A new anthology of English and American lyrics, "Reading Lyrics," culling material from the ragtime era to the 1970s — including some of the 20th century's great theatre lyrics — is on bookstore shelves now.
Edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, the volume from Pantheon Book (706 pages, $39.50) is likely to both thrill and frustrate fans of musical theatre and the pre-rock popular song.
The book's lyrics begin with George M. Cohan, who broke with the tradition of European operetta, and continues to around 1975. By 1975, the authors write, the era of songs in the old tradition "was over" despite Kander and Ebb and some others who have written songs that will likely last. "In a few cases — Stephen Sondheim is the obvious example — this has meant excluding the interesting later work of contemporary writers, but only in a few cases," the authors write in their introduction.
"We decided to focus on those who had written at least three songs we really liked," write Gottlieb and Kimball.
They suggest the last 25 years have not created many talented lyric writers. Theatre fans may disagree: Maury Yeston and Howard Ashman are not represented, but Dory Previn and Marilyn and Alan Bergman are. The authors say it was "painful" for them to limit the volume "to the song as we know it from movies, shows, and pre-rock pop."
"Partly," they write, "this was a matter of logistics: No single volume could stretch to include folk, country, blues and rock. And though a collection of lyrics that excludes, say, Bob Dylan or Hank Williams is obviously one that is far from complete, their stories are not the stories we can tell here (or are equipped to tell)."
Gottlieb is the editor of the book, "Reading Jazz." Kimball is the musical theatre expert and editor of "The Complete Lyrics" series from Knopf, which has offered the words of Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and (forthcoming) Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser.
They write, "Our hope is that this book will serve readers in several ways — as a work of reference, as a chronicle of tastes and talents, as pure pleasure. We regret the absence of somebody else's favorites and hope for a happy response to our own."
Among the better-known theatre and film lyricists represented are: Otto Harbach, George M. Cohan, P.G. Wodehouse, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Irving Berlin, Maxwell Anderson, Noble Sissle, Cole Porter, Al Dubin, Ted Koehler, Arthur Freed, B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson, Leo Robin, Lorenz Hart, Irving Caesar, Oscar Hammerstein II, E.Y. Harburg, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Noel Gay, Noel Coward, Meredith Willson, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Fields, Harold Rome, Johnny Burke, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Sammy Cahn, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Robert Wright and George Forrest, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, John Latouche, Bob Hilliard, Alan Jay Lerner, Bob Merrill, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Marshall Barer, Sandy Wilson, Lee Adams, Sheldon Harnick, Carolyn Leigh, Stephen Sondheim, Lionel Bart, Leslie Bricusse, Jerry Herman, Fred Ebb, Richard Maltby Jr.
There is also a section called "Coda," which includes lyrics that were the only significant hits by a certain songwriter ("By the Light of the Silvery Moon" by Edward Madden, in 1909, for example, or Edward Kleban's "One," from A Chorus Line).
More than 1,000 lyrics are included in the book.
— By Kenneth Jones