Friday, July 15, 2005

Memo To Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, interviewed here by Time Magazine, is a fine composer and lyricist, and I hope at some point he will stop revising his flop musical about the Mizner brothers -- the interview indicates that he is still trying to beat that particular dead horse -- and write a new show.

However, I am annoyed, though not surprised, to find that after almost 50 years he is still beating another dead horse, namely this quote, which is something he says in one form or another in every interview he gives:


There are legions. Particularly a number of the very purple-prose lyrics in West Side Story: "It's alarming how charming I feel." Coming from a Puerto Rican girl--what, is she studying Noël Coward?

Sondheim says that about that particular line over and over again, and over and over again I don't get it. A, the word "alarming" is not particularly obscure; B, even if you assume it is obscure, the whole song is about Maria saying how perfect she is, so it would be in character for her to affect an upper-class vocabulary, as part of the joke; C, people who have only recently learned English often pick up words that don't find their way into the everyday vocabulary of people who speak English as their first language, so Maria would be more likely than a native English speaker to say "alarming," not less.

If Sondheim wants to criticize some of his work in West Side Story, I could supply a list of lines that need criticizing (the misplaced stresses on "This is not the Ma...ria we know," for example), though at least a few of the real clunkers in that score may be by Leonard Bernstein, who wrote some of the lyrics himself before the producers hired a real lyricist. Or he can criticize Arthur Laurents's corny dialogue. But instead he keeps picking on one line that is just fine.

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