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Don't forget the lyrics!

Picture it:

You've grown up listening to the cast album of a musical, memorizing every word and vocal inflection to be heard, and then a revival or movie recording is released. You hit PLAY and start singing along at the top of your lungs as though you're a one-person show, and then you suddenly stop in your (musical) tracks.

Your face contorts into an expression akin to WTF? and you may even rewind a few seconds to confirm what you thought you just heard. But, alas, your suspicions are proven correct:

The lyrics have changed.

For some reason, in this latest iteration of your beloved musical, someone at the home office felt it necessary to toss out the words you knew as well as the back of your hand and replace them with other lyrics which might be just as good (or even better) than the original, but your whole worldview of the song and even the show has been forever changed.

I over-exaggerate, but only a bit. I experienced a similar lyrical slap in the face when I first heard the Broadway recording of Newsies. I had memorized this CD backwards and forwards when the film first came out; you could likely have placed 3 seconds from any point on the album, and without missing a beat, not only tell you what song it was, but also continue singing a capella from there. (A bit obsessed, you say?)

There are a lot of things wrong with the Broadway show of Newsies (the bizarre connection that Denton has to Pulitzer, Jeremy Jordan's waaaaay over-the-top emoting, just to name two), but the worst is essentially re-writing the words to the song "Santa Fe."

There are, perhaps, some logical reasons a composer and lyricist would take a hatchet to a song's lyrics; in the case of "classic" musicals, the sentiments expressed in a song might nowadays be considered politically incorrect, or even racist.

The song "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man contains such an example. Originally (and probably for far too long afterwards), Professor Harold Hill warns the parents of River City that their children may be listening to "Ragtime! Shameless music!" When reading between the lines, Hill is disparaging this form of music largely in part because it was popular among African-Americans, and suggesting that it is a "tell-tale sign" of "de-gre-day"tion for the nice, white Iowan youths. Was composer and lyricist Meredith Wilson being satirical back in 1957 and showing how clever Hill was being at the sheer absurdity of people being concerned by this? Or did he actually believe such nonsense? I don't know. What I do know is some productions of The Music Man (like one I saw in Stratford, Ontario) faced the problematic lyric head-on by casting an African-American actor as Hill, thus giving the line some complicated dimension. Others, like the recent revival on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman, cut the line completely.

My point is, the scrapping of the line makes sense. But a song about a homeless paperboy dreaming of New Mexico? What's the deal there? Even though new subplots were added to the Broadway Newsies, none of them would have affected this ballad apart from the very first verse. After that, it's smooth sailing.


When I dream, on my own

I'm alone but I ain't lonely

For a dreamer, night's the only time of day

When the city's finally sleepin'

And my thoughts begin to stray

And I'm on the train that's bound for Santa Fe


Let me go, Far away

Somewhere they won't ever find me,

and tomorrow won't remind me of today

And the city's finally sleepin'

And the moon looks old and grey

I get on a train that's bound for Santa Fe

Conversely, "The King of New York," which used to be about a male news reporter, has not changed, even though it is now about a woman. Hey, I'm fine with the word "king" being nonconforming to any particular sex, but I lack the understanding as to why the inconsequential lyrics to one song were sliced n' diced while the other was left fully intact.

So while a song may be rewritten for the times we live in or plot points, why else? The only explanation I can come up with is that the creative team of the newer version wants to make it different than its predecessor(s), maybe even involving the original composer/lyricist, and in so doing, think it gives it a glossy new coat.

When the musical Pippin was revived in 2016, the song "Extraordinary" underwent a similar retouching in some of the verses, including the one below:


That's the reason I'll never be

The kind of man who dwells

On how moths got into the tapestry

Or why the dungeon smells


Oh I once knew a man

He lived each day the same

Safe and sane and swell

When they told me he died

I didn't cry

All I could say was

How could they tell?

Sure, the revival's lyrics are a little more pithy, but enough to bowl us over and say "Yeah, I'm really glad these new ones are here now." Of course not. If you're so committed to these new lyrics, extend the song and add more verses.

Many parts of a Broadway show are sacred to its audience members, and the last thing you want to do is take that away from them. Update other things, like Newsies absurd Pulitzer-Denton relationship (although I'd really plead with you not to), or how the revival of Pippin took on a circus feel as opposed to the original's traveling Renaissance feel. Or, just leave it alone altogether! A musical becomes a movie or is revived simply for the reason that the original means so much to people. If it ain't broke....and all that.

As Pippin points out in the revival during "Extraordinary," "It may give you a view of the sunshine, but it's unnecessary" to show thats that are very extraordinary.

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