“Phantom” And Lyrical Integrity

“The Phantom of the Opera” finally closed on Broadway last month after running more than 35 years and a record-setting 13,981 performances. Most of the musicals on the list of the longest-running shows are junk between “Phantom” and #17, “Fiddler on the Roof” (though not #7, “A Chorus Line”), but “The Phantom of the Opera” isn’t, though more for its staging and atmospherics than its music. I saw the show long ago at the West End in London, prepared to find it over-rated, but it really isn’t.

However, before it passes into history (and you’re not going to see a lot of high school, college and community theater productions of this monster), I have to mention something about the lyrics (by Charles Hart; Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music) that bothered me the first time I heard the score, when I saw the show, and now. The ethics issue is integrity, and I know some readers are going to decide that the topic of cheating in hit Broadway show lyrics is too trivial to think about. Au contraire, as the Phantom might say (the show does take place in Paris, after all). Nothing involving ethics is too trivial to think about: that’s been the operating principle here from the beginning. Besides, I write song lyrics as part of what is laughingly called my job. I care about doing it right.

In the title song of “The Phantom of the Opera” (called, as I bet you could guess, “The Phantom of the Opera”) the rather central word “opera” is pronounced two different ways to fit with the music. “Opera” is generally pronounced in English as a two-syllable word (“op-ra”), and indeed it is in part of the song, as you will note in the ridiculous music video made with the show’s original “Christine,” Sarah Brightman, above. However, through most of the song, opera is sung as three-syllable word, “op-er-a.”

Now, twisting a word in a single song is an old lyricist trick going back before Gilbert and Sullivan–once, and almost always as a self-conscious gag. This example is unique, as far as my research discern. Not only is the song not humorous by very dramatic in intent, the word messed with is in the title of the song, the show it comes from, the name of the main character, and in the song lyrics over and over again.

That’s just sloppy. The excuses would be, I presume, that nobody noticed, nobody cared, and the show was a critical financial and popular success. All true, but nevertheless, professionals are supposed to behave professionally, and that means striving for the very best product and service when they are involved. I guarantee that the late Stephen Sondheim noticed: the ultimate perfectionist when it came to lyrical integrity, he detested these kinds of short cuts. What they do is lower standards. Now the longest, most profitable Broadway musical in history includes lazy technique in its title song: why would any aspiring lyricist struggle with a song lyric even as long as Hart and Webber did (at least I hope they struggled) before defaulting to a cheat like “op-er-a,” or worse?

My first instinct was to blame pop and rock music for this particular example of integrity rot; sloppy lyric writing is the norm rather than the execption in those genres, which took over the popular music hit lists permanently by 1970, leaving Broadway and Tin Pan Alley to memories of past glories. Then I remembered a post I read in a now defunct blog a complaining about Alan J. Lerner, the famed lyricist of “Gigi,” “Camelot,” “Paint Your Wagon,” and arguably the greatest Broadway musical of them all, “My Fair Lady.” The blogger complained that Lerner had disgraced himself by having Henry Higgins, the protagonist of “My Fair Lady” who is supposed to be a pedantic expert on English grammar and erudition, singing in the opening minutes of the musical as he mocks a cockney flower girl’s speech,

By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

Of course, the correct word would be “hanged.”

Nobody noticed. Oh, all right, I hadn’t noticed either, after wearing out the LP as a kid and seeing the musical on stage and screen many times.

46 thoughts on ““Phantom” And Lyrical Integrity

  1. Guess I’ve never really focused on “op-ra” vs. “op-er-a.” They both roll out of my mouth as to be indistinguishable. I’d say “op-er-a” said in conversation elides into “op-ra,” but I think I still hear “op-er-a” in there. Interesting word. Must be a linguistics person in the commentariat to enlighten us.

    • I say op-er-a, though the “er” is hit lightly (there’s probably a term for that). I guess my parents did too since they were fans, and I must surely have picked up that pronunciation from them. Maybe two syllables is more of a Bass-tuhn pronunciation for Jack. 🙂

  2. Not the linguistics guy Bill’s calling for, but the first thing I thought of was the word “every”. Often in pop music I’ve heard three syllables. The sound of music uses two, and I sometimes see the title written as “Climb Ev”ry Mountain”. OK, back to the country falling apart.

    • When all else fails, read the directions, er, look it up in the dictionary. Sigh. Good catch. Thanks. It’s definitely not like “nuclear” being mis-pronounced “nucular,” as previously discussed.

      • Not sure why. If there are two readily recognizable pronunciations, why not use them both? Lyric writing is in large part a game. Why not use all the tricks to make a lyric work in terms of rhyme and meter? Most lyricists are showing off most of the time anyway.

      • Why? The important thing is for the words to fit the melody and the song’s cadence. Jon Anderson from Yes is notorious for writing lyrics that, outside of the music, seem nonsensical but within the song are perfect for evoking images or feelings.

        This seems like a listener’s preference. My mom would cringe at double negatives in pop lyrics but The Stones knocked it out of the park with “Satisfaction.”


        • The words fitting the melody is the lowest bar there is. The highest is making the lyrics vivid, easy on the ear, and memorable. When ver one is conscious of a word being twisted to fit the music, it pulls the listener out of the song and performance as it shifts focus to the sausage-making. Sondheim was the prime stickler on this, and I agree with him (though his own lyrics were often so self-consciously clever that THAT took me out of his songs). Sondheim prevailed on the producers of the WEST SIDE STORY remake to pull “I Feel Pretty” because he cane to feel that the lyrics lacked integrity—a poor Puerto Rican girl like Maria would never speak like that.

          The issue with “opera” is a no-brainer: since the same person doesn’t pronounce a word two different ways in real life, and he or she shouldn’t sing it two different ways either. All it takes to fix these lazy lyrical solutions is time and the willingness to find a better way.

          • Doesn’t seem hard on the ear, and obviously memorable as you are blogging about it. (Sorry, writing a blog about it. Sorry, typing a blog about it.) I am surprised that, otherwise, you have a favorable take on this spectacle, for that is what it seems to be. Music is quite repetitive, with only 2 or 3 songs memorable … and only a diehard Phantom fan goes around singing or whistling any of them.

            • The music is incredibly repetitive, but I prefer a show with five decent songs that are repeated than, say, a “Man of LaMancha” that fills out the score with a bunch of weak numbers like “I like him.” No doubt: it’s a spectacle musical that makes you turn off your brain. That’s why making my brain fire up with “op-er-a” was so annoying. I do find it hard on the ear…”The PHAN tom of the op-er-a is here…inside your mind” seems really awkward to me.

          • And it is difficult to think of a lyricist who does not mangle words so they rhyme. Would that, as well, signal a lack of integrity?
            “ I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
            I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
            About binomial theorem I am teeming with a lot o’ news
            With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

            • 1. Comic song
              2. Character who is being presented as silly and pompous
              3. I’ll excuse “lot’o’news” because it sets up a running joke about rhyming. A character who comments on the fact that he’s rhyming in a song is almost post-modern in its technique—the audience is being alerted that the rhymes are forced, the character knows it, and so does the lyricist.

              • Great songs :
                It is I, Don Quixote
                I’m Only Thinking of Him
                And, of course, The Impossible Dream
                Did I go out from any of my many experiences of this musical singing and whistling? Not singing. Can’t. Wish I could sing The Impossible Dream. For my taste, it is a wonderful piece of music and theater.

          • “the same person doesn’t pronounce a word two different ways in real life”

            I beg to differ on that front. I will pronounce a word either (or “either,” if you prefer) of two correct ways depending on the ton I want to convey, who I’m with (or is that “with whom I am?”), which one I heard spoken most recently, and how I feel that day. I would certainly change pronunciations in the middle of a conversation if I thought it made a given statement sound better, just as I would switch contractions from “it isn’t” to “it’s not” and vice versa.

            The choice comes up frequently when there’s enough confusion between regional affiliations of various pronunciations which are none of them wrong per se, such that deciding which one to subscribe to is too tedious to remember, so one picks whichever pronunciation one feels like at the time, or adapts to the pronunciation of one’s present company until the conversation is over, as a courtesy.

            I’m told that the local pronunciation of “symbiote” is “SIM-bee-oat” and not “SIM-bye-oat”, and I’ll follow someone’s lead on that for the space of a conversation just to keep things from being jarring for both of us, but that’s not what I learned in my biology class. (Or is that “beeology”?) I’m not going to accept being told that the long “i” is objectively wrong when it matches every other instance of “bio-” in English (although not actual Greek, I suspect). Of course, if humans bothered to keep faithful documentation of their language in the first place, you’d have far fewer languages. That said, it is rather fun to have more options and flexibility for describing things.

            • “I beg to differ on that front. I will pronounce a word either (or “either,” if you prefer) of two correct ways depending on the ton I want to convey, who I’m with (or is that “with whom I am?”), which one I heard spoken most recently, and how I feel that day. I would certainly change pronunciations in the middle of a conversation if I thought it made a given statement sound better, just as I would switch contractions from “it isn’t” to “it’s not” and vice versa.”

              Must be peculiar to your planet. I can’t imagine using both pronunciations of “either” in the same conversation, and much less in the same paragraph, and would immediately notice if someone did that with me. It’s like using “tomAYto” and ‘toMAHto” in the same conversation, or mischievous and “mischEEVEEous.”

              • I say either, and I say either / I say neither, and I say neither / Either, either; neither, neither / Let’s call the whole thing off…

                Despite my occasionally lackadaisical attitude towards pronunciation and the rare grammatical exceptions I make if the song is otherwise pleasant enough (“I can’t help but thinking / It’s a long way down” from Guster’s “Long Way Down” being one example), I am rather prescriptivist when it comes to word definitions. I will draw a line if a song uses a word or phrase incorrectly in a way that may create a misconception about what it means.

          • OK, there is a pop song that includes two different pronunciations of “everybody”. Unfortunately, I can’t come up with the title, only the line. In the chorus or bridge or whatever, the singer sings “Ev’rybody want to-ooh-ooh” (clearly 2 syllables on the “every”) then repeats. Then the third iteration is an exaggerated “ev-er-ybody want to-ooh-ohh” (clear 3 syllable “every”). Ah such poetry. Not to be considered justification for anything, just an anomaly. Thought it might be a Grand Funk song, but I don’t think that’s right. Maybe someone can get it.

          • I have responded/replied because I am trying to wrap my thoughts around this position.

            After a lot of thought and discussions with Lord Remington Winchester Burger, I, Esq., Dog of Letters on our bi-daily walkypoos, I must state that I disagree with the position that a lyricist or playwrite or songwriter should follow certain rules for lyrics, and not following those rules or conventions within the context of a certain song or work is either lazy or lowest bar of writing resulting in an ethics breach. That seems awfully restrictive.

            The lyrics, as a general rule, should to fit the song and structure of the music and convey the writer’s message, although there are wonderful exceptions to the general rule. Rush’s “The Camera Eye” is a prime example of words and music blending for an incredible composition. Queen’s “Killer Queen” and George Harrison’s “Tax Man” are good examples of clever lyrics that don’t necessarily follow the cadence of the song. If you want a real wordsmith, Juan LuĂ­s Guerra is mindbogglingly wonderful.

            I confess that there might be some unwritten convention in musicals to conform to one particular pronouncement of a word or phrase but I am not sure about that – I am not a musicals expert as I don’t really care for the genre (I admit to being a philistine). I do agree that many, many pop songs are simply awful, both musically and lyrically, and most are written with commercial appeal over artistic expression (take any Taylor Swift song as your paradigm of schmaltzy song writing).


        • You reminded me of another unprofessional aspect of that lyric: it makes it obvious that the words were written to fit the music, and not the other way around. The good lyricists make it impossible to tell, like Lorenz Hart. I still find it amazing that the words to “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” seem so organic with the melody, but Rodgers always wrote the music first. (With Rodgers and Hammerstein,”it was the other way around. If the song is well-written, it’s impossible to tell.

          • I can agree with that. “All I want is a room somewhere” has a rhythm of its own, such that the music falls out naturally. For slightly more recent (if 56 years can be called ‘recent’) and a completely different genre, I’ve been enamored lately of Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset”. You may not like the song (I should say ‘one’ may not), but I sure can’t guess which came first, music or lyrics. As far as I know Davies wrote both lyrics and music. I’d be interested in your take.

  3. Our tastes surely differ. I am glad to finally hear of the closing of Phantom. The music and the singing in the matinee version I saw was nothing but screeching. Glad to see it go! The same goes for CATS.

  4. The ethics issue is integrity, and I know some readers are going to decide that the topic of cheating in hit Broadway show lyrics is too trivial to think about.

    Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world
    Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before
    Let your soul take you where you long to be

    Nobody noticed. Oh, all right, I hadn’t noticed either, after wearing out the LP as a kid and seeing the musical on stage and screen many times.

    Softly, deftly, music shall surround you
    Feel it, hear it closing in around you

  5. Side note on “hung” vs. “hanged.”

    The director of a community theatre production in the town where I used to teach asked me to play a small part in his show. I don’t remember the specific circumstances–maybe someone dropped out unexpectedly?-only that I didn’t audition for the show.

    Anyway, I was cast in this mystery/comedy as the creepy butler who was actually an undercover cop. The bad guy figured out who I really was, and I was dispatched. My body was discovered when the door to a secret passage slid open. A strategically place piece of furniture hid my feet from audience view, so what they saw was my body from the knees up with a noose around my neck and the rope, taut, extending up out of sight, They didn’t see that I was standing on an 18″ platform.

    The female lead on the opposite side of the stage was supposed to exclaim, “He’s been hanged!” Needless to say, she didn’t: “He’s hung!” One of the other actors, much closer to me, muttered (I doubt anyone else heard him) “I won’t ask how she knows that.” Dammit, I’m supposed to be dead over here…

  6. Sometimes artistic license can be a bit annoying but in the overall scheme of theatrical art these kinds of thing don’t really bother me too much.

    On the other hand; one artistic choice that bugs me is when there are two or more people on various spots on a stage singing completely different words and sometimes a completely different melody, my pea brain has never been able to grasp what’s being presented until I read the lyrics in the score.

    • Nobody’s can, Steve. Gilbert and Sullivan did this, but only after having both sets of lyrics oresented individually before they were sung simultaneously. Sondheim, in contrast, seemed to delight in having two completely different sets of lyrics sung at the same time with no guidance whatsoever.

      • Jack Marshall wrote, “Sondheim, in contrast, seemed to delight in having two completely different sets of lyrics sung at the same time with no guidance whatsoever.”

        Plus Sondheim had an annoying habit of squeezing a completely ridiculous amount of words into a short space in a fast moving melody, it takes talent to sing it but, arrgh!!!

        As for the My Fair Lady words, there were some more of those “hung vs hanged” word choices later in the show that the cast and I came across when I directed the show, I’d have to reread my script and notes to figure out what they were. I attributed the later ones to the fact that Higgins was changing due to Eliza’s effect on him which I intentionally over emphasized in my direction of the show, there was no such excuse for the “hung vs hanged” especially that early in the script.

        • The same blogger who complained about “hung” mocked Lerner for putting this howler in the mouth of a supposed English grammar expert:

          “I’d be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever let a woman in my life.”

            • Why? Perhaps it is tongue in cheek slap at the aristocracy, considering that the speaker/singer is a supposed world famous expert on the English language. That grammatical blunder is made up for by this part:

              “But, let a woman in your life
              And your sabbatical is through
              In a line that never ends comes an army of her friends
              Come to jabber and to chatter
              And to tell her what the matter is with you!”

              “She’ll have a booming boisterous family
              Who will descend on you en mass
              She’ll have a large Wagnarian mother
              With a voice that shatters glass”

              “Let a woman in your life
              Let a woman in your life
              I shall never let a woman in my life”


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