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 gets 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
Curtains
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.

 


Concentrate

January 25, 2015

It’s been a month, now, since the Into the Woods movie opened and, had I piped up sooner, my shouts might have gotten lost in the noise – so many others stating so many strong opinions. And yet nobody seems to have pointed out the one thing that, seemingly, I’m the only one willing to say:

Into the Woods – on stage – isn’t a particularly good musical.

Therefore, a film adaptation isn’t likely to be a particularly good movie.

People who are disappointed with Rob Marshall’s cinema adaptation tend to focus on the textual changes, which were relatively few. Compare On the Town, considered one of the finest musical movies: it threw out all but two of Leonard Bernstein’s songs. Here, a mere handful of airs were left on the cutting room floor. So stop whining! Their inclusion wouldn’t have made a major difference.

I can’t say I was disappointed by the flick. A very strong cast filled the multitude of roles. Some thought was given to the look of the thing, and that paid off considerably when two princes warbled in front of waterfalls. By trimming away some ballads from the second act, the pace of the piece increased towards the end. When I see Into the Woods on stage, it always seems terribly long, leaves me exhausted. This adaptation didn’t have that effect on me.

So, let’s look at why Into the Woods isn’t such a good musical to begin with. And also why filming it is a fool’s errand, bound to highlight its weaknesses.

“Agony” and other emotions

When you look at the great musicals – Carousel, West Side Story, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella, e.g. – one thing that stands out is emotion. The best shows amplify and explore characters’ feelings, their passions. Writers make a choice about what to emphasize in their storytelling. Rodgers and Hammerstein spend a large amount of time on Julie and Billy’s first date in Carousel, the famous “bench scene” concluding with If I Loved You. And God, that’s some gorgeous writing.

Hammerstein’s pupil, Stephen Sondheim, rejected that example and chooses, in show after show, to emphasize something other than ardor. He’s interested in showing ambiguity (“Getting a divorce together that make perfect relationships.”), malevolence and regret. One of the things that stops his most performed show, Into the Woods, from being a great musical is its refusal to stop and explore what anyone is feeling. The first act zips along without pausing to come up for air, much. It’s all plot, almost all the time, and perversely avoids depicting its most piquant emotions. A couple that wants a child but cannot have one – that’s a very moving problem, there – is given the opportunity to conceive. Wow. A true reason to pop the champagne. But Into the Woods, with too much story to tell, doesn’t have time to lift the cork. Now, eventually this couple gets a vaudevillian paean to teamwork, one of the best moments of the play. And teamwork’s a nice thing, but fertility’s ever so much joyful.

In Murray Schisgal’s play, Luv, two woe-begotten schlubs try to outdo each other with who’s had the more miserable life. “For Christmas presents, we got socks!” “You got Christmas presents?” In another of Into the Woods’ more winning moments, royal brothers boast they feel greater Agony than the other. And that’s pleasant and amusing, but, again: where is the love? We never experience what either of these men feel about their ladies. At another point, the show admits it has nothing to say about romance “He’s a very nice prince.” “And…and…?” This leaves us with no reason to have a rooting interest in anyone’s marriage working out. It’s rare to find a musical with so little interest in love – for good reason.

Into the words

A couple of posts ago, I pointed out how unrelenting verbosity creates a strain on the audience’s ears. You get exhausted by all that painstaking ear-cocking. With Into the Woods packing ‘em in at multiplexes, a lot of audiences are experiencing the lyrics for the first time. And their brains are hurting. We theatre folk, the people who know the show well, who’ve listened to the cast album or video countless times, tend to forget how hard it was to take in all those dense words on the first encounter. Into the Woods, I maintain, is a show people grow to love. When you re-encounter it. Dozens of times.

Cinema is a visual medium. At motion pictures, we look at pictures, and they tell a story. At Into the Woods, no matter how pretty the images, we’re forced to concentrate, hard, on all those lyrics hurtling at us. Here’s one of the slower ones, sung about a cow:

There are bugs on her dugs.
There are flies in her eyes.
There’s a lump on her rump
Big enough to be a hump-
We’ve no time to sit and dither,
While her withers wither with her

And you read that, and it’s pretty clever; you’ll smile if you get it.

In the movie, you see a real cow and you’re hard-pressed to comprehend “dugs” and the whole triple meaning of “wither.” The image – an old white cow – said it all; nobody in the audience laughed at the triple entendre because we’re not used to figuring out homophones at the flickers and Look! A cow!

In the stage version, though, the same text plays a whole lot better. For one thing, in the theatre, we’re used to wordplay. It’s in Sondheim, but also Shakespeare, Stoppard and Rostand. Our perception of puns is more acute when actors are live on stage. And, of course, the cow is not a cow at all. It’s a funny stage approximation of a cattle standing like a statue, dragged around on wheeled hooves. Film is too literal for the show’s bovine mock-up. (I hope I’m not beating a dead cow, here.)

Children will… be children

Another stagy thing not easily replicated on celluloid: We accept the idea that juvenile characters won’t always be played by actual children. Central to Into the Woods is the awakening of Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood. Creators James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim could have a little fun about fairy tale characters having a sexual awakening because they knew, when the show was produced, they’d be casting performers in their late teens. The boy and girl originating these roles on Broadway were 18 and 16, and nobody got embarrassed by the idea that performers that age would be aware of, and could hint at, the sexual overtones: the wolf’s use of “carnality” as he salivates over eating the “supple” girl, her being excited and scared and Jack’s close encounter with a giant breast.

Contemporary filmmaking doesn’t have a tradition of adult actors playing pubescent characters. And so, three key songs are robbed of their sexual heat and it’s not clear to me what, of any importance, Little Red knows now that she knows things now. Or what Jack knows that’s different than what he’s known before. And why is the film spending time singing about it?

My theory is the authors were so preoccupied with moral quandaries and other would-be profound bits, they failed to serve up much that’s moving. And do we go to flicks for their philosophic epiphanies, or their emotions?


Risk

December 15, 2013

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?