Musings on... Punctuation / by Richard Hough

As the late, great Roy Castle sang at the end of every Record Breakers: “Punctuation’s what you need!” At least, I think that’s what he sang. The memory’s a little hazy. But they say that, don’t they? - If you can remember the 1980s, you weren’t there. Or, if you were there, you weren’t paying enough attention. And who could blame you? It was a bloody awful decade. Anyway, all of this is beside the point. (I’m getting bogged down in my childhood, and I shouldn’t be. Not here, anyway. I save all of my most painful reminiscences for my day job.) The point I’m trying to make is that Punctuation is vitally important, an essential tool of the playwright and lyricist. Of the Ballet Dancer or the Spectacled Bear, less so. But to me, it’s indispensable - at least as important as any other key stroke. There seems to be, however, a difference of opinion…

I have found a tendency among lyricists, my contemporaries and my ancestors, to avoid or omit punctuation altogether, believing that the rhythm and the melody does the job for them. They ignore the comma, and the colon (semi and standing proud), and only ever bother with the full stop in extremis. Well, a good lyric should obviously fit the melody like a glove (fits a hand, not a foot), and work its implied punctuation along the structure of the music. Nevertheless, when considering the finer details, in order to order the thoughts of the singer and to expose every facet of a character’s internal struggle, a little extra direction in the lyric can be very useful. Consider the following:

THIS WAS ME:
FOREVER ON MY OWN,
THIS SMILE, THIS WAS ME.
I USED TO TRY TO FOOL MYSELF.
YOU HAVE TAKEN ME TO TASK;
I WAS ANGRY, TOO AFRAID TO ASK YOU - WHY? 

A few lines taken from a new project currently fermenting in the brewery of Frost & Hough. Without the multitude of commas and colons, the reading of the lyric is almost unchanged, but not quite - and that means, without it, we’d be missing something. Something the writers intended, something they thought about to inform the characterisation. Without the punctuation, perhaps the character’s self-description as someone alone and lonely who, in addition to that, wears an ersatz smile to fool herself and the world, would be mistaken for simply a list of cold attributes. The fact that she (for she is a she, and her name is Louisa - but that’s all you’re getting out of me for now) is angry because someone took her to task, and then felt too afraid to confront them is only really specified by the semi-colon. And the actress, of course. To interpret as she will. I mean, maybe she’ll disagree with that line-reading - but at least the punctuation has made the writers’ intentions clear, and given us all something to argue about. And we call love a good fight, don’t we? That’s what drew so many of us to MT in the first place. The bloodshed. And the French Horns. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that punctuation should be used accurately. God knows, none of us went to a decent school, and Grammar, for me and for everyone else in my family, was not so much a rule of law as the name we gave to my Grandfather’s wife (who was, incidentally, an awful lot more demanding and complex than word order and the perfect tense). As playwrights and lyricists, we’re writing our sentences to be spoken aloud and should be free to use punctuation to excess if it helps to better communicate to the reader, or the actor, or the singer, how best to present the line. I’m writing this as if I expect it to be read aloud. Which is kinda silly, I know. I’m sure you won’t be reading this out loud, unless you’re on a bus, hoping to make conversation with the blue-eyed boy sitting next to you and figuring that the best way to test to see if he’s up for it is to try him on musical theatre. Nevertheless, I’m punctuating the hell out of this blog post because that’s all I know how to do. And I hope it makes sense for all this punctuation, because the words alone are, frankly, impenetrable. Still, if it wins you old blue-eyes, it’s been worth it. Let me know how it goes, you scamp!

Rich Hough

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