Musically, Sondheim’s strophes have always retained the tautness and symmetry of the theatre song even as they experiment with their length and design and expand the range of rhythms and harmonies that drive and color them. In this, he continues the line of over-from-Broadway operatic practice that begins with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, continues through Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, includes the iconic West Side Story and the ironic Candide (to both of which Sondheim contributed lyrics to the music of Leonard Bernstein) and reaches a pinnacle of sorts with Sondheim’s own “black operetta” (his term) Sweeney Todd and the haunted chamber opera Passion. Lyrically, his method (developed with Arthur Laurents) of identifying first the actor’s actions in any given scene and letting them determine both text and music (not always in lockstep, by the way—no other theatre composer suggests emotional ambivalence by playing music against text as elegantly as Sondheim does) is possibly the first exciting answer to that tedious question prima la parole, o prima la musica? in three hundred years. (The answer? Neither: it’s the gesture.) And culturally, Sondheim’s insistence that substantial topics, seriously addressed, could be just as valid (and entertaining) in the sung drama as in the spoken one joins him not only to his mentor Hammerstein but to repertory regulars like Mozart and Verdi, who placed the same value on astute social observation, sophistication of thought, and directness of expression that Sondheim has.
In perspective of contributions like these, the technical distinctions between Sondheim’s scores and standard operas seem less significant. True, Sondheim never orchestrates his own music: it’s largely been written for amplification for at least thirty years; and his disinterest in the human voice, particularly in its operatic aspect, is rivaled only by that of his sparring partner Ned Rorem. (Why don’t these guys write more string quartets?) None of Sondheim’s pieces were originally composed to be through-sung the way, say, Carmen or Porgy and Bess are, though it’s worth noting that at the premieres of both of those pieces the scored recitatives were spoken, not sung. And no one claims Sondheim-the-composer is much interested in modernist experiment: his musical palette is conservative by any but minimalist standards. (Next to Nixon in China, Sweeney Todd seems as richly lurid as Wozzeck.)
And yet: in the middle of a century in which American opera composers, as usual, seemed confused and intimidated how to adapt a form with so richly European a past into an authentically American present (Vanessa? Please!) Broadway’s pre-eminent songwriter, in his own medium and for his own reasons, created a richly evocative model for composers and librettists working in an art only slightly (and ever-the-less) removed from his own. I freely attest that I would never have written my opera the way I did without Sondheim’s example, and I’ll bet Jake Heggie or Terence McNally or William Bolcom would claim the same. “Having just the vision’s no solution: everything depends on execution,” Sondheim once opined in the score to 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim’s theatrical executions are tricky to transfer into the opera house. The vision belongs there. Wherever artists write and perform music in drama as if it matters, there, I suggest, you’ll find good American opera: New York City Opera; and (this May at least) Stephen Sondheim.
Barbara Cook & Michael Feinstein sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from their recent CD Cheek to Cheek.
This is the same arrangement Barbara sang in Sondheim on Sondheim, but I far prefer Michael Feinstein to Tom Wopat. Although frankly, I don’t think much of this particular arrangement at all.
However, Reese, the mastermind behind Hipster Sondheim, Little Sondheim Things, and about a million and a half other Tumblrs, posted a bunch of Barbara Cook posts last night, so I felt inspired to share this for her. (She’s awesome. You should be following all her Tumblrs. I sort of wish she was my little sister.)
Moving On was a British Sondheim revue put together by David Kernan in 2000. It included original, taped interviews with Sondheim between the songs, which inspired James Lapine to work on his own version, which eventually became Sondheim on Sondheim.
The revue’s cast included Geoffrey Abbott, Linzi Hateley, Belinda Lang, Robert Meadmore, and Angela Richards.
This track is a medley of Move On, I Know Things Now, Everybody Says Don’t, and Take Me To The World.
Since when does Company have an ensemble? And what are male voices doing in the Vocal Minority?
I suppose having extra cast members join the leads in full-company numbers might help balance them against an orchestra the size of the NY Philharmonic, but this is the first bit of news about the production that’s making me raise an eyebrow.
JewishBoston.com is offering its first do-it-yourself Seder kit. Free to Boston-area residents, ages 18 to 40, who sign up by April 8, ‘Seder in a Box’ includes: a Seder plate, a basic Haggadah, a leader’s guide, recipes, a shopping list, instructions for setting the table, and a matzo cover. Oh, and some green plastic frogs, representing one of the 10 plagues.
I interrupt your regularly scheduled Sondheim posts to share an article from The Boston Globe about a project I’ve been working on (with some lovely quotes by me).
Petula Clark sings “Mama’s Talkin’ Soft,” cut from Gypsy, 1959.
I stumbled on this album at a used record store and snapped it up mostly to hear Pet cover this little-known song. But the whole album (well, both — the CD is a twofer of In Hollywood and In Other Words) is really a delight.
I suppose every single guy would relate to Bobby, so I’m not some special snowflake for relating to the main character from Company. It’s like my life, only I’m a gay (also, one time a guy told me that Sondheim said that the reason Bobby was single was because he is gay, which makes NO SENSE and I think he was just making shit up), and also my coupled friends don’t set me up with dudes? (That’s kind of a good / bad / good thing.)
I was listening to the original cast recording yesterday on Spotify (I own the revival cast recording from a few years ago), and the epic nature of the orchestrations and that ’60s grooviness really blew me away. This song was cut from later productions, but it’s really awesome.
All signs point to Tick Tock being included in the upcoming NY Philharmonic concert, which is exciting.
Tick Tock, of course, was not written by Sondheim, but by dance arranger (and fantastic composer in his own right) David Shire, based on Sondheim’s themes. Those groovy orchestrations are by the great Jonathan Tunick.
I finally got a CD drive for my little netbook, so expect a new variety of audio posts coming at you starting today with that Michael Feinstein track. (Anyone have the Tony Bennett original? I don’t think it’s ever been released on CD.)
If there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s my somewhat ridiculously large CD collection, so if there are any Sondheim songs (or particular renditions thereof) you’d like me to post, put a request in my ask box and we’ll see what I can do.
Also, I figured out how to put a little Facebook widget on the Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim homepage, so if you’d like to tell your friends about what we’re doing here, you can click like and share the love.
I noticed I’m closing in on 300 followers — thanks everyone! As is the custom round these parts, I’m preparing a particularly embarrassing karaoke video to share when we reach that milestone. (I made my friend Stephanie film something like a dozen takes… I just need to edit them together. Unfortunately, I appear to have Elaine Stritch’s facility for remembering lyrics. To say nothing of my vocal quality, which can be generally summed up as “none.”)
Oh, and I’m coming back to NY in a couple of weeks for the Company concert (as I’ve reminded everyone who reads this blog over and over again). The plan is to be at Mostly Sondheim at the Duplex on Friday night (April 8), and at Marie’s Crisis after the concert on Saturday night (April 9), so if you’re in NY and old enough to get into those places, you should totally come and say hi and sing some Sondheim with me. I don’t bite (much).
Dear @abeaujon, Sondheim did not invent nor popularize the phrase “a funny thing happened on the way…” It was a funny title for the show because it telegraphed the way vaudeville & burlesque comedy tropes would be mixed and mingled with Plautus’s Roman comedies.
"No One Has Ever Loved Me" from The Trotter Trio’s Passion…in Jazz. The album that introduced me (and the world) to what would become pianist Terry Trotter & producer Bruce Kimmel’s epic Sondheim in Jazz project.
This isn’t a Sondheim song, but it’s a John Bucchino song that makes reference to “that Sondheim show” (clearly Passion), from Patti LuPone’s understated (and under-appreciated) album Matters of the Heart.
Although I generally prefer the original orchestrations for this show, there’s something about the chimes (is that a triangle? glock? whatever) that give me the chills. The whole thing — orchestra, voices, words, and music — just comes together in a way that makes me feel the moment the song’s describing in my bones. This is musical theatre at its best. (And due credit should be given to Bruce Kimmel, the album’s producer, for achieving the perfect sound on disc.)
For so many years, this song (and, really this whole cast) was one of those mysteries that tickled my imagination. Finally hearing it (God bless the internet) is a little disappointing, but let’s face it: Forum is a pretty visual show. Still, an interesting curio.
I peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu, banaaaaaaaaaaaaanaaaaaaaaaaaa!
(Bryn Terfel was originally supposed to appear in the New York Philharmonic production opposite Patti LuPone, but he took ill and was replaced by George Hearn relatively last minute. It’s great to get a sense of what he does with the role, isn’t it?)
10 Questions with Stephen Sondheim (September, 2000)
The sidebar to the Dorothy Loudon interview was 10 Questions with Stephen Sondheim. I wrote most of the content for the website, but I’m pretty sure the questions for this one came directly from my boss, Bruce Kimmel.
Is there one Broadway show which you wish you’d had the chance to write? The only Broadway show that comes to mind is Carnival. I would really like to have written songs for that story.
There have been a plethora of birthday celebrations for you this year. How did you spend your actual birthday? I spent my birthday in Connecticut at the house of my friend Lindsay Law, with eight other good friends.
If you had to choose one song to be remembered by, what would it be and why? You’re really asking what my favorite song is, and I have a number of them. The first two that spring to mind are “Someone In A Tree” and “Opening Doors.”
We know you were a big movie buff growing up. What are your five favorite films? My favorite films are rather plebian in taste (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, etc.). But five favorites that generally don’t make the best-loved lists are Contract (Polish), Character (Dutch), Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death), Hangover Square and Panique (French). These are just the first five that come to mind.
Your love for games and puzzles is well known. Is there any game or puzzle which totally stumped you? Games don’t “stump” people, but I’ve been stumped by many puzzles. Here’s a favorite, sent to me by Tom Lehrer (I did solve it, but only after a lot of effort):
There are two integers greater than 1 and less than 50 (they may or may not be equal). S knows the sum of the two numbers and P knows their product. Both S and P are very smart.
S: I don’t know what the numbers are. P: I don’t know what the numbers are. S: I knew you wouldn’t. P: Now I know what the numbers are. (And he does.) S: So do I. (And he does.) What are the two numbers?
Can you briefly describe the differences in developing Wise Guyswith Sam Mendes and now Harold Prince? No.
Obviously in the old days, musicals were written without having the benefit of the “workshop” process. What do you think of workshops? Do you think they’re always a good thing for a musical-in-progress, or can they be harmful? I think workshops are very misleading and, more often than not, destructive. More and more, they tend to be trial runs for backers and audiences rather than true workshops. For example, the so-called workshop of Wise Guys might as well have been an off-Broadway run for insiders. It taught us nothing - except never to have another workshop.
Where do you think the Broadway musical is heading? This is one of those overview questions that is foolish to answer. Art, even popular art, doesn’t “head” in any given direction - only in hindsight does it seem to have, and then only for academics.
Who are your favorite classical composers? The usual: Brahms, Ravel, Stravinsky, Britten, Rachmaninoff, to name the first few that come to mind.
What’s the last Broadway show CD you listened to? Parade. But I have many others written since then, waiting to be heard when I have the time and inclination.
The above may be too terse for you, but there it is. Good luck with your website and, indeed, with the whole venture.
His answer to question #6 is my favorite, because only he would answer that way.
When that track was released, I had the privilege of interviewing Dorothy for our website. Although that interview took place through the mail — she hand-wrote her responses to me! — I eventually developed a lovely phone relationship with her. Here’s the text of that interview:
September 1, 2000
Dorothy Loudon: She’s Still Here
By David Levy
We often hear stars refered to in hyperbolic terms, but Dorothy Loudon is the real thing: a Broadway legend. Best known for her Tony-award winning performance as Miss Hannigan in the original cast of Annie, Dorothy’s career has spanned radio, television, cabaret, theatre, and film. Recently, Dorothy shared with me some of her showbiz memories and discussed her track on THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ALBUM, “I’m Still Here.”
David: How did you get your start in show business?
Dorothy: After my sophomore year at Syracuse University, I left - on the advice of my drama coach - and came directly to New York City. I lived in a girls’ club and auditioned for anyone who would listen. My first job was in a tiny club called “Jimmy Ryan’s,” where I sang and accompanied myself on the piano. One night, Jackie Gleason came in with his musical conductor, Ray Bloch. I guess they were impressed, because Mr. Bloch put me on CBS radio, where I was heard nationally every Friday night. From that time on I never stopped working. That was before television. That was fifty years ago. I was a very lucky girl.
David: You were a fixture of the 1950s cabaret scene in NY. Has the cabaret scene changed much? How? What was it like back then, doing shows in the boites?
Dorothy: The cabaret scene has changed tremendously since the fifties and sixties when I was there. People “dressed up” for the occasion. Tuxedos, gowns, “the works”.
On a typical night at “The Blue Angel,” I would appear on a bill with Johnny Mathis (opening act), Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) - and Bobby Short was playing in the lounge!
Television came along and literally wiped out the supper clubs. Now, people could sit at home, turn on their sets and see all those people in their own living rooms. What’s more, they could watch in their pajamas, and there was no cover charge.
David: How did your role on the Garry Moore show come about?
Dorothy: One day I got a call from the Garry Moore Show - Gwen Verdon was to have been their guest star, but she had the flu and couldn’t make it. It was two days before the show and they were desperate. I had auditioned twice for the show — and was turned down. I jumped at the chance. In two days I learned the sketches, songs, choreography… and went on for Gwen. That night, after the show, Garry offered me a three year contract.
David: Was that your “big break”?
Dorothy: It turned out to be the biggest break of my career.
David: You brought Broadway all over the country in countless national tours. What was life on the road like?
Dorothy: Before my own theatrical break-through (Annie - an astounding success, where I was given the gift of “Miss Hannigan” and my first Tony Award), I toured with National Companies starring in roles that other women had made famous. Two exceptions were West Side Waltz, where I was blessed to share the stage with Katharine Hepburn and create the role of Cora, and Noises Off, where I was on stage nightly with the most marvelous ensemble of actors in American theatrical history. Actually, that was a direct quote from Michael Blakemore, the unmatchable director, who cast me in the part of Dotty Otley. What a part!
David:Luv is a personal favorite of Bruce Kimmel’s. Can you share any memories from that show?
Dorothy:Luv was my first tour, a marvelous play by Murray Schisgal. My fondest memory of touring was of that play. There were three of us: Tom Bosley, Herb Edelman, and me.
We arrived on a bus in Indianapolis during a blinding snow storm. The huge truck carrying the sets and props was stranded somewhere in the snow outside the city. So, we performed the play on folding charis, by candlelight, in this packed auditorium. It was a resounding success, a testament to the astonishing structure and strength of this play.
David: You have performed Stephen Sondheim’s work on many occasions - most memorably as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd on Broadway and singing a medley of “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” and “Losing My Mind” at Carnegie Hall. What draws you to Sondheim’s work?
Dorothy: As for being drawn to Sondheim’s work - who, with any dramatic sense, wouldn’t be? He satisfies every theatrical bone in a musical actor’s body.
I remember George Hearn and I were given just two weeks of rehearsal to replace Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. Opening night I remember running into George back stage, in the dark, and saying “Do you think we’re getting away with this?” We did.
David: Are there any of Sondheim’s shows you would like to do (or like to have done)?
Dorothy: Yes - all of them! Including Passion and Assassins. You know, with a little make-up…
David: Tell us about “I’m Still Here.” Does this song have personal significance for you?
Dorothy: It’s a song I’ve always wanted to do, always identified with it from the first time I heard it.
I’ve always thought fame to be a frightening thing. If you don’t attain it, you’re miserable. If you do attain it, you’re miserable because you don’t know how to handle it. There is one line, “At least I can say I was there.” And I was. And guess what? I’m still here.
I just love the end of that piece. Of course, a week after it ran, Dorothy called me because she realized she forgot to enclose the second page she had written, and she was concerned that her final answer had been cut off. I assured her it ended perfectly.
I am en route to NYC for the weekend. Looks like tonight’s post-theatre activities will include meeting up with some of my favorite Internet/theatre friends at The Duplex for “Mostly Sondheim.” (I know, you’re shocked.)
Anyway, we are a friendly group, so if you are in the city (and old enough to get into The Duplex), join us!