Commentary: Getting It Right

May 11, 2020 | By

Is it my imagination, or are cabaret singers getting increasingly sloppy with lyrics? I suspect this malpractice has long existed—it’s just that I’ve been growing increasingly impatient with it. I’m not talking about going up in a lyric; anyone can have a momentary lapse. I’m talking about learning a lyric incorrectly and repeatedly performing it that way.

Frequently, it is clear that the performer has not thought about what (s)he’s singing. With “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” one sang “howdy neighbor, so long friend” instead of “howdy stranger, so long friend.” The song is about not remaining in one place for very long, so the changed lyric makes no sense. In doing “Losing My Mind,” another sang “not going left, not knowing right.” Where did that come from? Was he trying to improve on Sondheim? Singing “Gigi,” someone sang “was I out yonder blinking somewhere at a star?” Of course, the lyric is “was I out yonder somewhere blinking at a star?”, with blink rhyming with brink in the preceding line, “while you were trembling on the brink.” The singer had obviously never listened to what he was doing.

Another sang “Love me and leave me” instead of “Love me or leave me.” Where was his mind? I don’t remember whether he was the same one who, doing that same song, sang “I have today and give back tomorrow” instead of “To have it today, to give back tomorrow.”

There are reasons beyond professional pride and respect for the lyricist that should give you incentive to get the words right. Quite recently, in doing “Autumn Leaves,” instead of singing “Since you went away, the days grow long/and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,” the artist sang “…and still I’ll hear…” Mind you, she might actually have sung “…and still I hear…,” but I was so taken aback by the switch from soon to still that my attention was diverted. And that is one of the dangers of not doing the right lyrics: knowledgeable audience members will be taken out of the song and your interpretation. For however brief a period, you will have lost them.

I hasten to add that each of the errors I’ve cited was made repeatedly, so none was merely an accidental slip of the moment. What is more, none of the artists I’ve referred to so far, or the ones I’ll allude to in a moment, is a rookie. All of them are pros, and all of them are quite talented. They have simply not been as diligent or as demanding of themselves as they ought.

“There are reasons beyond professional pride
and respect for the lyricist that should give you
incentive to get the words right.”

Prepositions, adverbs, articles, and conjunctions seem to be especially problematic. Getting one of these small words wrong can alter the intended meaning, sometimes in subtle ways. For example, doing “Witchcraft,” one performer invariably sings “proceed to what you’re leading me to” instead of the original “proceed with what you’re leading me to.” The original preposition suggests a process, a continuation of what has begun, whereas the changed lyric suggests getting it over with. In David Friedman’s “My Simple Christmas Wish,” I have heard a few people sing “while I’m still stuck here schlepping through my life with all of you.” The correct lyric is “…schlepping through my life like all of you,” which is nastier than the erroneous lyric—and lord knows, one quality the singer of that song must communicate is meanness. I even heard one performer sing “…schlepping for my life…” Attention must be paid.

One source of incorrect words is taking lyrics from other people’s recordings, rather than from published sheet music. This is a bad idea. Grave errors have been made by some of the most prominent singers. For example, Jazz Radio in Berlin persists in playing a recording of “I Could Write a Book” in which a celebrated artist sings “And the simple secret of it all / Is just to tell them that I love you a lot” instead of “And the simple secret of the plot…” Ghastly.

Going to the Internet for lyrics is very iffy. The words given frequently reflect the version recorded by a particular artist, so be wary. For example, one Nina Simone web site lists a lyric for “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” as “while that breeze on high, sings a lullaby” instead of the correct lyric, “while the breeze on high/sang a lullaby.” (Cole Porter generally did not make grammatical errors.) Another Nina Simone site would have you believe that the lyric is “While that breeze on night, sings a lullaby”. Pathetic. Regardless of what errors Nina Simone may or may not have made, there is no excuse for your not getting it right.

By the way, a number of singers tend to substitute “that” for “the,” doubtless in an attempt to be cool or hip. For example, in doing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” one sang “that park across the way”. In fact, this practice is neither cool nor hip. What it is is tacky.

Fake books are aptly named; they are not a trustworthy source of lyrics. A singer-pianist sang an incorrect word in “Lazy Afternoon.” He told me afterwards that he had gotten the lyrics from a jazz fake book and could tell from the meter of the music that a word was missing from the lyrics—so, he stuck in a word that he thought might make sense. It kind of did, but it was wrong.

“Fake books are aptly named; they are not
trustworthy source of lyrics.”

Which takes me to the point that even if a revision does not alter the meaning of a song, you still have an obligation to respect the lyricist’s work and talent—even when the lyricist him/herself got it wrong. For example, Joan Osborne wrote “What if God was one of us?” instead of “What if God were one of us?”, and that’s the way it must be sung—though the error is enough to make any decent person shudder.

“Don’t Rain on My Parade” is another case in point. A lyric is “Your turn at bat, sir, at least I didn’t fake it./Hat, sir, I guess I didn’t make it.” I have always regretted that Bob Merrill did not write “…I guess I didn’t make it./…at least I didn’t fake it.”—a more logical progression. However, for better or worse, it is the original lyric that must be performed. (By the way, to do it as written requires an acting choice that I have never seen anyone make. Everyone sings the second line as though it followed the first logically and had equal weight. Rather, the second needs to be treated as a separate thought, and a step down from the first.) Once I did hear it done the way I would have it: In the 1970s, at the original Ballroom, Estelle Parsons sang “make it/fake it.” I was tickled pink, but I’d like to think she’d first gotten permission from Bob Merrill.

A common example of lyric modification is gender change. Whether because of personal discomfort or concern for audience reaction, many singers are loath to sing of love or passion for someone of the same sex. So, they go through hoops to avoid it. With “The Party’s Over,” men will sing “you danced and dreamed through the night/it seemed to be right/just being with her [or you].” The final pronoun is meant to rhyme with the last word in the line “the candles flicker and dim”; by not rhyming, this change calls more attention to the situation than if these men had sung the song with the original “him.”

“Whether because of personal discomfort or
concern for audience reaction, many
singers are loath to sing of love or passion
for someone of the same sex.”

With Cryer and Ford’s “Old Friend” (the one that begins “Every time I’ve lost another lover, I call up my old friend”), men will typically change the line “and wonders at my taste in men” to “…taste in friends.” Not only does it destroy the subsequent rhyme, “friends” is too weak a word to use when referring to lovers. Moreover, it is unclear: is the “old friend” questioning the singer’s decision regarding whom to call on for moral support?

There is a more critical problem here. Not only were the pronouns in “Old Friend” written for a woman, the entire song has a woman’s particular sensibility. It does not lend itself to a heterosexual male’s perspective (though, interestingly, with no changes it can accommodate a gay man’s point of view). Similarly, “Someone to Watch Over Me” has a decidedly feminine viewpoint; when men change the gender, the resulting lyrics fail careful scrutiny and the song rings false. Such a rendition can never realize the song’s full emotional dimension, no matter how good it is technically or how sensitive the singer is.

Though these are not men’s songs, I do not say that men must not sing them. What I suggest is that men sing the original lyrics, and that they base their interpretation on an appreciation of the perspective from which the songs were written. It’s called artistry, and it lies at the heart of what song interpretation in general, and cabaret singing in particular, are all about.

“What I suggest is that men sing the original lyrics,
and that they base their interpretation on
an appreciation of the perspective from which
the songs were written.”

There’s a recent twist on this issue. A number of gay singers change pronouns to avoid singing about the opposite sex. In doing “Some Enchanted Evening,” one man sang “you may see a stranger…/…that somewhere you’ll see them again and again.” That’s ungrammatical and sticks out like a sore thumb (although now that some people feel free to choose their own pronouns—either out of political correctness or to make a personal statement—that thumb may not stick out as far as it once did).

I grant that some songs can accommodate simple changes—such as “he” to “she”—without sacrificing rhyme or compromising their artistic essence, but be wary. Even when a change is relatively seamless, the unexpected is always a bit jolting to the listeners, taking them out of whatever mood you are trying to create. If your artistry is persuasive, you should have no problem sticking to the original gender. To the best of my recollection, Mabel Mercer always sang lyrics as written. And, when Barbara Cook would sing the lines “God made me one lucky man” and “you won’t know what love is/until you have loved Marianne” (in Jerry Herman’s “Marianne”), does anyone think she was outing herself?

When I was speaking with a singer about the importance of being meticulous with lyrics, he asked whether it weren’t more important to sing a song with passion and conviction. Look, of course a word-perfect but lackluster rendition won’t do—but this isn’t an either/or proposition. You must get both aspects right.

Finally, on the subject of respect for songwriters, don’t attribute a song to a singer who had a hit recording of it. One singer introduced “A Rainy Night in Georgia” as a Brook Benton song. Not so. The song was written by Tony Joe White, not by Benton. Another common mistake is attributing a song to the singer whose rendition was the first you heard; this flaunts the limitations of your own knowledge. After performing “At Last,” a singer said, “That was Etta James.” The hell it was. It is a Mack Gordon/Harry Warren song. What’s more, while Etta James’s 1961 recording was successful, Glenn Miller and Ray Eberle had the original hit recording of this 1942 standard, and Ray Anthony and Tommy Mercer made it a hit again ten years later. If you haven’t taken time to research the background of what you’re singing, that’s OK… but, then, know enough not to put your foot in your mouth and just sing the song. (To make matters worse, both of these singers are also songwriters! I wonder how they would feel if people who performed their songs failed to give them their due credit?)


A response from a reader…

After reading this commentary, Anton H. Disselkoen, a reader in Florida, sent me an email voicing an opinion and asking me to comment on it. Here is what he had to say:

I am a little dismayed at our attempt to make everything PC in our United States. Not that I want to go back to the insensitive ways of the past, but I think we have taken it too far. Even to the point of changing words of songs because they might dent our sensibilities. The words of “Ol’ Man River” [are] a case in point. Correcting the English “grammar” is obviously not what the [lyricists] had in mind. If they were portraying a country bumpkin or…an ethnic minority, they colored their lyrics to match the music and mood and story. I really don’t see that it should be a problem for “modern” audiences to accept that at the time of writing or the time portrayed in the play/musical, this was accepted speech.

From what I’ve said above and in other writings, you know that I am a stickler for staying true to original lyrics, so as you can imagine, I am in general agreement with this reader’s stance. Irving Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” is another case in point. Written in 1930, the song was introduced by Al Jolson in the film Mammy. A lyric goes “let me sing of Dixie’s charms/ of cotton fields and mammy’s arms.” Most people today sing that second line as “of Swanee’s shores and mother’s arms” or a variant thereof. I think that’s regrettable, not only because it wants authenticity, but also because the more formal word mother lacks the nostalgic warmth of the original.

I have seen a copy of the sheet music with these alternate lyrics in place of the original, so they may very well have been penned by Irving Berlin, himself. This doesn’t alter my opinion that the original words are superior qua lyric, but it does raise the issue of what one should do when songwriter-sanctioned alternate lyrics exist. I would say the answer depends on why the alternate lyrics were written. If a lyricist bowdlerized his own work because of puritanical broadcast- {I still don’t understand the use of the dash here, even tho you explained dit.} or film standards, I think one should thumb one’s nose at Mr. Bowdler and his modern-day counterparts and sing the original lyrics in every instance. For example, with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” one should always sing “but now, God knows/ anything goes” instead of “now heaven knows…” Similarly, with Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” one should sing “he’s a laugh, and I love it/ because the laugh’s on me” instead of “he may laugh, but I love it/ although the laugh’s on me,” and “couldn’t sleep/ and wouldn’t sleep/ until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep,” instead of “…till love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep.”

However, the factors can be more complex. With “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” though the words “cotton fields” and “mammy” have benign meanings, they also have such strong associations with one of the most shameful parts of America’s past—slavery and the early southern U.S. social system—that it’s understandable that one might be uncomfortable singing the original lyric. The song that Mr. Disselkoen cites, “Ol’ Man River,” presents a greater challenge. The lyric written in 1927 by Oscar Hammerstein II for Show Boat includes the lines “[‘N’ word] all work on de Mississippi/ [‘N’ word] all work while de white folks play.” In 1936, Paul Robeson changed [“N’ word] to “Darkies”; subsequently, that got further changed by various people to “Colored folk” and even the lackluster “Here we all work on the Mississippi.” And Robeson went on to make additional lyric changes. Outside the context of the stage musical, pulling off the original lyric would require commanding artistry—possibly augmented by an introduction that would prepare the audience for what is to follow. If your level of artistry falls short, or—as with any song whose lyric you object to—if you can’t find a lyricist-sanctioned version that you’re comfortable singing, choose a different song.

What about original lyrics that are so specific to the show for which they were written that a cabaret audience might not understand the reference? There I think it’s a judgment call. For example, with Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” I would suggest singing the original “if that boy with the bugle” instead of the popular alternate, “if that boy with a promise.” And with Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” I prefer “hey Mr. Arnstein” to “hey Mr. Ziegfeld.” On the other hand, in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the encore contains references to Mr. Simpson’s money that will make sense only to people who remember that it is Mrs. Simpson who sings the song in Pal Joey; accordingly, I suggest dropping that entire refrain—as nearly everyone does.


NOTE: This commentary is based on commentary I wrote for the MAC website and on one of my Bistro Bits columns in Back Stage. I welcome your questions and comments—RS

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. I agree totally. However, when I started, covered wagons were coming over the mountains. Sheet music? What’s that? Popular music was not available so your pianist would “take it off” a recording. I remember the debate on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. Did she say ‘feed your head” or ‘keep your head’? About 1984, Richard Weinstock and I were in Berlin on tour. He lifted “City of New Orleans” from a cassette sung by a country legend. (Cassette – it’s a . . . google it!) I lifted the lyrics with my ear pressed to the tiny battery powered speaker. Got stuck with only one phrase which sounded like “passing??? that have no names”. We must have listened to that cassette one hundred times! Finally, I settled on “PASSENGERS that have no names”; I even recorded it on CD that way. The line that follows “and freight yards full of ol’ black men” so it made sense. Turns out it was “PASSING TRAINS that have no names”. That definitely made more sense. I looked Heavenward and apologized to Steve Goodman. My favorite faux pas from a student was Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind”. She sang “Not going left, not looking right”. And to add insult to injury, she sang it that way TWICE!! And I lost MY mind !!

    • Roy Sander says:

      Your recollections prompted me to take a trip down my own memory lane. Around twenty years ago, a cabaret/concert artist in Berlin had been asked to sing the gospel hymn “In the Upper Room” for the soundtrack of a film. The producers had not given him the music or the lyrics, only a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing the song. Being German, he and his manager were unable to make out many of the lyrics, so they sent me an mp3 file and asked whether I would help. After I’d listened to the song a few dozen times, frequently replaying an impenetrable line repeatedly before moving on to the next line, I had come up with a set of lyrics I was satisfied with—except for the pesky third line, which I could swear began “Sin I give.” I thought, “that can’t be right,” but no matter how many times I replayed it, it kept coming up “Sin I give.” I finally said to myself “Enough already! This will just have to do.” I waited a day or two and decided to give that line one more listen, and aha! Mahalia is saying “Sing again!” Although I wasn’t 100% certain, this would definitely have to do, so that’s what I sent back to them.

      Fast forward to today: I listened to the mp3 on better equipment, and for the life of me I don’t know how I could have thought the lyric was “Sin I give.” And now the Internet offers several sites with lyrics to “in the Upper Room,” none of them nearly as close to what Mahalia Jackson sings on that recording than my set of lyrics, not even the sites that purport to present her version—and those sites don’t even agree with each other. But perhaps she was guided by spontaneous religious fervor rather than by the written lyric, which would account for discrepancies between her recordings.

  2. Les Traub says:

    One of the most common (and irritating) mistakes is singing “Don’t change your hair for me” instead of “Don’t change a hair for me” in “My Funny Valentine.” The mistake turns a dramatic line into a bland one.

    • Roy Sander says:

      Indeed! The first time I heard someone sing “your” instead of “a” was at the Firebird Café—so it must have been around twenty years ago. I don’t remember who the vocalist was, but I vividly recall my reaction: After I got past being taken aback, I imagined a tag line, “That chignon really suits you.” So, in addition to changing the meaning of the original lyric, the error took me out of the singer’s performance for about 15 seconds.

      Speaking of imagined lines—yes, I digress—in 1996, the York Theatre Company (for which I have great respect and affection) presented a revised version of Mata Hari, a 1967 musical that had closed out of town. At the top of the show, a few people are standing by a grave in a barren setting. One of them sings something very much like “Ah, the things that grew here / Ah, the winds that blew here / Ah, the birds that flew here”; I immediately imagined what my next line would be: “Ah, the up I threw here.” 24 years on, that still makes me chuckle.