Yip’s ish

Edward Rothstein’s column in the Arts section of today’s NYT (“Grandish Wordplay: Harburg’s Ish List”) is an appreciation of the skills of lyricist E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, prompted by two Harburg theater events: the making of a cast recording of this season’s revival of “Finian’s Rainbow”, and a short revival of “Flahooley” at the Theater for the New City. (And it’s the holiday season, when that Christmas classic “The Wizard of Oz”, to which Harburg contributed lyrics, is re-run on televison again and again.)

An entire section of the column is taken up with the word play in one song, the leprechaunish “Something Sort of Grandish”, from “Flahooley”. In this song, the leprechaun

joyfully see-saws about like someone trying to find a secure footing (“so sugar candish”).

But Harburg makes it clear that stability and clarity are not to be found. When the leprechaun sings of “something sweet, something sort of grandish,” the “sort of” suggests a vague resemblance, while the “ish” makes it even vaguer. And the leprechaun, who is not only new to the feeling but also new to expressing it, leaps about searching for comparisons, trying to describe a passion so “dareish” that is sweeping him limb to limb, something that is “terrifish, magnifish, delish.”

There is something endearing in the patter, as if we were listening to a child just emerging from an amusement-park ride who doesn’t feel on solid ground. “Please accept my proposish,” the leprechaun pleads. And Sharon [the object of his affection], more sober if not more experienced, stands “hand in handish,” feeling some “relish” for their “hellish condish.” Who wouldn’t hope, as the leprechaun does, that all their “ishes/Could come true”?

And who can listen without succumbing to the dizzying mixture of invention and description compressed into these ishes? Their pace is so unrelenting, it takes many hearings before you even realize what is being said when Sharon is asked to “be give-in-ish.” We have to work — or rather play — to decipher the playfulness.

An excellent point. The best verbal play is full of surprises and requires both attention and some work on the part of the listener.

One Response to “Yip’s ish”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    For a riff on “if”, have a listen to/look at Kristin Chenoweth doing “If You Hadn’t, But You Did”. There’s even a Harburg connection (bit of a stretch, it’s true): Chenoweth was (is?) Glinda, in Wicked, and “If You Hadn’t” is from “Two on the Aisle”, a Bert Lahr vehicle (lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green; music by Jule Styne).

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