STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Rhymes Have I

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Rhymes Have I At the beginning of They're Playing Our Song, successful composer Vernon Gersch is interviewing budding lyricist Sonia Walsk as his possible new collaborator. "Personally," he tells her, "I don't go for things like 'Let's play two sets in Massachusetts, but I admire the skill."

At the beginning of They're Playing Our Song, successful composer Vernon Gersch is interviewing budding lyricist Sonia Walsk as his possible new collaborator. "Personally," he tells her, "I don't go for things like 'Let's play two sets in Massachusetts, but I admire the skill."

Ah, The Tricky Rhyme! But, at the risk of offending both Gersch and his creator Neil Simon, there isn't all that much skill in matching "two sets" with "Massachusetts," because you really wouldn't emphasize the word "two" when saying "two sets;" you'd stress "sets" -- and you wouldn't stress "MassachuSETTS."

But would Gersch really care, given that in the show, he's a pop songwriter? For The Tricky Rhyme is rarely used in that world, or in the realm of rock, jazz, or country.

No, the only place where this clever and amusing lyric form abounds is in musical theater. The Tricky Rhyme is one of our most cherished customs, one that most of our lyricists have embraced. Such as Wright and Forrest, who, when creating Kismet, matched "Nineveh" with "din of a." Dick Vosburgh paired "circulate" with "work you late" in Windy City. And Jerry Herman had Mack Sennett state that, by putting hundreds of girls on the screen, "Each fella from Duluth to Atlanta sees / all of his fantasies."

Even Oscar Hammerstein, who certainly preferred substance over style, wasn't above using The Tricky Rhyme in Flower Drum Song -- when he pointed out that on "Grant Avenue / you can't have a new / way of living." Seems that even late in his career, Hammerstein could have a new way of rhyming. When Rodgers worked with Hammerstein, did he miss The Tricky Rhymes to which he'd become accustomed with Lorenz Hart? Hammerstein never did anything to rival Hart's super-deft wordplay, such as in "To Keep My Love Alive" from the 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee. Here Morgan Le Fay, when speaking of her failed relationships (they failed, incidentally, because she had a Roxie Hart-ish heart), sang, "Sir Athelstane indulged in fratricide / He killed his dad, and that was patricide / One night I stabbed him by my mattress side." What's so wonderful, of course, is that we saw the rhyme coming -- but as "matricide." Hart, though, wouldn't settle for that.

"To Keep My Love Alive" was the final lyric of Hart's distinguished career. It is one that makes us all wish that he could have kept himself alive for many more years and many more shows.

In Little Me, the young Belle Poitrine tells the miserly Mr. Pinchley that "No man is a true pariah, deep down inside" before later adding that "No man is a true Uriah Heep down inside." Is there any doubt that Leigh was a great lyricist deep down inside, not to mention one who could appreciate David Copperfield? (The book, not the magician.)

Stephen Schwartz has Pippin's grandmother tell the lad that "When your best days are yester / The rest're / twice as dear." in a Tricky Rhyme that's thrice as dear as many others. Pippin's father is no less clever, when telling his son and his troops "Now listen to me closely / I'll endeavor to explain / What separates a charlatan / from a Charlemagne." That's what separates a great lyricist from a good one.

Still doubt that Schwartz is one? Take a gander at his artful "It's an Art" from Working. Here, devoted waitress Dolores Dante sings, "Though the chef / may be deaf / I stay diplomatic / If I give him static / he might burn the haddock." If that doesn't seem so right when you're reading it, remember that lyrics are written to be heard from the stage, not read from the page. And many people do, after all, pronounce "haddock" as "hattick." (In a similar vein, Alan Jay Lerner had Guenevere in Camelot hook "pedestal" with "better still." Which is why to so many of us, Lerner has belonged on a pedestal.)

E.Y. Harburg sometimes bent the rules of The Tricky Rhyme, when creating his own pronunciations of words to force perfect rhymes. "Nicholas" with "ri-dick-o-lus" in 1951's Flahooley is one of many examples. But Harburg played by The Tricky Rhyme rules in the same show's opening song that claimed we'd all be happy if we had a puppet around to amuse us. "Why be bothered by psychiatry? Buy a tree," he urged, "and carve yourself a puppet."

Harburg reached his zenith four years earlier in Finian's Rainbow, not only when he claimed "No one will see the Irish or the Slav in you / for when you're on Park Avenue," but also when he employed a different type of wordplay. Leprechaun Og, when musing on his own promiscuity, says, "When I can't fondle the hand that I'm fond of, I fondle the hand at hand." Handsome!

A year later, Cole Porter did something similar in Kiss Me, Kate. In "Always True to You in My Fashion" he had a femme fatale state that "Mr. Harris, plutocrat / wants to give my cheek a pat" -- which she'll allow "If the Harris pat / Means a Paris hat." To quote a line from a subsequent Porter show, c'est magnifique!

Now some may say, wait a minute, you took Sonia Walsk to task for having a false accent, and Porter had one right there in pluto-CRAT. (We would, after all, say PLUto-crat.) Yeah, but given that he followed it with three rhymes (to Walsk's mere one), I think we can look the other way on that one.

Porter needs none of our indulgence in his supreme Tricky Rhyme achievement in Anything Goes, when he had Reno Sweeney opine that "Fly- / ing so high / with some guy / in the sky / is my i- / dea of nothing to do." Five perfect, correctly accents in one sentence! Wow!

And to think that this wasn't Porter's first choice. His original lyric was "I shouldn't care / for those nights in the air / that the fair / Mrs. Lindbergh goes through" -- which contained a "mere" four rhymes. He didn't replace it because he wanted the line to be 25 percent stronger, but made the change after the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Porter felt that he shouldn't call any needless attention to the bereaved mother.

One of my favorite Tricky Rhymes is one that, ironically enough, I cannot claim to accurately quote. I only heard it once, while sitting through the 1989 revival of Chu Chem. Because the show went cast-album-less, I can only try to remember a song in which a female character complained about hr husband's employing a double standard in demanding that she be faithful. When the rhyme-set-up line ended with the word "prism," I immediately thought, what could possible rhyme with "prism"?

Lyricists Jack Haines and Jim Wohl had the answer: "If he can have a harem, then I can have a his'm."

But of course a review of The Tricky Rhyme would be incomplete without examining the career of (shall we all say it in unison?) Stephen Sondheim. Has he ever written a show in which we haven't received one terrifically Tricky Rhyme to bring a smile of admiration?

Contractions have helped. In West Side Story, there's "punk'll" and "uncle." In Gypsy, "bum'll" and "Brummell." Company yielded "squabble" and "Bob'll."

(Truth to tell, one of Sondheim's contraction Tricky Rhymes didn't sit so well on my ears when I first heard it, during the Boston tryout of Follies. In the opening number, there was Roscoe singing "beauty celestial / the best, you'll / agree." Except that I heard it as "beauty celestial, the bestial agree.") How, I wondered, were beasts relevant to Beautiful Girls?)

But Sondheim has of course scored even when he hasn't had the luxury of contractions. Follies offered "Utmost" and "cut most," "warn you" and "cornu / copia." Night Music yielded "boa" and "so a- / dept" and "hopelessly shattered / by Saturd- ay night." Merrily has "Leontyne Price to sing her / medley from Meistersinger." And even in the much-maligned Do I Hear a Waltz? there's Leona signing about the virtues of songs in three-quarter time: "Such lovely blue Danube-y / music, how can you be / still?"

Nevertheless, to me Sondheim's ace trumps can be found in two songs he wrote for Follies. First, in "Can That Boy Fox Trot?" he had Carlotta rationalize her dim-witted lover's deficiencies by arguing, "But who needs Albert Schweitzer / when the lights're / low?"

Even better: In "Uptown-Downtown," he had Phyllis deal with her own dichotomy by stating, "She sits/ at the Ritz / with her splits / of Mumms / but then she pines / for some steins / with her village chums / but with a Schlitz / in her mitts/ down at Fitz- / roy's bar / she thinks of the Ritz, oh / it's so / schizo." That's 11 (count 'em, 11) rhymes in two sentences worth of words.

The kicker is, of course, that these two songs didn't survive the Boston tryout, but respectively gave way to "I'm Still Here" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." Many other lyricists wouldn't have been able to part company with such brilliant work, but Sondheim didn't think he had the best songs for each spot, and that was enough to make him replace them.

No wonder Vernon Gersch told Sonia Walsk, "Steve is good. I love Steve's work."

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic of the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com