Top-Ten Lyrics that Perfectly Capture the Moment and Character
As I was writing my piece on Falsettos earlier this week, I was thinking about how William Finn captured so much in the lyric "Keeping up my head as my heart falls out of sight" in the terrific "Holding to the Ground." It got me thinking about what lyrics stopped me in my tracks with their efficiency and complexity in summing up a character in just a few short words. This week, for my "Top-Ten List," I have decided to explore that theme a little further: The Top-Ten Lyrics that Perfectly Capture the Moment and Character. Since I have already delved more deeply into "Holding to the Ground" in a former article, I will leave that one off of this list (for the opportunity to explore an additional song). So - here they are: My list of lyrics that I find to be confections of perfection.
10. "I've got a goal again. I've got a drive again. I want to feel my heart coming alive again. Before the parade passes by." This lyric, sung by Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! is the perfect sumnation of her character and her purpose. Having been withdrawn from the high life she adores, Dolly announces that she wants to return to the world of the living in the song "Before the Parade Passes By." Jerry Herman's lyric emotionally takes this to the next level by having Dolly exclaim her need to feel her heart awaken. Chills and hope, everytime I hear it.
9. "And should you die tomorrow, another thing I see. Your love will live in me, your love will live in me, your love will live in me." Anyone who knows me well knows that Stephen Sondheim's Passion is one of my LEAST favorite musicals (cue hate mail), as I find the two main characters to be so unappealing and I feel the story generaly goes in circles without revealing anything new. However, this lyric makes me believe, even for just a short moment, that the sickly, manipulative Fosca may have truly been capable of love...or at least the need for it. I can admire this moment of sheer perfection.
8. "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die. Life is how the time goes by." Does anyone listen to Kander and Ebb's Zorba anymore? If they don't, they should. Zorba does what many musicals fail to do, it expertly captures time and place through its music and its sensibility. "Life Is" is the opening chorus number of the musical and it captures a Greek matter-of-factness and dark humor that adeptly sets up the story to come and the modd that story will bring.
7. "I know that you might think I'm balmy but the queen of corned-beef and salami is a glamorous goddess who's bustin' her bodice. Oh, jumpin' St. Jude - look what happened to Mabel." Jerry Herman is a far better lyricist than he has ever been given credit for being. He has a terrific wit and poetry in capturing characters through song and "Look What Happened to Mabel" from Mack & Mabel features some of his most revealing character lyrics. When a a deli counter girl sees hersef on the big screen for the first time, the realization that she is something more than "the girl with the pickles who hustles for nickels" a revelation happens on a level that is simpatico with her character. It is so accuratey within Mabel's personality and her small world to relate everything she says and does to the deli where she works.
6. "There's one life, and there's no return and no deposit; One life, so it's time to open up your closet.Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say, "Hey world, I am what I am!" Jerry Herman makes a third visit on my list with his closet door-busting lyric from La Cage aux Folles about self-acceptance. Sung by the gay drag queen Albin, the song "I Am What I Am" has become the the unofficial anthem of embracing indiviudality. This lyric encapsulates what Albin is experiencing internally when he is asked to keep his sexuality under wraps for someone he loves.
5. "Why not both instead? There's the answer if you're clever. Have a child for warmth and a baker for bread and a prince for...whatever. Never! It's these woods." This has always been a Stephen Sondheim lyrics that has haunted me. The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods has spent the entire story wanting and wishing, even coveting something outside her average, boring life. When the opportunity to get freaky with Cinderella's Prince arrises, she takes it and, in the throws of afterglow, tries to reason away her adultery, but comes to the conclusion that you cannot have your prince and eat him too (without repercussions, anyway.) "Moments in the Woods" is Sondheim at his best when it comes to exploring inner conflict in morally unclear situations.
4. "And this time will be bigger and brighter than we knew it, So watch me fly, we all know I can do it." Another lyric from a musical that I generally do not care for (more hate mail, please), but found this particular lyric moment to be right on the money. Sunset Boulevard features silent film star Norma Desmond attempting to make her screen comeback. "As If We Never Said Goodbye" is sung on a studio set where Norma is hoping to be asked to make a film. This particular lyric comes at the song's climax and dynamically underscores just how dillusional and mentally unstable this performer has become. It drips with character introspection.
3. "Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. I've grown accustomed to he face." It's not much in terms of poetry, but it is so perfect at the moment it comes in My Fair Lady. Professor Henry Higgins would never admit that he has fallen in love with the flower girl Eliza Doolittle, but he can begrudgingly admit that he would miss her if she were gone. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is lyricist Alan Jay Lerner keeping Higgins in his fussy, misogynistic world, but giving him the voice to express hints about his feelings. The "Damn, damn, damn" conveys his annoyance for allowing himself to get in so emotionally deep and his own disgust for letting his guard down. Higgins to a tee!
2. "Could I bury my rage with a boy have you age in the grass? Bet your ass! But I did that already, or didn't know love? Oh, how could I leave when you left long ago, love! We all love this lyric from Follies. It is both sarcastically funny and seething with vitriol and pain, as the character Phyllis Stone analyzes her unraveling marriage and lists all of the the things she might try to hurt her husband. Through "Could I Leave You?" Sondheim, once again, takes us into the world of moral ambiguity and inner conflict. This lyric is mean, revealing, and even a little desperate. So many emotions wrapped up in a few short words.
1. "Ah gits weary an' sick of tryin'. I'm tired of livin' and skeered of dyin', but Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' along." Not only does this lyric sum up the character of the hardworking dockworker Joe from Show Boat, but it thematically ties the whole show together. Decades of trials and tribulations, romance and pain are all stitched together with Oscar Hammerstein, II's lyrical pen. Isn't this a metaphor for the journey of life wrapped up in one, economically insightful lyric? We all have experienced ups and downs and witnessed how life just goes on around us, no matter what we are going through.
What lyrics are your nuggets of perfection? Please share and tell me why!