May 28, 2020

Best Showtunes Evah

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
Some years ago Adam Feldman at Time Out New York asked me to contribute some entries for a grand list of "Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I had nothing to do with the voting or the ranking (the Top 3, if you want to cut to the chase, were "Rose's Turn," "O'l Man River," and "Finishing the Hat"), but I was offered a choice from among the chosen 50 songs of which I wanted to write about, and was happy to land some of my favorites (lots of Rodgers, and both Tesoris!). The whole thing is worth a read, featuring pieces by Feldman, David Cote, Raven Snook, and James Gavin. Here are my contributions, with the number in the list they held.

5. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949)
Good music is onomatopoeia in reverse--sound formed from, and hence transmitting, meaning. That’s certainly the case with this swooning mini-aria, which wraps a pro-forma romantic message in a creamy musical envelope; even without Hammerstein’s lyrics, typically warbled by an operatic baritone with a heavy European accent, Rodgers’s tune by itself conjures ephemeral intoxication. And lest this song’s stand-alone hit status and oddly speculative second-person voice (“You may see a stranger”) make us forget: This love bomb drops in South Pacific’s first scene, where it functions as a marriage proposal. Who says no to that?

14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)
The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as a bit of grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple till the arrival of the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s soccer team.

18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)
For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sun Shine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes, courtesy lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.

12. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Some theatre songs are whole plays in miniature; that this is one of them maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s based on one of the Sholem Aleichem folk tales not used for the show’s main plot. As such it’s less an “I want” song than an “I am” song--a wistful introduction not to the things that drive the poor milkman Tevye but to how he sees himself. Amid the affectionate domestic humor of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics is an insight the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, insisted the writers keep: This is a man whose ultimate idea of luxury is more time to pray and read the Torah.

23. “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change (2004)
This stunning 11 o’clock number would be overwhelming if it all weren’t so clearly and forcefully laid out by playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. As Caroline, an embittered black maid who has squabbled over pocket change with the young son of the Jewish family she serves, wrenchingly weighs her complicity in her own misery, she tears through shifting meters and styles, presses words through multiple meanings (“Pocket change change me,” a climactic cry of “Flat!” that piles spiritual and musical connotations onto her hot iron), and reaches a kind of truce with her own rage.

29. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
A great theatre song goes places, but few travel as unexpectedly far and deep as this ebullient epiphany from the musical of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. The first trip is back in time, as 43-year-old Alison recalls her 10-year-old self admiring a butch lesbian she glimpsed at a diner; but the song’s real journey is the steep inward dive inspired by that shock of recognition. Lisa Kron’s lyric judiciously balances childlike precocity with stereotype-free hindsight, as Jeanine Tesori’s music spins subtly swelling cartwheels underneath, but the genius move is to leave blank space for young Alison to literally think out loud: “I feel…” and “I” and “…” Into these spaces a whole heart, and a lifetime, can rush.

39. “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951)
Open-hearted, ploddingly earnest Oscar Hammerstein II could be underrated in the indirection department. After all, he gave this strange, and strangely moving, pep-talk anthem to a supporting character, Lady Thiang, at a pivotal point in the impasse between the show’s quasi-romantic leads. As the King’s elder wife lauds, with a mix of damning faint praise and sincere special pleading, her monarch’s fickle, flickering greatness, she somehow makes Anna--and us--feel it. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Rodgers rose majestically to the occasion, crafting a monumental, angular musical portrait of the song’s offstage subject.

44. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943)
The musical’s version of the screwball comedy trope of the Lovers Who Can’t See They’re in Love, the “Of course I’m not in love with you (yet)” song has many fine exemplars (Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” Guys and Dolls’s “I’ll Know”) but few as witty, playfully reciprocal, and, yes, sexy, as this bit of romantic gamesmanship, which features one of Richard Rodgers’s most felicitously constructed and artfully ornamented tunes (listen for the sly inversion of notes on “Don’t throw” and “Don’t start”).

46. “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter wrote more than his share of durable melodies, but arguably his true metier was this kind of brittle, urbane word jazz, a kind of proto-hip-hop in which rhythmic flow and rhyming invention were everything. Though his original lyrics, full of wicked references to scandals and contretemps of his day, have often been censored or substituted with less topical variants, a listen to his original demo reveals that it isn’t arrangers or interpreters who’ve made Porter’s standards rock: The high-wire syncopations, feints, and sheer brass are all built into the original model.

49. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady (1956)
The first act of Shaw’s Pygmalion ends with Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle indulging in the luxury of a cab ride home to her Drury Lane digs. My Fair Lady’s first scene ends similarly, but not before she imagines--in this jaunty, syncopated minuet, one of many seemingly effortless, ageless gems in Lerner and Loewe’s score--earthly comforts so modest (heat, chocolate, a chair) that the song would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for its warm grin. It’s the “I want” song of someone with little reason to believe she’ll attain it, and it’s all the sweeter for it.

May 21, 2020

Sondheim vs. Weill's "Fruity" Sixths

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
If you forced me to make a list of favorite composers, Kurt Weill would be at the top, Maurice Ravel would be second, and, though I'm not exactly sure about the order after that, Stephen Sondheim would definitely be in the Top 5 (don't ask me to name the others in the pantheon, I don't want to get distracted here). The affinities here are not incidental, I don't think: These are three composers who craft music of the highest sophistication in popular forms, and whose harmonic language, to varying degrees, works the outer edges of Western tonal music, flirting with and sometimes bedding down eagerly with dissonance. All are first-rate tunesmiths not content with mere tunes, whose signature chords are thicker than simple triads.

Those signature chords make all the difference, though: Weill, as has been widely noted (including by me), is known for his use of major sixths (think of the third and fourth note, under "shark bites." in "Mack the Knife"; it's a chord that has a ghost of its own relative minor key in it, and as such naturally feels haunted, irresolute). Ravel is king of the ninth—major, flat, all kinds (as Herbie Hancock demonstrates here), an alternately splashy and expansive or curdled and cramped chord sound.

Meanwhile Sondheim, as Steve Swayne details in his essential book How Sondheim Found His Sound, took a lot of his harmonic tastes from French composers, including Ravel, as well as from film composer Bernard Herrmann (who would be in my own Top 10). Herrmann loved the major/minor seventh (the opening chord of the Psycho theme, which you can hear all over Sweeney Todd; spelled in C, you'd play C Eb G B-natural). From his French influences Sondheim took a love for sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, even thirteenths—odd-numbered chord extensions which, if you add them up, often form whole other chords, schmeared on top of the root chord (try C E G in the left hand, Bb D F; you could call this a C11, or Bb over C, though to make it truly Sondheim-y, take out the E on the bottom). Sondheim's harmonies, true to his less-is-more aesthetic, can also sound stark rather than full, subtractive rather than additive: As I noted in that parenthetical, he often avoids the third of a triad so you can't quite place whether a chord is major or minor, instead layering it with a jagged 2 or a 4. The result is a suspended, or sus, accompaniment figure, a nervy, open-ended chord that is arguably his signature sound (think of the opening of Company or Pacific Overtures, to just name two examples). It's a tic that, while Sondheim executes it brilliantly, has become something of a musical theatre cliché, as Dave Malloy has noted.

In any case, the throughline here, as always in my favorite music, is harmonic adventurousness, singularity, flavor. And to my ears Sondheim and Weill, in particular, sound related, cousins in off-kilter tunesmithing. Consider this great Sondheim film theme. Maybe it's the chamber jazz chug of the orchestration, but this sounds sneakily, smokily Weill-like to me:

Sondheim's contemporaries, Kander and Ebb, were obvious Weill-o-philes; his influence is quite naturally all over the Weimar sounds of Cabaret, and they have acknowledged his influence in all their work. Sondheim's longtime collaborator in pushing the musical theatre forward, Hal Prince, was such a Weill fan that he helped created the misbegotten, neither-flesh-nor-fowl Broadway fan-fic show LoveMusik (in which, for the record, I found much to admire). But it turns out that not only does Sondheim not acknowledge a debt to Weill. He is a non-fan, and has expressed that distaste in no uncertain terms. In a scathing footnote in Swayne's book, he reports this exchange, from a 2003 interview:
SONDHEIM: I never liked [Weill's] stuff except for Threepenny, and some of his American stuff I like. There's a rumba version of "Girl of the Moment" in Lady in the Dark—I mean, I like so little of his stuff I can pick out the pieces I like—it's the theme that goes with the lyric [Sondheim sings]: "Hoping I'd discover some wonderful lover." And that about covers it. What I love about Threepenny is how harsh and dissonant it is. I like it when it's played by a small band. But outside of that, Weill's musical language is anathema to me.
SWAYNE: Anathema?!
SONDHEIM: Well, in the sense that I don't like it. I mean, anathema like those fruity chords with the added sixths. They make me come all over queasy.
Okay. That's some strong stuff. While Terry Teachout has helpfully pointed out that Sondheim probably does not mean "fruity" as an anti-gay slur—"it's more of a wine term," as he put it—this quote hit me like a ton of bricks. To know that Sondheim hates Weill is a bit like hearing your parents fight in the next room. (Or maybe it's analogous to the weird frisson my friends and I felt when we read one songwriting hero, Randy Newman, diss another, Elvis Costello.)

Years later I had occasion to reach out to Sondheim for a story I was writing about concert revivals of two musicals Weill wrote with Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday. I already knew of his distaste for Weill's music, but I was curious—given that Sondheim's shows are often cited as examples of experimentation with form at the contested boundaries of the musical and the opera, a la Bernstein, Blitzstein, and Weill—if he had any thoughts about the two shows I was writing about. I couldn't use his response for the story but it's relevant here:
I know the scores well, having seen the original Lost in the Stars (my favorite songs being "Big Mole" and "White Man go to Johannesburg," if I remember the titles correctly), and I know Knickerbocker Holiday through recordings (going back to the original 78s). But I'd rather not comment, as I'm not as big a fan of Weill's songs as others are, and I wouldn't want to offend people. Also, I don't think Weill's American shows are experimental in any way (it's the actual songwriting that accounts for the unusual, quasi-operatic feel), except for Lady in the Dark, all of which wouldn't be helpful to your premise.
So yeah, that's a more gracious, non-argumentative diss than "anathema." And "except for Threepenny" is a big exception, right? I can hang onto that. Also taste is taste, whaddya gonna do? Sondheim's capacious, tendentious lyric books proved he's got his opinions and he's sticking to 'em.

I couldn't leave this there, though. Slur or not, that "fruity chord" comment still stuck in my craw. I don't have a lot of Sondheim scores lying around, and I only have limited time to take apart all of his songs. But one score I do have a copy of is one of my favorites of his, Pacific Overtures, which I love especially for its harmonic affinity with 20th-century French or French-adjacent composers (De Falla was one of his main inspirations for its harmonic sound). Accordingly there are lots of sus chords (they basically underpin all of his towering masterpiece, "Someone in a Tree"), ninths, and the like. I was about to give up when suddenly, staring right at me from the midst of the spare, lovely "There Is No Other Way," I saw it and cried out, vindicated, "I caught you!" It's in the song's exquisite B section, under the central word in the phrase "the bird sings" (at 1:55 below):

I mean, can it be a coincidence that that searing, yearning harmony—which I had the privilege of hearing the song's original singer, Alvin Ing, reprise in his inimitable tenor in a 1998 revival at East West Players—is among my favorite moments in all of Sondheim's music? The Bard of Turtle Bay may have felt queasy about employing that "fruity" chord here, but he sure did save it for a big payoff. Or maybe he just prefers not to do anything twice?

Footnote: Randy Newman later reversed himself on Elvis Costello.

May 18, 2020

Flashback: Rich Media

When I first arrived in New York City 15 years ago I didn't land a full-time job right away—it took me more than a year before I landed one writing web features for TDF—but among my freelance gigs was writing previews for a program company called Encore Magazine, which had accounts with both BAM in Brooklyn and UCLA Live (and still owes me money for some of my work, if memory serves). For that outlet I got to talk to Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, Sydney Theatre Company director Robyn Nevin, Marianne Weems of the Builders Association, playwright Rinne Groff.

I also found myself interviewing then-NY Times critic Frank Rich, who had hung up the theater beat a dozen years before to become a popular op-ed writer, and was doing a public appearances tour that included UCLA. Minus the contemporary references to Bush and Jayson Blair, it feels like much of his critique—of the dumbing down of media, alternative facts, etc.—could have been printed yesterday. As I republish that interview here, I've bolded one paragraph that jumped out at me now, about the response of artists in hard times. I think you'll see why.

(I will only add that though this interview was conducted quickly over the phone, Rich graciously wrote me a thank you note, and years later when I was flailing a bit, agreed to meet with me and give me some career advice. He told me I should try to diversify my coverage—write about anything other than theater, if I could, just to expand my options. Oops!)

Without further ado...

Encore Magazine, November 2005
by Rob Kendt

A critic is not always critical. Even though his 13-year reign as The New York Times' chief drama critic earned him the unaffectionate appellation "The Butcher of Broadway," Frank Rich was as fervent a champion—of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett, John Guare, Richard Greenberg, among many others—as he was a scourge.

These days, however, Rich is very much a critic, in that word's other, more polemical connotation: As an op-ed columnist for the Times, he has used his bully pulpit to excoriate the country's cultural and political right wing, whether it was ganging up on President Clinton, politicizing arts funding, getting behind a Biblical movie with ostensibly anti-Semitic sympathies (The Passion of the Christ), or, most recently, taking a nation to war on faulty intelligence. As such Rich has joined an anti-Bush Administration chorus at the Times that includes Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd.

At his upcoming talk at UCLA Live, Rich is likely to touch on these issues, not to mention on the topic of the theater in America, on which he still keeps an eye. But his central theme, he said recently, will be on the radically evolving media landscape and what it means for American democracy.

"I'm going to talk a lot about the way the media culture has changed, to create an alternative vision of reality that doesn't correspond to reality as we know it," Rich said, previewing his talk. From cable news to the Internet, a plethora of outlets now delivers news and entertainment in such a feverish cycle that the well-established journalistic practices of thorough and sustained reporting, Rich feels, are being ignored or compromised.

Of course, the response of many conservative bloggers, not to mention a network like Fox News, is that they are simply countering the disguised "liberal" bias of the mainstream media with their own undisguised perspective.

"I don’t buy the premise," Rich replied. "Obviously The New York Times and LA Times have left-of-center editorial boards; the Wall Street Journal has a conservative editorial page; Washington Post has a centrist editorial page. But reporting is really separate in those organizations. It's crucial to me that news organizations try to stick to reporting—always fallible, but still objective reporting. I'm less concerned about the seeming and somewhat fake conflict between liberal and conservative media than between news media that try to give you objective reporting, and another kind of media, which overheats the atmosphere, turning news into entertainment."

He admits, of course, that "there's always been an entertainment aspect to news. As George Clooney's film Good Night, and Good Luck shows, when Edward R. Murrow wasn't going after McCarthy, he was interviewing Liberace. But that kind of dumbing down has been ratcheted up in the past decade by the explosion of all kinds of electronic media."

"Weapons of mass distraction," Rich called the products of this new media marketplace, giving credit for the pun to "one of my favorite writers from L.A., Larry Gelbart." That phrase implies a level of intention. Does he think there's a conscious attempt by media companies to keep audiences and readers so distracted by tabloid news, celebrity titillation, and political shouting matches that they never ask more serious questions of their elected leaders? Or is this just a case of untrammeled media supply meeting insatiable lowest-common-denominator demand, which happens to converge with the wishes of the powerful to remain unaccountable?

"The jury is out," Rich said. "I would argue it's probably a bit of both. But convergence is the more likely scenario. The consolidation of the media plays a role, and we're still learning to what extent the interest of media companies determines this."

Rich works for a media company that has sustained some blows to its integrity, from the Jayson Blair scandal to the Judith Miller saga. More recently, the Times' introduction of TimeSelect, a paid subscription service that charges $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year for op-eds that were formerly available for free, including Rich's, has generated its share of controversy.

"TimeSelect was a business decision—no writer was consulted on that," Rich said. "It's way too early to tell whether it's successful or not. I approve of the principle. Organizations like The New York Times, which spend an extraordinary amount of money on news reporting, have to figure out a way to pay for that. If the Times can't have any income, then we'll just have bloggers. There's nothing wrong with blogs, but on the other hand if we don't have extensive reporting, we're not doing our job."

One medium that consistently rises to the occasion despite long financial odds is the theater. Even on the heavily commercialized and corporatized Broadway circuit, losing money is the norm, not the exception. It's no surprise, then, that the stage is still one place that alternative voices emerge.

"If you look at history of American theater, it has always—more perhaps than any other form in America—been activist at times of national trauma," Rich said. "In the 1930s, during the Depression, the Group Theatre and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre did very political theatre, not only about the economic situation but about race and the rise and fascism. And way before Hollywood started doing it, issues like Vietnam were raised on Broadway. It happened again with the AIDS epidemic, which was particularly traumatic for the theatre. That was one of the things I noticed when I started reviewing theater: The people I covered were literally dying, and the theater responded."

Now, with another unpopular war in the headlines, theater is responding with everything from the Off-Broadway revue Bush Is Bad to David Hare's Iraq-themed Stuff Happens. One reason for the proliferation of topical theater is practical: "The theater has less of a development process. You can pull the trigger faster with a play than you can by making a movie or writing a novel."

The other reason is one this professional opinion shaper can admire unreservedly.

"In none of these periods has the theater changed the world," Rich said. "What's moving about it is that theater people tried to use it to change the world. That impulse seems not to die."