Rhyme is a device to which Stephen Sondheim pays meticulously precise care and attention; he opens Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his 2010 autobiography, with an essay entitled Rhyme and its Reasons. Alexander Pope wrote in 1711 of the power of “sure returns of still expected rhymes”[1] to bore the reader/listener to the point of “sleep”. Sondheim uses rhyme selectively both to keep his lyrics from the monotony of such “sure returns” and as a means of characterization. Particularly with characters trying to maintain control of their thoughts, as demonstrated in the three songs explored below: “Franklin Shepard Inc.” (Merrily We Roll Along), “Getting Married Today” (Company), and “Epiphany” (Sweeney Todd).

Excluding Sondheim’s own critical writing, academic rhyme theory focuses almost entirely on verse written to be read, not sung. This does not, however, mean that what has previously been written is irrelevant to Sondheim’s lyrics: rhyme is still rhyme and retains similar tropes when set to music. G.S. Fraser’s observation that rhyme can be used to “point sense”[2], is shared by Sondheim: “A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place”[3]. But lyrics from musical theatre have an extra layer of insulation between author and reader/listener: characterization. Sondheim states that when a character rhymes, it “impl[ies] an organized control of [their] thought processes”, implying the most interesting place to look in detail for Sondheim’s treatment of rhyme is scenes in which this “organized control” is under threat.

Both “Getting Married Today” and “Epiphany” depict a character losing control of their “thought processes”. For the murderous Todd this is because he feels he has lost his chance for revenge, and for Amy because she is terrified of committing the rest of her life in marriage. Sondheim mirrors this loss of control through the disintegration of rhyme in these songs. In the first two sections of “Getting Married Today” Sondheim rhymes “wife” and “life” in order to, as Fraser would put it, “point sense” to Amy’s situation, and so to explain to an audience why they are about to see her in such a flustered state. The pairing of “wife” and “life” is further emphasized in the first stanza by the prominence given to each through the tune; both words are held for long notes after a sequence of four quavers: “life” for a semibreve, and “wife” for a dotted minim.

Amy’s first nine-line burst is completely unrhymed and set to a constant string of quavers, forming a complete juxtaposition to the calm introduction and giving Amy a panicked, breathless quality. The words that end Amy’s lines are: “there”, “there”, “wedding”, “more”, “do”, “Paul”, “marry”, “ruin”, and “is”. These include not even the faintest near-rhyme, and thus emphasize that Amy certainly does not have “organized control” over her thoughts. Notable in this chain are the first two words. Amy’s repetition of “there”, which is actually a repetition of “everybody’s there”, is part of a pattern of repetition in her flustered sections including the words “you” and “Paul”. This reliance on repetition when she can’t rhyme links the distressed Amy with the demented Sweeney Todd.

Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

“Epiphany”, also begins with a prevalence of repetition over rhyme. Trying to process the slipping away of his chance for revenge on Judge Turpin, Todd simply repeats that he “had him” and how “his throat was there”. He proceeds to repeat this stanza, ending it first with the unrhymed, “hand” and then with the similarly unrhymed, “again”, which is then itself repeated. Sondheim uses consonance to help express Todd’s distress, with the repeated “h” sounds on “had”, “him”, and “hand” mirroring his deep breathing as he repeats what has just happened. Neither Todd nor Amy rhyme initially because the situations in which they find themselves mean that they can’t fully organize and articulate their thoughts. However, it would be untrue to say that Todd and Amy don’t use rhyme at all: both characters use rhyme in moments of crisis to try and regain control.

For Todd, this usually takes the form of falling back on previous thoughts. After his initial flurry of repetitions, Todd plunges into what Sondheim describes as his “organized determination to be a Sword of Justice”[4]. His first attempt at rhyme is:

There’s a hole in the world

Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people

Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world

Inhabit it–

This passage is a word-for-word repetition of the opening of ‘The Barber and His Wife’ with the addition of the lines I have italicized. The anger in this stanza is palpable, and the rhyme of “pit” and “shit” combines with the fricative alliteration of the repeated “filled” to emphasize this anger, as Todd sounds as if he’s literally spitting these words. But, importantly, this is anger that has been previously phrased. This is a demonstration of Todd reaching back into ideas to which he has already given a great deal of thought, and even previously expressed in these exact words. Once these thoughts are cut off with a dash, Todd can no longer form a rhyme and instead sings the unrhymed “but not for long”.

All of Todd’s attempts to wrest control of his thought processes back with rhyme are similar to this first try. He manages to move away from needing outright repetition in order to rhyme, but all the rhymes he manages are within this “sword of justice” mode: they are expressions of thoughts that he has formulated before his present crisis. In the second of Todd’s “deserve to die!” sections he sings, “Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief / For the rest of us, death will be a relief”. This again is a thought that has been shaped by Todd’s arduous life, and not in the current moment. But this can also be read as Todd attempting to use rhyme to make his opinion sound more persuasive, which is another trope that links him to Amy in “Getting Married Today”.

Madeline Kahn as Amy

Amy may not be trying to convince her audience of the righteousness of murder, but she is constantly trying to persuade the guests at her wedding (or the audience of Company) to leave so that she can avoid getting married. After her unrhymed, unstressed sections, Amy consistently manages to regain a level of control of her thoughts and tries to express herself through the more persuasive medium of rhyme. She realizes that lines such as, “I’d appreciate your going” are not forceful enough, and so she attempts to convince her audience with rhyme:

Go, can’t you go?

Look, you know

I adore you all

But why

Watch me die

Like Eliza on the ice?

Look perhaps

I’ll collapse

In the apse

Right before you all,

So take

Back the cake,

Burn the shoes and boil the rice!

Amy here is attempting to use rhyme to “point sense” and make a coherent argument. Her problem is that although she has managed to muster a verse of rhyme, the content is as desperate as her unrhymed sections: her assertion is that the marriage ceremony will cause her death, and so the audience must leave. Amy’s illogical arguments and Todd’s reliance on repetition are evidence that neither manages to attain a completely sound mind even when managing to rhyme, and it is of no surprise therefore that neither character manages to prevent their rhyme schemes subsequently breaking down.

Todd’s rhyming is never able to withstand the intrusion of thoughts about Lucy or Johanna; the wife and child he believes he has lost forever and whose names he is never able to use to form a rhyme. It is thus appropriate that the thought of them terminally breaks Todd’s attempt to rhyme at the end of the song:

And I will get him back

Even as he gloats
In the meantime I’ll practice

On less honorable throats.
And my Lucy lies in ashes
And I’ll never see my girl again.

But the work waits!
I’m alive at last!
And I’m full of joy!

The entrance of “Lucy” and “my girl” breaks Todd’s rhyme scheme after “gloats” and “throats”. Todd fails to form another rhyme after this and ends the song on the unrhymed “joy”, which, in addition to being the last word of the song, is emphasized by being held for seven beats. The lack of rhyme and his feeling of “joy” demonstrate Todd’s loss of control, which has led him to bloodthirsty madness. It is no surprise that the next song in the show sees him agree to start making pies from his murder victims’ meat and to sell them to oblivious Londoners.

For Amy, the breakdown of her ability to rhyme is caused by the continued presence of her audience. The realization that she cannot escape causes her to break from the rhymed pattern finishing in “boil the rice!” (quoted in full above) straight into another unrhymed burst. Amy’s increasingly frantic state becomes more evident as she resorts to the desperate claim that she “may be coming down with hepatitis” before descending merely into listing wedding presents. Amy’s loss of control of her thoughts thus happens in tandem with her loss of control over her situation, as demonstrated when she declares, “See, I’m not getting married!” as Paul goes, “With this ring…I thee wed”.

It may seem from this that Sondheim’s use of rhyme to illustrate loss of control is formulaic and unvaried. However, Charley’s breakdown in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” reveals more complexity. When Charley steps in to answer how he and Frank work together, he descends into a frantic outburst over the corporate way his composer-friend now handles himself. The extent to which Frank’s lawyer and secretary persistently interrupt the pair’s flow of creativity is illustrated when, before Charley can finish the rhyme meant for, “And soon we’re tapping away—”, he is cut off by a loud “Bzzz!” from the intercom. The constant interruptions of Frank’s life clearly frustrate Charley, but even as he grows more and more irate while singing about them, he does not stop rhyming. This is because, unlike Todd and Amy, Charley makes his living as a lyricist. It is therefore appropriate for him to express himself in rhyme even as his frustration grows.

Charley’s situation is slightly different to that of Amy or Todd. He works himself up into anger throughout the song, whereas “Epiphany” and “Getting Married Today” start with their characters already in crisis. However, at the end of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” Charley receives the shock of a sudden realization, but still maintains his rhyme scheme:

Nothing permanent has happened,
Just a temporary kink.
Friendship’s something you don’t really lose…
…Very sneaky how it happens,
Every day you’re on the brink.
First the prizes, then the interviews—
(Looks around, realizing where he is)
Oh, my God, I think it’s happened!
Stop me quick before I sink.
One more triumph that I can’t refuse—

Not only does Charley maintain the “–ink” rhyme chain, and connect each of these three line segments with variations on “happen” in the opening lines, but he also constructs what Peter Dale refers to as “triple rhyme mosaics”[5]: when words of less than three syllables are combined to create metric rhymes for three syllable words. Charley rhymes “interviews” with “really lose” and “can’t refuse”, and later, “fella who’s”. Sondheim, in Finishing the Hat, expresses concern about “trick rhymes” and how, “if they’re not written with ease and grace, they drip with the lyricist’s sweat”[6]. But in this instance Sondheim has liberty to be inventive with his rhymes: It does not matter from his point of view whether these lines “drip with the lyricist’s sweat”, as the character singing them is himself a lyricist. These trick rhymes form a part of Charley’s characterization instead of drawing attention to Sondheim.

As maintaining tight control of rhyme is part of Charley’s character, Sondheim finds other ways to depict his loss of control. This predominantly takes the form of Charley acting out situations involving several people at great pace. While explaining a typical day working with Frank, Charley onomatopoeically imitates the phone’s “Drrrring!”, the intercom’s “Bzzz”, and also the secretary’s voice and Frank’s constant “Mutter-mutter-mutter-mutter” with his lawyer, Jerome. The stress that the situation puts Charley under is expressed comically through the lines; “[Frank] flies off to California, / I discuss him with my shrink”. While Charley impressively manages to maintain the “–ink” chain of rhymes right down to the last “Inc.”, the breaking up of he last stanza with lines such as “Bzzz! Bzzz! Drrrrring!” demonstrates Charley’s frenzied loss of control in the same way the inability to rhyme demonstrates Amy’s and Todd’s.

Sondheim’s intricate use of rhyme allows him to construct his characters not simply through what they say but how they say it. Not only does he avoid subjecting his audience to those “sure Returns of still expected rhymes” which so dismayed Pope, but the sound of each carefully selected word reveals something about the person singing it. The audience just has to listen hard enough.


Originally published in The Sondheim Review (Vol. XXI, No. 3. Summer 2015), which now publishes work at https://www.everythingsondheim.org/



[1] Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69379

[2] Fraser, G.S. The Critical Idiom 8: Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse

[3] Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat

[4] Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat

[5] Dale, Peter. An Introduction to Rhyme

[6] Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat