“Smarter Than The Average Lyricist”

Michael Portantiere,

Many people agree that, over the past few decades, there has been a certain dumbing down of theater, movies, and TV shows, and also of the audiences for such entertainment — though it’s unclear which situation is the result of the other. Yet there’s still quite a bit of intelligent, witty fare out there. Example: the hilarious lyrics of performer-songwriter Peter Yawitz, whose show at Don’t Tell Mama is a winner.

Yawitz’s comic sensibility is spot on. “A lot of the songs came out of stories that I’ve told for years,” he says. “‘Talk Like a Guy’ is one of them. I’d been telling this story about going to my wife’s class reunion and just being shunted to the side. Eventually, I turned it into song lyrics: ‘At my wife’s class reunion, like dutiful lackeys / The husbands are dumped / I’m with bald guys in khakis.’ Another source of material is my job; I’m in management communication, so I’ve spent a lot of time with corporate executives, and one of my daily fun things to do is to scribble down some of the clichés that I hear all the time. When I teach a business writing class, I give what I call a cliché Bingo board to the people in the class, and I thought that idea lent itself pretty nicely to a song: ‘So net-net vis-à-vis all these key take-aways / Here’s some mindshare you won’t find deep in your old Roget’s / Just push the envelope next time that you liaise.’”

Although Yawitz generally confines himself to writing lyrics only, to the music of such folks as David Friedman, Dick Gallagher, and Peter Lurye (who also collaborates on some of the lyrics), there are exceptions. “I wrote both the words and music for ‘New Man, Part II,’ which is the finale of the show,” he says. “I’m not a musician, but I had a melody in my mind, so I went to my musical director Matthew Ward and I sat at the piano with him. I sang it and Matthew transcribed it. I was really self-conscious about it — but, after all, Mel Brooks did the same thing for ‘The Producers!’”

What led to all of this? “I had dropped out of business for a while and had done some musical theater performing,” says Yawitz, “but it just didn’t work with my life. I had a couple of small kids and it wasn’t the right time. I’ve always entertained in my own way — as an auctioneer, a storyteller — and I’ve always written parody songs. About four years ago, I started putting things together and contacting people like David Friedman, whom I’ve known for a long time, and Peter Lurye, who’s an old friend of mine. Then I got connected with Dick Gallagher. I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with such good people, and the response to the show has been great. People have told me that they enjoy it because the songs are different and literate and original.”