By Lynn Ahrens
As a lyricist for stage and film, I’ve been privileged to have my work performed by some of the greatest singers of our time—from opera star Bryn Terfel to Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, from the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, to the dazzling soprano, Audra McDonald. In my heart of hearts, I wish I could sing like these artists—with ease, clarity, and bravura. But that wish won’t be coming true any time soon. I have a small, airy voice that can carry a tune but wouldn’t carry past the footlights, much less reach to the last row of a theater. (I do sound pretty good in the shower, though.)
Luckily, I can write. And having auditioned many hundreds of actors over the
years for my own shows, I’ve noticed that it isn’t always the person with the best voice who wins a singing role. Very often we writers are even more persuaded by the intelligence, passion, charm, or emotional honesty a performer is able to convey through the lyrics. In fact, lyrics can show off your abilities in an audition just as effectively as hitting a high C. You don’t necessarily need a “big voice” to put across a song.
Music is mysteriously able to evoke deep feelings and moods in a powerful, nonverbal, and sometimes even subliminal way. It’s pure emotion. My longtime collaborator, composer Stephen Flaherty, is a master musical dramatist, and the music he creates is as evocative as any you will find written for theater.
But it is the lyrics of songs that allow us to literally sing stories, present ideas, and delineate characters. Lyrics are a different kind of music, providing opportunities for acting and storytelling that are every bit as compelling as the spoken scenes in a great play or the highest and most thrilling notes in a song.
Whether it’s a rousing ballad like “I Was Here” from our show The Glorious Ones, the tense drama of “Your Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime, a light, comic number such as “It’s Possible” from Seussical, or the intimate and simple “Love Who You Love” from A Man of No Importance, I work hard to make lyrics that are conversational and accessible. There’s no “replay” button in live performance, so an audience needs to be able to “get” a song in exactly one listening. In striving for clarity, I also make sure that words and phrases are not mis-accented on the wrong “syll-AH-ble” and that rhymes don’t distract the ear by being too fancy. I line up words so they roll easily off the singer’s tongue. And I try to imbue a sense of poetry and imagery, creating word pictures in the lyrics that help the listener “see” what all the singing is about.
Of course, as a performer you’ll always try to sing as well as you possibly can. But if you pay close attention to the lyrics, a song can become not only a showcase for your voice, but also a showcase for you as a person. By all means show off your fantastic “money notes” and your four-octave range. But also choose songs with lyrics that reveal your personality and your heart. That’s just as important.
Whether you plan to perform on a stage or in the shower like me, I hope every
one of our vocal selections will provide you with opportunities not only to sing some beautiful tunes, but also to express yourself truthfully, personally, and compellingly in lyrics.
Please visit our website, ahrensandflaherty.com.