September 24, 2010

Why a post about rhymes? Aren’t they self-explanatory? Well, yes and no. Mostly, the rhymes are obvious, and not much needs to be said about them. But there are some places in musical theatre where a word needs to be pronounced in a certain way so that it actually rhymes. I’ll give you two examples, and then give you a very special case of a word that needs to be emphasized correctly.

The first example is from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella: “In My Own Little Corner.” Because this song is not terribly vocally challenging, it is a perennial favorite in Anthologies for young people. But most young sopranos sing this one word wrong.

I’m a young Norwegian princess or a milkmaid
I’m the greatest Prima Donna in Milan
I’m an heiress who has always had her silk made
By her own flock of silkworms in Japan.

Obviously, this is an ABAB rhyme scheme. For some reason, maybe since the passage is 16 bars long, it rarely occurs to the singer that Milan needs to be pronounced in the old fashioned American incorrect way to rhyme with Japan. OR you have to pronounce Japan Japon, which is even sillier.

Another example, from Show Boat, from the song “Bill”:

But along came Bill
Who’s not the type at all,
You’d meet him on the street
And never notice him.
His form and face,
His manly grace
Are not the kind that you
Would find in a statue…

Even Audra McDonald sings this so that it doesn’t rhyme!

I assure you:

Are not the kind thatchoo
Would find in a statchoo

is the only correct way to sing this so that it rhymes. Most singers, in an attempt to have very clear diction, sing ‘that (with a clear t) you’ and then statchoo, the ‘normal’ way. Peter J. Casey informs me that many Australians say stat-yoo for statue. In which case, sing ‘that you’ accordingly. But in the show, you’ll have to sing it the ‘American’ way, thatchoo, statchoo. (unless for some reason your avant-garde production of Show Boat is set down-under!)

The final example of a rhyme that needs to be done just-so is from Wicked. The line completely confused me until my friend Stu Goldstone cleared it up for me. Thanks, Stu. WARNING: The following discussion is so arcane and wonky that it may turn you off to the study of lyrics entirely. I am a confirmed Music Theatre Geek, so I forge ahead anyhow:

In The Wizard and I, Elpheba sings:

“Would it be all right by you
If I degreenify you?”

Schwartz puts BY and FY on upbeats, which really need to be emphasized by the performer. Otherwise the stress of the word falls on: YOU. And then instead of:

Would it be alright BY you
If I degreeniFY you,

we have:

Would it be all right by YOU
If I degreenify YOU?

Which is not a rhyme. It’s an identity. You can’t rhyme YOU with YOU.

It’s like that line in the Wizard of Oz:

She’s not only NEARly dead
She’s really most sinCEREly dead.

Imagine if that were set:

She’s not only nearly DEAD
She’s really most sincerely DEAD

Takes all the punch out of it.



  1. You are a big geek.

  2. on an only-slightly-related note, three of my favoritest Sondheim rhymes occur all in one song: “Beautiful Girls” from Follies.

    “Faced with these Loreleis, what man can moralize?”


    “This is how Samson was shorn… Each in her style a Delilah reborn”


    “This is what beauty can be… Beauty celestial, the best you’ll agree”

    Of course Sondheim has hundreds if not thousands of fantastic lyrics, but these 3 are among my faves. And virtually impossible to mispronounce!

  3. My Favorite Sondheim Rhymes include the whole opening to Night Music, which has some rhymes that are impossible for mortal humanity to have produced:

    In view of her PENCHANT
    for something ROMANTIC
    De Sade is too TRENCHANT
    and Dickens too FRANTIC

    And Stendahl would RUIN
    the plan of ATTACK
    As there isn’t much BLUE IN
    “The red and the BLACK”

    De Maupassant’s CANDOR
    would cause her DISMAY
    The Bronte’s are GRANDER
    but not very GAY
    Her taste is much BLANDER
    I’m sorry to SAY
    but is Hans Christian ANDERSON
    Ever RISQUE?
    Which eliminates A

    Also the whole Please Hello sequence from Pacific Overtures

    and the line

    If the tea the Shogun DRANK WILL
    Serve to keep the Shogun TRANQUIL

    From Chrysanthemum Tea in the same show.

    Stu, can you think of any other pronunciation specific rhymes?

  4. Thanks – always good reading, but on this particularly gray day it is a sunny spot and has me thinking:

    When looking for the BEST of such
    You’ve got to try the NET my dear
    Or miss out on the REST of much
    That’s floating through the BLOGosphere.

  5. Not off the top of my head, Peter, but are you familiar with [title of show]? It’s a musical about two guys writing a musical, very clever stuff though my description makes it sound self-indulgent and navel-gazing. In one of the first numbers, the two co-writers (who also starred in the show, playing themselves– as I said, slightly self-indulgent) argue (in a song) over whether it’s appropriate to rhyme “theater” with “sweeter”, since one has two syllables and one has three syllables. It’s funnier when they do it than when I talk about it.

  6. “My Name” in Oliver slightly has one with pronunciation. You have to turn the “er’s” into “uh’s” or it doesn’t work. I think they might tell you that in the score… sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.

    Biceps like an iron girder
    Built for doing of a murder
    If I just so much as heard a
    Bloke even whisper…
    My name!

  7. Hooray! Fellow rhyme geeks!

    I can think of a Porter and a Gershwin, both of which rhyme only if you deliberately mispronounce French:

    I’m just in the way,
    as the French would say
    De trop
    But if, baby, I’m the bottom you’re the top


    When those million dollar blokes pass
    I will never make a faux pas

    My pet peeve is when singers break apart “man some” and “handsome” in the bridge for ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, so you get:

    Although he may not be the man [useless rhyme-ruining pause]
    Some girls think of as handsome

    PS I, and many other Australians, say ‘statyoo’.

    • Mr. Casey, I stand corrected. I’ll make a note of it. How fantastic! A dialect specific set of rhymes. Would you have said thatchoo, as Americans do?

      I had forgotten entirely about those Porter rhymes. It seems to me there’s a whole species of rhymes where the foreign word is rhymed with a native word, and the foreign word needs to be mangled in order to fit.

      And the Gershwin also loses a rhyme in the gender-switched version.

      “So I’m going to seek a certain LAD I’ve HAD in mind”

      usually turns into gal or lass, which is unfortunate.

      And then there’s the whole “add her initial to my monogram” as Elton John sings it or the “add my initial to her monogram, as many other men sing it, which these days comes off a little sexist, especially from a man who will shortly sing that he only wants “someone to watch over me”

  8. I’ll admit that on a lazy day, I might whip out ‘thatchoo’, and likewise ‘statchoo’. But after a good night’s sleep, and while fully hydrated, it’s ‘thatyoo’ and ‘statyoo’ every time.

    You’re right, the gender switch is a whole separate minefield, isn’t it? I like:

    Some day she’ll come along
    The girl I love
    And she’ll be big and strong
    The … girl … I love …

  9. How about:

    How glad the many millions
    of Anabelles and Lillians
    would be
    to capture me

    The female version is:

    How glad the many millions
    of Jonathans and Williams
    would be, etc…

    Williams doesn’t rhyme with millions.

    I think it’s a Gershwin thing.

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