For the lyricist of the innuendo-laden “Nero,” a student opera performed in February, this couplet might seem a little tame: “Lovers took their mark ‘n’ saw / The sun set over Arkansas.”
But despite his penchant for racy rhymes, Greg Edwards ’05 jumped at the chance to write lyrics like that one about Arkansas for a song about the 50 states that was performed at the White House on Sunday. The commission — a dream come true for Edwards — came from Marvin Hamlisch, the award-winning composer of “A Chorus Line.”
The song, “States of the Union Redress,” with lyrics co-written by Edwards’ and Hamlisch, was featured in a medley of songs about different states for a National Governors Association gathering that included U.S. President George W. Bush and all of the nation’s governors.
While some states are already the subjects of well-known songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Goin’ to Carolina,” the song Hamlisch worked on had the ambitious goal of recognizing all of the states.
“Some of the states are already immortalized in songs, as in the musical ‘Oklahoma,'” Edwards said. “Through this song, we’ll give every state its equal opportunity at notoriety.”
Edwards’ lucky break came through his friend Elisabeth Schneider ’06, whose family is friends with Hamlisch. At a dinner with Hamlisch and his wife, the composer told Schneider that he needed a lyricist for a song he was working on, Schneider said.
“As executive producer of ‘Nero,’ I was well-acquainted with Greg’s writing style and thought that his wit and ability to rhyme would serve Mr. Hamlisch’s purposes,” she said.
Schneider showed Hamlisch some of Edwards’ lyrics from “Nero,” which Edwards wrote to accompany music by John Hansen-Brevetti ’07. ‘Nero’ ran Feb. 3, 4 and 5 at the Off-Broadway Theater.
“I’m guessing he liked what he saw, because then I got a call the next week,” Edwards said.
Hamlisch faxed sample lyrics to Edwards at Yale to serve as an example of what he wanted the song to become.
“His style of lyrics was mostly … pairing random states, and what he wanted instead was to have a couplet about every state, so every state got its own individual attention,” Edwards said. “I took what he did, and re-did a lot of it and augmented a lot of it. The final product is actually both of our lyrics.”
The chance to work with a composer as well-known as Hamlisch could have been overwhelming. But Edwards, who aspires to work as a lyricist after leaving Yale, didn’t give himself the chance to savor the “joyful hysteria” of the moment.
“I didn’t really let myself think about how big a deal it was,” he said. “He faxed me the lyrics at about 6:30 p.m. I sat down and did the entire rough draft of the song in one sitting.”
Edwards said he started the project by finding rhymes for each of the states names, as in “Vermont” and “flaunt.” The task started easily, he said, but grew more difficult as he tried to find rhymes for “Utah” and “Washington.”
“It starts out really quick because there are some states like Maine, where there’s almost no word in the English language that doesn’t rhyme with Maine,” Edwards said.
Because he was not at the White House performance, Edwards said he has not heard his lyrics set to Hamlisch’s music. Edwards said last month’s performance of “Nero” was the first time he had heard a substantial amount of his lyrics set to music.
“It’s pretty awesome to be sitting in the back of the theatre and hearing the audience laugh at your jokes,” he said.
Bix Bettwy ’08, the director of “Nero,” praised the humor of Edwards’ lyrics.
“He really is a fan of sexual innuendo,” Bettwy said. “He uses very witty wordplay … sometimes he goes a little over the edge.”
Although he may have had to restrain the punning humor of “Nero” to compose lyrics for Hamlisch, Edwards emphasized the incredible opportunity to work with the acclaimed composer, whose work has garnered Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Emmy awards.
“My main feeling is just amazingly lucky,” Edwards said.