FROM THE ARCHIVES: Lee Adams on “Put On A Happy Face”

For decades, Tams-Witmark published a periodical newsletter called MUSICAL SHOW. The mini-magazine (originally a mini-newspaper) included photos and summaries of our shows, along with essays, interviews, and reminiscences from some of Broadway’s greatest writers. We thought it would be fun to revisit some of those articles, so we’ll share those gems here from time to time.

In this article from 1965, Lee Adams (billed as “lyricist of BYE BYE BIRDIE, GOLDEN BOY, and the upcoming SUPERMAN!“) reflects on his process in creating the beloved charm song “Put On A Happy Face.”

Put On A Happy Face Bye Bye Birdie Musicals Lee AdamsPut On A Happy What?

By Lee Adams

When people find out that I wrote the lyrics for BYE BYE BIRDIE, they often mention their favorite song in the show and ask, “How did you get the idea for that number?”

I secretly suspect that the answer they want to hear is something like, “Well, I was walking in Connecticut on a beautiful spring day and suddenly the entire lyric of ‘Put On A Happy Face’ appeared in a balloon over my head. All I had to do was rush home, write it down, and the money began flowing in!”

Of course I exaggerate, but people who are not writers really have little patience for the real answer, which is almost always “Just lots of hard writing and re-writing.” That’s a dull answer, but unfortunately, it’s usually the truth.

Song lyrics are not meant to be great poetry, but they do require great effort. It is a job of compression, tricky rhythms, and a thousand frustrations. I’ll try to illustrate.

Put On A Happy Face Bye Bye Birdie Musicals Lee Adams

The BIRDIE Team: Gower Champion, Charles Strouse, Ed Padula, Michael Stewart & Lee Adams

Let’s take “Put On A Happy Face.” This is a simple little song, but that doesn’t mean it was simple to write. Quite the contrary. I find that such musical trifles are the hardest jobs a songwriter can tackle. Simple emotions have been done so many times in popular songs that most of the words and phrases that come to mind are trite – so overused they have practically no meaning anymore.

And I don’t mean only the usual example of pop-song cliché, “moon/June.” I mean expressions of endearment (“dear,” “dearest,” “darling,” etc.) and expressions of happiness (“feel like singing, dancing,” etc.) and many, many more. That’s why writing a simple little song like “Happy Face” is booby-trapped at every turn.

Some of the pitfalls are impossible to avoid. Our song begins with a cliché:

Gray skies are gonna clear up;
Put on a happy face.

But I settled for the “gray skies” because I thought the rest of the phrase – “are gonna clear up” – was promising. It sounded fresh to me when I wrote it, and it set up a tough rhyming scheme, which I like to do in such a song. By this I mean that “clear up” is a feminine rhyme, one that rhymes on the next-to-the-last syllable instead of the last. So I couldn’t rhyme “up” with “buttercup” in “Happy Face.” I had to reach, and I came up with the next couplet:

Brush off the clouds and cheer up;
Put on a happy face.

This pleased me because “brush off the clouds” sounded impudent and unusual, and “cheer up” was exactly what the song was about.

Now I had my first four lines, and my partner Charles Strouse and I decided that for this particular song we had better use a modified ABAB form. This means that, unlike most popular and theater songs, the first musical phrase of eight bars would not be immediately repeated. The usual song is AABA. That is, an eight-bar phrase repeated, then a B section of eight bars, often called a “release,” and then a return to the original eight bars for the total of 32 bars.

Often, especially in the theater, we feel we can make a song more interesting by not repeating the A phrase immediately. Instead, we have an eight-bar A phrase, then go right to a B phrase, then repeat the A and then somehow modify the B section into a final eight-bar ending. That’s how we thought “Happy Face” should go: ABAB.

My partner came up with a lovely and syncopated long line of music for the B, and I was faced with the problem of matching it with a lyric. I tried literally hundreds of lines and got nowhere. The hard part was that the music sounded best when the first and third lyric lines rhymed on the third syllable from the end! This is often called a triple rhyme (classicists call them antepenults) and they give you a very bad headache when you try to use them and make any sense at all.

Put On A Happy Face Bye Bye Birdie Musicals Lee Adams

Chita Rivera & Dick Van Dyke

I began fussing around with the line “Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy.” I liked it – it made sense, and it sang well. I consulted my rhyming dictionary… “Tragedy…” Hmmm. No rhymes at all. So I discarded the line and kept working. Nothing. I kept coming back to “Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy” and liked it better all the time. Finally, I decided I’d try to invent a rhyme for “tragedy.” Now, I’m not a clever rhymer. Most of my songs have ordinary rhymes, and fairly simple thoughts – my craft doesn’t usually run to the clever side. But I tried, and got lucky. The final section came out:

Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy;
It’s not your style.
You’ll look so good that you’ll be glad ya de-
Cided to smile!

Charles loved it, and so did I! “Tragedy/glad ya de-” – fine rhyme. The funny part of the story is that no singer, except Dick Van Dyke in the original BYE BYE BIRDIE, has ever sung my hard-wrought invented rhyme! They always sing it “glad you, decided to smile” and miss the rhyme completely. Oh, well… that’s the way it goes.

Anyway, we now had half a song – and the going really got tough, because I’d said practically everything I could think of on the subject of “Put On A Happy Face.” But now we were back to the A again, and after a few days of sweat we had:

Pick out a pleasant outlook
Stick out that noble chin.
Wipe off that ‘full-of-doubt’ look
Slap on a happy grin!

This stanza pleased me. I liked the repetition of the word “out” in the first two lines, and I had a nice echo on “pick out” and “stick out.” Also, the feminine rhyme “outlook” and “doubt look” seemed fresh and made good sense, and the whole stanza seemed to be nice and jaunty.

Put On A Happy Face Bye Bye Birdie Musicals Lee Adams

Dick Van Dyke at the recording session for BYE BYE BIRDIE

Now we were in the home stretch. Good Lord — was I faced with another triple rhyme? If we went back to the B section for our ending, I’d have to go through that torture again! But no – my partner saved me by doing something unusual: he wrote a completely new section, C, for the final eight bars, and a short one at that.

And spread sunshine all over the place.
Just put on a happy face.

And we had a new song. True, it later was in and out of BYE BYE BIRDIE several times, as we tried to find the right place for the song. And I had to go through the whole process again when we found we needed a second chorus. And, three years later, the demands of the movie version dictated even more special lyrics. But I have no complaints. The song worked out well and is performed a lot and I enjoyed every tortuous moment of writing this “simple little song.”

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a songwriter!