30 for 30: Stephen Sondheim

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

17. STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Stephen Sondheim

My current obsession is the works of Stephen Sondheim.

This 30 for 30 column has a rule – no musicians, albums or songs. I’ve written enough about those in my life. Sondheim, however, straddles a line into theatre. He’s not a songwriter, more a composer. He doesn’t sing or perform his own pieces. So he’s not in the same world as any of the musicians I like from the rock/pop world.

More importantly, discovering Sondheim brought together a lot of things I liked about musical theatre. And it’s my new and growing passion for that world that makes me love Sondheim.

So, straight at it then. Sondheim’s musicals are not fucking camp.

There. I said it.

Sondheim himself only started liking musicals when he realised they didn’t have to be showboat-y, big costume, jazz hands bullshit.

In fact, Sondheim is the opposite of shit like Glee. Not camp, not cheesy, not mass market, not re-appropriating familiar songs.

The reverse is true. Sondheim can be very dark, very confronting, very challenging and completely original.

Music can be used to tell or enhance a story. It can be used with such sophistication and finesse. In Glee, the people stop, sing, dance and fuck off, with no thought. I look at Glee and it makes me want to kill people.

So put your 2010 notions of musical theatre, as summed up by Glee, at the door. There is no common ground between the two.

Did I mention I fucking hate Glee?

Sondheim started work in the theatre in the 50s, and is still, to some degree, active today. He celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year, and the tributes came thick and fast. A new show on Broadway (Sondheim on Sondheim), a BBC Proms and more.

His most famous work is probably the lyrics for West Side Story – also the first major production he ever worked on. And West Side Story is probably when I first heard Sondheim too. Songs like America and Somewhere have become standards.

I always liked musicals, especially as a kid. Grease, My Fair Lady, Sound Of Music, Mary Poppins etc. The big ones everyone knows. And I grew out of them, but never stopped liking them. But without even trying to connect with Sondheim, I connected with Sondheim for years.

Comedy Tonight was taught to us at school. It was a shortened version, but what a melody and what a lyric. The song saved the play, Something Happened On the Way To the Forum.

Then there’s the million versions of Send In the Clowns. And Madonna’s songs in Dick Tracy. And the songs used in the film version of The Bird Cage. He’s a cult artist, but he’s not invisible.

What made me really take the leap though was a renewed interest in 40s and 50s American song. The Johnny Mercers of the world. Those songs sung by Chet Baker. I’d heard about Sondheim for years now. I decided to do the thing I sometimes do with a new musical interest. I bought the most expensive multi disc box set I could find and made my way through it.

From early demos to the troubled Road Show in the last few years, his career is amazing. Around a dozen flawless classics, hundreds of great songs, thousands of memorable moments.

Mandy Patinkin calls him the Shakespeare of our times and he’s not far off. He does farce (like …Forum) and he does dark, dark tragedy (Assassins – a play about killing the President – it did badly), and the full range of human emotion in between. He comments on love, on youth, on art, on revenge, on the nature of stories and more, over the course of his many years.

Let me talk about my favourite 5.

A Little Night Music

This is probably my favourite. Hard to say. When I write about the others they will probably my faves.

This musical is about a bunch of star crossed romantics, several couples and their entanglements that ends with a wonderful act in the forest, under the stars. It is romantic, fun and fanciful.

All the music is written in 3/4 – waltzes mainly. It opens with one of my favourite opening themes, as memorable as any movie credits by John Williams or Danny Elfman. Then it hits the show stopping Now/Soon/Later. Three characters sing their tales, seemingly one after eachother, before they sing their songs altogether, the music and melodies dancing together.

Send In the Clowns comes from this show. But the best song is A Weekend In the Country. The massive end of Act 1, every character comes together for a weekend in the country, where everything comes to an end.

What a masterwork. It encapsulates what made Sondheim great. No more musicals where a person feels a way, stops to sings about it, then moves on. This multi layered, multi vocals 8 minute piece actually traces the characters changing their minds and is part of the plot. And it’s pretty funny as well.

Company

Released in 1970, it was a ground breaking work, but also a product of it’s time. The end of the swinging sixties, a man, Bobby, visits 4 married couples he knows in New York City. A very modern look at love, marriage and relationships, it also featured the music most closely associated with pop/rock.

It was another breakthrough work for Sondheim. He was such an American legend that this point that DA Pennebaker followed up his Don’t Look Back doco on Bob Dylan with one about the making of Company.

The “problem” with Sondheim is that he’s a chameleon – like Bowie. None of his works sound the same. He uses more guitars and accented New York voices, adds in some doo wop and blew away audiences.

I wish I could bury you with songs with this one. But I will post just two.

Another Hundred People – an ode to New York, sang to pieces by Pamela Myers. The clip from the Pennebaker doco is also great. Utterly modern. When I hear this song, I think Brian Wilson was making his West Coast masterpieces, and Sondheim was taking care of the East. There’s also great footage of Sondheim getting right in there and making changes.

The Little Things You Do Together. Company is fun. So here is one of the hilarious numbers. Before Company, Sondheim’s reputation rested on his wordplay. He worked hard on his music, but his wordplay never left him. This is the second song and when it breaks into that bossanova bit, I melt.

(How great are the New York voices. Jack Donaghy’s mum from 30 Rock, Elaine Strich, is the lead of sorts)

Sunday In the Park With George

The second half of Sondheim’s career is marked by James Lapine, a young avant garde stage producer. Even though Sondheim had decades under his belt, Lapine breathed new cool into Sondheim’s name. The staging and the ideas were like little anyone had ever seen.

Sunday In the Park With George is a surrealist fantasy about the characters in the George Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (stay with me, people). The story then travels to the future, finding the descendents of our heroes, dealing with the same issues.

But basically, it’s a story about Art. George, the painter, struggles. His lover Dot struggles to understand him and leaves. The story is replayed in the future, with some lessons learnt.

The songs. Sondheim could do no wrong at this point. He abandoned any thought of writing standalone songs and smashed out stuff like the opening track which Elvis Costello would struggle to fit all the words in.

The heart of the musical is Finishing the Hat. The oblique metaphor comes from George painting a characters hat. And how creating a hat is what his life is about – what ultimately tears him and Dot apart.

Many see George as a stand in for Sondheim himself. The things said about art his this musical certainly reflects what Sondheim has said in interviews.

Into The Woods

This musical is a wonderful mash up of various fairy tales – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and more. They all find themselves in the woods at the same time and work together to defeat a giant and all sorts of fun things.

It’s one of Sondheim’s most popular pieces, because it’s his most ‘family’ work. I saw a production in London recently, and saw little kids running around afterwards, trying to remember the lyrics, singing “into the woods! To grandmother’s house!”

And it’s all about Children. The musical has an excellent, ambitious 9 minute opening number. The hilarious Agony. The loving It Takes Two. But the song that gets the kudos is Children Will Listen.

The line – “Children may not obey, but children will listen” – kills me. And Sondheim has no children of his own. He just nailed it.

Here’s Bernadette Peters, who originated the role of the Witch, and was the first and most famous performer of this song.

Sweeney Todd

Romantic waltzes, sophisticated trysts, surrealism, fairy tales. If Sondheim’s range is not clear yet, lets look at his last work to hit the cinema – Sweeney Todd.

It may seem like nothing now, but having horror on Broadway was groundbreaking at the time. The blood, the chair, the gory subject matter…. people thought the producers have gone mad.

Some people think that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s masterpiece. It’s certainly great. The bizarre and memorable plot, and some of his best songs. The hilarious Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir (smells like piss), the holiday fantasy of By the Sea and long pieces tying in plot and storytelling.

Then, there’s A Little Priest. Who the hell can even come close to writing a song this great. It amazes me that this song could even be conceived.

That bit where Depp goes “Ah”, and Carter sings “Good you’ve got it!” is written into the song. How great is that? If only it was the full 7 minute version but they cut it down in the film. But the film version looks great.

Actually, I have to throw in Pretty Women.

I guess I don’t know that much about Sondheim, the man. I’ve listened to a lot of interviews, but he is pretty reclusive. And I love me a recluse. He seems like a grumpy man.

I can’t download musical theatre. I can’t pirate it. Most of them I can’t buy on DVD, or find the albums. Wikipedia plot summaries are woeful. So basically, I have to go see it. So I rearrange my whole life to do this.

I have tickets to see Passion next month, the main reason I’m staying in London so long. I am making plans now to see West Side Story in Brisbane. Coming back to London next year to see Sondheim on Sondheim.

This things is a part of my life now, and Sondheim is my door into this world. These writings have been about aging, and maybe it’s the path I’m supposed to take now. Nirvana at 10, Dylan at 20, Sondheim at 30…seems like the path a lot of people take. I’m happy to be on it.

I had to post this one. Sondheim is great, but he had some fantastic singers to prop him up. Watch how great Pamela Myers, Susan Browning and Donna McKenchie nail this complicated song, strutting their hips and looking like characters in Mad Men.

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