Nov 20, 2010

Even Stephen

You've got to hand it to Elisabeth Vincentelli: Of New York's daily critics, she's the only one out there truly blogging. I do admire the Times' Theater Talkback idea, which forces Ben and Charles to muse and extemporize in a quasi-bloggy way and invite readers' feedback. But EV actually has a dedicated blog and the temperament for honest-to-God thinking (or ranting) out loud. (So do the folks at Time Out, but they're not daily, and so does the Times' Jason Zinoman, but he throws it all down on Facebook.)

One of her latest, a screed called "Officially Sondheim'ed Out," is a classic from-the-hip salvo:
I've had it with Sondheim--or rather with Sondheimania. There's been so many events celebrating his 80th birthday this year that the cumulative effect is now the opposite of the desired one.
She's got a point. The press when the Sweeney Todd movie came out a few years back was similarly, um, thorough, and even for those of who follow the guy, the hagiography does cloy. (Full disclosure: I contacted him around the same time about an interview, related to some other project, if I recall, and he very graciously declined, citing his own fatigue with interviews and his need to get back to actual work.) Vincentelli deplores the amount of ink the Times spills on him: "Every week that paper finds a new way to talk about 'Steve,' " she says, which is overblown--she knows it's about product, and he's got a thick and expensive hard-cover book to sell (more on that in a sec).

Then EV puts the boot in:
Meanwhile, perhaps it's also time to say that he may be a better lyricist than a composer and that he's benefited from working with brilliant arrangers.
Yeah, see here's where I part company with what has become conventional wisdom about Sondheim: Great lyrics, but where are the tunes? In part because I just devoured the excellent second edition of Mark Eden Horowitz's indispensable Sondheim on Music, in which the master goes over his scores in illuminating detail (and offers a million other juicy bits along the way), and because I'm just cracking the tendentious doorstopper Finishing the Hat, the press for which has been full-court and frustrating (more on that in a moment), I've been refreshing my thoughts on this favorite subject recently.

And my thesis would be: The man is as great a musical dramatist as any who's ever lived. Maybe as good as Mozart or Wagner, certainly as good as Puccini or Verdi, definitely as good as Janacek or Britten or Weill (not faint praise in my book), and head and shoulders over just about anyone in the American musical theater that he's worked in, with the exception of Loesser at his best or the Gershwin of Porgy and Bess. And he's got a distinct advantage as a musical dramatist, shared in this company only by Loesser: He's also a brilliant lyricist, so that the extraordinary music he crafts is married inexorably to his own well-chosen lyrics. His vision is all of a piece, and its best it truly towers. Which is why I'd put his best scores near the top of any list of the 20th century's best: You may not be able to hum "Someone in a Tree," but Pacific Overtures is going to be with us longer than, say, A Chorus Line (yeah, I really think so).

Here's the thing, though: Sondheim may write song/scenes like almost no one before him and no one since, but he doesn't write his librettos, and I think more than anything this has been his downfall, not just in aesthetic but in commercial terms. He's done his incomparable musical dramatizing in interesting shows with deathless scores, but not many, if any, bona fide Broadway warhorses; his one masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, is never going to be a Chicago or a Fiddler; it occupies a realm somewhere closer to Threepenny Opera, which may never be a Broadway hit, nor does it ever need to be. Indeed, of his generation of post-Hammerstein composers, Sondheim hasn't really turned out a crowd pleaser since Forum. True, some of his shows get reevaluated and liked a little more (Assassins, for instance), but that curve is not steep enough to build a blockbuster on. And even among the handful of shows he's written that do really hold together (a list that includes Sweeney, Forum, Company, arguably Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures, a soft spot of mine), none has proven, or I think is likely ever to prove, a Broadway or West End juggernaut.

The current Little Night Music offers a fine illustration: It's close to a great musical in many ways, but not close enough to be canonical; in the many times I've seen it, Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's songs never quite come together onstage the way they seem to promise they will. Whereas I've seen Sweeney in community theater productions, not to mention the problematic movie version, and Wheeler's book and Sondheim's score still work like gangbusters. Night Music is a semi-hit on Broadway right now largely because of the stars that have festooned it, and possibly also because it's one of the lighter, more "romantic" Sondheims. But to my mind its tiny orchestra and somber tone point to the likely and not at all unhappy future of Sondheim's work: In smaller venues, in "chamber" stagings, where his brand of challenging, complicated musical drama really fares best, and where his work will never starve for an avid and discerning audience. I know, because I'm a proud part of that audience, and it just happened to be in small Los Angeles theaters, not big Broadway houses, that I really became sold on his work.

One more thing to address in EV's blog post. She makes a further charge:
I would even go as far as saying that he (unwittingly) contributed to the decline of the musical by making his emulators think all songs must be "integrated" in the book. No more catchy stand-alone numbers for us rubes! Unfortunately, 99% of said emulators aren't as gifted as their hero -- not to mention that Sondheim has written quite a few stand-alone standards himself.
Actually, it was Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, who pioneered "integrating" songs with dialogue, but I understand some of her beef. The idea that song and script should flow together seamlessly has proven to be a dead-end in either direction: one way lies dreadful through-sung pop-opera, and the other way quiet or quirky "small" shows where the music almost apologizes for even being there. I wouldn't blame Sondheim for this, or even his emulators (does she mean LaChiusa? Frankel/Korie?). Like Hammerstein, he writes musical dramas, not musical comedies, and I think what EV is talking about is big showstoppers like "Hernando's Hideaway" or "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat." I just think that musical tastes, let alone theatrical tastes, no longer smile on the gleam and bounce of musical comedy, unless it's used ironically a la Scottsboro Boys. I would point to David Yazbek as a fine counter-example, but alas, his latest project hasn't worked out so well.

There is one item amid this recent deluge that stuck in my craw, and which I do think is worth calling out. Though I haven't read Finishing the Hat, I've read and heard enough interviews with Sondheim over the years to know who's on his nice and naughty lists, and I look forward to delving at length into his careful eviscerations of Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, and other imperfectionists. But while I would be the first to agree with Sondheim that Larry Hart was a sloppy lyricist, I cringed when I read this in New York:
On Hart's “My Funny Valentine," which includes the lyric, "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / But you’re my favorite work of art": “Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate '-enic' rhymes are hard to come by.”
Does Stephen Sondheim really think this primly and literally? He actually can't discern the knowingly playful coinage behind "unphotographable," and actually thinks Hart is trying to pull one over on us? Almost for that couplet alone, "My Funny Valentine" has one of the sexiest, toughest, warmest yet passive-aggressive lyrics ever penned--it's the love song of someone who is clearly telling her partner that he couldn't be loved by anyone but her, but the love is no less sincere for that--and I'm not sure Sondheim has ever done better. I generally share his aversion to false rhymes and mis-accents, but a little of this kind of frosty pedanticism goes a long way. (Note: I'm sure I'll have more to say once I dip more deeply into the book; as for Horowitz's book, I've got a review of it in the next Sondheim Review.)


Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Re: "integrated" musicals. I wasn't referring to big show-stopping numbers like "Hernando's Hideaway" -- though contrary to popular perception, I do think Sondheim has written a lot of them. They may not be big and brassy (and supporting a dance passage) but songs like "Broadway Baby," "The Ladies Who Lunch" or "Send in the Clowns" ARE show-stoppers. They serve a narrative function within their respective musicals but also work great on their own. And they do so because of their lyrical economy, the fact that they don't try to deliver information in a literal-minded manner. It's all about the ellipsis.
What I was referring to when I alluded to terrible song-integration is the trend for numbers that go overboard with the TMI. Basically the character attempts to do elaborate storytelling through song, in a way that no music could really support. Of contemporary authors, I think David Yazbek comes close to a perfect balance. OK, maybe not always in "Women on the Verge"!

cinco said...

Great post. I too think Sondheim gets a bum rap as a composer--his scores are both beautifully complex and complexly beautiful. And while I agree Sweeney is his one true masterpiece, I think Into the Woods deserves some reexamination as a crowd-pleasing lyrical and melodic stunner (it's a staple of not only community theatre, but also high school and children's theatre). And I think Company (although very much of its time) could qualify as well.

I think way too often we underestimate the power of a good story well-told in musicals. You just can't have a satisfying theater-going experience without it.