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Friday, June 05, 2020

The Stuff of Sondheim

From the Theater Vault Dept.: We’re going back 35 years here, re-visiting my piece about the Sondheim Melody Dilemma. With no Sondheim show on a nearby stage at that moment, I seized upon the cable-access showing of “A Little Night Music” to inspire this rant.


There’s not a tune you can hum.
There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum –
Give me a melody!

Why can’t you throw ‘em a crumb?
What’s wrong with letting ‘em tap their toes a bit?
I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit –
Give me a melody!

– Stephen Sondheim, “Merrily We Roll Along”

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"
STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS FOND OF decrying his naïvete as a fledgling lyricist working on his first Broadway show, which happened to be “West Side Story.” In the song “I Feel Pretty,” Maria sings the line, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” “Right there,” says Sondheim, “you get the feeling that Noël Coward just walked into the room, where there’s supposed to be a Puerto Rican immigrant.”

With his most recent show, “Sunday in the Park with George,” taking the Pulitzer Prize (rarely does a musical achieve that honor), it’s interesting to note how far Sondheim has come since 1957 – and how he’s now perceived by theatergoers.

The film of “A Little Night Music,” a bizarre attempt by Harold Prince to bring a very successful stage show to the screen, aired recently on Schenectady’s Channel 45. A before-the-movie commentator, who comes across with the charm of a drunk uncle you’re stuck beside at Thanksgiving dinner, spent his time making caustic cracks about Elizabeth Taylor’s weight and the lack of tunes in the score. Both of those topics really ought to have been permanently shelved by now as provincial and passé. So why does this canard about a supposed lack of melody in a Sondheim score persist?

Except for “West Side Story,” “Gypsy.” and some lyrics for “Candide,” Sondheim has written his own music as well, and he has been dogged by the criticism that his scores are “tuneless,” which prompted the above-quoted lines. Although he reportedly shies away from any notion that his work could or should be regarded as operatic, he has increasingly served his lyrics with scores that develop from a cohesive musical germ – without sacrificing the integrity of the individual songs. In “Sweeney Todd,” his most lush score, a core of four notes provides the melodic basis. “Merrily We Roll Along,” which was dragged to failure by a poor book, develops backwards, to suit the story, which starts in the present and works its way back in time. “Sunday in the Park,” which sounds a little like Poulenc meets Philip Glass. uses a Wagnerian technique of leitmotifs.

But the lyrics, in almost every Sondheim song, inspire the tunes. He is sensitive to the sounds of words and, like classical composer Leoš Janáček, he explores the music contained within words and phrases. This may not please the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein and Lerner-and-Loewe crowd, which wants to leave the theater borne on pleasant musical phrases, but it does provide us with theatrical scores that reveal more and more of their mystery with hearing after hearing.

Sondheim was fortunate to have Oscar Hammerstein as a boyhood neighbor, and it was to the older man that he showed his first attempt at writing a musical. Sondheim was very much in awe of his neighbor: “It takes a lot of nerve to write on paper, ‘Oh. what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day.’ Oscar showed me a way of writing songs I didn’t know.” Then, very pertinently, he adds, “I have since learned that there are other ways.”

In the Wings

THE SENIOR ADULT DEPARTMENT OF THE Albany Jewish Community Center will present an original musical comedy titled “Shooting for the Stars” on Sunday at 7:30 P.M. at the center auditorium, Whitehall Road, Albany. It was written and directed by Evelyn Cohn, with a large cast and crew of familiar faces. Tickets are $3.50 (seniors and students $2.50) and will be sold at the door ... The Theatre Barn, located at Routes 20 and 22 in New Lebanon, will present the comedy “6 Rms Riv Vu” beginning tonight (Thursday) and running through June 16. Performances Thursday through Saturday are at 8P.M.; Sunday the shows are at 2 and 7 P.M. Tickets are $7.50, matinees $6.50; call for information and reservations.

Metroland Magazine, 6 June 1985

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