Composer Stephen Sondheim

colonel,and journal

Stephen SondheimAs much as I loved Stephen Sondheim as the composer of some of my favorite songs, I was even more taken by him as a teacher and raconteur.

He came to that first profession because he was fortunate to have as a neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II, as in Rodgers and. Here’s a story I’ve heard him tell. “In 1945, Sondheim presented his first musical, By George, to Hammerstein, who told him: ‘It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was terrible, and if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.’

“Hammerstein taught him how to construct a musical. ‘I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned more that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime.” 

Has anyone so talented been so hard on himself? His books Finishing The Hat (2010) and Look, I Made A Hat (2011) collect lyrics with Attendant Comments, Anecdotes, et al. They are very entertaining additions to my book collection. In fact, they reside perhaps a meter away from where I sit in the office. The former was my favorite book that year.

A massive body of work

wrote how Leonard Bernstein,  another of his teachers, kept him from using the obvious profanity at the end of Gee, Officer Krupke. Of course, as I’ve noted repeatedly, West Side Story is my favorite musical. Its creation and evolution from the stage to the movie have long fascinated me.

“The first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Comedy Night is a grand opening piece. I recall that from seeing a production of it back in the early 1970s. At some point years ago, I’ve actually sung the title tune from Anyone Can Whistle. My daughter was in a variation of his Assassins, which is difficult music indeed. I’ve seen the movie Into The Woods.

And I haven’t even mentioned Gypsy or Company or Follies or A Little Night Music. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Sunday in the Park with George. As the Boston Globe asked, “Who else would write a musical about a vengeful barber whose victims are turned into meat pies (‘Sweeney Todd’)?”

Ken Levine notes an even earlier credit, on a television show. 

Words that rhyme

Here’s something I find intriguing. He believed “words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher… ‘I have got a rhyme in ‘Passion,’ colonel, and journal. Now, you look at them on paper, they seem to have no relation to each other at all. So, when you rhyme them, it’s, ooh, you know?'” I believe he is correct.

Mark Evanier has linked to Sondheim-related material dozens of times. As he noted: “If you have ever wanted to write songs or plays — or really anything — you will enjoy this conversation between Adam Guettel and Stephen Sondheim. It’s just two guys who write great stuff for the Broadway stage sitting around and yakking…”

Evanier also posted Send In The Clowns, sung by Bernadette Peters, generally considered the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, with the composer on the piano.  And Everybody Wants To Be Sondheim, a “song written by — and performed here by — Alan Chapman.” In fact, just go to Mark’s site and search Stephen’s name.

Stephen Sondheim received nine Tony Awards, an Oscar, eight Grammys, the Laurence Olivier Award, the Kennedy Center Honors (1993), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015). He was 91.

My favorite numbers from musicals

“there will be no morning star.”

musicalsBack in April, Mark Evanier linked to someone’s Top 100 Broadway Songs of All Time from 2020. Some took great umbrage with the list, especially with EIGHT songs from Hamilton, and SEVEN from The Book of Mormon. Plus there was a dearth of songs from Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and Kurt Weill.

Conversely, Dave’s Music Database from 2016 has NO songs from Hamilton. Whereas WhatsOnStage created a pretty balanced list in 2017.

In honor of what would have been the month for the Tonys, I’m going to, instead, pick my favorite numbers from musicals. Moreover, and this will be difficult, I’m going to limit it to one song per show.

I’m not going to worry if it was a song added to the movie version of the Broadway productions. You’re the One That I Want from Grease can be considered. Heck, someone put Over the Rainbow on a list. But nothing from Jersey Boys, or Tina, or Mamma Mia, or Summer, songs that were pop tunes long before the musical.

I recognize that I too would, without discipline, would lean heavily towards the songs in my lifetime. Most of the earlier ones I associate as part of the Great American Songbook. Whereas the later tunes I recognize, mostly from the movie versions of musicals and I have a specific PERFORMANCE in my mind’s ear.

FWIW. Heading towards my favorites. I could have picked at least 20 more songs, including A Musical from Something Rotten!

Mel Brooks

Springtime for Hitler (The Producers, 2001) – the stunned silence of the audience from the 1968 movie at 2:25 is delicious.
Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music, 1973) – I know this largely from the version by Judy Collins
Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific, 1949) I used to intentionally come up with the mondegreen Sam and Janet Evening
I Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables, 1985) – it’s terribly schmaltzy, in a good way
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered – (Pal Joey) – I opted for Ella

Close Every Door (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, 1972) – I always thought Joseph was a thin album, but this was the strongest piece by far. Yes, Donny Osmond.
It’s a Hard-Knock Life (Annie, 1977). This became a pop song in the 1990s, as I have it on one of those compilation discs.
Oklahoma (Oklahoma!, 1943). If I didn’t know how to spell the 46th state, I do now. Oh, What a Beautiful Morning and More were considered.
All that Jazz (Chicago, 1975) I also like Cell Block Tango.
Summertime (Porgy and Bess, 1935)- SO many versions, several on the same album.

More Rodgers and Hart

Falling in Love with Love (The Boys from Syracuse, 1938). A song from the Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart. I could have picked This Can’t Be Love, or Sing for Your Supper, covered by the Mamas and the Papas, from this show.
Circle of Life (The Lion King, 1997) – I’ve seen this at least four times, not counting the animated version. Twice a Broadway-level performance at Proctors in Schenectady, once at a high school, and once in a church production featuring my daughter
Don’t Rain on My Parade (Funny Girl, 1964). Barbra’s like butta.
Mack the Knife (The Threepenny Opera, 1928). Of course, it’s the Bobby Darin version, but I like the original too.
Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat (Guys and Dolls, 1950). About 1960, my father worked on a production of this show for Binghamton Civic Theater.

Money makes the world go round – Cabaret. I saw the movie with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey when it first came out. The title track is probably a better SONG, but this resonated more.
Superstar (Jesus Christ Superstar, 1971) A pivotal album for me as I went to college. Perhaps I Don’t Know How To Love Him or Heaven on Their Minds could have been chosen.
Edelweiss (The Sound of Music, 1959). This was such a convincing song that people actually thought it was a real folk tune And it’s the reprise that gets to me.
The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In (Hair, 1968) – the reprise of Manchester, England, not the jaunty first version but an anguished one gets to me.
The Time Warp (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1973) The bass vocal line is right in my vocal range.

Who’s gonna pay…

Seasons of Love (Rent, 1996) – higher math.
And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going) from Dreamgirls. This is your basic showstopper.
Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton, 2015). Leslie Odom Jr. said he decided he wanted to do this show after hearing 21 seconds of this song. I could have picked My Shot, Wait for It, or a number of others, but this sets the table.
Tradition (Fiddler on the Roof, 1964). The fact that this story translates into so many languages and cultures is a sign of its enduring strength. I could have picked If I Were A Rich Man or Sunrise, Sunset, but this too sets the table. My second favorite musical.
Tonight/ Quintet (West Side Story, 1957) – when I heard this in the 1961 movie, I practically cried. You can do multiple melodies like that. This is why this was my favorite musical. Oh, and the other songs too, such as Somewhere and America.

What’s on your list?

The Book of Mormon, more theater

Think the Tonys for the under-20 crowd

Book of MormonMy family goes to the theater quite often. Capital Rep in downtown Albany is a “287-seat professional regional theatre [which] operates under regulations dictated by Actors’ Equity Association.” It’ll be moving four blocks away later this year.

Proctors Theatre in downtown Schenectady is an old old vaudeville venue with about 2600 seats. I have an odd attachment to the place, because when the powers that be decided to renovate the building back in 1978, I worked there on the second floor for the Schenectady Arts Council for several months.

Besides being a reminder for ME of what I’ve seen, i’m hoping to drop some information for you, in case you come across these shows.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, Cap Rep, December 23: “A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set two years after the novel ends, MISS BENNET continues the story, only this time with bookish middle-sister Mary as its unlikely heroine.”

If it is a seasonal trifle, it is a very good one, with a lovely assortment of classical music pieces interspersed, played by the actors. There will be a half dozen productions in 2019 in the US and Canada, and it’s worth seeing if it comes to your area.

School of Rock, Proctors, February 10. I never saw the movie with Jack Black. The three of us liked the musical a lot, especially that narrative that you have to really LISTEN to your kids. It was on Broadway for about three years, and has been touring since September 2017, alas, ending in San Jose, CA this week.

High School Musical Theatre Awards, Proctors, May 11. Think the Tonys for the under-20 crowd. Our family had its rooting interests.

Sweet Charity from Albany High School got four nominations, getting one, for the orchestra. Beauty and the Beast from Catskill High School, and starring one of my nieces, got one nomination but did not win. Still, the other talent onstage was tremendous and the ceremony was very much worthwhile.

The Book of Mormon, Proctors, May 15. Back story: last time this show played in the area, in 2014, our daughter was sick in the hospital. Since my wife had stayed with our daughter the night before, I suggested that I should stay at the hospital so she could see the performance.

My wife went; she didn’t like it, finding it too coarse. This time, I went by myself, ON OUR ANNIVERSARY, no less. I thought it was quite funny and said a lot about stereotypes, religious imperialism, and the power of myth. The tour is continuing at least through August 2020.

Beauty and the Beast; Sweet Charity

I should note that in Beauty and the Beast, Belle was played by Alexa, my niece – my BIL’s daughter.

Beauty and the BeastMy family saw two high school musicals the last weekend in March, Beauty and the Beast at Catskill HS and Sweet Charity at Albany HS. They both were excellent, so I’ll be rooting for both schools in a competition.

“The School of Performing Arts at Proctors announces the 3rd Annual HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL THEATRE AWARDS for New York’s Capital Region in partnership with The Broadway League. Fashioned after Broadway’s Tony Awards…”

Our family attended the awards event last year. Caitlin Van Loan was nominated as best supporting actress for playing Marion the Librarian’s mom in Catskill’s The Music Man; she was excellent this year as Mrs. Potts.

Annabelle Duffy WON as best actress in AHS’ Hairspray last year, and got to represent “the Capital Region at The National High School Musical Theatre Awards competition in New York City” last June. She played Charity this year. Albany also won three other awards in 2018, including best choreography.

I should note that in Beauty and the Beast, Belle was played by Alexa, my niece – my BIL’s daughter. She’s been in the CHS productions for seven years – and I believe I’ve seen them all – but this is her first lead. My unbiased opinion is that she was very good.

So was the guy playing the Beast, Magnus Bush; Alexa and Magnus are pictured. The performers playing Lumiere, Gaston, Cogsworth, Madame Bouche and many others were also strong. There are far more decent male singers in the CHS productions than there were even three or four years.

While the Albany HS productions have been solid for a while, there has been a real emphasis on its social relevance in recent years. So they’ve taken the historically sexist play, written by Neil Simon, and attempted to give it a feminist spin.

I was unfamiliar with the story of Sweet Charity, though I knew three songs: Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, and the faux religious The Rhythm of Life.

In any case, we’re making plans to attend the High School Musical Theatre Awards ceremony on May 11 at 7 p.m. at Proctors.

H is for the Alexander Hamilton effect

Eliphalet Nott delivered a “powerful sermon condemning the practice of dueling.”

As a result of the tremendous success of the musical about the United States’ first Treasury Secretary, there have several articles referring to “the Hamilton effect.” This 2016 article in Playbill describes saving the $10 bill, popularizing Hamilton as a first name, and increasing an interest in late 18th century American history. See also here and here, for instance.

In the Albany, NY area, the Hamilton effect is strong. The historic Schuyler Mansion celebrates 100 years as state-run site. It’s a bigger deal than it might be because Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler “in the mansion’s parlor on Dec. 14, 1780. The couple lived in Albany for nearly two years after their marriage and they brought their children on summer vacations to the 32 Catherine St. house. Scholars believe Hamilton wrote three of the 85 articles known as the Federalist Papers in the house.”

My wife finished Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography, all 832 pages of it, this summer. The daughter insists that we listen to the music every time we are in the car. This is actually less than last year when the playing was nonstop.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical altered the lives of countless unsuspecting fans with a powerful history lesson embedded in hypnotic, rhyming lyrics and a hip-hop beat.” It won 11 of 16 Tony awards for which it was nominated.

Long before the phenomenon, we were positively disposed toward Hamilton. A. Ham’s wife was a member of First Presbyterian Church, my current church, albeit in a different location.

Upon the death of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, highly-regarded First Presbyterian minister Eliphalet Nott delivered a “powerful sermon condemning the practice of dueling. It had a profound influence in curtailing the custom and has been recognized to this day as a work of great oratory.” I heard the sermon delivered at First Pres in 2004.

The three of us are hoping to finally see Hamilton in the next couple years.

The soundtrack
The soundtrack
The Hamilton Mixtape: Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)
Hamilton’s “rap” still rings true today

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