Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Finishing the Hat Redux

Finished Sondheim's book Finishing the Hat but his melody lingers on.

The title of the book is a song title he wrote for Sunday in the Park With George (George Seurat, the Pointillist painter) and although that musical is after the cut off for this first volume of his "Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," he says it is “the only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience.” And that experience is about what it means to create a work of art, "That, however you live, / There's a part of you always standing by, / Mapping out the sky, / Finishing a hat... / Starting on a hat../ Finishing a hat... / Look, I made a hat.../ Where there never was a hat."

Although now eighty years old, Sondheim still seems to be blazing new trails, with this book and the eagerly anticipated sequel which will cover the balance of his career and his continuing observations on Broadway colleagues and collaborators. (One of his criticisms of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein -- and Richard Rodgers as well --- is that at a certain point in their careers, they no longer progressed, writing their musicals with a certain formula. Sondheim allows no grass to grow under his feet!) I began this "review" (on a very personal level) before completing this first published volume, unable to contain my enthusiasm.

So I now pick up with Little Night Music "suggested" by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. Sondheim says it gave him the opportunity to organize a musical around his favorite musical form, theme and variations, in which a theme is presented, and then follows various changes to that theme, either in key, harmony, orchestration or a more complicated musical variation to the theme which might even be unrecognizable, with a coda which usually repeats the theme in some way. His description of his meeting with Ingmar Bergman a year after Little Night Music opened, to discuss a possible collaboration on another project is priceless. Sondheim said to him: "...I have to know what you thought of the show, and please don't hesitate to tell me whatever you feel, as I have a very thick skin and I know our version is lightweight and doesn't begin to convey the depths of your movie....I'm sure I went babbling on a good deal longer, but he graciously cut me off. 'No, no, Mr. Sondheim, please. I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movies, it merely has the same story.' I thought: only someone with that understanding and generosity would realize, must less say, such a thing. and then came the kicker: 'After all, we all eat from the same cake.'"

Sondheim's most recorded song (over five hundred) is from this show, "Send in the Clowns." Paraphrasing Sondheim, it used to be the song, not the singer that made a song, but in this pop generation, it's now the singer (or song group) not the song. It was amazing to him that the song won the Grammy Award of the Song of the Year in 1975, the last song to do so from a musical. Per Sondheim, "The success of 'Send in the Clowns' is still a mystery to me."

The Frogs, with which I was completely unfamiliar, is an experimental piece he was asked to write for the Yale Repertory Theater, "one of the most deeply unpleasant professional experiences I've ever had." The producer was one of the worst kind: "the academic amateur." But he admits "it offered me a chance to harangue an audience, to use a chorus a cappella to make sound effects, to write massed choral music, and to indulge in vulgarity, adolescent humor and moral preachment, just like Aristophanes."

With his Pacific Overtures Sondheim moved to a new level in his fusion of music and lyric, using the structure of Haiku poetry in his lyrics, his dedication to the principle that "less is more." I've never seen Pacific Overtures although Ann had when it first opened on Broadway and when I asked her what she thought, she said that at the time it was so different from anything else she had seen, she didn't know what to think other than she knew it was a work of genius.

It is all part of Sondheim's quest to "finish the hat." In this musical Sondheim has the opportunity, however, to "thumb his nose" at Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) with a piece from the show "Please Hello": As he said, "I...would like to point out with suitable pride that the lyric is historically accurate as an account not only of the succession of arrivals but of the specifics of each country's demands. The music, unsurprisingly, is a series of pastiches: Sousa march, Gilbert and Sullivan patter, Dutch clog dance, Russian dirge and French can-can. In the interests of thumbing my nose at Gilbert, I summoned up a meticulous series of inner rhymes without distorting syntax, syntax distortion being a feature excused by his fans as part of his style, but something which I deplore, as I deplore it in Hart, Gershwin and Coward."

Ann & I were at a dinner party and we were talking about Sondheim's next work in the book, Sweeny Todd, and I was surprised by their unanimous abhorrence of the musical. Although I understand an aversion to some of the gruesome scenes, I think they were simply not getting it, lyrics and music perfectly synchronized, one existing for the other. Perhaps it is because unlike the classic musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, some Sondheim musicals do not let you merrily exit afterwards humming the melodies. But Sondheim haunts and certainly his love of suspense music, the macabre, and his less than sympathetic view of mankind (Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals always ending on an uplifting note in spite of any darkness that might inhabit part of their musicals), comes through in Sweeny Todd, off-putting to the audience in its graphic violence, "blood" even spurting as far as the orchestra pit in some performances. How can an audience which loves an Rodgers and Hammerstein's buoyantly optimistic "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow" reconcile itself to Sondheim's bleak "There's a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And it's filled with people / Who are filled with shit"?

Sondheim describes the work as a "dark operetta" and really a "movie set for a stage" so it is no wonder that Tim Burton's translation of the musical to screen starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter is considered (by Sondheim) to be the most successful adaptation of one of his works for the silver screen. The movie is remarkable as neither Depp or Carter had ever sung before. Singing Sondheim is difficult enough for trained singers as his lyrics come fast and furious in many songs with few spells for breathing. In fact, the DVD edition of the movie is the perfect way to see Sweeny Todd, turning on English subtitles, sort of like reading the libretto of an opera while the performance is underway. It's the best method of fully appreciating what Sondheim accomplishes with this and his other opera-like musicals.

Finishing the Hat concludes with his Merrily We Roll Along, which reminds me a little of Company, as it is a contemporary urban piece, also about friendships, and somewhat autobiographical as it concerns a songwriter. ("In my heyday as a young songwriter, I played many requests at many parties through the short attention span of the requesters and suffered many opinions of producers and directors who felt that their credentials demanded that they have something critical to say.") Although there are memorable pieces in the musical, it closed after only a handful of performances, but with subsequent revivals, Sondheim tweaked it over the years.

The time line of the play is in reverse as our songwriter (Frank) devolves from being a rich Hollywood type to his beginnings on Broadway. It has one of my favorite Sondheim songs, "Not a Day Goes By" sung with two different meanings, first as Frank's final plea of love when his wife wants to divorce him and then in a reprise as a love song on their wedding day. Because of the reverse time line, it is the complete opposite of the usual reprise (think of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "People Will Say We're in Love" or "If I Loved You").

"Not a Day Goes By" is one of the many pieces I regularly perform by Sondheim. Although his music is best appreciated with his lyrics, that song reminds me of the other wonderfu,l frequently melodic, pieces by him that I enjoy playing as piano solos. True, there are others that do not work as solos, but I think Sondheim gets a bad rap for not being melodic. As I play mostly from "fake books" (which provide melody and chords and it is left to the pianist to improvise everything else) I have limited choices of Sondheim pieces. Still, there are many in my repertoire. Sondheim confesses a penchant for "list songs" (as do many other lyricists, think again of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" from Sound of Music which we just saw brilliantly performed at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre) and so, I am concluding with my own list, those Sondheim songs that I like to perform, all from The Ultimate Broadway Fake Book .....

Anyone Can Whistle (Anyone Can Whistle)
Being Alive (Company)
Broadway Baby (Follies)
Company (Company)
Good Thing Going (Merrily We Roll Along)
I'm Still Here (Follies)
In Buddy's Eyes (Follies)
Johanna (Sweeny Todd)
Little Night Music (Little Night Music)
The Little Things We Do Together (Company)
Losing My Mind (Follies)
Not a Day Goes By (Merrily We Roll Along)
Not While I'm Around (Sweeny Todd)
Pretty Women (Sweeny Todd)
Remember? (Little Night Music)
Send in the Clowns (Little Night Music)
Side By Side By Side (Company)
Someone is Waiting (Company)
Sorry-Grateful (Company)
Waiting for the Girls Upstairs (Follies)
Who's That Woman? (Follies)
You Could Drive A Person Crazy (Company)