Sondheim once wrote, “Many lyrics suffer from being much too packed,“ making the point that excessively dense lyrics fundamentally interfere with clarity and thus kneecap one of the main functions (I might even go so far as to argue the main function) of those lyrics – to convey events and ideas clearly and elegantly. And the moment I read that, the example that sprang most readily into my head was the musical adaptation of Matilda.
I would like to highlight the contrast between two numbers in this show. The first is “Miracle,“ which apart from anything else has the misfortune of being the opening number. Maybe it was the pressure that positioning implies that drove composer/lyricist Tim Minchin to pack his words and rhymes so densely that they lose virtually all impact. It hardly helps that the lyrics occasionally let themselves down even on their own terms, as with the infamous miracle/umbilical non-rhyme that gets repeated enough times for it to stop being funny (i.e. more than none).
A big part of the problem is that the number is not just too densely packed with word and rhymes, it is too densely packed with responsibility. The song has to establish the situation and setting, introduce a set of characters, and get the audience invested in the story. On top of that, Minchin somehow decides the time is right for some slightly limp social satire, so throw that on the pile as well. It is possible to imagine this being done passably well if properly paced and staggered, but the result is a mess. The song takes far too long to settle precisely what it hopes to achieve with its allotted time, and I can easily imagine a large part of the audience losing interest in that time. This is, after all, the opening number. The opening number is crucial, we all know this. So “Miracle“ is a bit of a wash, but there are also parts of the show that I quite like, and they are perhaps best summed-up in the song “Naughty“…
Alright, after the trying-too-hard intro, the song gives itself basically one job – to establish the character of Matilda and her operating philosophy. The lyrics are still quite wordy, but the superfluous rhymes have been cut down, and – more importantly – the aim of the song has been streamlined into something more easily manageable. Consider the long pauses between “That‘s not right…and if it‘s not right…you‘ve got to put it right.“ The lyric does not dumb itself down in the least, it simply recognizes that it has a dramatic function within the story, and that in order to fulfill that function it must meet its audience halfway. In short, it is not “much too packed.“ Well done.