Cryptic greeting

The usual encomiums from the usual suspects came out in full force yesterday for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday. He was declared the greatest genius the world of musical theatre has ever known. I’ve waited a day, not wanting to rain on an old man’s parade, but I’ve got to call shenanigans.

Folks, if you believe Sondheim’s musical theatre’s greatest genius, you don’t know musical theatre, or, (and, possibly, and) you’ve the blindness of a frothing fan who’s so impressed by the best of your idol, you fail to see the flaws, the clay feet, the no-longer-speakable-epithet-for-Chinese in his armor.

I’m not maintaining the man hasn’t done some real good work. I’m very moved by two of his shows. You read that right: Two. Each has longueurs. I am maintaining, though, that such widespread idolatry can’t be a good thing.
You want geniuses? Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, George Abbott, Jerome Robbins and one who’s alive, Harold Prince. Each innovated – one might say most of them remade the form – and had a far greater role in shaping our beloved genre. All of them created works of enduring popularity – that is, shows that people loved then and love now. The first three were songwriters who crafted tunes the world adores.

Sondheim has a slew of Tony Awards and here I’ll say most of them were deserved. From 1970 to 1987, with impressive frequency, he created the best show or best score of the Broadway season. That’s a great accomplishment, but it’s instructive to look up what the competition was. Passion bested Beauty and the Beast, A Grand Night For Singing, and Cyrano. That’s a pretty lean season in my book.

People in the theatre love Sondheim. His work radiates intelligence, while some other songwriters seem dumb or dumber. One of the things I like about his writing – the fact that there’s usually a lot of subtext behind what’s being sung – naturally makes actors love him. It’s a treat to have something to play, beyond the surface, particularly after you’ve been stuck singing Wildhorn or Lloyd Webber songs in which characters say exactly what they mean.

There’s quite a bit to admire about him, but you know what? Fans, performers and collaborators have been trumpeting tributes for days, so it’s time for me, the day after, to cut to the chase.

Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.

Say that line out loud, like an actor would, to make sure the listener understands. What syllables do you stress? Where do you pause? I pause after “knows” and “America” and stress the “Ri” in “Rico” and the rather important “in.” And then the line’s comprehensible. Unfortunately, Sondheim wrote these words to Leonard Bernstein’s rapid-fire eighth notes. It zips by, with half the speed on the final three syllables of the first “America” and accents the final “Ri” …in “America.” The “s” in the rhyme works differently, first for verb agreement, then for possessive. The line has something pithy to say, but no audience has ever gotten it. Or laughed.

Crazy business this, this life we live in

The middle part is set on successive quarter notes. One can’t easily hear the comma, which aids your ability to read it on the page. Perhaps you don’t agree with me that the short “i” sound is an ugly one, but the other day I found myself asking “Did Sigrid admit it’s still winter?” and blanched with the harshness of the utterance. Would a genius really write “this” two words in a row?

I know it’s a nitpick. (Ew! Again!) The trouble is, so many show-folk nowadays are so utterly convinced of Sondheim’s genius they fail to see the man’s output for what it is – occasionally accomplished, sometimes banal or uninvolving. I purposely picked the period, 1970 to 1987, his fertile years, because I think the work he’s turned out since then represents a huge drop in quality. If his reputation rested on the past 27 years, we’d be discussing one of the most boring shows I’ve ever seen on Broadway, Passion, and two off-Broadway flops, Assassins and Road Show. He’s wondered, out loud, about whether talent fizzles as we age. Well, let’s see what musicals John Kander’s composed since he turned 58:

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Steel Pier
The Scottsboro Boys
The Landing
Kid Victory
The Visit


When I hear Dear One or Go Back Home – and I know this is a matter of personal taste – I feel Kander’s the greater genius of the two. Considering all the songs heard in Sondheim’s scores, I can’t think of a tune he wrote that’s nearly as moving.

And, really, don’t we all go to the theatre to be moved? Or do you go to the theatre to expand your vocabulary, so you can hear words like reticule and rampion for the first time? I actually read a quote from some star thanking Sondheim for introducing him to the word, reticule, as if it’s a good thing, in popular commercial theatre, to use terms your audience doesn’t know. Someone cited “her withers wither with her” as proof of his genius, and to me that’s a prime example of cleverness that works only when you read it, not in the theatre.

But these are minor details compared to my biggest trouble with the Sondheim oeuvre, the failure to move me in any way.

So, after watching the commitment-phobic guy observe five marriages, he makes a climactic change, to want somebody to sit in his chair. And I go, big deal, because the music’s telling me this is Dramatic and Important, and I simply don’t care. Or the lawyer with the virgin bride who consistently has bad timing trying to get more serious with his long-time mistress. I’d actually prefer to see clowns. Or the middle-aged quartet, two of whom are super rich, all regretting the life choices they’ve made long ago. I don’t sympathize. Or how about the revue depicting the nuts who’ve shot at presidents? Interesting, maybe, but not moving, in any way. And yet people consider this artist who shies away from ardor the Second Coming. Every year with the birthday accolades:

It’s what I call March Madness.



8 Responses to Cryptic greeting

  1. I believe Mr. Sondheim prevented the musical from degenerating into the quality of a Las Vegas spectacle. What has YOUR contribution to the medium been, M. Katz?

  2. I would find this post interesting and a thought provoking read, if it wasn’t written with more hubris than even you claim Sondheim and his fans have. (Maybe it’s humour I’m not getting?)

    First, you seem to fault the man himself for his most rabid fans. Pushing that aside, your examples are lame–especially since Sondheim has commented on both as lyrics he feels didn’t work (particularly the America one–by the way, it’s Puerto Ricos plural, it’s not possessive.) The accent on the final “ri” is a musical joke, mocking the perceived Spanish flavoured pronounciation of the word.

    Your complaint about Company’s ending can be placed at least as much on Furth’s libretto and on Hal Prince (who you hold to a much higher standard–he is pretty great,) who insisted on Being Alive instead of Happily Ever After. For that matter, have you seen the last few shows Hal Prince has done–or anything of his since the excellent Show Boat revival?

    Kiss of the Spider Woman is a favourite of mine. I love The Scotsboro Boys, and am intrigued by The Visit–but Curtains is weak sauce at best. Still–I do not see how bringing up other great (and not so great) shows somehow negates the quality of Sondheim’s work. It’s a petty argument that proves nothing. I doubt Kander would be pleased with it. But I love Passion (as well as Assassins.) You can say that’s because I’m part of some Sondheim cult, or whatever, but it moves me at least as much as I imagine Curtains moves you (an odd thought.)

    But maybe this is meant to be a bit of good willed humour. In which case it completely fails. Celebrating Sondheim’s birthday and giving him a tribute is not meant to negate any other composer, lyricist, or director’s contribution to musicals. It seems paranoid that you think that somehow it does.

    • Noel Katz says:

      My day-after-birthday tribute follows tons of fawning accolades from those unwilling to admit that Mr. S. has ever faltered. Was it hubris to point out, with some humor, that sometimes the man writes shows that are incoherent or backwards? Seems like a dose of currently-needed reality to me.

      I’ve encountered a number of aficionados who seem unaware that anyone else wrote anything of merit, and that any criticism of The Master is “crap.”

      When I look back on his career, I find it disappointing that, after fashioning five truly extraordinary musicals in the 70s, Sondheim has given us so little since Into the Woods. His friend Kander didn’t undergo a similar productivity diminution, and I cited two Kander tunes I find more beautiful than anything in Sondheim’s stage scores. But, I agree about the weakness of Curtains and that late Prince isn’t as impressive as early Prince Hal.

      • Well I appreciate that we have some understanding 😛 I’m not sure I’ve found any Sondheim musicals incoherent (granted I’ve only read Anyone Can Whistle’s libretto, not seen it,) though I would say that has to do with his collaborators as much as with him. Of course it’s always hard to compare–Kander is one of my top composers–well Kander and Ebb are one of my top teams (the only Kander sans Ebb I know is A Family Affair which is fairly minor stuff–though I’d love to hear Kid Victory.) But…

        Anyway, I do understand that some people simply strongly dislike (to say the least,) Passion. It was actually the show that made me a fan (I was 12–so what do I know,) but…

        I have yet to meet anyone who loves Sondheim and has zero interest in any other musical theatre collaborators, but I pity those who do. I also have run across a number of negative “Sondheim isn’t really very good” posts made for his birthday (including one you may wanna look up from The Spectator in the UK where Sondheim is especially celebrated recently.)

      • Noel Katz says:

        Glad you pointed me towards the Spectator, which I didn’t agree with at all. So Many People and You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow are two of my favorite Sondheim songs. The latter imitates Harburg, so the forced rhymes (soul-stirring/bolstering) are fun and of the period. The response to my Merry Un-Birthday here and elsewhere illustrates the sort of adoration-with-blinders I find unhealthy. Anyone who questions any particular scrap of Sondheim is told to eat crap and die day after day after day after day after day…

  3. Elden Buck says:

    Well, you come across as having an ax to grind. I think you won’t grind it with success, because – whether it is or not – it also comes across as sour grapes, which is just not a good calling card.

    • Noel Katz says:

      I certainly don’t intend to grind an ax or sour any grapes. This blog contains 277 essays on how some musicals are wonderful and some might be better. Too many think “If Sondheim did it, it must be good.” That assumption needs to be challenged now and then, or discussed (which is why I appreciate the comments).

  4. Jon88 says:

    Just for the record, the etymology of “chink” as in flaw in armor has nothing to do with any racial epithets.

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