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If It Doesn't Rhyme, I Don't Mind

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Aug 20, 2018

In defense of musical theatre lyrics with imperfect rhymes

I'm a hard-core musical theatre nerd and I don't understand why so many people gripe about lyrics featuring imperfect rhymes. They don't bother me. In fact, I sometimes prefer them since they're more surprising than perfect rhymes such as love and dove (yawn).

Imperfect rhymes work especially well when you're going for a laugh because jokes are only funny if you can't see the punch line coming. I cracked up the first time I heard: "Don't be a penis/The man is a genius" from Something Rotten! (lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick) and: "Please read the words within/We were Jews who met with Christ/But we were all-American" from The Book of Mormon (lyrics by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I realize a lot of knowledgeable people believe imperfect rhymes (or -- if you're fancy -- assonances) are lazy. Tony Award-winning The Band's Visit songwriter David Yazbek even said so. But while I admire Yazbek's incredible perfect-rhyme skills (see "A house in the Bahamas, paisley silk pajamas/Poker with Al Roker and our friend Lorenzo Lamas" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), I disagree with his blanket assessment. I think obvious perfect rhymes are easier to come up with than ingenious false ones. Where's the artistry if I can predict every single rhyme every gosh darn time? (See what I mean?)

I also dismiss the criticism that imperfect rhymes are only okay in pop music. Why can't musical theatre be pop music? It was back in the Golden Age of perfectly rhyming musical theatre. But times and tastes have changed, and Broadway has been embracing what we now call pop music for a while. Just look at Hair: The show's original cast recording spent 13 weeks at the top of the Billboard pop charts in 1969, and a medley of its songs "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" was a hit for the band The 5th Dimension. In it, you'll find the false rhyme: "Harmony and understanding/Sympathy and trust abounding," but it works because the music is catchy and you want to sing along, as evidenced by how often I croon it in the shower.

Even the beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda uses imperfect rhymes! Hamilton's opening lyrics are: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten/Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" Miranda fuses the styles and traditions of hip-hop and musical theatre, so it makes sense for him to use rhymes both perfect and false.

Looking back at this past Broadway season, after The Band's Visit (yes, I still love you, David Yazbek!), the songs I found most memorable were from SpongeBob SquarePants. The numbers were written by a jaw-dropping roster of pop stars, a few of whom had already crossed over to Broadway (Cyndi Lauper who won a Tony for Kinky Boots, and Sara Bareilles who penned the tunes for Waitress). Unsurprisingly, imperfect rhymes are rampant, but they didn't put a damper on my enjoyment. I was especially impressed with Panic! At the Disco's clever couplet: "Employee of the month two years in a row/Undisputed master of my own dojo" from "(Just a) Simple Sponge."

So to those who scoff at imperfect rhymes, I say rules are meant to be broken. I'll take insightful lyrics and smart wordplay over perfect rhymes any day.


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.