Word Crazy

Lyricists take center stage in WORD CRAZY. Thomas S. Hischak, associate professor of theater history and criticism at the State University of New York—Cortland, critically surveys the role of the lyricist in the evolution of the American musical. Eighteen lyricists, spanning some ninety years, are discussed in terms of strengths, weaknesses, style, and temperament.

The lyrics themselves are evaluated from various perspectives: literarily, on their construction; dramatically, on their contribution to character and plot; and practically, on their performability for singers. By presenting the appreciation of lyrics as multidimensional, Hischak reinforces his case for their significance to the richness of the experience of musical theater.

In his introduction, the author states his intention to try to distinguish fairly between “Hit Parade lyricists”—such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, who write non-show-specific lyrics that travel easily to popular song charts—and “playwright lyricists”—such as Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics reveal character and advance plot in the context of a particular musical. While he does put these “camps” in perspective of one another in his chronological approach, Hischak, himself a playwright, betrays a bias toward the latter. Meanwhile, his professional experience in the theater affords him awareness of the “business” of the American musical, in which careers depend on the popularity of the production and the health of the economy. In addition, Hischak deserves applause for his conscientiousness in including women and African Americans in his survey.

Geared to a general readership with at least a casual interest in the subject, the book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. The latest musical Hischak addresses is 1989’s CITY OF ANGELS; his identification of trends throughout the book culminates in a closing chapter titled, “The Writing on the Wall: The 1980’s.” After reading this mildly speculative coda, the nagging question remains: Why are so many of the talents Hischak celebrates composers or librettists as well as lyricists? The book insists on identifying the lyricist as the creator of “the voice of the theatre"; does this sentiment fully grasp the phenomenon of musical theater as collaborative art?