Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Song: Crossword Puzzle (Starting Here, Starting Now)

A crossword solver tells us in song why the words in the Sunday Times puzzle elude her today. The song is "Crossword Puzzle" from the 1977 off-Broadway musical revue Starting Here, Starting Now.

Watch a rendition by Jennie McGuinness:


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In true cryptic tradition, this song isn't what it seems at the start – the simple act of filling words into the grid slowly and fitfully reveals a tale of melancholy and anger. The lyrics are also extremely clever in playing upon word meanings when the solver's musings segue into the clues.

But of course. The theatre director/lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. of Starting Here, Starting Now is also a cryptic crossword setter - he has been creating puzzles for Harper's Magazine since 1976 and for New York magazine before that. The Nation has an interesting interview with him, in which he talks of commonalities between cryptic crossword setting and lyric writing.

I think there is a connection between cryptic puzzle and lyrics. Lyric writing involves the technical manipulation of language. You have to say what you want in exactly the right syllables and often with the accents or emphasis predetermined. Lyricists therefore become acutely aware of the intricacies of words, their multiple meanings, their diversity of definitions, pronunciations, spelling.

"Crossword Puzzle" song lyrics:

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, somehow the words won't come.
I am staring at squares, but my eyes never focus and my mind's feeling strangely numb.

What's a five letter word meaning...here's an example...2 Down: "A Peruvian poison dart."
Why, when Hecky and me used to breeze through the puzzle, on Sundays, the answer would leap in my harte....[i]
-beest. That's a GNU. [ii]
G N U. boo-boopy doo.

Where is Hecky now? Ha! He ran off with some floozy on a boat bound for warmer climes.
And he left me here doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday ...[iii]

All the times we had fun here, when more often than not.
He'd say, "Hon, what's a pustule?" And I'd say "It's a BLOT."
He'd say, "Af-ghan-i nomad". And I'd say, "It's a KURD."
I'd let him hold the pencil, he could write in the word.

And when he was having trouble spelling TRYST... T R Y S T,
I showed him, how I showed him...23 Across: "Lover (archaic)"...AMORIST!
A M O R I S T Blank!"

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, somehow the words won't come.
Can you figure it, me with my splendid vocabulary, maybe I should play dumb

What's a four letter word meaning "Why should it happen to us"? There was never a moment's doubt
All at once Hecky's jumping and screaming and yelling...I tell you the four letter words that came out!
Prefix! That means pro
P R O, poly ole dough

Starts you feeling as if having brains or intelligence was one of the world's worst crimes,
And the sentence is doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday ...[iv]
All the times Hecky'd tell me , "You shut up, this I'll get -
seven blanks meaning airhole, it's FISTULA I bet"
I'd say, "No." He'd say, "Don't tell me. It's TUBULUS...
TU-BU-LU…"
I'd say, "Hecky, its CHIMNEY."
Hecky'd sit down and cry.

Perhaps that's why I'm left here on the shelf
Perhaps he wanted to get the long ones by himself.
38 Across: "She carries a torch"
Statue of Liberty S T A T U E O F L I B E R T Y
Y, Y , why, why, why, why, why, why?

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, and I know why the words won't come.
'Cause my mind is miles off on a boat to Bermuda with an ignorant lousy crumb
What's a five letter word meaning "Phi Beta Kappa". That's me. I'm as bright as a girl can be. 
So bright someone else who could not tell a fig from a frigate is off with my Hecky at sea… [v]
-bird." That's an AUK.
A U K. Auk!

If I weren't so dumb, I'd be spending this Sunday in a church hearing wedding chimes,
And I'd never remember there was a puzzle in the Sunday Times.


[i] 'harte' is a homophone of 'heart' which matches the sense of the sentence
[ii] However, hartebeest is not a gnu; wildebeest is ...
[iii] 'Times' is the unspoken word, rhyming with 'climes'; 'time' is used in the next line
[iv] 'Times' is the unspoken word, rhyming with 'crimes'; 'time' is used in the next line
[v] 'sea' continues in the next line in a different context

Many versions of the "Crossword Puzzle" song are available online, others I liked: by Loni Ackerman (from the original cast of Starting Here, Starting Now), by Danielle McCully.

Thanks to Kishore for discovering this song, typing out the lyrics and telling me about it.

PS: What's with all the cultural messaging against shared solving with your significant other? In the Crossword Puzzle song, Hecky abandons this solver. In the story Old Love (A Quiver Full of Arrows), the husband commits suicide due to a crossword clue!

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6 comments

Kishore said...

Re: the PS, I think it is the same irritation one feels if someone looks over your shoulder at a puzzle you are solving (crossword or any other) and instantly comes up with the next step/entry, which either a. you are yet to tackle or, worse b. have tackled, failed to get and are waiting for further crossing characters or confirmations. Of course, here the additional possibility is Hecky has been bombarded with wrong answers which he under compulsions of heart pencils in and gets mislead into a dead-end. For eg: airhole (7) could even be 'nostril'.

Kishore said...

And if that interloper is a regular fixture, it might just get a bit too jarring for comfort ...

Groucho said...

Thanks for this post, Shuchi. Entertaining -- and instructive -- as always.

Re the PS, good you pointed that out. I've been wondering why that seems to be the overall cultural trope about crosswords in relation to couples -- that they lead to cross words.

As for me and my 'significant other', during our college days one of the things that drew us together was our love of cryptic crosswords. Each of us discovered that the other wasn't so terrible after all -- I mean to say, there must be some good in a person who likes doing cryptic crosswords. :-)

So what have we? Crossword as matchmaker? :-)

Kishore said...

Fine, as long as the match doesn't lead to heartburn...

Ravi said...

great post. entertaining asusual

Shuchi said...

@Groucho: Good to know your positive crossword story!

Remembered another one in which crosswords caused a rift between the couple: Dhamu and Radha.