The Work Of Stephen Sondheim Music Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Born in New York in 1930, Stephen Sondheim is widely acknowledge as the most innovative and influential Broadway composer of the last fifty years. However, despite having some sixteen projects under his belt (not counting the numerous musical anthologies, revues or movie scores), Sondheim’s work still divides the critics; whilst some embrace his innovation, others lament over the loss of a more traditional form and lack of “hummable” melodies. Many seem to deem his work as clever and intelligent but missing the warmth that was generally considered the mark of a hit Broadway show.
Yet despite not always meeting with landslide approval for his work, Sondheim has collected more than sixty individual or collaborative Tony Awards; most notably he has received the award for best Score/Music/Lyrics for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods and Passion, all of which won the New York Drama Circle Award for Outstanding/Best Musical as did Pacific Overtures and Sunday In The Park With George.
Company – Sondheim’s first collaboration with writer George Furth, marked his first major hit in 1970. Furth had come to Sondheim in early 1969 with a series of one-act plays he had written. Sondheim passed them on to now legendary producer Harold Prince who suggested the two should work together to transform the plays into a musical, promising to stage it once it was completed. The piece shook Broadway from the fantasy happy ending story it had come to expect and brought about a more provocative musical comedy. As Sondheim stated, “Company does deal with upper middle-class people with upper middle-class problems. Broadway theatre has been for many years supported by these people. They really want to escape and we’re saying we’ll bring it right back in their facesâ€¦what they come to a musical to avoid, they suddenly find facing them on stage.” This hard-edged, unromantic depiction of romantic relationships was revolutionary for the Broadway stage and managed to both humour and challenge audiences with its unsettling view of relationships. Some found fault with what they saw as an ‘anti-marriage’ show that didn’t stand up against the classic Broadway themes, however, mostly the show met with the kinds of intelligent accolades reserved for something new and exciting.
After it’s opening, observers noted that the show’s protagonist, Robert, showed a similarity to Sondheim own character – a middle-class, single, professional, living in New York, commenting on the life of the other young professional couples around him. Sondheim has always denied that any of his work is autobiographical, but his next collaboration with George Furth in 1981, once again seemed very familiar territory for both writer and composer.
As far as the new era of Broadway composers goes, Jason Robert Brown has been hailed by some as ‘The next Stephen Sondheim’. Brown, also Jewish and born and raised in New York, began his career as an arranger, conductor and pianist. His first major production came in 1995 with Songs For A New World, an off-Broadway revue directed by Daisy Prince, daughter of Hal Prince who later hired Brown to write the songs for the musical Parade after Sondheim turned down the show.
The musical tells the controversial true story of the trail and hanging of Leo Frank, who was wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a young factory girl in early 20th century Georgia. The show dealt with the anti-Semitic tensions in the southern states at the time and did not shy away from the conclusion that the likely killer was the African-American factory worker, Jim Conley. .
Brown’s score is full of riches, mixing period American styles with strong melodies, intricate counterpoint, selective dissonances, and natural lyrics which give their characters true, expressive voices.
Despite the cool reception of the show by the critics and the feeling that the show took too many liberties in the use of racial slurs, Brown’s score was highly praised and he later won the Tony award in 1999 for Best Original Musical Score. The attention received by Brown marked him out as the hottest up and coming talent. He returned to work with Daisy Prince on his next piece, The Last Five Years for which he wrote both the book and the score.
It is strange that despite the wealth of artistry and innovation which musical theatre has produced throughout the 20th century, it has never really being given its rightful place amongst academia, always being seen as a more ‘low brow’ art form than that of ‘serious’ plays or music. It seems that if the likes of Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown were to work in the medium of non-musical drama, or doubled in the field of serious musical composition like Gershwin or Bernstein, perhaps their work might be viewed in more of our universities. Why must important pieces of musical theatre be limited to the destiny of “popular” artists, however richly deserving of serious attention on its own merits?
That is not to say that there has not been much analysis and writing on musical theatre or Sondheim in particular;
Martin and Gottfried and Meryl Secrest both present biographies of Sondheim’s career, life and works in sharp detail providing an in depth look at past and present influences which have shaped his artistic development throughout the years.
Sondheim On Music by Mark Eden Horowitz focuses on three main areas: Firstly his interviews with Sondheim, particularly focusing on five of his main works (Passion, Assassins, Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures). The second part is entitled ‘songs I wish I’d written (at least in part)’ providing a look at some of Sondheim’s major influences from a list compiled for his 70th birthday celebrations at the Library of Congress. Part three supplies a list of all works, complete discography of all recordings to date and publishing information for all songs and scores up until the release of the book (2003).
Joanne Gordon’s Art Isn’t Easy – The Theatre of Stephen Sondheim focuses on content and themes of Sondheim’s stage works, highlighting his innovative use of form and how he manages to weave the music and lyrics into the fabric of the entire piece. It is almost a guide to the appreciation of Sondheim’s scripts and music and would be especially useful for those staging any of Sondheim’s musicals and provides an excellent basis of primary research material.
With little literary focus on Sondheim’s use of music, Stephen Banfield takes a different route, examining much of Sondheim’s output from a musicological perspective, undertaking practical and theoretical treatment of the music.
Despite these and other writings in the last decade which are taking a more serious treatment of the works of musical theatre, there is still an elitist treatment against the reading of musical theatre within the academy. It seems to be stuck on the view that musicals remain largely unsophisticated and lacking in high serious. Unfortunately, there are times when this is true. Recently, Broadway and the West End seem to have been plagued by film adaptations, Disney rehashes and juke-box musicals which, whilst they may have been commercially successful, are tarring other more worthy writers and composers with the ‘low-brow’ brush.
A collection of critical essays edited and with a foreword supplied by Sandor Goodhart makes moves to further the writing and critical analysis of the works of Sondheim, again pushing for the academy to take a closer look into the world of intelligent musical theatre. Hopefully the moves towards a more intellectual appreciation of the work of Sondheim within academia will allow the same to later happen for the new class of musical theatre composers like Brown.
Merrily We Roll Along
Merrily We Roll Along was one of Sondheim and writer George Furth’s most famous flops, running for just 16 performances after it opened on Broadway in 1981. It was based on a 1930s play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart, and follows a group of hopeful young college graduates, from 1957 to 1976. But there is a twist – the plot is stage in reverse linear motion – so the show begins in 1976 and gradually works backwards in time. So we watch everything knowing how it ended up, with friendships broken, idealism betrayed and marriages on the rocks.
The score is full of what sound like traditional musical comedy songs hailing from 50s and 60s Broadway. While the score is very clearly Sondheim and the songs are not parodies, there does seem to be hints of several of his contemporaries; Berstein, Bacharach, Styne and Kander. It seems somewhat ironic that this traditional book-musical which contains some of Sondheim’s most ‘accessible’ songs, has had such a troubled professional history.
After the failure of the original production, Sondheim later made several major revisions for the revival of the show at the LaJolla Theatre in 1985. The reworking created a score Sondheim now calls, “definitive”.
The show is centred on Franklin Shepard – a rich, famous and influential songwriter and film producer. But how did he get to be where he is today? (“Merrily We Roll Along”) The years begin to roll back.
First stop is Frank’s swanky Bel Air pad in 1976, after the premiere of his latest movie. Frank is throwing a party filled with his “friends”; the hangers-on, people who make things happen in show business and the movers and shapers are all there, and lavish praise on him (“That Frank”). At the party we also meet Frank’s old friend and theatre critic, Mary, who is now an alcoholic. She is sickened by the superficiality of the people Frank has chosen to associate with and by his abandonment of music – the one thing he was truly good at – for the world of commercial film producing. As she gets progressively more and more drunk, she begins to loudly insult everyone, and is ordered to leave. Their friendship is over. However, Frank is hurt by Mary’s drunken remarks because he knows they are true. He has concentrated so completely on being a “success” that everything he most valued at the beginning of his career has long been left behind. The evening ends traumatically with the break down of Frank’s unhappy marriage to his wife Gussie, a former leading actress in one of his early musicals, when she viciously attacks Meg, his mistress.
The years roll back to 1973 (“First Transition”). Frank and his long-time lyricist collaborator and friend, Charley Kringas, are about to be interviewed in a New York TV studio. In the make-up room, Charley greets Mary (“Old Friends”), and tells her that Frank is now so busy making deals that he never has time to write shows with him like they had always hoped. Mary laments over their strained friendship and wishes that it could be “Like It Was”. On-air the TV interviewer accidentally informs Charley of Frank’s plans to once again put off their long awaited politically idealistic show for another project. A nervous Charley launches into a demented rampage on the way his composer has transformed himself into a corporation (“Franklin Shepard Inc”). As Charley swings ferociously between bitterness and self-contempt, Frank walks out. Their friendship is over.
It’s now 1968, and Charley and Frank are in Frank’s apartment on Central Park West (“Second Transition”). He and Charley are arguing over his decision to do a movie version of one of their shows, Musical Husbands. Frank wants to do it for the money, but Charley says that it will get in the way of writing the idealistic show they’ve always wanted to create. Mary looks on, and when the argument starts getting out of control reminds them that they are all still old friends (“Old Friend’s – Part II”). Broadway producer Joe Josephson and his wife Gussie arrive. She and Frank have been having a long-term affair. Joe has learnt to live with it, but Mary, hopelessly in love with Frank, finds it much harder to accept. When the others leave, Gussie startles Frank by announcing she intends to divorce Joe to be with Frank, leaving him to decide on what he wants (“Growing Up”).
The years rewind to 1966 (“Third Transition”). Frank is being sued for divorce by Beth, and they wrangle over the custody of their young son in a courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Beth tells him that “Not A Day Goes By” when he isn’t a part of her life, but she can’t live with him knowing he is cheating on her with Gussie. The marriage is over. Mary and Charley and Frank’s other collegues rally around him telling him that the best thing to do is to move on and start again (“Now You Know”).
Act II opens on the opening night of Frank and Charley’s first Broadway show, Musical Husbands. Gussie stars in the show, and the act opens with Gussie’s performance of Franks and Charley’s big hit song(“Act Two Opening”). Although not exactly the kind of show the duo had always planned, as the curtain comes down on the show, the audience applauds wildly. Broadway’s latest words-and-music team, Charley and Frank, have just found themselves a hit. (“It’s A Hit!”)
The years roll back further to 1962 (“Fourth Transition”) at a party in Gussie and Joe’s apartment. Gussie has thrown a soirée so that Frank and Charley, who are going to write a musical for Joe to produce, can meet all the richest and most influential people in town describes as “The Blob”. We see early signs of Gussie’s romantic interest in Frank (“Growing Up”). Gussie invites the collaborators to perform their latest song, “Good Thing Going”. The guests love it. Gussie simply fawns over the number and implores them to do it again. Charley urges Frank not to. “You want to know what true greatness is? It’s knowing when to get off,” Charley says. But Frank insists. They play the song again, but the guests quickly lose interest and resume their cocktail chatter over Frank’s reprise (“The Blob – Part II”).
Back to 1960, the dawn of a new decade with new hopes (“Fifth Transition”). Charley, Frank and Beth are young and on the outset of their careers, playing Frank and Charley’s music at a small nightclub in Greenwich Village. Trying to appear bright and sophisticated, they perform a cheeky number celebrating the accession of America’s new First Family (“Bobby And Jackie And Jack”). Joe is in the tiny audience and he’s quite impressed, as is his wife Gussie. Afterwards, Frank explains that he’s marrying Beth and pledges that a day doesn’t go by when she’s not a part of his life (“Not A Day Goes By – Part II”). At an adjoining table, Mary echoes the sentiment; it’s how she’ll always feel about Frank.
It’s 1959 (“Sixth Transition”) and the young Frank, Charley and Mary are busy in New York, establishing their careers (“Opening Doors”). The boys audition for Joe, but he wants more hummable tunes. So they decide to do their own show and end up hiring Beth as a singer.
The years finally take us back to October, 1957 (“Seventh Transition”). It’s 5:30am, and Frank, Charley and Mary are on the roof of an old apartment house waiting for the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite. Suddenly, Sputnik is there in the sky, and for the three young friends, anything is possible (“Our Time”).
The Last Five Years
Jason Robert Brown’s one act musical The Last Five Years premiered in Chicago and was later produced off-Broadway in 2002. The story explores the five year relationship of Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hyatt. Like Merrily it also makes use of reverse-linear motion, but just for one character; so Jamie’s story moves chronologically through their relationship, but we begin at the end of Cathy’s story moving chronologically backwards. Their relationship begins in their early twenties; Jamie is an up and coming novelist, Jewish and intense. Cathy is a struggling actress, catholic and insecure.
Brown’s score is diverse and he is not afraid of writing catchy melodies with much of the material being pop-driven and wedded to intelligent lyrics that explain who these characters are. The show was met with high acclaim, with critics praising the Brown’s genuine, smart, humorous and moving writing .
The show begins with Cathy alone in her apartment as her marriage to Jamie has ended, and he has just moved out (“Still Hurting”). When the song finishes, Jamie appears. It is five years earlier and he is on their first date. We learn that Jamie is Jewish and Cathy is not. Despite this, Jamie is completely smitten with his “Shiska Goddess”
The scene then switches to Cathy sitting on a pier in Ohio with Jamie, who has come to visit her for her birthday while she does summer stock theatre (“See I’m Smiling”). It is clear that she is not happy about spending her time away from Jamie and is enthusiastic about fixing their marriage. She becomes very angry when Jamie announces that he has to return to New York. They argue, and Cathy claims that he spends all of his time thinking only of himself, singing “you and you and nothing but you”. During interludes in the music, Jamie, several years earlier, talks to a literary agent about the book he has just written. His future looks promising.
The play moves away from their argument, and Jamie tells a friend that he is moving in with Cathy. Everything seems to be going right for him; his book is being published and the Atlantic monthly is printing the first chapter. Even though his work and his relationship with Cathy seem to have taken on lives of their own, he’s too happy to get worried (“Moving Too Fast”). Cathy, meanwhile, is making a call to her agent. Though we only hear her side of the conversation, it is obvious that she is struggling with her career.
Cathy sits at Jamie’s book signing party. She sings about her life with him, asserting that even though he often obsesses over his writing and ignores her, she is terribly in love with him (“A Part of That”). Cathy confesses that she does not act independently anymore, but instead follows in his footsteps.
Jamie celebrates his first Christmas with Cathy. He tells her a fable (which he has written, “new and unpublished”) about an old tailor named Schmuel whose encounter with a magical clock gives him infinite time to realize the dress of his dreams. Jamie reveals the parallel between Schmuel and Cathy: she needs to take the time to “unlock” her dreams. He presents Cathy with her Christmas present: a watch (“The Schmuel Song”).
Cathy sits in Ohio and writes a letter to Jamie. They have just been married and she is missing him dreadfully. She describes to Jamie her quirky life in Ohio among her eccentric cast members (“A Summer in Ohio”).
Jamie is sitting with Cathy in a boat on the lake in Central Park. He proposes. Cathy enters and Jamie presents her with the engagement ring and, for the first and only time in the musical, their stories meet and they sing together (“The Next Ten Minutes”). They exchange vows and rings, promising to stay together “for the next ten lifetimes.” They kiss before Jamie escorts Cathy to the rowboat, where she has the other side of the conversation that Jamie had before her arrival. Jamie watches her go.
The newly-wed Jamie is facing some temptation issues. He feels like he is constantly bombarded by attractive women, especially since his writing career has taken off (“A Miracle Would Happen”). Cathy, meanwhile, embarks on a series of audition for the job in Ohio (“When You Come Home to Me”). She is frustrated with the audition process and discusses her sense of inadequacy with her father (“Climbing Uphill”).
Jamie, on the phone with Cathy, does his best to convince his wife that his relationship with his editor, Elise, is purely platonic. Cathy doesn’t believe him. Jamie wants to celebrate a book review in The New Yorker, but Cathy isn’t in the mood to go out. She sings passionately about her desire to be independent, refusing to “trot along at the genius’s heels.”
Jamie is reading an excerpt of his book. It is obviously about his relationship with Cathy. In the next scene, Jamie is fighting passionately with Cathy. It is toward the end of their relationship and he is trying desperately to just get her to listen to him. He wonders aloud if they will ever get to the point where things are easy, where there aren’t so many obstacles facing their marriage. He accuses her of being unsupportive of his career just because hers is failing. Though his words are harsh, he promises her that he believes in her unconditionally, and that if he didn’t he wouldn’t love her (“If I Didn’t Believe in You”).
Some time into the relationship, Cathy drives Jamie to her parents’ house in the suburbs. As she drives, she babbles happily about her past relationships and her desire not to end up in the same small town life as her best friend from high school: married with children and living in “a little cute house on a little cute street with a crucifix on the door” (“I Can Do Better Than That”). At the climax of the song, she asks Jamie to move in with her.
Towards the end of the marriage, Jamie wakes up in the apartment beside a woman who may or may not be his editor, Elise (“Nobody Needs to Know”). He tries to defend his actions and blames Cathy (who is away in Ohio) for destroying his privacy and their “perfectly balanced” relationship. Jamie promises not to lie to this woman and tells her, just as he told Cathy in “Shiksa Goddess”, that “I could be in love with someone like you.”
Cathy is at the end of her first date with Jamie. She sings goodbye to him (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”). She proclaims that she has been waiting for Jamie her whole life and is ready for this romance. Simultaneously but five years forward, Jamie sits in their shared apartment writing a farewell note (“I Could Never Rescue You”). As Cathy waves Jamie “goodbye until tomorrow”, Jamie wishes Cathy simply “goodbye”.
So what do these two musicals have in common apart from the obvious manipulation of time used in each story? Well it becomes apparently clear on examination of both the shows and their creators that these stories are more than just something to be told, but in fact stay perilously close to home and stem from a more personal elements of the world of both Sondheim/Furth and Jason Robert Brown. In Merrily the character, composer Frank Shepherd, advises an aspiring writer – “Don’t just write what you know” Frank says as he points to his head. Instead, he encourages to “write what you know,” pointing to his heart.
Despite Sondheim always being very avid that he never writes himself into any characters, there was a clear choice made to change the original Kaufman and Hart play from playwright and painter to composer and librettist who write musical comedies together. There are further similarities established by making the librettist a native of Chicago and graduate of Columbia University. Also we note that the theatre in which Frank and Charley’s hit show is produced is The Alvin, which was home to Sondheim and Furth’s first great hit Company in 1970 and later Merrily itself in 1981. Where the characters and contemporary settings in Company were directly forcing the audiences to acknowledge and confront the themes presented, Merrily also challenges Sondheim and Furth themselves to acknowledge their own world, their own relationships and the industry they find themselves in.
Putting the characters in the familar surroundings of Broadway productions allows Sondheim and Furth to make a real statement about the industry; What kind of people fill this world? What kind of pressures do writers and composers face throughout their careers? What do producers want? Can one walk the fine line between commercial success and artistic integrity? Perhaps it is this demystifying of the Broadway illusion was what led to the original production of Merrily’s early closure?
Jason Robert Brown is more open about his obvious personal link to the character of Jamie and the similarities of the Jamie/Cathy relationship to that of Brown and his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. We see how the rise of Jamie’s career as a writer mirrors that of Brown as a composer and the troubles it gave in marriage. Indeed, O’Neill even threatened legal action before the opening of the off-Broadway production, claiming the piece came too close to real life. Brown made some changes, disclosing them, he states, would violate the settlement but we know that one of the major changes was the inclusion of the “Shiska Goddess” instead of “I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You”.
The fact that both shows deal with a certain type of person – an artist, a creator, trying to make a professional career in New York – dictates the musical and lyrical style of the show; In Merrily the fact that the show deals with two friends who write Broadway musicals leads to a traditional book musical with a score widely considered to be one of Sondheim’s most ‘accessible’ scores with many ironically “hummable” melodies. With the characters of Frank and Mary, Sondheim and Furth have the chance to have some verbal fun as they enforce their characters abilities as writers. We see with that Mary has a habit of taking other people’s clichéd conversation and turning it into unexpected meanings, for example in the opening party seen:
Ru: So what do you do?
Mary: I drink.
Ru: No, what do you really do?
Mary: I really drink.
Also, when Frank tells everyone that he and Mary “go way back,” she continues, “but seldom forward,” not only a comment on their stalling friendship but also a clever inside joke on the narrative structure of the piece. Verbally, Mary keeps taking people places they don’t expect to go. Sondheim’s lyrics in “That Frank” show this ability to take the listener down one road and then take an unexpected turn in another direction. Singing about Frank’s guest she says:
“These are the movers, these are the shapers
These are the people who give you vapors”
And in “Now You Know” she makes the surprising point that “you should burn your bridges every now and then,” turning around the conventional idea that burning bridges is a negative thing. Similarly there is some further beautiful wordplay highlighting her knack with words as she advises Frank that “bricks can tumble from clear blue skies,” and that “people love you and tell you lies”
Charley sometimes plays a similar verbal trick. Whilst being interviewed on TV he is asked, “What comes first, the words or the music?” he replies, “Generally the contract.” Infact, the song “Franklin Shepherd Inc” is a complete show piece for Charley, highlighting both his talents with words and having only been introduced to the character, the audience are made aware of the dynamics of his character who seeks purity of purpose, dedication and the rewards of keeping it simple.
On the other hand, composer Frank is inarticulate in comparison. We find that when he opens his mouth he tends to create some cliché like “the worst vice is advice” or “she is the raft that keeps me from drowning”. Also, we note that he only sings one solo number in the show – “Growing Up”, where we become aware of the characters ability to think he is rationalising his hopes and beliefs when he really means compromising.
Both shows seem to have a sense of honesty with the creation of real, multi-layered storyline and flawed characters. Maybe it is the close relationship of creator(s) and story that manages to generate scenes and songs which capture a moment in time or an emotional snapshot which sets these shows apart.
Furthermore, both shows also centre on the fragility of relationships, with the manipulation of time constantly conditioning and changing the audiences’ view of the relationships and where their sympathies lie. **
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