Tuesday, March 22, 2005

He Never Does Anything Twice

Doesn't seem possible that Stephen Sondheim could be 75. While he didn't really start all that young, by Broadway standards -- Richard Rodgers had his first hit show and song at 23; George Gershwin had a smash hit song at 21 -- the image of him in the minds of some of us show-music buffs is of the young-looking, shaggy-haired composer-lyricist who was coming in to shake up the squares of Broadway. Even though he was 40 by the time Company premiered, he looked like an enfant terrible and sometimes played the part in interviews, as in his famous early-'70s interview where he said nasty things about the craftsmanship of Larry Hart and vaguely condescending things about his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. But now he looks and sounds like an elder statesman, and that's what he is; he's the last link to the Hammerstein tradition, and he has no apparent successors in carrying on the tradition of creating true musical theatre -- songs that are not just songs but theatre pieces, songs that carry the action forward instead of slowing it down. (Too many post-Sondheim songwriters think that the way to write a good character song is to have a character stop and sing about his or her feelings. That's not it at all. A good theatre song is one where we wind up knowing more about the character's feelings than he or she could tell us directly, whether it's Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" or Sondheim's "Could I Leave You?")

The pros and cons of Sondheim have been endlessly debated and rehashed. His strengths are well-known, and in the type of shows he's chosen to write, his major weakness -- his problem writing good love songs -- isn't all that relevant. I also don't think he's to blame for the rather odd cult of Sondheim-Firsters who like Sondheim but don't like musicals (there seem to be quite a lot of these Sondheim-Firsters in England, for some reason). It may be unfortunate that he was pronounced a genius so quickly and so persistently; by 1970 his name was already a byword among people who wanted musicals to be Art, and by 1973 he was already getting retrospective galas that seemed to appeal more to people in the musical-theatre business than people who just liked musical theatre. All this, combined with Hal Prince's desire to do Important musicals and drive away all his backers, may have helped push Sondheim further away from the disciplines of traditional songwriting -- the A-A-B-A form, concise melodies, comprehensible lyrics -- into long, rambling, diffuse songs.

The Sondheim I like is the Sondheim of the Harold Prince shows, up to Merrily We Roll Along; his best songs were tougher and darker than the average Broadway song, but still with the kind of pep and showbiz punch that is as much a part of good musical-theatre writing as subtext and characterization. After Merrily, a flop full of traditional A-A-B-A songs that didn't catch on with the public, Sondheim stopped doing overtures, dance breaks, applause-baiting crescendi, A-A-B-A refrains, and just about anything else that smacked of showbiz or song-plugging. Yet the unique appeal of the Broadway musical is based in part on its showbiz component, of the attempt of songwriter, performer, designer, director and choreographer to knock 'em dead in the aisles while still making each number dramatically relevant. Something like Sunday in the Park With George, where everything is dramatically relevant, every song sounds the same and all traces of "showbiz" have been purged, just isn't of interest to me. (And if you're going to write songs that exist only to serve the drama, it would help if the drama being served wasn't created by James Lapine, a writer whose lines sound like they were translated from the original Sanskrit and a director who coaches actors to speak as if English wasn't their first language.) Someone on a theatre newsgroup once put it succinctly: He wanted "More Sondheim shows with overtures." Sounds about right to me. And another showstopping, crowd-pleasing, applause-baiting theatre piece like "A Weekend in the Country" wouldn't hurt either.

One more thing: I still hold to the once-conventional wisdom that Sondheim is not a very good melodist. This doesn't have a great deal to do with the charge that his tunes aren't "hummable" (I don't think they are, but that doesn't mean they're bad melodies). It's more that Sondheim's songs often don't have a very strong melodic profile. Sondheim builds his melodies out of little phrases that get repeated a lot; some of his songs, like "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along, basically consist of one phrase repeated over and over and over. This is, or can be, a legitimate way to build a melody, but it means that the opening bars of a Sondheim melody often don't sound like much at all -- it takes a long time for a lot of his songs to make their melodic points, establish what the style and tone of the melody is going to be. And in writing theatre melodies, that's a big minus, because the crucial point in a theatre song is the beginning of the refrain; it's the part that establishes, in the listener's mind, the melodic profile of the song. When you hear the first bars of the refrain of "Some Enchanted Evening" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" or any number of great theatre songs, you hear a distinctive melodic idea right away, something that clues you in on the point the melody is making, and thus the theatrical and character point that the song is making overall. Sondheim's melodies ramble, they dither, they take a long time to make their points. (His most popular melody, that of "Send in the Clowns," is also one that starts up-front with an intriguing melodic idea that sums up the mood of the whole song.) And in theatre music, you don't have that much time; everything is zooming at the listener at top speed and it has to communicate instantly. Without a melody that establishes a profile up-front, right away, a song is hobbled as a theatre piece, because its ability to give the audience a quick impression of mood or characterization is limited. And that's part of the reason why a lot of Sondheim songs seem to make a bigger impression with their lyrics than with their music.

This rambling post is less grateful than it perhaps should have been to a great theatre songwriter who has brought great pleasure to many people. So I'll just close by saying thank you, Mr. Sondheim, happy birthday, and many more, and quote a Sondheim lyric about giving thanks for what we've been given, from Do I Hear a Waltz?:

Thank you so much, sir,
Wasn't it fun?
No reason at all to cry.
Let's keep in touch, sir,
Now that it's done;
You can't say we didn't try.
Did it go by so quickly?
Really, it seems a crime.
But thank you so much
For something between
Ridiculous and sublime.
Thank you for such
A little but lovely time.

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