Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Things That Suck: The Lyrics of Leslie Bricusse

One of the first internet posts I ever made was in 1994 (I was a late arrival to the glories of staring intently at a computer screen and communicating with people I can't see or hear), on some CompuServe forum. The discussion was about musicals, and it was noted that Blake Edwards was turning Victor/Victoria into a musical, with new songs by the people who wrote the songs for the movie, Henry Mancini (who had just died) and lyricist Leslie Bricusse. I predicted that the show would suck, because "No show can be good if it has lyrics by Leslie Bricusse... Leslie Bricusse should be roasted on a spit and eaten by cannibals as a warning to all bad lyricists." Something like that, anyway. While I am pleased to say that my political views have shifted, and I am now strongly anti-cannibal and in favor of the right of bad songwriters to live happy and un-eaten, I will note that I was right about Victor/Victoria and about Leslie Bricusse. When Victor/Victoria and then Jekyll and Hyde (also with lyrics by Bricusse, and music by Frank Wildhorn, who was for about 30 seconds considered to have the potential to be a new Andrew Lloyd Webber), Bricusse became a byword in musical-theatre discussion groups for bad lyric writing.

Now, Bricusse's work has not been all bad. In the '60s, he and jack-of-all-trades Anthony Newley collaborated on a show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, that certainly was a change of pace from other British musicals and had some good songs (though "What Kind of Fool Am I?" loses points for rhyming "man" with "am"). Bricusse and Newley wrote the lyric for "Goldfinger" and Bricusse alone wrote a very fine lyric for "You Only Live Twice." And Dr. Dolittle, for which Bricusse wrote the songs and script, is really bad but not quite as bad as its reputation. (How's that for generosity?) Nor is Bricusse the worst British lyricist; that honor probably goes to Don Black, who has given us decades upon decades of predictable rhymes, go-nowhere song concepts, and general pointlessness. But for sheer lack of imagination, technical sloppiness, and inability to phrase any idea in a non-hackneyed way, Leslie Bricusse is pretty well up there.

Sometimes he's just mediocre. His lyrics for Pickwick, a 1965 musical which wasted almost every opportunity provided by the rich source material (Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, are more dull than stupid. Still, it's depressing that a guy could read The Pickwick Papers and not come up with anything better for Mr. Pickwick to sing than a fuzzy little list of things that would happen "If I Ruled the World":

If I ruled the world,
Ev'ry day would be the first day of spring,
Ev'ry heart would have a new song to sing,
And we'd sing of the joy ev'ry morning would bring.
If I ruled the world,
Ev'ry man would be as free as a bird,
Ev'ry voice would be a voice to be heard,
Take my word,
We would treasure each day that occurred.


The song actually became a hit (remember the Monty Python episode that had Lenin singing it?), but it's an example of bad lyric writing because it starts with a good idea -- if I ruled the world, the world would be better -- and then can't find anything to say about it. There's not a single specific image in there, not a single original way of saying what the world would be like. It's just a bunch of cliches, and non-specific cliches at that ("free as a bird?" free to do what? Every voice would be heard? in what way). It's the essence of Leslie Bricusse: start with a decent song idea and then do absolutely nothing with it except spout cliches and bromides.

By the time Bricusse reached his apogee, nay, apex, verily, his acme as a bad lyricist, in the '90s, he was still dealing in cliches, and still couldn't say anything in a subtle or interesting way. But now he was technically inept and blessed with an ability to find just the wrong tone for a song. So Jekyll and Hyde was supposed to be a dark, brooding musical on the order of The Phantom of the Opera. But for the big "confrontation" between Jekyll and Hyde (yeah, an actor arguing with himself in song), Bricusse writes a lyric that is not only terrible, but inappropriately jaunty and jingle-y, as though it's a Gilbert and Sullivan parody of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical:

JEKYLL:
Can't you see
It's over now?
It's time to die!

HYDE:
No, not I!
Only you!

JEKYLL:
If I die,
You die, too!

HYDE:
You'll die in me
I'll be you!

JEKYLL:
Damn you, Hyde!
Set me free!

HYDE:
Can't you see
You are me?

JEKYLL:
No!
Deep inside-!

HYDE:
I am you!
You are Hyde!

JEKYLL:
No - Never!

HYDE:
Yes, forever!

JEKYLL:
Good damn you, Hyde!
Take all your evil deeds,
And rot in hell!

HYDE:
I'll see you there, Jekyll!

JEKYLL:
Never!


Someone on a newsgroup considered that the worst lyric writing he'd ever heard, but then he remembered this chorus:

Murder, murder
Or our doorstep!
Murder, murder
So watch your step!
Murder, murder!
Take one more step,
You'll be murdered
In the night!

Murder, murder
Once there's one done
Murder, murder
Can't be undone!
Murder, murder
Lives in London!
Bloody murder
In the night!


But when it comes to really, really bad lyrics, the stage version of Victor/Victoria is Bricusses monstrous masterpiece. Of course, the songs taken from the film are just mediocre, and some of the new songs are just standardized bad lyrics, collecting the usual cliches:

Hiding from tomorrow,
Hiding from the day,
Only brings a sorrow
That won't go away.


But several of the new songs made Bricusse the undisputed champ of bad lyrics. With very little comment, because what is there to say, after all, I post some excerpts from a song called "Paris Makes Me Horny." For rhymes that don't rhyme, phrases that don't make sense, cliches and general idiocy, this may well be the worst lyric in a Broadway musical:


Paris makes me horny.
Rome may be hot, sexy it is not.
Paris is so sexy
Riding in a texi
Gives me apoplexy.
Been to Lisbon
And Lisbon is a has-been.
Schlepped to Stockholm
And brought a lotta schlock home.
Also Oslo
And Oslo really was slow
Paris makes me horny,
It's not like Californy.
Paris is so dizzy, jack,
It's such an aphrodisiac
Ooh...... It's true,
Paris thrills me.
When I see Eiffel Tower
I have to go and take a shower...

As for Madrid, save it for El Cid,
Dining at the Lido
Loosens my libido
Like a big torpedo...
Been to Munich
Where every guy's a eunuch
An' ta Dublin
Things ain't exactly bubblin'
Hate Helsinki,
The Finns are kinda kinky.
But Paris, Paris,
Paris makes me horny.


And yes, "Lisbon / has-been" and "Aphrodisiac / Dizzy, jack" are supposed to be rhymes.


14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did you ever actually watch Victor Victoria? "Paris makes me horny" embodies the character who sings it. Norma is a trampy ditz. And frankly, who cares if the rhymes are perfect? The words fit the tempo of the song, and are not so far off they grate on the nerves.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more, anon. At least in the movie her accent makes the rhymes work a lot better than they do on paper. Anyway, I think it's hysterical.

wot58 said...

how dare you. how dare you. leslie bricusse is the bestest writer eveh. you are getting on my last gay nerve buddy. i just bought "sammy davis junior sings dr. doolittle", and "when i look into your eyes, has to be the best song eveh! oh my god. i get chills listening to it. when you are ready to change our opinion, let me know, and i'll accept your apology....thank you.
william
wot58@mac.com

Tor Y. Harbin said...

If only for his cringe-inducing lyrics to the Hook song, "We Don't Wanna Grow Up", this post is entirely justified.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first anonymous poster; have you ever actually WATCHED the movie Victor/Victoria? Because clearly you are missing the point. All musicals boast somewhat cheesy lyrics because they are supposed to be fun and entertaining. They are not supposed to include deep soul-searching songs.
Just look at the lyrics from the opera Turandot by Pavarotti (the song is the first verse of Nessun Dorma):

None must sleep! None must sleep!
And you, too, Princess,
in your cold room,
gaze at the stars
which tremble with love
and hope!

Completely cliche! But, no one cares--it's a wonderful opera and it's a particularly beautiful song. The lyrics fit the mood and get the idea across.
I don't think I would enjoy "Le Jazz Hot" if it were written about the difficult struggles jazz musicians encountered when trying to get accepted by a public that wasn't ready for such new, edgy music, etc. How boring! Modern musical numbers are supposed to be catchy, fun, and sing-able. They get stuck in your head. And yes, they often spout cliched concepts and rhymes. But most of the time they work as a result. And Victor/Victoria is not a monstrous mess. I hope you agree at least that the music is fabulous (thanks to Mancini) and that the songs are wonderfully performed. I noticed that you didn't stoop to bashing those two aspects. So why bash the lyrics? If a musical is enjoyable, who cares? And just which musicals do you think have such clever, original lyrics that you feel the need to single out Leslie Bricusse and especially Victor/Victoria? I have cringed many, many times at the lyrics of musicals from many different lyricists. But I still tend to enjoy them, because I don't expect earth-shatteringly creative lyrics.
And, on a side note, as a showskater (a figure skater who performs show numbers), I have listened to more musical numbers in the search for a new piece than most people will ever listen to in their lives. And Victor/Victoria is some of the best SHOW music out there. The music is awesome and the lyrics are perfect for fun, entertaining numbers that get the point across in the less than 4 minutes that I get to perform. Ask any coach at the rink and they'll tell you they love the musical because it offers the opportunity for so much fun choreography to highlight parts of the music and, shockingly, the lyrics as well. And that is the point of a musical number.
So, search your soul and find those deeper meanings in maudlin novels and classic poetry. But, for me, when I sit down to watch a musical (perhaps Victor/Victoria for the 100th time) I want to be entertained by the songs that I just can't get out of my head. And, yes, sometimes the lyrics are laughable, but LAUGH at them or stop watching musicals. And, please, don't run off and decry the triteness on your internet blog.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first anonymous poster; have you ever actually WATCHED the movie Victor/Victoria? Because clearly you are missing the point. All musicals boast somewhat cheesy lyrics because they are supposed to be fun and entertaining. They are not supposed to include deep soul-searching songs.
Just look at the lyrics from the opera Turandot by Pavarotti (the song is the first verse of Nessun Dorma):

None must sleep! None must sleep!
And you, too, Princess,
in your cold room,
gaze at the stars
which tremble with love
and hope!

Completely cliche! But, no one cares--it's a wonderful opera and it's a particularly beautiful song. The lyrics fit the mood and get the idea across.
I don't think I would enjoy "Le Jazz Hot" if it were written about the difficult struggles jazz musicians encountered when trying to get accepted by a public that wasn't ready for such new, edgy music, etc. How boring! Modern musical numbers are supposed to be catchy, fun, and sing-able. They get stuck in your head. And yes, they often spout cliched concepts and rhymes. But most of the time they work as a result. And Victor/Victoria is not a monstrous mess. I hope you agree at least that the music is fabulous (thanks to Mancini) and that the songs are wonderfully performed. I noticed that you didn't stoop to bashing those two aspects. So why bash the lyrics? If a musical is enjoyable, who cares? And just which musicals do you think have such clever, original lyrics that you feel the need to single out Leslie Bricusse and especially Victor/Victoria? I have cringed many, many times at the lyrics of musicals from many different lyricists. But I still tend to enjoy them, because I don't expect earth-shatteringly creative lyrics.
And, on a side note, as a showskater (a figure skater who performs show numbers), I have listened to more musical numbers in the search for a new piece than most people will ever listen to in their lives. And Victor/Victoria is some of the best SHOW music out there. The music is awesome and the lyrics are perfect for fun, entertaining numbers that get the point across in the less than 4 minutes that I get to perform. Ask any coach at the rink and they'll tell you they love the musical because it offers the opportunity for so much fun choreography to highlight parts of the music and, shockingly, the lyrics as well. And that is the point of a musical number.
So, search your soul and find those deeper meanings in maudlin novels and classic poetry. But, for me, when I sit down to watch a musical (perhaps Victor/Victoria for the 100th time) I want to be entertained by the songs that I just can't get out of my head. And, yes, sometimes the lyrics are laughable, but LAUGH at them or stop watching musicals. And, please, don't run off and decry the triteness on your internet blog.

Anonymous said...

How dare you even begin to belittle someone who has given the world, "Who Can I Turn To", "What Kind of Fool Am I?", "Talk To The Animals" and dozens of other wonderful songs. Just those three alone is a legacy that I would be very proud of.
What have you done in your lifetime that would even come close to what Mr. Bricusse has accomplished in his? Yes, maybe all of his songs are not up to the standards of some of his hit songs, but neither are all of anyone elses.

zmail@sbcglobal.net said...

With all due respect for your candidness, I truly believe that you are sooo off-base. Leslie Bricusse is a legend for all the right reasons. He writes songs/lyrics that people remember...many of which bring a vitally needed lightheartedness to our increasingly cynical culture. "What kind of fool are YOU" to belittle an artist whose songs will be remembered long after the rest of us are forgotten? Thank you, Leslie, if you ever read this blog, for sharing your artistry with the rest of us. Sandy

Anonymous said...

Right on. I am in a production of Jekyll and Hyde right now and I am continuously amazed at how the lyrics seem to get worse every time we rehearse them. But I think the award for worst song has to go to "Dangerous Game"-- a song about how sex is mysterious and scary but exciting and oh wait, the singer is a prostitute, how mysterious could sex possibly be to her?

Anonymous said...

I am looking for the words to the song sung by Anthony Newley named
"Teach the Children". I just love the words, that I can understand, so if it not too much trouble, could you email them to me. thank you for your time. I was on the internet for over 1 hour and could not find the words.
Phyllis Virga
email: pievirga@comcast.net

Anonymous said...

What really sucks is the author of this post: "Things That Suck..." You obviously have not seen Victor Victoria, otherwise, as other posters have noted, you would not have made such silly points, especially about "Paris Makes Me Horny." It was a failure? Tell that to the people who hand out academy awards since the movie won for the music and the stage version would have received a Tony but Julie Andrews turned it down. Nor does the musical world or the film world agree with your taste. Leslie Bricusse has won 2 Academy Awards and been nominated 8 or 9 times; he has won Tony awards and others. The movie and the stage version were smash hits.
And how about the lovely lyrics for "Crazy World"? Here they are for those with a brain to judge:
Crazy World
Crazy world
Full of crazy contradictions
Like a child.
First you drive me wild,
And then you win my heart
With your wicked art.
One minute tender, gentle,
Then temp'ramental as a summer storm.
Just when I believe your heart's getting warmer,
You're cold and you're cruel,
And I, like a fool, trying to cope,
Trying to hang on to hope.
Crazy world,
Ev'ryday the same old roller coaster ride.
But I've got my pride,
I won't give in,
Eventhough I know I'll never win.
Oh, how I love this
Crazy world.
But I've got my pride,
I won't give in,
Eventhough I know I'll never win.
Oh, how I love this
Crazy World.

Anonymous said...

Your review sucks. Leslie Bricusse is one of the finest songwriters the world has ever produced. He's definitley on a par with Paul McCartney! If you think it's so easy to be a legend then why tyeh hell are you writing a stupid blog on an internet site like blogger.com? Hardly anyopne's reading it anyway. LOL PS: you were one of the firs people on the internet in you started that early, you obivously have no life.

Anonymous said...

Hiding from tomorrow,
Hiding from the day,
Only brings a sorrow
That won't go away.


thats golden dude. Plus he wrote feelin good.

why belittle that.

Look at the real HEART of the words. Not just the surface.

How a bout picking on pop lyrics..

Be a dreamer, not a critic. Express YOURSELF! how bout a link to some of YOUR lyrics.

Anonymous said...

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