March 23, 2010

Stephen Sondheim


This really is going to be Short Monday because I’ve just spent the last two hours* cruising the web for Sondheim music clips.  Of which there are lots, but very few of them are anything I’m looking for**—and furthermore way too many of them are students practising for their vocal finals and . . . not all of them are going to pass. 

Everybody knows who Stephen Sondheim is, right?  I feel that not knowing who Stephen Sondheim is would be like not knowing who Bill Gates or the Queen of England or Elvis Presley is.  You may not approve*** but they’re monuments of the age.

It’s Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday today.  I haven’t been keeping track or anything;  I only know it because I’m a Composer of the Week junkie† and this week it’s Stephen Sondheim  I know I’ve ranted and bayed to you about the absolute supremacy of Sweeney Todd over . . . everything.  There was an era of my life when Sweeney was the permanent soundtrack to . . . well, everything.  And I saw it at all by chance;  my then boss at Little, Brown†† was a musical-theatre freak and I eventually got curious.  Also this was the era when I was spending all my disposable income on concert series—I felt myself to be a country girl with a lot of catching-up to do and I’ve never been very social:  Hang out?  Why would I want to hang out?  So I went to concerts—and when the latest Stephen Sondheim came to Boston I decided to give it a go.  Wow.  Wow.  WOW.†††  Suddenly I thought musical theatre was great. 

I don’t agree with a lot of this‡ but it’s an interesting and thoughtful overview:   One of the ways I diverge from standard Sondheim worship is that I think Company is . . . kind of a snore.  Oh, gods, more neurotic frelling New Yorkers.‡‡  Snoooooore.  But I love Not Getting Married Today, and it’s an example of just how mind-bogglingly brilliant Sondheim is as a lyricist.‡‡‡  And that in terms of patter songs he makes W S Gilbert look like he wasn’t trying.   And do watch the Weekend in the Country clip (from the Macleans article) too, which is an example of the delight of both his ensemble work and what the article-writer means about his ability to move the story along in the music.

            Very Happy Birthday, Mr Sondheim. 

* * *

* Since I got back from bell ringing.  Colin’s tower.  They were actually glad to see me, because I made six.  We rang Cambridge, which needs six ringers.  Colin allowed us small panting breaks between assaults on our campanological Eiger.  In another hundred years I’ll be able to ring it.   Probably.  Tonight my education was further expanded and developed by the fact that everybody but Colin went wrong at some point or another.  The fact that they didn’t always take me with them proves I’m learning something. 

** There are at least 1,000,000,000 versions of Send in the Clowns out there, which I think remains his one Top of the Pops type hit.  Note that if Send in the Clowns is not a big favourite of yours this does not necessarily mean you will never be a Sondheim fan.  One of the many, many things he is terrific at is jerking his audience around with stuff they’re not expecting—some of his most conventionally beautiful melodies^ mean something else entirely in the context of their original show.  Oisin, who doesn’t know Sweeney Todd,^^ had the music to Greenfinch and Linnet Bird lying on his piano stand last week.  One of his students is singing it for one of those grade-test doohickeys they have over here^^^ and he was raving about what a beautiful song it is.  Well, yes, it is . . . but see the show.  Yeep.  The one that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up however is Not While I’m Around, a conventional-sounding love song which is also from Sweeney, and is sung by the rather dim assistant at Mrs Lovett’s pie shop, who has a major crush on Mrs Lovett.  Sweeney’s evil deeds are about to catch up with him, and the dim assistant is comforting Mrs Lovett that nothing bad can happen to her ‘Not While I’m Around’.  Mrs Lovett is—I think this hardly counts as a spoiler—another homicidal lunatic, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll get out of there fast. 

            I don’t myself much like Send in the Clowns (or Not While I’m Around) all by itself but it works a treat in context.  

^ If you can ever say ‘conventional’ about Sondheim with a straight face. 

^^ Sweeney Todd:  greatest musical work of the twentieth century.  I’m not going to argue with you so don’t bother.  And I’ve already told you I hated the film.  Hated. 


*** That would be three out of three . . . but I approve of Sondheim. 

††,_Brown_and_Company Oh gods they publish Twilight.  . . . Speaking of books Pollyanna cannot control me about, I may have to have a rant about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which, like Twilight, really really really bothers me for the not-very-subliminal message it’s putting out. 

††† Note that the travelling show had George Hearn as Sweeney, not Len Cariou.  Len Cariou is fine, and I wore through I think two copies of the original Broadway cast on LP^ before I got it—I assume permanently—on CD.  But I liked George better.  I managed to see Len once live in New York but George, to me, always had an even darker, madder, more powerful edge. 

^ I know.  You keep forgetting how old I am. 

‡ A Little Priest is not too long.  

‡‡ I am so not a fan of Another Hundred People.  Let ’em get back on the train and go back to Peoria. 

‡‡‡ Everybody here knows he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, yes?


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