THE VOCABULARY OF BROADWAY
August 15, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When as a child I first began listening to the cast recordings of Broadway shows on records (yes, records!), it not only began my education of the American musical theatre, but of the essential building of my vocabulary. I know I’m not alone in my ability to trace back to how I learned the meaning of certain words due to hearing them for the first time as lyrics. Play along with me. I’m sure a number of examples of your own will leap to mind.
The first record album I ever wore out was the one for The Music Man, that featured my idol, Robert Preston. Due to its being set in 1912, and with Meredith Willson’s love for the arcane (all the better for surprise rhyming), there were words I learned, which to this day, I have still never been able to work into daily conversation. For example: “If I stumbled and I busted my what-you-may-call-it, I could lie on your floor unnoticed. Till my body had turned to carrion… Madam Librarian.”
Carrion: the flesh of dead animals, according to Merriam-Webster’s. Yeah, it’s still going to be a long while before I work that one into a text or email.
I was equally obsessed with another Preston musical, I Do! I Do!, in which he co-starred with Mary Martin. This two-character musical explored a fifty-year marriage with lyrics that had a level of sophistication which often puzzled my poor, fragile mind with terms like “femme fatale,” also useless in daily conversation today. And what did “my wife’s confinement” mean? I think I remember asking my parents to explain that one to me, though I’m not sure I ever got an answer.
In 1970, when Stephen Sondheim brought forth a whole new way of writing a musical with Company, I was thirteen years old. I saw it the week it opened and while in the theatre I was having considerable trouble keeping up with his intricate word play. My seat in row L of the balcony might have had something to do with that, as these were the days before every actor had a microphone attached to their skulls. But for $2 who could complain? A few weeks later, when I bought the album of Company, in that now famous shade of purple jacket cover, there was no lyric booklet included (few shows offered them back then). I was left to decipher the words from some often bad phrasing among its cast members. Did anyone else mistake “with love seventy ways” for “with love seven new ways?” I did. And I can easily recall the moment I finally saw on the printed page Sondheim’s trick rhyme for “personable — “it’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull” — a discovery that caused me to shout out loud: “So that’s what that was!”
And when the character of Joanne, played memorably by Elaine Stritch, sings “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and mentions “a piece of Mahler’s,” I wasn’t alone in mistaking it for something else. As Sondheim writes of Stritch’s connection to it in his book Finishing the Hat: “The song fit her perfectly, the only problem occurring when, in all innocence, she asked me what kind of pastry ‘a piece of Mahler’s’ referred to — she figured it had to be some sort of schnecken.”
I thought the exact same thing.
Company also provided me with definitions for such cultural touchstones as a “Sazerac sling” and a little thing called the Kama Sutra. Overall, I owe a lot to Sondheim for improving my vocabulary by leaps and bounds. Follies alone introduced me to the first time of such words and phrases as diadem, ennui, vex, avers, raconteur, bon vivant, modus operandi, arrears and, of course, my favorite bit of obscurity: précis. Come on — everyone had to look that one up, right? It comes when Phyllis sings in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” about a “sorrowful précis,” purely so Sondheim could rhyme it with “messy.”
I grew up in a house with five brothers and sisters and this is as good a public forum as any to offer my apologies nearly fifty years later. For when I would listen to these records in my room (full blast) they were all learning the lyrics to these shows as well. Once, I was taken by complete surprise when I came home and heard 1776 blaring from my stereo. Wondering who was listening to it, I snuck downstairs to my bedroom and found my youngest brother imitating me singing the opening number “Sit Down, John.” But instead of singing, “I say vote yes! Vote yes!” he sang what he thought to be the lyric: “I sing gorgeous! Gorgeous!”
Beauty indeed, is in the ear of the beholder. And if you have any stories to share about learning words or missing meanings, I would love to hear them.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book