My fellow History Hoyden Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post last week inspired by the lyrics of the brilliant Frank Loesser. It was the 100th anniversary of Loesser’s birth on 29 June, and Terry Gross had a wonderful interview with Michael Feinstein on Fresh Air about the composer.

The interview and Pam’s post got me thinking about the wonderful texture and imagery in the lyrics to musicals and how so many of those songs inspire me as a writer. I love the way musical lyrics can distill emotion (reinforced when the words are put with the music). As I’ve blogged about, I get a lot of inspiration from classical music, but I also have moments in my books that are inspired by musical theater. When I saw the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, I realized how “No Place Like London” echoes the mood and tone of the opening of Beneath a Silent Moon:

There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there’s no place like London!

That imagery must have lingered in my subconscious from seeing the musical years before. On the other hand, the last between Charles and Mélanie in Beneath was consciously inspired by Sondheim’s Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (from Company). Sung by a contemporary character at contemporary birthday party, but

Somebody crowd me with love.
Somebody force me to care.
Somebody let me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive,
Being alive

pretty much sums up Charles in that scene.

So many songs from musicals capture the emotional essence of a moment, particularly romantic moments, which can be so hard to write in ways that are fresh and emotionally truthful. Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from Guys and Dolls (which Feinstein sung at the close of the Terry Gross interview) which somehow manages to be searingly romantic and worldly wise at the same time:

I thought my heart as safe
I thought I knew the score
But this is wine
That’s all too strange and strong
I’m full of foolish song
And out my song must pour

Love lost but enduring despite the bitter after taste in “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate:


In love with the night mysterious
The night when you first were there.
In love with my joy delirious
When I knew that you could care.
So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours ’til I die,
So in love,
So in love,
So in love with you, my love, am I.

The ability of love to change one’s perceptions and experience of life in “Til There was You” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man:

There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you…

…There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!

The rueful, bittersweet acknowledgment of a love affair coming to an end in Noel Coward’s “Let’s Say Goodbye”, a song that always makes me think of Mélanie and Raoul:

Now we’ve embarked on this love affair
Don’t let’s destroy it with tears
Once we begin to let sentiment in
Happiness disappears…

…Let’s look on love as a play thing
All these sweet moments we’ve known
Mustn’t be degraded when the thrill of them has faded
Let’s say goodbye and leave it alone

I could go on and on. Do you like musicals? Are there particular songs that make you think of moments in books? Writers, are there songs that inspired scenes in your books, consciously or unconsciously?

I just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence from David to Charles about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the reaction in London.