Friday, September 27, 2013

Sondheim Rules: Here's Why!

Today, we’re going to talk about who I believe to be one of the greatest composers/lyricists of all time: Stephen Sondheim.  I don’t think this blog can continue without my readers (both of them) knowing how much Sondheim means to me. I have been enamored with his work from a very young age.  Not many grade-schoolers know who Stephen Sondheim is.  I did.  I would watch VHS tapes of Into The Woods and A Little Night Music over and over until I had them committed to memory (I was a bit of a weird kid, if you didn’t already know).

Alas, there are still those who find his work to be overhyped or pretentious (stinkeye on you, Rose!) I say those people are either:
A) Ignorant fools
B) Jealous
C) Taliban
D) All of the Above

I now present 5 reasons why Sondheim is the man. The main man.

1)      He’s Fuckin’ BRILLIANT!
Sondheim’s work is very distinctive in the musical theatre world.  His big break came at 25 (Really, 25?! Are you SHITTING me?!) when he was hired to write the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (sweet gig, huh?).  Even early in his career, his orchestrations and lyrics are sophisticated and more complex than most pieces on Broadway.

He lifted musical theatre to a higher standard; he stirred and changed the tried-and-true formulas and recipes that theatregoers had come to know and expect. He took your typical happy ending at the conclusion of a story and asked: “Are we really happy?” Into The Woods, for example, spends the entire second act wondering, What comes after Happily Ever After?  Do things always really fit into a perfect little box at the end of this 2-and-a-half hour journey? His musicals make people look inward and think. They may not always end happy, but the characters (and audience) always come away with a substantial experience from the journey…. Or dead.

2)      Lyrics
Sondheim delivers nothing but rich, witty, substantial, carefully-crafted lyrics to his compositions. Even if the show is no good (Anyone Can Whistle originally ran for 9 performances. *Ouch!* But on the bright side, it introduced Angela Lansbury to the theatre world, so not a total crapper!), he selects each lyric to painstaking perfection in order to convey emotion and tell the story.  In this snippet of Company, he marries the music and lyrics with the racing, hysterical, sheer panic a certain bride is feeling on her wedding day, contrasted by her friends’ serene bliss.

3)      He doesn’t pander
I’ll grant you, Sondheim is not always easy to listen to. His score and lyrics are multifaceted, saturated, fast-paced, in-your face, and command your attention. If you want a pretty tune with pretty lyrics, ALW and Frank Wildhorn are a few doors down.  Sondheim doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t just pick up a rhyming dictionary and throw a song together (not that there’s anything wrong with that. I hear “Dust in the Wind” was written in 15 minutes!).  Every note and word is complex and carefully selected to create the desired effect.  It’s never just a gay, musical romp.  There’s always something deeper to take away from a Sondheim show.

4)      He covers the breadth of human emotion
We know that he can write a hell of a love song, but he gives life’s hard parts a very real treatment too.  Sondheim seems able to convey any human feeling we experience; be it unrequited love, devastating catharsis, inner conflict, or even sexual frustration.  Not only does his work encompass any and all emotions, he can cover the breakneck speed in which our emotions can change. In “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd, Sondheim covers frenzied rage, desperate grief, bloody vengeance, and manic resolve in a span of 3 minutes and you need not question for a moment the height and weight of Sweeney’s emotion.  You can tell from the dark, frantic tone in the music and lyrics that this very twisted barber is about to spontaneously combust. 

5)      He’s FABULOUS!
FABULOUS as in incredibly talented, or FABULOUS as in gay? Well, both.  I mean, gay AND Jewish?  He’s even got Neil Patrick Harris beat on that (I’m convinced that if NPH were straight, men of the world would have a much harder chance of ever getting laid again)!

West Side Story // dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Get this: a true perfectionist, He has expressed dissatisfaction for the lyrics he wrote for the song “Maria” because he found them "too consciously poetic” and ill-fitting to the character.  Let me repeat this: The guy who wrote the lyrics for one of the most beautiful, spectacular love songs of all time thought he could have done better!!!  I’m pretty sure Steve’s alone on that one!  When I went to a West Side Story Sing-Along last year, I thought I was going to burst into tears when that song came on; it’s so gorgeous!  But he really cares about what he throws out into the world. That’s quite a rare thing in a time when we’ve got Miley Cyrus “twerking” behind Beetlejuice.  He values art and doesn’t compromise his.

At Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert at Lincoln Center, he quoted Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “First you’re young, then you’re middle-aged. Then you’re wonderful.”  You are wonderful, Mr. Sondheim. You are wonderful!

Why, yes. I AM fuckin' wonderful!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Billy Bigelow?

I’ve run into a lot of people (my parents, teachers, cast mates) who seem to straight up despise the musical, Carousel.  This is often due to their loathing of the character, Billy Bigelow, the song “Soliloquy,” or both.  

Show: Carousel
Year: 1945
Music: Richard Rogers
Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Based On: Ferenc Molnรกr's 1909 play, Liliom

Sure, I’ll admit Billy’s not exactly in the running for Husband/Father/Friend/Employee/Man of the Year.  He’s a rude, aggressive, unsavory, insensitive, emotionally unstable deadbeat.  He hits his wife (once!), he snubs people who try to help him (but on the other hand, Mr. Snow is kind of a tool), he doesn’t work out of pride, and he (badly) resorts to robbery.  I get it; he’s not a likeable guy.  But nonetheless, I am here to make a defensive case on Billy’s and “Soliloquy’s” behalf.  I think the sum of Carousel and all its parts are a lot more complex than people make it out to be.  There is no black-and-white, good-or-bad in Carousel. There are fierce internal battles at work here and I venture now to bring them to light.  

The Song
I can understand the general disdain for the song, “Soliloquy.”  Carousel is a musical, not an opera.  Yet, in the middle of this long-ass musical, with drawn-out, boring dialogue, we are subjected to a long-ass monologue-set-to-music that clocks in at roughly 7 and a half minutes. Sure, it’s a lot of emotion to cover, but does it have to be a 7 and a half minute song???  Well actually, yes.  Can you imagine how boring that thought trail would be if it was all just spoken?  It wouldn’t be nearly as affective without the combination of vocals and music moving it along. Plus, like I’ve said before, the feelings Billy’s experiencing are entirely too big and too genuine and too new (to him, anyway) to be wasted as spoken words.  

In “Soliloquy,” Billy covers a lot of emotions in response to the news that he’s going to be a father.  Any man who’s going to have a kid typically spends WAY more than 7 and a half minutes contemplating the prospects of fatherhood, so quit judging the song’s length!  He begins with the joys and excitement of raising a son. He anticipates the adventures they’ll have together and the potential futures his son might aspire to. He then speculates the solemn responsibility of bringing up a daughter. He comes to appreciate her transformation from a treasure that needs protection into a beautiful, virtuous woman like her mother. Finally, he desperately resolves to make sure that his child will be well provided for (cuz seriously, how does a family of 3 survive on a carousel barker’s salary in this economy?). 

Here with a condensed rendition is the delicious Trevor Gunn!

The Character
Billy Bigelow is and interesting specimen. He’s what is now known as a BAMF.  His F***-You-If-You-Don’t-Get-Me attitude turns a lot of people off.  However, those who make an effort to really know what he’s about have a better understanding of his psyche.  He’s obviously not from the right side of the tracks. He’s an alpha male and a lone wolf.  He’s not your conventional “Howdy, Neighbor!” kind of guy.  He’s introverted and withdrawn from the “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over!” mentality of his community.  He has a lot of trouble letting people in and constructively expressing himself.  His heart’s in the right place, but something often goes wrong somewhere between thought and action.  And when his attempts fail, he gets broody and all but gives up.  He decides to team up with his even-bigger-deadbeat friend to rob a serious wad-o-cash from Ol’ Sideburns.  Once again, his intentions are good, but his method of execution and actions are totally wrong.  On the other hand, he’s not the only person to resort to a life of crime in the name of family life. 

There are few redeeming qualities Billy presents during the show. However, that ends up being what the conclusion of Carousel is all about. Redemption can come in many forms.  Billy is able to redeem his family’s future by showing his wife and daughter that they can “walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”  The first and only words of wisdom he teaches his child are actually very valuable. Probably the most valuable thing for her to know: He (with the help of the Starkeeper) reassures his child that even though her father was a screw-up (which he finally realizes now), even though the world deals you a shitty hand and you’re born into a life of loneliness and ostracism and roadblocks, she can make her own way in the world and be a better person than he was.  

You may say “too little too late” perhaps.  Little Louise has had to endure 15 years of “Your daddy was an ass and you will be too.”  And that’s a real tough hole to crawl out of not be scarred for life. But Billy gives her that hope to persevere at the end of the show.  He tells her that it is possible to rise above really harsh adversity and be a standup person.  His redemption may be viewed as small and inadequate in comparison to the repellent life he led, but it was effective and very selfless. He finally does right by his child AND his wife.

The Show
And don’t even get me started on poor Julie!  Julie Jordan is a queer one, indeed.  She is very in touch with who her husband is/was and how he functions. Anti-Carousel people also find fault with her for staying in an abusive relationship, unhealthily stating how a physical strike doesn’t hurt at all if it’s delivered by your feller, whom you love. Not a very constructive outlook, I’ll grant you.  But for the sake of musical theatre history, it’s a very significant plotline.  Musicals had never ventured to subject matter as taboo as domestic abuse.  People were shocked that such a personal, despicable theme would be portrayed in a musical.  In the midst of clambakes and amusement parks and songs praising the vernal season, out of left field screams DOMESTIC VIOLENCE!!!  

Rogers & Hammerstein were brilliant at creating these environments of seemingly perfect little slices of Heaven in their musicals (box socials and a bright, golden haze on the untarnished prairie of Oklahoma territory; mysterious, tropical paradise in the Pacific Islands; palatial grandiose in exotic Siam) and then corrupting them with the darker side of human nature. It’s such a poignant reflection of reality; there is always a dichotomy of light and dark in the world.  One cannot exist without the other. Rogers and Hammerstein also knew how to create at least one character who was very empathetic to that dichotomy, whereas all the other characters are lost in the dark (i.e. Aunt Eller, Lt. Cable, Lady Thiang). Julie is one of those characters.

Though Julie (hopefully) knows there is no excuse for hitting her, she understands that Billy is unable to cope with seeing Julie suffer as a result of his unemployment and disposition. So he lashes out and she is left to be his silent rock.  But a silent rock isn’t always the most effective rock.  Neither Billy nor Julie could ever say how they loved each other until after Billy was dead. Julie never straight up told Billy that she loved him because she was worried that he wouldn’t take her seriously. Perhaps if she had verbally slapped him with “I love you,” Billy might have acted differently while alive.  People need to hear that they are loved.  Just a fact, folks! I think Billy needed to hear it more than he needed financial stability.  Had he heard it more often, I think he might have thought better of himself and make an effort to be an honorable guy because he owes it to the people he loves. 

It may be hard to accept Carousel as more than just character or song you don’t like. But if you are willing to dig beneath the surface, you’re likely to find some very vulnerable, perhaps even relatable subject matter.  But if you just can’t stomach a musical about a guy who hits his wife and sings about how much fun it is to have a son and how much responsibility it is to have a daughter, there’s always State Fair!