Saturday, February 7, 2009

West Palm Beach Hosts Sondheim

As Stephen Sondheim would say, “life is Company!” A few days ago we saw the great man himself at the Kravis Center in “A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim” with musical examples. As Updike is to contemporary American literature, Sondheim is to contemporary American music. When he walked onto the stage, Ann and I held our breath: a living legend before us. We’ve seen many Sondheim shows and revivals and even have a small “connection” with him through our old hometown of Westport, Ct. where Sondheim served as an apprentice at the Westport Country Playhouse in 1950. But this was such a different experience.

I wasn’t sure what such an evening might be like, although I suspected the venue would be a discussion prompted by a moderator, in this case Sean Patrick Flahaven the Associate Editor of The Sondheim Review with musical illustrations by Kate Baldwin who apparently was a last minute replacement for Christine Ebersole. Kate is a quintessential Sondheim singer, someone with a wonderful voice who articulates every word with the emotive intent of the song. The pianist, Scott Cady, was equally up to the task of communicating the subtleties and rhythms of the master’s music.

In fact, that is what Sondheim’s work is all about, the perfect marriage of lyric and music. As he explained in his “Conversation,” “I write for actors.” I watched him watch Kate sing the examples, wondering, exactly what was he thinking. Was he remembering how and when he wrote those pieces, or was he subliminally critiquing her performance, or was he just taking in the evening, as we were, a tribute to a legend?

I had hoped to hear more about the music itself, his comments on the particular pieces that were sung during the evening, but most of the night was about his reminiscences of his fabulous career. Having followed Sondheim, I was familiar with most of his musical works but was amused by some of the “inside information” he shared such as, in addition to Sweeny Todd, his musical Into the Woods had been prepared for film, although it never made it to the screen. This version was created with Jim Henson puppets alongside such luminaries as Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr and Steve Martin. With Henson’s death, this project ended.

I also learned he wrote a musical, Saturday Night, in 1954 when he was only 23, but it was not produced until about ten years ago. I think of it as a precursor to his portrayal of urban life in his breakthrough musical Company (the first Sondheim musical we saw when we lived in Manhattan in 1970). Saturday Night has a breathtakingly beautiful piece “What More do I Need?” which Kate Baldwin sung as the opening example. I was so taken with it I immediately bought an mp3 copy on Amazon (very competently sung by Dawn Upshaw but I like Kate’s version which is only accompanied by the piano) and then downloaded the sheet music from using the Solero Music Viewer (great service for musicians – allows you to buy just one piece, download it, even transpose it, and then print it). I’ve been sort of “consumed” playing the song since then. It can be seen on YouTube, sung by Anne Hathaway of all people (never knew she could sing so well).

Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the musical to a new plane making the songs intrinsic to the plot. (Hammerstein in fact was Sondheim’s mentor.) With Company Sondheim took the Broadway musical to the next level, and he has elevated it ever since. Sondheim is in a class of his own. As he explained in “Conversations” Company is not a plot driven musical. He thinks of it as it as a work of art you can look at from different perspectives and find different meanings.

Before seeing “Conversations” we rented the brilliant 2007 revival of the show, filmed for PBS and now available on DVD, staring Raul Esparza. Esparza’s interview on the DVD is worth the price alone – how it feels to play in a Sondheim musical. Company is chock full of Sondheim’s trademark conversational songs, works of art in their own right, looking at the foibles of relationships and what life means without them. Baldwin sang “Another Hundred People” from the show.

Most of my piano repertoire is focused on the great American Songbook, the work of Bill Evans, and the music of Stephen Sondheim. I regularly play his pieces; they are intricate, and while some are not necessarily melodic, many are beautiful, and all are memorable. His lyrics and music are so closely intertwined that just hearing the music is like looking at an impressionist painting without the brush stokes or reflections of light. But, I hear the lyrics in my mind as I play, and I am continually drawn to his work.

“Not a Day Goes By” is one of Sondheim’s more poignant ballads which is sung twice in his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, first as a statement of a husband’s unequivocal love for a wife who now wants to divorce him, and then as a reprisal (in this musical time goes backward) on the day they were married. The ambiguous lyrics can be read at and my rendition of the song can be heard here:

[Sorry, but the link to this song was subsequently removed by Google Pages]

Life is Company. Thank you Stephen Sondheim!