You be you

March 26, 2019

Now that Stephen Sondheim’s entered his 90th year (I’m writing this a day after his 89th birthday), a few thoughts on what he learned from Oscar Hammerstein during his second sixth of life. They met when he was roughly 15. Before meeting the old master, Sondheim hadn’t even considered writing musicals. The year the protégé turned 30, and had two wonderful musicals running (lyrics only), Hammerstein died at the age of 65. Also that year, there were two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway.

And I might as well name them: Gypsy was playing, and West Side Story had returned from the road; Flower Drum Song, a funnier-than-most R&H piece, ended its run, and The Sound of Music opened and was a hot ticket. Of this quartet, I far prefer the innovative shows with Sondheim lyrics; both have scripts by Arthur Laurents and direction by the estimable Jerome Robbins.

It is, of course, tragic that Hammerstein died so young: think of what more he might have given us! On the flip side, it’s wonderful that Sondheim has lived so long. So, there’s no what-might-have-he-given-us if he lived past 65. He did, and gave us exactly two off-Broadway musicals, Assassins and Road Show. No debilitating diseases slowed him; it’s just been a rather fallow quarter century. The shows he created from age 40-65 were so excellent – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George among them – I, for one, can’t help feeling disappointment that his productivity knob has turned down so drastically.

Better to picture him as a teenager soaking up wisdom from his Bucks County neighbor. It’s always fascinated me that little Steve presented a script for his friend’s dad to comment on and boy, did he comment! This was the greatest single lesson in musical theatre writing ever given, and what I’d give to have been a fly on that wall. We have information about Hammerstein’s understanding of theatre from his essential forward to his book of lyrics; of course, the shows themselves exemplify his aesthetic, although there were usually collaborators (besides Richard Rodgers) adding their own great thoughts.

Hammerstein cared about structure, and you may have noticed there’s usually a main couple (such as the Bigelows) and a contrasting pair (like the Snows). If one is serious, the other is likely to be comic. His lyrics abound in well-chosen nature imagery. (Busy as a spider spinning daydreams.) And the aspect most on my mind these days is concision, the notion that when you tell your story through song, things move faster than they would in unsung dialogue.

Sondheim has also peppered his published volumes of lyrics with fascinating commentary. And he mentions an “oedipal thrill” of criticizing his mentor’s lyrics when he was a successful adult. One can only imagine his reaction to “like a lark who is learning to pray” although I’ve always felt it plausible that Hammerstein meant “prey” – on little worms, or whatever larks eat.

And when the cat’s away, the mice are at play. Once the mentor’s watchful eyes were shut for good, the mentee wrote substantively different musicals, as if he at last felt free to rebel.

Short & Sweet/Long & Sour

The first of the Sondheim shows to open in the sixties was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and that long title lived up to its one adjective. The book, by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, speeds along splaying jokes across the footlights. You never stop laughing until…the songs. They attempt to be funny, but manage to slow things down, evoking smiles (sometimes pained: “irascible!”) rather that guffaws. Had Oscar lived to comment, he might have restated the lesson about concision. Just when the second act is hurtling forward like a dislodged Ferris wheel, a battleaxe takes stage and diverts us from all that’s good with an ungainly and mirthless scena. I wanted this show to be over without the fat lady singing, thank you very much. To his credit, Sondheim’s repeated his teacher’s point about concision many times since, rather concisely.

Whither structure?

The era when all shows needed to resemble the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics couldn’t last forever. The many Broadway flops of the late sixties made many feel it was time for something new and Sondheim’s 1970 hit, Company, shattered perceptions of what a musical should and could be. It’s refreshingly different, the first of many innovative entertainments fashioned with director Hal Prince. And we can celebrate this busting of the mold but must acknowledge that what’s being undone was the template Oscar created.

Company doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a set of scenes about marriages, bemusedly witness by a swinging bachelor named Bobby. What happens to Bobby is not something we ever care much about, and his decision to connect seems a tacked-on ending. We don’t really track his feelings; his actions are few. Later, two works in collaboration with librettist John Weidman similarly present scenes that don’t tell the story of characters: Pacific Overtures and Assassins. It might be fair to call these “revuesicals.”

“A musical play” was under the title of the Rodgers and Hammerstein genre-busters. For them it was of primary importance to tell a moving story about realistic people, presented as seriously and cogently as any play.

An un-love story

But the most obvious hallmark of the Golden Era was that, without exception, musicals concerned love. One went with the expectation that love songs would be sung, and, it was to be hoped, you’d be moved by the ups and downs of romances.

It’s here where I believe ol’ Oscar would have been most surprised and dismayed by what his pupil hath wrought. Bobby doesn’t love anyone, and Follies and A Little Night Music center on unhappy marriages. Into the Woods has the temerity to show fairy tale characters commit adultery. The Sondheim musicals, so rarely showing love, contain very few love songs. He denies audiences one of the main things they used to come to musicals for – an odd omission, probably willful.

Hammerstein & Sondheim shared a collaborator: Richard Rodgers, desperate to replace his late partner, glommed on the supposed protégé for Do I Hear a Waltz? It was an unhappy experience for them both, probably owing to Sondheim’s discomfort or distaste for writing lyrics about love.



December 7, 2018

This month marks a big anniversary of my musical that Sondheim saw, The Christmas Bride. It was the sixth show I got produced in my twenties, and no decade since has seen nearly as much activity. The Christmas Bride hasn’t quite gone away, as it’s been subsequently presented in venues in different Northeast states, but that first time, so long ago, was in New York, in the Theatre District. Many’s the time, over the years, when I’ve purposefully walked past 354 W. 45thto solidify my memories. But now I think I’ve forgotten a lot, so here I’ll try to set down some answers to questions you might have.

How’d you get Sondheim to come?

Our musical director, Michael Lavine, had developed a long-standing relationship with the composer, but, at that point, he’d never seen Michael musical direct anything. Luckily, the time and location of The Christmas Bride provided a golden opportunity. Sondheim had a musical playing on the same block, and a new actress was taking over the lead role. A plan emerged for him to see our first act and her second act. That way, he could congratulate her on her performance, but have a good excuse to run out of our theatre at intermission, without talking to anybody.

And that’s exactly what happened. But, all sorts of people around me encouraged me to write him a letter to get his reaction. So, that happened, and his response hung on my wall for decades afterwards. I’d joked about cleverness in my note to him and he took me seriously: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise and imagination.” Words I’ve taken to heart ever since.

A mutual friend recently referred to Michael Lavine as a famous person, and it’s true: he also musical directed my On the Brink, Our Wedding, and my evening at the Donnell Library.

Is The Christmas Bride an original musical? About Christmas?

Yes and no and yes and no. It says right on the title page and poster that The Christmas Bride is based on a book by Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life. So, one might naturally conclude that this isn’t an original musical. But when you read The Battle of Life, you’ll discover that there’s virtually no plot there. It describes a situation, and some characters; something about a boy-next-door proposing to the younger of two sisters, which, I guess, condemns the older one to spinsterhood. Enter MK Wolfe, who had a great number of bright thoughts about the situations in the story, and our contemporary conception of Dickensian Christmas. A far-more famous Dickens novella – you know the one – created the template for how we think about Christmastime. Countless twentieth century works refer to this, and our musical couldn’t ignore it in the way The Battle of Life did.

But we had an idea that, I think, everybody can relate to: those holiday times when you’re with your family but not quite feeling the spirit. So, I wrote an English carol for our characters to sing, I’m Happiest At Christmas, to contrast the emotions of our heroine, who thinks she’s chosen the wrong suitor and lost her one true love. The librettist and I were clicking particularly well on this moment, since the stakes were so high that something sort of funny – a family singing louder at a crying ingénue to make her feel better – played for full pathos.

So, yes, certain scenes are set at Yuletide, but it never strikes me as apt to called The Christmas Bride a Christmas musical. It’s a melodrama with perils and fights, but it’s also a romance, with impetuous departures, secret meetings, and twin brothers: one mild, one frightening. Does that sound like a Christmas musical to you?

How’d you get six musicals produced in your twenties?

Not to mention one in my teens. But I didn’t get to see the first one, so The Christmas Bride was the sixth I saw produced. Effective networking means a chain with many links. So, when I was 18 and a freshman in college, I got cast in the smallest possible role in a Shakespeare play. At the first read-through, I asked about the songs; there were many of them. The director hadn’t considered where the tunes would come from, so I volunteered to write them, and the director was glad to delegate the task. The thing I really wanted to do in college was to write The Varsity Show, the annual student-created revue where Rodgers had met both Hammerstein and Hart. But, the years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows. Instead, I pitched the Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society across the street on the idea of my writing a piece specifically for them, and this played in the very theatre where The Fantasticks had its premiere some decades earlier. In the audience was Adam Belanoff, two years behind me in school, and he managed to revive the Varsity Show tradition and gave me my dream role as songwriter. This was so successful, we were asked to create an off-off-Broadway revue, On the Brink, which played at the old Gene Frankel Theatre near Lincoln Center. The newer Gene Frankel Theatre, on Bond Street, is around the corner from a non-descript N.Y.U. building where, also a round number of years ago, The Heavenly Theatre played. My collaboration on that was set up by someone who remembered my work from The Winter’s Tale. Oh, and the show that was done when I was a teen got completely rewritten due to a copyright issue. There: have I named six?

Once I turned thirty, though, the links of my chain of associations began to sever. Some people left town, some left the theatre, and eventually we ceased sending each other Christmas cards. Which reminds me: I ought to get on that.


Processional: oohs and ahhs

March 14, 2017

Currently, in New York, you can see the two Sondheim-composed shows I most enjoy, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George. While I haven’t caught these particular revivals, I’ve seen other revivals, as well as the Broadway originals, and this year I’m hell-bent on saying something positive about Sondheim for a change. You see, two years ago, I waited until the day after his birthday to voice a handful of criticisms, and members of his cultish coterie of fans got up in arms. It strikes me as remarkable, and not good for anyone, that so many Steve-adorers can’t abide any criticism of their God. But that’s not Sondheim’s fault; he, in fact, is happy to condemn mistakes he’s made. If he says Welcome To Kanagawa isn’t funny, that’s considered humility. If I say I sat through Welcome To Kanagawa and nary a laugh was heard, I’m some blasphemer.

There was a famous disagreement between the songwriter and director of Sweeney Todd, as they developed it nearly 40 years ago. Hal Prince kept pushing for a sort of harangue, a Brechtian indictment of the audience. We were supposed to feel culpable, somehow, for being part of the society that could produce a mass murderer. And so we stared at that beehive drop, delineating the hierarchy of Victorian professions and got pointed to when the chorus, at show’s end, hissed “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” All, I’m disappointed to report, to little effect. Sondheim had a different goal, engaging us in the fun and furious Grand Guignol of a bloody revenge melodrama. In this, the show succeeds in spades (also, with spades, wielded by gravediggers). I can think of no show more Wagnerian in its marshaling of compositional devices to rattle us with powerful thrills.

Somehow, it’s even right when it’s wrong. (Warning: I’m going to get a little technical and critical here.) A young swain has an adagio ballad, with grandly slow arepeggiated chords. That makes him seem a little larger than life, but I’m OK with that so far. Then, on the word “dream” the minor of the scale is played against the major in accompaniment. This clash is the sort of thing one hears in twentieth century blues, never in London during Victoria’s reign. Luckily, this anachronistic chord adds creepiness to the song, as if suggesting the tenor is some sort of a stalker. He’s not, it turns out, but, at the time, we appreciate the composer bringing up the question. One of the happier themes we hear more than once is a sort of an advertising jingle, and is stolen, note for note, from Harvey Schmidt’s Texas-set 110 in the Shade. That Sondheim is a Schmidt fan – there are other examples – is actually endearing, and I don’t call The Worst Pies In London a steal from Charles Strouse’s Tomorrow because the feels of the two seem farther afield.

My favorite moment in Sweeney Todd includes a pretty waltz that alternates between a major seventh and a whole tone scale, a mixture I love and have used often in my own writing. It’s cool jazz, but it sure ain’t nineteenth century England. What Pretty Women is, however, is an expert building up of pressure that always gets me to squirm in my seat. Sweeney’s about to give the closest shave he’s ever given to the very miscreant who ruined his life sixteen years earlier. Given the injustice he’s suffered under, we want him to succeed, but know the longer he waits the more likely he’ll be interrupted. Victim and murderer have this sweet duet and it’s extraordinarily tense. That scene may be my favorite of everything written in the past forty years.

Yet, since I’m not all that malevolent and more of a tortured artist, I found myself more moved by Sunday in the Park With George. Ask me to name my favorite Sondheim song, and I blurt out Children and Art. Perhaps it’s because I take it so personally. My long-suffering girlfriend who’d witnessed how obsessed I get while creating musicals shattered me when she dumped me a few weeks before I saw this show, about an obsessed artist whose long-suffering girlfriend dumps him. In a way, I was putty in Sondheim’s hands. But how he worked that putty!

As you can probably tell, I’m one of those who prefers Sunday’s second act to its somewhat less-deeply-felt Act One. And yet, for a lot of folks, including my smart friend Rachel, the first act seems like a complete evening of theatre. And the same is often said of Into the Woods. Citing these two 1980s collaborations with James Lapine, she asked me why this is so. I responded:

Intermission is a big deal. It gives an audience a chance to spend time reflecting on the first act, and perhaps build up a few expectations for the second. Neil LaBute once wrote a play and specified that very loud rock music be played throughout the theatre during the intermission because he didn’t want anybody thinking too hard about what they’d just seen. When a musical written to be intermission-less, such as A Chorus Line, Passion or Follies, gets one, something is ruined because the authors didn’t build up to the act break, or write their way into the second one.

So, Sondheim had spent his entire career in commercial musical theatre working with experienced Broadway writers and directors. After the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, he decided to go a different route, collaborating with a visually-oriented experimental writer-director who’d never worked on Broadway. That meant trying new things in his mid-fifties. They must have discussed what they found dissatisfying about commercial theatre imperatives. One of those might have been the need for a happy ending. SO many Sondheim shows don’t have happy endings, so he’d already broken free of that. But I bet Lapine said “What if we gave them a happy ending … at the end of Act One?” Then would come that ten minutes of audience reflection and Act Two could upend their expectations. That would have seemed a plan worth trying.

So, Seurat, left alone, finishes his masterpiece and it’s a stunner and we all applaud. If we have a thought at intermission, it might be that Georges is one of those tortured artists who is so obsessed with art-making that he’s unable to love. Maybe he’ll learn to love in Act Two. Except Act Two’s in a completely different century. And the putative great-grandson doesn’t make pretty things. He massages the egos of donors in order to get more commissions but seems to have no passion. But as he learns more about great-grandpa’s painting, he and we discover that placing the girlfriend all over the canvas was a loving act, bestowing immortality. (“Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.”) Then a ghost tries to convince him to create something new. She and we share the hope that he will learn to put a little love into future creations. We don’t know whether he’ll succeed, and this doubt stops it from being a truly happy ending.

In between acts at Into the Woods, we’re thoroughly satisfied that we’ve seen a rather breathless piece of children’s theatre. Things are neatly tied up, leaving some to feel that’s enough. But Lapine and Sondheim want to upend this satisfaction, by delving into all the moral compromises made to get those items-as-colorful-as-similes. Act Two is, of course, a commentary on the specter of AIDS: people die willy-nilly and society panics. But wait! Weren’t we just watching a kiddie show? It’s rather adult and depressing stuff, particularly in 1987.

One other idea: Lapine, as a downtown theatre artist, was probably used to people leaving at intermission, if they weren’t digging it. But now he was collaborating with a songwriter so famous, nobody was likely to give up at the interval. Unlike before, Lapine could play with our expectations about the second act, reasonably sure we’d return to see it.

In advance of March 22, I’m wishing Stephen Sondheim a happy birthday. That’s also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s birthday, so I’ll say something good about him, too: Jesus Christ Superstar is the paradigm of rock operas.

You are so fair

April 14, 2016

It’s OK to disagree. I feel that Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler on the Roof, and She Loves Me, now playing) is our greatest living lyricist. You probably think Stephen Sondheim is our greatest living lyricist. And that’s fine. We can agree to disagree. What’s not so fine is to hold these two titans to completely different standards.

So, remember the time that esteemed songwriter made a joke about domestic violence? I do. Now, you might believe that wife-beating is so horrifying it must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. And, God knows, I’ve encountered enough people who believe Carousel condones or excuses marital abuse – I’ve debunked that before – but at least Hammerstein doesn’t joke about that which must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. Brace yourselves, sensitive souls, I’m about to quote two lyrics.

The Very Next Man, from Fiorello:

I shall marry the very next man who asks me
You’ll see
Next time I feel
That a man’s about to kneel
He won’t have to plead or implore
I’ll say “Yes” before his knee hits the floor
No more waiting around
No more browsing through “True Romance”
I’ve seen the light
So, while there’s a chance
I’m going to marry the very next man who asks me
Start rehearsing the choir
Tie some shoes on my Chevrolet
Pelt me with rice and catch my bouquet
I’m going to marry the very next man
If he adores me
What does it matter if he bores me?
If I allow the man to carry me off
No more will people try to marry me off
No more living alone
No more cheating at solitaire
Holding my breath for one special man
Why, I could smother for all he’d care
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man
No more daydreams for me
Find the finest of bridal suites
Chill the champagne and warm up the sheets
I’m going to marry the very next man
And if he likes me
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.
New York papers, take note
Here’s a statement that you can quote:
Waiting for ships that never come in
A girl is likely to miss the boat
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man

We’re Gonna Be All Right, from Do I Hear a Waltz, “original” version as heard in Side By Side By Sondheim:

Eddie: Honeybunch,
Sad to say, but I have a hunch,
Screen romances went out to lunch,
That’s no reason to pout.
Don’t look bleak,
Happy endings can spring a leak,
“Ever after” can mean one week,
We’re just having a drought.
Smile and sweat it out.
If we can just hang on,
We’ll have compatibility.
No need to worry,
We’re gonna be all right.
One day the ache is gone,
There’s nothing like senility.
So what’s your hurry?
We’re gonna be all right.
Meanwhile, relax!
I’ll take a lover, you take a lover.
When that’s played out,
They’ll get the axe,
We can retire,
Sit by the fire,
Fade out.
We’ll build our house upon
The rock of my virility.
You better scurry,
We’re gonna be all night,
Oh, boy! we’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: I was told
“Just be faithful and never scold,”
Sounded easy, so I was sold.
I’ve been miserable since.
I was taught
When the prince and the dragon fought,
That the dragon was always caught.
Now I don’t even wince
When it eats the prince.
I know the perfect pair
Their lives are at the pinnacle.
But how do we know
They’re gonna be all right?
The bride is slightly square,
The groom is slightly cynical.
A little vino,
They’re gonna be all right.
She aims to please,
She has a baby,
Then, though they may be
Having fine times,
When there’s a crease,
She has another,
Now she’s a mother
Nine times!
It all went wrong, but where?
Details are strictly clinical.
She’s out in Reno,
The kids adored the flight,
Hey ho, they’re gonna be all right.
Eddie: Things will heal.
I know couples who look ideal,
They no longer know what they feel,
They’ve been practicing charm.
All is well,
‘Least as far as their friends can tell.
Please ignore the peculiar smell,
There’s no cause for alarm.
Mildew will do harm.
Jennifer: What if her brain is dead?
Eddie: What if he’s ineffectual?
Both: They look delicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
They both go right to bed
When they feel intellectual.
No one’s suspicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: Who’s on the skids?
She’ll go to night school–
Eddie: If it’s the right school,
He’ll permit her.
Jennifer: They love their kids,
They love their friends, too–
Eddie: Lately, he tends to
Hit her.
Jennifer: Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Eddie: Sometimes he’s homosexual.
Both: But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight!
Good show!
They’re gonna be all right.
And so,
We’re gonna be all right.
Hey ho!
We’re gonna be all right!

Now, with the disinterest of a Supreme Court justice or a Solomon the Wise, try to apply a principle as fairly as you can. Is one acceptable and the other not?

Sondheim mavens know the checkered history of We’re Gonna Be All Right. In a brash and somewhat shocking manner, for 1965, Sondheim’s lyric wittily depicts an unhappy married couple. Composer Richard Rodgers, legend tells us, played it for his wife of 35 years and then told his collaborator all the cynical stuff had to be cut. I know a lot of people who are outraged by this. They take Rodgers refusal to include “sometimes he’s homosexual” as evidence of the composer’s homophobia.

(Rodgers, of course, spent two and a half decades collaborating with Lorenz Hart, and their workday often began with Rodgers finding Hart in the men’s room of a seedy bar, asleep on the floor where he’d had gay sex the night before. Rodgers fed him coffee until he was sober and awake enough to write. Sound like a homophobe to you?)

At this point in their careers, though, nobody knew more about writing musicals than Richard Rodgers. No one had done more to revolutionize the form. Sondheim had three hits behind him, and West Side Story was certainly an innovation, but not for its lyrics, the one aspect he was responsible for. I see the cutting of the sardonic stanzas as evidence that Rodgers was a brilliant musical dramatist, and these mockeries just didn’t fit how these characters were portrayed in the rest of the show.

But the Steve-adores insist that they’re brilliant, as they insist that all Sondheim lyrics are brilliant. Day after day after day after day after day after day after day. (“Brilliant!”) And they knock Richard Rodgers as an old fogie – he was 62 – who couldn’t recognize the genius of “Lately he tends to hit her.”

Whup! – there it is: The thing that NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT, joked about. Except here rabid fans nudge each other, “Oh, that Steve! He’s such a card.”

Around the time of Do I Hear a Waltz, female stand-up comedians started to appear on television. Early Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller routines routinely featured self-deprecating humor. In real life, there exist gals who are desperate for dates, and maintain they’re not pretty enough to attract men. Distaff stand-ups asserted themselves by making such jokes themselves: “I’d date anyone with a pulse!” “Is he breathing? I’ll marry him!”

Here in the twenty-first century, that type of humor seems, I don’t know, hoary. (Look it up!) But one era’s comedy often seems not-so-funny a half-century afterwards. And it’s not as if we go around asking writers to rewrite their old jokes for an evolved sensibility.

Except that’s exactly what happened to Sheldon Harnick. Someone he knew had a daughter in high school, doing a production of Fiorello. (And it’s here I stop to exclaim: “A high school doing Fiorello? I want to go to there!”)

In a new era, with a new sensibility, the humor of a World War One-era spinster quipping that she’d happily marry a wife-beater, seemed wrong, and Harnick wrote this replacement:

When he proposes

I’ll have him bring me tons of roses

Sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour

Why should I wait around for one little flower?

Which is significantly less funny. And rather show-specific, as you have to understand that Fiorello LaGuardia was known as The Little Flower. The people over at Encores, who have twice done Fiorello (with the new politically-correct line) are now preparing to do Do I Hear a Waltz. Will they include Sondheim’s “Lately he tends to hit her?” Should they? What do you say?

The jury’s still out.

Don’t hang up

March 22, 2016

Today is the birthday of the musical theatre’s two most famous composers, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Last year, I made some criticisms of Sondheim the day after his 85th birthday that greatly upset some people. And this reaction, I think, is evidence that the man has some rabid fans. Of course, every artist has fans of many a type: These two have written musicals that have entertained a whole lot of people over the years. They’ve earned a certain amount of adulation. But a rabid fan is one who sees red when even a small critique is heard. And that’s not using the old noggin. It simply can’t be that each and every thing any artist has done is automatically wonderful.

This year, Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new hit musical on Broadway, School of Rock. Good for him: I congratulate him on this accomplishment because it’s been 22 years since he had a new hit in New York, and 22 years is quite a long time. And 29 years is an even longer time: That’s the number of years since the last new Sondheim success.

And yet, to much of the world, Lloyd Webber and Sondheim are the big deal creative forces; everybody else is obscure, small potatoes. And that’s so, so… 1980s. Looking back, there was a 17-year stretch where Sondheim spoiled us all by producing eight really interesting shows. (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods) It’s very disappointing that the 29 years after Into the Woods we got to see so little from a formerly prolific artist. One show on Broadway, and two off-Broadway, one of which was later remounted by a subsidized theatre on Broadway. And here I’ll throw in an opinion: the two shows that played The Great White Way were less than great and a little dim, Passion and Assassins.

I don’t think Lloyd Webber’s nearly as good as Sondheim, but at least he kept trying. The second richest of all British composers, he could have sat at home in his palatial estate counting royalty checks. Instead, he made the effort to premiere a number of new shows since Sunset Boulevard:

  • Whistle Down the Wind
  • The Beautiful Game
  • The Woman In White
  • Love Never Dies
  • Stephen Ward

Heard of them? His blockbusters of the 1980s – Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera – had a lot of us believing he might come up with another hit far sooner than he did. Many cattily assert that these efforts failing to catch fire have a lot to do with the Lord Lloyd Webber’s talent. And yet very few criticize Sondheim for not giving us more to see for so many years. I am shocked – shocked, I say! – that the rest of the world lets him off the hook. As I jocularly like to put it, “Hey Stephen Sondheim: Whatcha done for us lately?”

We’ve got nothing like “publish or perish” in the theatre, but at what point does your inaction mean you deserve to get your poetic license revoked? And is someone’s 86th birthday an inappropriate time to ask this question? Ach, I’m in more of a mood to look at who are the true leaders of the last three decades, and also who influenced me.

The dominant show-writers of the 1990s were Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. While Flaherty often reveals a pop sensibility in his repeated accompaniment figures (oo-la, oo-la), the team’s strong suit is their theatricality. While the level of craft is exceptionally high, what impresses me is their ability to dig into the dramatic core of the story. This leads to some of the most emotional songs I know, such as Princess, Ti Moune and Our Children.

Ahrens also collaborated with Alan Menken, a musical Midas who writes the songs the whole world loves. Now, you might attribute Menken’s stunning success to having highly-promoted Disney films to write for. But his songs keep charting, and, yes, there’s an inevitable drive to bring these properties to Broadway, where, owing to the fact that today’s audiences love a familiar title and score, they run for quite some time.

A generation younger is Bobby Lopez, who’s also had chart-topping success for Disney, and, for the stage, wrote the two funniest musicals of the century, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. I’m proud to have been aware of Bobby’s work years before others were, and can say the same about Jeanine Tesori – a much higher number of years in her case. It pleases me, but doesn’t surprise me, that the world has finally caught on the impressively varied brilliance of Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home.

Great as those five are, I personally feel I’m more influenced by William Finn and the smart team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. Here on my desk are complex numbers I’ve been working on in which people argue. It’s the sort of thing Finn does brilliantly. His songs have fire and energy, but never seem to be far away from a touch of madness. I also love how his songs rarely outlive their welcome. They make a point, and end, and the show moves on – the brevity I aspire to. Maltby & Shire, I’d argue, are the best lyricist and best composer working today. Those tunes make turns: the melodies travel to unexpected places; the lyrics tickle and delight and pack an emotional wallop. When I hear What Could Be Better?, or One of the Good Guys, or, nowadays, Stop Time, I think, my God: these guys are writing the story of my life.

Flaherty, Ahrens, Menken, Lopez, Tesori, Finn, Maltby & Shire, I guess, are the great eight, far more important and influential (and, damn it, better) than today’s birthday boys. But let’s wish Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim many happy returns. …To the theatre!

Our touching hearts slenderly comprehend

July 2, 2015

Something intriguing came up on a Facebook group:

I have a question about what probably is my favorite Sondheim song. I do not understand the last two words of this phrase:

“Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Not free”

Commenters explained what Sondheim meant to convey, that wishes don’t come free. If you think about it long enough – and, especially, if you read it on the page – you glean the idea that “free” is an alternative to “true” and that both thoughts start with “wishes come” and blah-blah-blah. The actual meaning isn’t what’s intriguing. It’s the fact that someone didn’t understand something, for years and years, in her favorite song. What’s up with that?

To my way of thinking, if a lyric perplexes in the theatre, well, that’s one way of determining that it’s not a very good lyric. We go to the theatre to become emotionally involved with characters in a story. I love puzzles as much as the next guy, but I don’t attend shows to unravel the mystery of what’s being said. That activity takes me out of the story: I’m no longer reacting to what the characters are saying; I’m pondering what the lyricist is saying. And maybe that’s just me, because I’m a lyricist. But I don’t know.

Original Poster: Thanks, everyone! Your explanations make a lot of sense, and I’m surprised I never got it before! I’m such a big Sondheim fan and have seen most of his shows multiple times, and performed in several. This lyric always stumped me, though, til tonight. Now I can finally sleep better!

Someone Else: I have seen ITW dozens of times, performed in it twice and directed it once. Every time I am involved in it something new is revealed to me. I think that might be the measure of great art.

I’d agree that this might be the measure of great poetry. I’ll sit and stare at a John Ashbery poem. I read it as quickly or as slowly as I like. I get some of it the first time, not all of it – and I’m O.K. with that. I’ll pick it up and read it again, and something new is revealed; there’s much enjoyment in that. The way we enjoy a musical we haven’t seen before is very different from the process of reading a poem, though. We’re part of a group of people, who’ve paid a good deal of money for that night’s ticket, and, together, we all witness a story unfolding over a specific amount of time. If we want or need a little extra time to discern the meaning of something, we don’t get it: the music and stage business chugs forward at a pace set by the creative team. If a show becomes too dense, and too many words go by that most of the audience isn’t quite catching, an opportunity to communicate has been squandered

In songwriting, the chief pacesetter is the composer. Of course, both collaborators must agree to everything, but usually the words are hitting us in rhythms chosen as the music is written. So, in this Sondheim passage – which never struck me as particularly dense – part of what makes the meaning hard for some to get is the composer’s choice to put “true” on a long note. By the time we’re done hearing it, we forget the “Wishes come” part. Imagine the same lyric set on the music he used for the first phrase, “Careful the wish you make.” The faster setting of “Wishes come true not free” could have clarified what some fans of the song found murky.

Others chiming in: I think one of the most important things from a lyric is that it makes you think. Otherwise, we just sit there being spoon fed the composers meaning. No, I like a little mystery.

I love shows that take more than a millisecond for me to completely understand.

Perhaps Sondheim wants to give those willing to look deeper a nice little treat for their efforts.

Those efforts, I guess, must be on repeated listenings to the cast album. And I think we’ve all had this experience. Remember the time you first figured out what the initials to the nouns in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds spelled? Good times, for sure. But from everything I know about Sondheim, he’s not interested in dispensing treats to record players. He’s interested – as we all should be – in telling an effective story in the theatre. Any time he doesn’t understand something, from his theatre seat, he feels cheated. Like when he thought he heard townsfolk say of a pregnant character “Julie’s busting out all over!” I responded:

I go to musicals to be moved by the emotions characters go through. If I’m asking “What did he just say?” it’s distracting. The lyricists I most admire – Harnick, Hart, Loesser, Hammerstein, Maltby, Fields – never make me wonder.

And then, as you might have guessed, responders weighed in on how they love wondering stuff while watching musicals. And then it struck me: These are Sondheim cultists. If their God’s been obtuse, well, then, it’s good to be obtuse, because, after all, he’s God and God is infallible. Yet Sondheim’s said, on numerous occasions, that theatre lyrics exist in time and therefore are the opposite of poetry. They can’t afford to be obtuse; they must be immediately understood. This is something the Great One always strives for, but he doesn’t achieve it all the time. And when meaning’s a bit obscure, that’s not him throwing a careful listener a little treat; that’s him not living up to his own standards.

Clarity is capital. A confused audience is not a happy audience. I hope (as always) I’ve made myself clear.

Cryptic greeting

March 23, 2015

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 contracting “is.” 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.