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!

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