visually quite striking.
  • @astraea802 I do have some problems with Frozen as a whole, but the score is excellent. I -- like pretty much everyone else -- am totally in love with "Let it Go" (I have about two fan-versions, "Here I Go (Despair of an Alto)" and Caleb Hyles' male version, on my iPod) and I'm irked that "Love Is An Open Door" didn't get an Oscar nomination. And it was a great idea to not have the love song in the movie be a sweet, sentimental ballad like "So This is Love" or "A Whole New World" but have it be an upbeat, fun quirky "Oh my god you're so awesome!" song.

    I have to say, I'm really starting to get into Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's work. I found Hairspray first, and it was the first time since Little Shop that I was 100% engrossed and totally into a movie from the very first frame. I listen to more songs than others, but I have no problem listening to any of the with any songs should they turn up on shuffle. I haven't fully listened to Catch Me if You Can or their songs for Smash yet, but I'm in love with what I have heard. ("Goodbye" may be my favorite eleven o'clock number ever.) However, I'm not 100% into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. About half of the songs I'm into, like all of Wonka's, Charlie's, Augustus', and Verunca's song, and all the others I'm either neutral about or I don't like, but I feel like it has more to do with the fact that I can't see how it's done onstage and I just have the recording.
  • edited November 2014
    My favorite lyricists? Hmmmm, that's rather a toughie. Personally, Howard Ashman himself ranks pretty high up in my book, in addition to Tim Rice and Stephen Schwartz*. Oh, and let's not forget Robert Sherman, Glenn Slater and David Zippel.

    *Stephen Schwartz is also a composer, I should add.
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