I posit that lyrics (that is to say, good lyrics) tend to fall somewhere between two polar ends: clever and telling. Clever lyrics can be found in their purest form in the work of lyricists like Noel Coward and W.S. Gilbert. No plumbing of emotional depths is even attempted in such lyrics, for they are dazzling feats of wordplay that tend to be sung either by the lyricist himself (as in Coward’s case) or by characters acting as a surrogate for the lyricist (as in much of Gilbert’s work). Simply put, the lyricist becomes the star.

            Telling lyrics belong in a different class entirely. Paying little attention to verbal aesthetics, they seek to express the pure emotions of a character without any reference to the lyricist. This category can be subdivided into two types of telling lyrics, the elegantly simple (as in the work of Oscar Hammerstein) and the irritatingly self-absorbed (as in Steven Sater’s work on Spring Awakening).
           Lyricists who can move comfortably between the two are the best off of anybody, but even their examples can prove all-too-instructive. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics almost invariably combine dramatic emotion with marked intelligence and wit. Being very clever, he also excels at writing purely witty and sparklingly fun lyrics, like the cut version of “We’re Gonna Be Alright” from Do I Hear A Waltz?.
Unfortunately, such irrepressible intelligence does not lend itself to writing purely telling lyrics, as the musical Passion demonstrated. It is a show with some truly admirable moments, and it is certainly possessed of one of the most musically beautiful scores that Sondheim ever wrote, but you need look no further than the song “Loving You” to find the kind of awkwardly maudlin statements that unfortunately define the show. From the opening salvo of “Loving you is not a choice/it’s who I am,” you know what you’re in for and only Donna Murphy’s sublime performance as Fosca can elevate the material.
This example should serve not to denigrate telling lyrics; Sondheim’s failure in the area is not a consequence of any deficiency in the form, but rather in the fact that Sondheim never had the same faculty for simplistic lyrical beauty that was always apparent in the work of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim is a lyricist with an unparalleled felicity of expression, but that expression is a function of his intelligence. Take away the intelligence, and not much is left.
            However, telling lyrics can have extraordinary power. Tim Rice, like him or not, is one of the most versatile and workmanlike lyricists alive, just at home in the world of rock-and-roll as he is in Argentina or Jerusalem. His lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar find him at his most unabashedly emotional. Fortunately, Rice has a talent for the simple but powerful sentiments that define the best lyrics of the telling variety, and it is with this example that I leave you for today.

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