Seen any good musical theatre on television recently?

Used to be, you could see show tunes any night of the week, and whole shows were not a rarity. The tube’s recent fragmenting into a zillion stations seemed to hold a promise of narrowcasting. You could put on a channel hardly anyone was interested in – Golf, say – and that would be financially feasible because the station would be bundled with so many other stations with small constituencies, somebody would want to see it and order it from their cable provider.

So where have all the musicals gone?  Long time passing.

That most forward-thinking of premium cable networks, HBO, recently put on a less-than-ninety minute documentary that went into great detail into our topic, how musicals are made.  Six By Sondheim, from executive producers James Lapine and Frank Rich, pieces together many of the interviews Stephen Sondheim has given on the small box over the years. (The title is misleading: of the six featured songs, only half were staged for this special, and we never hear anything about the creation of Being Alive, per se.) The time covered is about a half a century, and Sondheim’s barely moved an inch in what he wants to convey about his process.

But there’s never been an hour and a half quite like this. You get a lesson from the man who considers teaching a sacred profession, and lessons from the man who taught him, Oscar Hammerstein. Among these are the principle that each song should be like a three act play, i.e., have a beginning, a middle and end. That it should take the character (and probably the listener) to a different place, dramatically, than where it started. The words need to fit on music with the natural accents of real conversation. That you best not be too complex, because lyrics are heard at the speed the music insists upon, and usually only once. Being immediately understood is paramount. And that the diction, the sound of the speech in song better fit the character’s education, experience, where they live and what they know.

Which brings us to a terrible example.

“It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension”

On the show, we see a clearly impressed Diane Sawyer ask Sondheim how he came up with that and she gets an instructive answer about process.  But neither the Sawyer interview nor Six By Sondheim acknowledges how completely out of character and unbelievable the line is. Petra, an uneducated servant who has previously shown appreciation only for engraved stationery and grave servant men is, in her solo, super-articulate. I mean like a savant, running off at the mouth a thousand words a minute. Once, Sondheim knocked alliteration as that thing you do when you can’t come up with a joke. Here, as A Little Night Music draws toward its dawn, he doesn’t have a joke, so it’s fun with p-words time. Never mind that Petra knows nothing of pensions, thinks nothing of them: it’s all very clever. And hypocritical. And me, I’m getting hypercritical.

Because one bad example doesn’t ruin a brilliant broth. Six By Sondheim is exceedingly valuable as an education in how one winner of multiple Tonys does what he does. You hear the man talk, you hear the man sing, and, really, the performances of the six songs are the least important aspect.

A few weeks ago, I passed the 1,000 friend milestone on Facebook. (I say this not to brag.) Most of them are young people I met when they were studying acting. And what I most admire in them is their diligence. They worked impressively hard to develop the skills of a thespian. They took risks, putting themselves out there, trying new things, staring failure in the face.

At this point WAY too much has been written about a rather famous young woman who took the risk of putting herself out there before a large number of people trying something new and failed spectacularly. In an artistic sense. In my opinion and the opinion of practically everyone I know. Keep reading: I’m talking about Carrie Underwood in NBC’s The Sound of Music but won’t be talking about her for long.

In what should have come as a surprise to nobody, Underwood proved wholly unable to act. And, earlier that day, I heard some Rodgers and Hammerstein performed by a young soprano who could have made a great Maria. And that’s hardly surprising, considering the number of good singing actresses I know. But none of them are famous, and, the unfortunate reality of our time is, you can’t put a special on TV without a famous person starring. Network Idea Men – NIMs, I call them – thought Carrie Underwood could play Maria because she’s fairly young, has a wholesome vibe, and was willing to take the aforementioned risk. Bully for her! and a shame her every line-reading lacked conviction.
It’s not just NIMs, you know. In many quadrants of the entertainment world, there are decision makers chasing fame. They figure that if a talented person has been very successful doing one thing, they’ll likely do another thing similarly well. Which is, of course, idiocy. If you needed open heart surgery, would you hand Kobe Bryant a scalpel?  Why not?  He’s an exceptionally good basketball player, isn’t he?

A few days from now, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark will turn off its last Broadway audience, having lost more money than any stage exploit has ever lost. I happen to think Spider Man is a good idea for a musical, since romance (impressing a desired girl) is at the heart of what he does. The writing of the songs was assigned to Bono and The Edge of U2, based on the principle that since they’d written hit rock records, they should certainly be able to write a Broadway musical.  Now, how’d that work out for y’all?


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