Professor—and Broadway fan—E.J. White's latest book, You Talkin' to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English (out now from Oxford University Press), is a fascinating look at the every-changing slang and colloquialism of New York City. And one of the ways in which contemporary speech spread across the country was in the popularity of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters and Broadway composers of the early 20th century, a tradition that carries on with today's musical theatre writers.
Below, Professor White shares the ways in which newy minted phrases have been preserved and popularized by musicals, right up to today. Ohmigod you guys!
The lyricists who wrote the American Songbook often found inspiration in the latest turns of speech. Irving Berlin read the term “heatwave” in a newspaper and turned it into a sultry hook: “She started a heatwave by letting her seat wave.” Cole Porter, traditionally recognized as the most white-shoe of the Tin Pan Alley lyricists, filled his songs with slang and phrases of recent coinage: you’re the top; I get a kick out of you; anything goes; how long has his been going on; who cares; I hit the ceiling; my one and only; I’ve got a crush on you.
They passed their gift for hearing poetry on the sidewalk to Broadway, whose traditions they helped to lay down. Down through the history of musical theater from Dorothy Fields’ witty flirtations to Stephen Sondheim’s spiraling patter to today, one thing that has remained consistent about Broadway songs is their capacity to find music in, and make music from, the latest styles of speaking.
“Musical theater grabs the vernacular,” says Greg Pliska, a composer who often works in New York’s musical theater scene. “Not just everyday language, but the vernacular.”
How do you find poetry in everyday speech? One way is to twist the meaning of a phrase. Consider the case of Ira Gershwin, who wrote lyrics for dozens of musicals, including An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess. Gershwin remarked that he learned his craft in part by playing with strict poetic forms as a teenager, drawing on the emphasis on poetry in his school’s curriculum: “In my late teens, I fooled around with French verse forms, such as the triolet, villanelle, and especially the rondeau—with its opening phrase taking on new meanings when repeated.”
A song’s refrain, likewise, often works by taking on new meanings when repeated. One common structure for Broadway songs is A-A-B-A, where A is a version of the chorus and B is the bridge (a section of the song that switches up the melody and beat). Lyricists often find it useful to work new meanings into the chorus and refrain as they repeat, thus achieving a larger dramatic arc within the song’s length. Ira Gershwin reported that his hardest chore while composing a song was to get the title phrase, which was also the refrain, right; having accomplished this, he would then move straight “to the last line” of the song, in an effort “to work the title in again; with a twist, if possible.”
We can find a classic example of such a twist in Sondheim’s “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along, 1981). The speaker uses a colloquial phrase that first entered use in the 20th century, "We had a good thing going," to describe a blooming relationship. At the song’s close, he explains—giving the phrase a twist—that the relationship is over: “We had a good thing going, going, gone.”
Another strategy is to find music by exaggerating the musical qualities already present in the spoken phrase. Sondheim decided this would be his strategy after he went to the archives and saw that it worked for Porter. “When I write with myself, I do what Cole Porter did,” he once told an interviewer. “I went through his papers at the Library of Congress, and he would take his title line, like “It was just one of those things,” and he would write it out rhythmically—it was just one of those things—on music paper, but with no notes attached, only the rhythm. And from that he would extrapolate the melody. The inflection of the title would give him the rise and fall of the melody, and the rhythm of the title would give him the rhythm of the melody.”
Sometimes songwriters find music in a whole way of speaking, not just a word or phrase. In Legally Blonde (2007), the song “Omigod You Guys” makes a bop out of Valley Girl “uptalk,” where speakers add a rising intonation every few words. The lyrics are broken into very short lines, so that the music can rise to match the rising intonation: “Dear Elle / he’s a lucky guy / I’m like gonna cry / I got tears comin’ out of my nose!”
The past 20 years have delivered another wave of fresh idioms turned into song: it sucks to be you, wait for it, omigod you guys, living it up, stick it to the man, when the chips are down, man up, word to the wise, don’t be so vanilla, it’s a lot to process, there is cool shit to do, don’t be freaked. And more and more, theatrical songwriters are exploring dialects other than Standard American English, such as Puerto Rican English (In the Heights), New York City English (Bullets Over Broadway), African American Vernacular English (Hamilton), and Newfoundland English (Come from Away).
Maybe the secret reason songwriters love to grab the vernacular—aside from the need to reach audiences in their own moment—is that lifting chatter into song embraces, even celebrates, the idea that theater is exaggerated, enthusiastic, tap-dances over the line into being too much. So keep talking; you never know when a turn of phrase might lead you to say—to quote a lyric by Dorothy Fields—“I feel a song coming on.”
E.J. White is an assistant professor of English at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on the future of textual culture in the internet age and the history of the English language. She is the author of The Republic of Games: Textual Culture Between Old Books and New Media (McGill-Queen's University Press 2018).