What’s the Matter? Merely Patter! Great Broadway Patter Songs
Patter songs are delightfully energetic ditties that are often plugged into musicals for humor or inject energy, often an eleven o’clock number or as a pick-me-up after more serious moments. They are a lot of fun and usually a scene-stealing moment for a great comedic performer who can pull-off their rapid-fire delivery. The definition of a “patter song” is a musical sequence that is performed at a relatively fast tempo, rhythmic patterns that are staccato in nature, with each syllable of the lyric corresponding to a note. There is often internal rhymes, tongue-twister-style formatting, and the device is often paired with the “list song”, another musical theatre device where lists are shared as a humorous assault of information.
There have been many great patter songs in the history of the musical theatre, but here are some of the most memorable and delightful. How many of these can your brain keep up with? Try singing along and find out!
“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”
The Pirates of Penzance
Music by Arthur Sullivan, Lyrics by W. S. Gilbert
It makes sense to start out with the patter song by which all other pattern songs are judged. “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, written in 1979, is sung by the character of Major General Stanley. The song was written as a satire of the British military of the late 1800’s, a highly educated and somewhat stuffy band of military personnel. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote many patter songs for their comic operettas, but “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” has enjoyed a popularity that surpasses all others.
“Ya Got Trouble”
The Music Man
Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
When huckster Professor Harold Hill arrives in the mall Iowa town of River City, he must establish a problem that stirs the worries of local parents. He wants to start a boys’ marching band in the town (all part of a “take their money and run” scheme) so he uses the arrival of a new pool table in the town as the jumping off point to strike the fear of the devil in these unsuspecting denizens. “Ya Got Trouble” is an electrically-charged patter song where he paints the picture of the sin and degradation brought about by billiards as it influences young lives. He soon has almost everyone eating out of the palm of his hands.
A Little Night Music
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
In A Little Night Music, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman has been married to his eighteen-year-old bride Anne for eleven months and they have yet to consummate their nuptials. Trying to be sensitive to their age differences and not force himself on the girl, he is nevertheless sexually frustrated. “Now” is a patter song soliloquy of what races through his mind as he and his wife prepare for their afternoon nap. He wittily ruminates over his situation as he explores his options on whether to “ravage her” or “read”. The number features some of Sondheim’s most witty and sophisticated lyrics, especially when he begins to list different authors and how their style might inspire the right approach to getting Anne to finally give herself over to Fredrik.
“A Hymn to Him”
My Fair Lady
Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Never has there been a more misogynistic character in a musical than Professor Henry Higgins in the Lerner and Loewe classic My Fair Lady. A confirmed bachelor and student of phonetics, his contempt for women is exacerbated when he takes a bet to teach a cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to speak proper English. When he realizes that he might care for the girl (who he has spent the entire show verbally abusing to win it) he begins to rant and rave and show that he has been affected by her presence in his life. When Eliza leaves, his explosions mount into “A Hymn to Him”, a patter song celebrating the uncomplicated relations shared between men that he feels cannot be experienced while communicating with a woman.
“Getting Married Today”
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Everyone assumed that many things must run through a bride’s mind on her wedding day. Stephen Sondheim painted all that strain and overwhelming anxiety in the song “Getting Married Today” for the musical comedy Company. Amy, about to marry Paul, makes a long list of reasons why the wedding isn’t going to happen, frantically encouraging (begging) guests to return their gifts and skip the event. Of course, she ends up exchanging vows, but this patter song is a hilarious summation of her neurotic thoughts. The high-speed conventions of the patter song were the perfect way to capture this overwrought, hilarious situation.
“All for the Best”
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
The musical Godspell tells the story of the biblical “Book of Matthew” through song, dance and sketches. When the character of Jesus Christ takes an optimistic look at the world, choosing to see the glass as half-full, he regales us with his upbeat attitude in the soft-shoe number “All for the Best”. Judas Iscariot, preferring to be the realist in the situation, answers Jesus’s optimism with a patter portion of the song that details how only the rich enjoy the comforts of the world. Soon, the duo is singing their songs in counterpoint in a pastiche of old-style vaudeville comedy numbers.
Lady in the Dark
Music Kurt Weill, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Though it is nothing more than a list song of Russian composers, “Tchaikovsky” was originated by musical theatre star and comedian Danny Kaye in the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark. The musical follows the psychoanalysis of fashion editor Liza Elliott who is trying to determine the origins of her unhappiness. Her therapy is broken into three, long musical sequences that are “dreams”, one of which takes place in a circus. This is where the popular patter song is performed. Actually, the song features many Russian-American composers whose names were altered by Ira Gershwin to work into his complicated rhyme scheme.
“The Museum Song”
Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Michael Stewart
The musical Barnum, which tells the story of entertainment impresario and circus showman P.T. Barnum, was a perfect place to utilize the conceits of a patter song. Barnum was a larger-than-life, fast-talking, flim-flam man (the nineteenth-century equivalent of a used car salesman). When he opens Barnum’s American Museum (1841-1865) at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City, the character barks about all the exciting attractions therein through the strident “The Museum Song”, ushering guests through its myriad curiosities.
“Both Sides of the Coin”
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes
Charles Dicken’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an unfinished novel by the prolific author. Since the mystery is never solved, the musical is a show-within-a-show where the actors are performing the story and the audience is asked to vote on the outcome. The patter song “Both Sides of the Coin” is sung by two of the actors as they examine the dual natures of their suspicious characters. An awe-inspiring exercise in breath control, this ditty might just be the most difficult of all patter songs ever written. Composer-lyricist Rupert Holmes concocted a high-octane, relentless song that is the ultimate challenge to the two actors who sing it.
“Putting it Together”
Sunday in the Park with George
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim is the master of the patter song. The intensity of the rhyme schemes and puzzle-like nature of assembling them must surely appeal to him. In his crowning-achievement, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim explores the many facets of an artist’s life through the patter song “Putting in Together.” The artist-inventor George must wear many personalities as he schmoozes with fellow artists, critics, donors, and museum personnel. The patter song is the perfect device to capture his ever-changing angles and his futile attempt to remain calm under pressure.
And that folks, is what all the patter has been about.