“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.”
From the Ethics Alarms mailbag came an inquiry about the latest kerfuffle over the upcoming live action version of “The Little Mermaid.” There are two great production numbers in the original, both sung by a crab: the Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea” and the more sedate “Kiss the Girl,” in which Ariel’s devoted crustacean friend urges Prince Eric, Ariel’s secret love, to take the plunge and kiss the magically land-bound fish-woman.
Here are the original lyrics:
There you see her Sitting there across the way She don’t got a lot to say But there’s something about her And you don’t know why But you’re dying to try You wanna kiss the girl
Yes, you want her Look at her, you know you do Possible she wants you too There is one way to ask her It don’t take a word Not a single word Go on and kiss the girl
Sing with me now Sha-la-la-la-la-la My oh my Look like the boy too shy Ain’t gonna kiss the girl Sha-la-la-la-la-la Ain’t that sad? Ain’t it a shame? Too bad, he gonna miss the girl
Now’s your moment (ya, ya, ya) Floating in a blue lagoon (ya, ya, ya) Boy, you better do it soon No time will be better (ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya) She don’t say a word And she won’t say a word Until you kiss the girl
Sha-la-la-la-la-la Don’t be scared (sha-la, sha-la-la ya, ya, ya) You got the mood prepared (woah, woah) Go on and kiss the girl Sha-la-la-la-la-la Don’t stop now (sha-la, sha-la-la ya, ya, ya) Don’t try to hide it how You want to kiss the girl (woah, woah) Sha-la-la-la-la-la Float along (sha-la, sha-la-la) And listen to the song The song say kiss the girl (woah, woah) Sha-la-la-la-la-la The music play (ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya) Do what the music say You got to kiss the girl You’ve got to kiss the girl Oh, don’t you wanna kiss the girl You’ve gotta kiss the girl Go on and kiss the girl
Via the surviving member of the team that wrote the songs in “Mermaid” (and better yet, “Little Shop of Horrors”), Alan Menken, we learned this week that Disney, which is too woke for its own good these days (and ours), ordered up some lyric changes in the song because “people have gotten very sensitive about the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel].”
Lots of excellent comments around the blog this week, perhaps because the number of quality comments tends to be inverse to the number of posts I’m able to put up. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Tuesday’s Open Forum, which, I am told, contains many treasures.
I’m putting up two Comments of the Day that resulted from the two Christmas music posts. The first is unusually short for a COTD, but it made me laugh out loud, which is hard to do these days. Joel Mundt was commenting on a Christmas song from Hell called “Fairytale of New York” that Steve-O was kind enough to plant on our brains. The upbeat ditty’s lyrics:
You’re a bum You’re a punk You’re an old slut on junk Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed You scumbag, you maggot You cheap lousy faggot Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last
For some reason, just like the Hallmark cable channels, the satellite radio monopoly Sirius-XM has gone nuts this pre-Christmas season. I count six channels devoted to Christmas music, and I’m sure there are some other buried in there. There are two traditional Christmas music stations that appear to be playing the same songs and recordings; a Country Christmas channel, which means really bad compositions like “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” a poor rip-off of the slightly less revolting, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and better songs and carols sung with a twang; a Gospel Christmas channel, and “Nativity,” which includes only carols and songs referencing Jesus, and “Holly,” which avoid religious references completely and is required listening if you want to know how few modern Christmas ballads deserve annual airing. I could two: “Last Christmas,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” neither of which can be sung around a piano anywhere but backstage at the Grammys.
I been forcing myself to listen to all of it for days, and have reached some rueful conclusions:
In their rush to avoid referring to Jesus, the programmers over-play the established Winter Solstice canon to the point of madness. We’re talking “Snowfall,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got Your Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Sleighride,” “It’s a Marshmallow World,” “Let It Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman,’ and of course, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by every possible artist, over and over. None of these songs are about Christmas, but if you’re a Druid, I suppose they are appropriate and festive.
At least some versions have lyric changes made to refer to Christmas. Sometimes Frosty says, instead of “I’ll be back again some day!” that he’ll be back on Christmas day. (Is Frosty some kind of a weird Christ figure?). In Winter Wonderland, Farmer Brown’s birthday party is sometimes turned into a Christmas party.
Boy, the ex-Beatles’ attempts at Christmas songs are awful, especially John Lennon’s, with its depressive message, and the lame and gloomy couplet,
It is also the last popular Christmas song to be written with a religious theme. Think about that, and what it says about the status of religion in U.S. culture.
I know this is a personal preference, but when Bing Crosby’s recordings come on, his warm, smooth, impeccably-crafted delivery just blows everyone else out of the metaphorical water. Yes, even Old Blue Eyes.
Christmas keeps Bing’s legacy alive, though in an unfairly narrow context. We will never hear a voice like that again, I fear.
Having been forced to listen to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until it kept me awake at night, I have concluded that the suddenly au courant criticism of the song—bullying, you know—is baloney. It teaches the valuable lesson that being a target and a victim need not be permanent, and that if one has character and develops skills, there will be opportunities to prove one’s critics wrong.
At the risk of being repetitive (I’ve know I mentioned many of these before), here are some Christmas song lyrics that could be, and in some cases, should be, fixed.
What’s a drummer doing by the manger, with a baby sleeping? This has bothered me since the first time I heard “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Speaking of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”: I get the wind talking to the lamb, and I’ll even accept the lamb talking to the shepherd boy, but I’ve never understood how the boy had a chance to meet the mighty king, much less tell him to bring the child “silver and gold.”
Listen to Bobby Helms sing his 1957 hit “Jingle Bell Rock,” and then tell me he doesn’t keep singing “feet” when the lyrics obviously are “beat.” Amazingly, some covers of this song also seem to be singing “feet.”
Dumbest Christmas lyric of all time: The Beach Boys’ repeated (In “Little Saint Nick”) “Christmas comes this time each year.”
I’m tempted to nominate “see the kids bunch” from “Silver Bells” for the second worst. That requires assuming that “then we got upsot” in Jingle Bells is an intentional howler.
The lovely and wistful World War II Christmas ballad “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” refers to “presents on the tree.” Who hangs presents on a Christmas tree? How would you do that? Many recent versions substitute “”round” for on. Good.
The late Andy Williams’ Christmas standard, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he lists ‘scary ghost stories” as a feature of Christmas. I know the song is referring to “A Christmas Carol,” but that’s a single ghost story. Andy makes Christmas sound like Halloween…
Finally, here’s an example of how attention to tone and craft improved a Christmas song and allowed it to become, deservedly, a classic.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is certainly somber, but having been through some sad Christmases, it’s an essential part of the canon, and a wonderful song. It almost was too sad, however. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, who wrote the song ” for Judy Garland’s 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, originally had the lyrics…
Have yourself a merry little Christmas It may be your last… Next year we may all be living in the past…
Yikes! Judy Garland and others insisted on a revision, and the songwriters ultimately settled on …
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Let your heart be light… Next year all our troubles will be out of sight..
Another gloomy lyric that was vetoed:
No good times like the olden days Happy golden days of yore Faithful friends who were dear to us Will be near to us no more..
Nice. That one became,
Once again as in olden days Happy golden days of yore Faithful friends who are dear to us Will be near to us once more.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” is so stirring that it almost makes up for all other Christmas music botches.
This isn’t so much an ethics analysis as an expression of frustration. For a cultural holiday that relies so much on music, Christmas is wounded today by accumulated incompetence on that front, as well as a lack of diligence. Just a little more attention and industry could make the traditional repertoire so much better. You know those AT&T wireless commercials about how “good enough” isn’t good enough? That’s the issue in a nutshell. We have to hear these songs year after year. Can’t they be cleaned up?
Let’s begin with the traditional songs and carols that weren’t written to avoid the origins of Christmas. These are the strongest and most evocative of all the season’s songs, in contrast to the”popular” Christmas music that came down to us from Tin Pan Alley. I have to ask, though: What the hell is “I Saw Three Ships” about?
I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas day, on Christmas day, I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas day in the morning.
And what was in those ships all three? On Christmas day, on Christmas day, And what was in those ships all three? On Christmas day in the morning.
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there On Christmas day, on Christmas day, The Virgin Mary and Christ were there On Christmas day in the morning.
Pray whither sailed those ships all three? On Christmas day, on Christmas day, Pray whither sailed those ships all three? On Christmas day in the morning.
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem, On Christmas day, on Christmas day, Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem, On Christmas day in the morning.
I assumed that there was an acknowledged and well-researched metaphor buried here, but no, there really isn’t. The nearest body of water to Bethlehem is the Dead Sea, and it’s 20 miles away: Bethlehem is land-locked. Where were those ships coming from? How did Jesus and Mary end up on a ship, and why were three necessary? This is the fake news of Christmas Carols. The song makes no sense, so scholars and critics have been positing justifications for this nonsense, without any evidence at all other than, “It must mean something!” One batty theory is that the the three ships are references to the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Wikipedia concludes that the reference to three ships “is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.” Then the song has nothing to do with Christmas at all? The entry continues, “Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms “Azure three galleys argent”. Ah! It’s a song about a coat of arms! Sure! THAT makes sense. Then it goes on to a theory that I considered years ago along with everyone else, that the ships represent the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as “ships of the desert.” Continue reading →
This was in some respects the worst month in Ethics Alarms history, and I won’t be sorry to see it go. This weekend I will be spending more hours trying to cover ethics issues and developments while knowing that an even smaller group of readers will bother to consider them, as they will off at beaches and mountain retreats, or sweltering at backyard barbecues. I have to admit it’s discouraging, and makes what needs to feel important and stimulating feel like an unsatisfying slog instead. Well, if you’re reading this, it’s not your fault.
1. Ethics estoppel. I couldn’t believe I read more than one local account of last night’s Detroit-Yankee game, a crushing loss for New York, complaining that Tigers DH Victor Martinez’s game-tying homer in the 9th “wouldn’t have been a home run in any of the other 29 Major League stadiums.” Wow. The unmatched dominance of the New York Yankees over all of baseball has been significantly aided by its uniquely short right field fence ever since the original Yankee Stadium was built to provide cheap right field home runs to Babe Ruth, who hardly needed any help. Even though the shot to right isn’t as easy as it used to be (those old Yankee Stadium dimensions are illegal now), the Yankees still build their offense around that fence, and it is substantially responsible for the fact that the team leads all of baseball in home runs, and games won by cheap home runs.
Yankee fans and media are estopped from complaining when an opposing player benefits for a change. What utter gall!
2. Worst management ethics ever. President Trump is again tweeting about what a lousy job Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing. Is he trying to make Sessions resign? Why? Why doesn’t he just fire him? This is a guy who became famous using “You’re fired!” as a trademark. Undermining a subordinate in public can’t possible make him or her perform better. It also signifies a dysfunctional organization and chain of command. In Sessions’ case, it makes the target look like a pathetic weenie devoid of self- respect. If my boss complained in public about me, I would resign that very day, with a brief statement that no professional should have to endure such gratuitous abuse from a superior, and that I would not. Continue reading →
Joel earned Comment of the Day honors by writing,
A bit harsh, perhaps (my son, who is an afficianado of all pop music written after 1963 likes Paul’s Christmas song), especially when the competition for Worst Song Ever is so fierce. By all means, submit your nominees.
Joel’s COTD was in the Part II thread, about modern Christmas songs. Paul Compton’s Comment of the Day was in reaction to My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols.
His addendum about Bing Crosby’s star power compared to his disciples Frank and Dean also went straight to my heart… Continue reading →