Saturday, February 6, 2016

I'M STILL HERE: THE ACCULTURATION OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM


Many years ago, I was at one of those New York show-business parties at which the guests sing for supper at the keyboard. The host was a major Broadway producer, and his performer wife, to keep the tone chic, pulled out the sheet music to a duet from Stephen Sondheim’s then latest show, A Little Night Music, and tried to cajole a singer named Earl Wrightson into sight-reading it with her.

     The number, “You Must Meet My Wife,” is a conversation in the form of a waltz, in which a man is forced to admit that his wonderful marriage is a sham. A middle-aged widower, by profession an attorney, he has taken a very young bride who finds him physically repulsive. In fact, she’s in love with his son. The woman the attorney is singing to is the love of his life, and she seems to know it. Yet somehow or other he doesn’t: perhaps because women see men as a source of warmth and protection but men see women as potential vessels of beauty and ecstasy. So his teenaged wife sparks some mysterious flame in him that overwhelms everything else.

     Granted, not all of the above comes out in “You Must Meet My Wife”: it takes the rest of A Little Night Music to develop that deconstruction of the American musical’s traditional Boy gets Girl. In fact, the song is a rather jolly affair—but Earl Wrightson was having none of it. An operetta baritone of the old school, Wrightson was a stouthearted man with a soprano mate, Lois Hunt. There were no sham marriages and no wives in love with their sons-in-law in Wrightson’s world. He and Hunt were strictly Boy Gets Girl, put on this planet to sing “Indian Love Call” and the like; the Wrightson-Hunt day job was a tour of The Sound of Music that hit almost a hundred cities.

     “I don’t know it,” Wrightson grumbled, as the hostess placed “You Must Meet My Wife” on the music rack and the pianist took a quick look at the sheet.

     “Oh, let’s wing our way through it,” the hostess suggested. Why not? They were both musicians enough. Troupers and pros.

     Here’s why not: “I don’t like that man’s music!” Wrightson told her in an unmistakably hostile tone. “He writes for himself and his friends!”

     Seated right in front of the piano—next to Lois Hunt, in fact—I alerted at that last line. Who were Sondheim’s “friends”? Reckless sophisticates who scorn The Sound of Music? Or gay? Because, while Sondheim wasn’t yet out at that time, everyone knew, even Earl Wrightson.

     But how did they know? Was it the clever jabs at the status quo, the playful observations of how (straight) people act, the slightly combative artfulness—all elements of gay creativity, from Oscar Wilde to Christopher Durang? Was homophobia the reason why the Sondheim shows of the 1970s—the works in which he first revealed his mature style as a composer and lyricist—proved divisive in the theatregoing community? Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), mostly produced and all directed by Harold Prince, offered an astonishing outpouring of fascinating and exotic but also challenging and provocative music theatre.

     Quite aside from  anyone’s feelings about homosexual art, these shows are highly evolved from what musicals used to be. Follies’ leads are middle-aged, which already breaks the musical-comedy handbook’s Rule Number One: “Everyone you care about must be young and cute.” True, the four Follies leads were shadowed by their own ghosts, who were young and cute. Still, by the show’s end, all eight of these people were so depressed it looked as though the message was that free will doesn’t make us happy, creating what academics would call a very  crowded text. At least A Little Night Music was glamorous. But Pacific Overtures was history and Sweeney Todd’s protagonist is a serial killer. Remember when musicals were about  lovable con men and wistful piano teachers? But they’re really made for each other? And then everyone sings “Seventy-Six Trombones”?

    Maybe it wasn’t homophobia. Sondheim calls his scores “playwrighting,” because they pursue themes latent in the story. Sondheim characters don’t take a time out to sing “Indian Love Call,” because there are no time outs in his shows. In the average musical, stuff happens, then people sing, then more stuff happens. In Sondheim, stuff never stops happening; from dialogue into song into more dialogue, there are no relaxation points. That makes it difficult for spectators who are used to lowering their attention level during the songs: they want to enjoy the music as music without having to absorb the lyrics in any real sense. On the contrary, Sondheim’s playwrighting scores demand intense concentration. And this sabotages the musical’s time-honored mandate to provide entertainment free of intellectual content.

     But didn’t earlier musicals use songs with strong thematic drive? What about those famous innovative titles—Show Boat, Lady in the Dark, Oklahoma!, Cabaret? And, yes, of course they did; English-speaking music theatre has integrated its songs into its narratives since the very first one, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, in 1728.

     Even so, Sondheim’s musicals tend to be more ambiguously psychologized than those of his predecessors, so they require more concentration from their spectators. To return to A Little Night Music: we are as close to that lawyer with the unhappily happy marriage as we are to Oklahoma!’s Curly or Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, but we can’t entirely understand him. Curly is easy: a cowboy as full of life as a newborn calf, in love, and proud of the land he lives on, the people he belongs to. Sally is easy: an English girl getting by in Weimar Berlin on a complete lack of scruples about anything.

     But that lawyer! He’s fast and smart, yet he misses a lot, Christopher Hitchens as the absent-minded professor. Married to a dope who loves another (again: his own son!), he gets the chance to reconvene with the actress, who is as fast and smart as he is. Everything about the show tells us that he needs the actress, and everyone in the audience wants them together. Yet, rather late in the evening, he reveals his motivation, and it’s a paradox. “When my eyes are open,” he says, he wants the actress—“a woman that I have loved for a long time.” Yes! But he goes on with “When my eyes are not open…all I see is a girl in a pink dress teasing a canary, running through a sunlit garden to hug me at the gate.” And we think, This is just as cockeyed and helpless as we all can get at times. What does he want? It’s real life as a musical, nimble and poetic yet also dense and inconclusive.

     But then, A Little Night Music’s source is Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. One expects something of the Bergman atmosphere to inform the piece, even if the movie is dry and restrained while the musical is ebullient, almost an operetta in its plethora of waltzes. There’s even a sarabande, a number called “Liaisons,” in which the actress’ mother, a former courtesan, reflects on the erotic life to the shimmer of harp and celesta suggesting a sibyl whispering in a cave.

     Sondheim’s music was advanced, obviously. But so were the stories he told, reveling in the ambivalence that Sondheim observes in human nature, like the attorney of “You Must Meet My Wife,” caught between the fascinating woman and the darling girl. From Show Boat to Hamilton, the musical has been built on the notion of destiny: Boy may meet Girl by chance, but he gets her by something we could think of as intelligent design. Or call it Romance 101: once two hearts bond in “Indian Love Call” (or something along those lines), they are entitled to a happily ever after, or the audience will tear the theatre apart.

     Nevertheless, I say again that Sondheim’s shows are based on free will, which doesn’t guarantee an ever after of any kind. These are complex shows, adventurous shows. Pacific Overtures tells of the opening of isolated Japan to Western trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it was staged in the Kabuki manner, expecting the audience to follow its now intricate and now intense narrative technique. Some found it picturesque and enlightening, but others were baffled and annoyed.

     Still, certain people simply do not like theatregoing outside the box. Worse, they couldn’t help noticing that some of the most intelligent and arts-stimulated people they knew greatly enjoyed Sondheim’s shows; their enthusiasm seemed, to disbelievers, a reproach. Three groups in particular were the most anti-Sondheim at this time: enraged queens, dreary straight men, and pretty much everyone in Bayonne, New Jersey.

     Then something happened. While writing On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, I noticed a change in the way Sondheim was perceived, something like the opposite of a glitch. He had generally gone over well in London, especially among the intellectuals’ steward class, who favor Shakespeare and Brecht and never go to musicals. But they went to Sondheim. So in 1976 the Mermaid Theatre, which had been been running a series of songwriter revues, from [Noël] Cowardy Custard to Cole [Porter], raised up Side By Side By Sondheim, an evening of pure song using a narrator and three singers. The show moved to the West End and then, with the same cast, to New York the following year.

     The narration, as so often, added nothing to the event and simply got in the way, but the performers—Millicent Martin, Julia McKenzie, and David Kernan—were personable and versatile. Most important, the public was able to hear the songs simply as songs, without the baggage of the dense Sondheim playwrighting. This, clearly, was the breakthrough. And, just to make things difficult for Earl Wrightson, there was a gay touch, in that Kernan took part in a few numbers written for women characters. In “Could I Leave You?,” a scathingly anguished waltz from Follies, Kernan leaped into a highly contextual piece without its context—that of the wife of a self-hating lit-and-politics media grandee who rates himself as a fraud and fears her judgment. He doesn’t understand that she still loves the young charmer she married.

     But we take all that in at a performance of the complete and total Follies.  At Side By Side By Sondheim, the house could actually relax and enjoy the song on its merits alone. The music told and the lyrics delighted. “Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass?” Kernan sang. “Bet your ass!”

     The revue’s London staging ran a bit over two years, the New York one about half that, and the American theatregoing public now underwent a Damascene conversion, just in time for Sweeney Todd. All Sondheim shows are different from all other musicals—and from one another—but Sweeney is the only famous musical in history that is truly bloodthirsty. Todd, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” cuts the throats of his customers, and the original production made the point with gruesome realism, to the banshee shrilling of a factory whistle. Further, the genre was melodrama and the storyline an intricate interlacing of subplots, memed, so to say, by sociopolitical critique.

     In short, Sweeney Todd was another rich work, one that was attractive and even compelling but, at the same time, brusque and a bit repellent. True, as Oscar Wilde puts it in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” But Sondheim’s fiction comes with disclaimers. The traditional musical’s relationship with its audience was one of clarity. The public was welcomed and loved…and maybe lied to a little, with instant solutions to every problem. “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “My Favorite Things” make life seem too basic. In the age of Sondheim, musicals explore life more honestly, and the relationship with the audience is less clear than it was.

     Luckily, after the Sondheim revue, the public had learned how to “hear” Sondheim—or, really, how to attend his shows. Then, too, as time passed, the key Sondheim titles were revived, which made it easier to process the detailed dramaturgy. Now we know to ask of Sondheim’s characters, as we do of people we’re close to, and whom we thought we knew, What do we want? Sondheim makes clichés into puzzles and tests the effectiveness of the received virtues. We have to return to his shows over and over simply to learn what we really mean when we’re talking. You must meet my wife.

 

 

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for another enjoyable and intriguing post. I have to admit that at one point in my life, I was where Earl Wrightson was when it comes to Sondheim--a bit resentful, feeling not part of the group that "got" Sondheim. Back in the early 1980s, among the theatre geeks at my high school, Sondheim was God. But I couldn't get into him--I liked certain songs from "Company" ("Another Hundred People" and "Poor Baby" especially) but Sondheim's blunt acceptance of life's unhappiness and ambiguities threw me. When listening to musicals, I retreated to the sense of hope in Rodgers and Hammerstein instead.

    But over the decades as I have aged, life experiences have taught me how much wisdom Sondheim possesses. I actually can embrace a show like "Follies" today because I care about the characters, even as they stumble and hurt each other and deceive themselves. (Plus, Sondheim's shimmering melodies certainly help!)

    In fact, I've come so much into Sondheim's camp over the years that when I was fortunate to see "Bounce" at the Kennedy Center, I couldn't understand why it wasn't a success. Even if the show had it flaws (which it did), my God, it was worth seeing!

    Perhaps it takes some of us years to mature enough to appreciate Sondheim's insight and gifts. And maybe others aren't interested in working that hard when it comes to theatre.

    P.S. I can appreciate Earl Wrightson, too! I love him on those 1940s operetta recordings ("Sweethearts," "Eileen") conducted by Al Goodman.

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    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I guess Sondheim has proved to be an acquired taste for some; it's the price of leadership. And those old Al Goodman albums are a hoot, though I prefer Donald Dame and Mary Martha Briney myself. For many years, that series was the only way anyone could hear some of the greatest old show scores on disc. The Goodman Music in the Air with Jane Pickens is still the only studio recording of that show, albeit with a single soloist. I think that recent Roberta--Kern's shortest score, pushed out to two CDs with reprises and a ton of dialogue--should have been Music in the Air instead. Or The Cat and the Fiddle or Sweet Adeline, which are both in performing shape as we speak.

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  2. I enjoyed this post and want to say how much I loved "On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide." Unfortunately I now have to leave the Sondheim clique after so many years of loyalty and admiration. Sondheim has become respectable. He is now acknowledged as a master and is near to a household name. Deriding his work is inviting ridicule, and now the majority (not minority) love his work. I cannot be in so large as grouping as it is against my socialist principals. I will be leftist til the end. But on a more serious note - one thing has always puzzled me about Company. Why did Robert choose (or Sondheim) to ape the Andrews Sisters in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"? Other than there being a trio of ladies on that stage I cannot see why Sondheim would have chosen that particular song-styling as Robert makes no mention of an admiration for them. Sondheim always justifies a decision of his and this one has always puzzled me. Does anyone have an opinion on this? Thank you. d

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    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I don't know why the "Crazy" number takes the form of pastiche. However, as so much of Company consists of the "others" commenting on Robert, it made sense for his three girl friends to have a song together, and the very idea of a women's trio conjures up the Andrewses and similar "girl groups" (as they used to be called). Sondheim does love his pastiche spots, so the opportunity must have seemed irresistible.

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  3. Thank you, 'tis a gent you are, as we say in Dublin. Perhaps you are correct and Sondheim just chose this homage intuitively. I will happily include an Andrews sisters poster on Robert's Aronson-inspired set and some LPs strewn about the place to hammer my justifications home in my own production in my head. 😉

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    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I can only speculate on why older songwriters might have resisted Sondheim, if indeed they did. They all came out of a tradition that judged show scores on how many song hits they bagged. This is possibly because some of them preceded the advent of the original-cast album, so their public couldn't absorb all the music and comprehend it as a whole. Once the theatregoer left the theatre, he or she never heard the entire score again--but he *would* hear the hits.

      Sondheim's shows, on the other hand, didn't excerpt in any genuine sense. So some of these oldsters might have been thinking something like, If he's so great, where's his My Heart Stood Still? His Lucky in Love?

      It's a weird way to judge show music, but that's the tradition they came out of.

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    2. Perhaps you are right. Thanks for answering.

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  5. I've deleted my previous post. Sorry about that. Thanks for answering my question. I look forward to reading whatever you write next.

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