Saturday, March 22, 2008


Today is Stephen Sondheim's birthday. He turns 78 today.

Yes this weekend, we are celebrating two Holy days back to back.

I sat trying to think of the one Sondheim song that might possibly introduce him to non-musical theatre folk and perhaps entice them to listen to more.

But "non-musical theatre folk" comprise 90% of the population (coincidence? I don't think so) and they don't know musicals, don't understand musicals and don't care to know more than they already know. They still call "Original Cast Recordings" of musicals "Soundtracks" for God's sake! And it isn't easy to synthesize Sondheim's musical cannon into one song.

Unlike other musical theatre composers...

...Like those two guys who wrote the Liza "power anthem" ballads. Or that guy who writes the songs so catchy that they stay stuck in your head like a drill bit laced with Anthrax. Or that English guy who shares Sondheim's birthday and just writes one song for a show, then reprises the Hell out of it and tells everyone it's a score...

...Sondheim writes songs for specific characters in specific situations. That may sound a given when you're writing songs for characters in a musical play, but think of it this way:

Elphaba and Glinda's song at the end of Wicked, For Good, is a beautiful moment for those two characters in the show, but that song could easily be lifted out of that context and sung by two other characters in just about any musical. The lyrics and the style of the song are not anchored into the show in any way. It's not bound by references to Oz or witches. It isn't linked to the show. It's a great song, but it isn't specific.

With Sondheim, nearly every song is specific. Could Phyllis from Follies sing "Chrysanthemum Tea" from Pacific Overtures? Not a chance.

Could Little Red Riding Hood from Into the Woods sing "I'm Still Here" from Follies?
I'd love to see it happen, because it would be Hy-Larious, but it wouldn't work.

Sure, other composers are specific within the context of their shows, but to me, Sondheim is the master.

And as an actor, there is nothing quite like standing on stage inside the painting of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte and singing "Sunday." There are no words to describe the feeling of singing "Our Time" at the end of the backwards journey of Merrily We Roll Along. The emotion is inside his complex and well constructed music. The rhythms and music give you the emotion.

For example, most singers phrase the opening line of "Being Alive" from Company by singing, "Somebody hold ME too close," but if you look at the rhythm that Sondheim gives you, the phrasing should be, "Somebody hold me TOO close." It may not sound like a huge difference, but for the singer, it opens up something inside of you as you begin the song. It's like Shakespeare; it looks daunting on the page, but all you have to do is read it in the cadence he gives you and everything becomes clear.

Wow. Shakespeare. I've gone way up my own ass and I doubt if anyone has followed me this far - - and if you have, isn't it fun up here? you should pack a lunch and stay for the day - - but guys, any man whose mother's name was Foxy, who (allegedly) is WAY into bondage and who lived next door to Katharine Hepburn for years is someone we need to know more about, right?

So today in Mr. Sondheim's honor, put on your favorite Sondheim Original Cast Recording, tie a boy to a bed and have a friend stand outside your door, knocking and screaming in his best Katharine Hepburn impersonation...

"Mr. Sondheim, you untie that boy this instant.
The loons! The loons!"


Gregory said...

Really!? I had no idea that he was into bondage!

Well done, then. Happy Late, Stee!

Gregory said...

RE: Bondage. I had no idea!

Happy Late, Stee!

cb said...

I like "assassins"... 'cause its SHORT.

Doug said...

I absolutely agree with you 100%, doll.

The problem is that nowadays composers are writing to the lowest common denominator. A power ballad such as "For Good" from Wicked is so loved by audiences because of the fact that it can be lifted out of context and used in vocal recitals, churches, cabaret shows, etc.

Sondheim writes to tell a story. William Finn writes to tell a story. Most of the others write to sell hit songs.

For Sondheim and Finn, their songs are like their children. For most of the others, their songs are like black-market Chinese babies they are willing to hand over to the highest bidder.

philip said...

Oh, he's into bondage. BELIEVE me.
And he can slap me around any time he wants.

Stephen where did you find that collegiate shot? He's so cute in that picture I just want to bite his cheeks.

And then have him tie me to a bed naked and leave me there.

He is risen indeed!

Aaron said...

Sometimes I just want to sit at the entrance of the Morse L stop and sing:

"And another hundred people just got off of the train, another hundred people just got off of the train"

And see how long it takes before I'm hauled away and placed in a straitjacket. (Up there, it probably wouldn't turn a hair...)