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.

Well Intentioned White People; West Side Story

The Barrington Stage Company was founded in January 1995.

Well intentioned white peopleWhen my wife’s family was staying at a timeshare in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, my wife, my daughter, a brother-in-law, one of his daughters, and I went to see productions at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

More correctly, we went to the TWO theaters. On the Sunday, we went to the St. Germain to see the world premiere of the play Well Intentioned White People. It was written by Rachel Lynett, who gave an author talk before we’d gotten there.

Someone keyed Cass’ car with a racial epithet. The black professor, looking to make tenure, would just as soon let it go. But thanks to the well-meaning concern of her roommate Viv, it becomes public.

Soon Dean West from her university ends up wanting to make the incident a teachable moment, with Cass and another “minority”, Parker, having to do the heavy lifting to create an “appropriate” event in response.

Many of the characters are quite recognizable, especially the dean, if you’ve ever spent five minutes in the world of academia. You might be surprised to find that the story is often quite funny.

The production continues through September 8. I hope it will be considered for Cap Rep sometime in the future. Incidentally, Andrea Cirie, who plays the dean, has performed in the Albany theater.

The musical we, all but my BIL, saw on the following Wednesday on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, a couple blocks away from the St. Germain, was West Side Story.

I know this story extremely well, and it may be my favorite musical. I saw the movie when I was 10 or 11, I’ve seen a ballet, and several stage productions.

This may be the best. Here’s Steve Barnes’ review in the Albany Times Union. It is playing through September 1.

The Barrington Stage Company was founded in January 1995. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered on the St. Germain stage in 2004, ran on Broadway from 2005-2008, and then played on the Mainstage later in 2008.

My wife and I are considering going to Pittsfield to see The Glass Menageie on the Mainstage in October. It’s amazing that with our several trips to the area over the past couple decades, we discovered BSC only this year.

M is for music that moves me

But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

music.stays
I experience this all of the time, ALL of the time. I find music that moves me in a most profound way: What Happens in the Brain When Music Causes Chills?

Once, I would have been surprised that EVERYONE did not experience this until I saw this article from a couple of years ago: The Actual Neuroscience Behind Why Some People Don’t Like Music, something called musical anhedonia.

But the subtitle of the story about that first story is “The brains of people who get chills when the right song comes on are wired differently than others.” So it could be all of God Only Knows by the Beach Boys or the guitar solo at the end of Let’s Go Crazy by Prince, that will take me to another plane.

I saw the movie West Side Story when I was 10 or 11, and it was the music bit at the very end – go to the 4-minute mark here – that absolutely devastates me EVERY TIME I hear it. EVERY TIME. Of course, this comes from what takes place before.

I’ve described in detail how the Adagio in G Minor, attributed to Albinoni leaves me weeping, EVERY TIME.

I was really taken by 10,000 singing Beethoven – Ode an die Freude (Ode to Joy). What it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in pure love.

Sometimes, it’s a lyric that will combine with the music. Listen to Finlandia, for instance:
DigitalFox
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

In what we call classical music, particularly in organ music, it’s often the chords that resolve the piece that feel like the power chords at the end of a rock song. Listen to Digital Fox, organ music of the late Virgil Fox on a CD I own. Note the endings of most of the pieces, but especially J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (0:00:00), J. Alain: Litanies (0:38:05), and C.M. Widor: Toccata from the Fifth Symphony (0:42:25), which I first heard at my graduation from library school.

This list of music that moves me doesn’t even scratch the surface.

ABC Wednesday – Round 19

Music Throwback Saturday: songs from The Beatles album Please Please Me

Musically, John admitted it was his attempt at “sort of Motown, black thing.”

PleasePleaseMeMy love for the Beatles is quite substantial, as most people who know me can tell. Here’s an article about how they influenced many other artists, and there are plenty more examples.

But they too were influenced by other musicians. I was reading Steve Turner’s “The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write,” subtitled “the stories behind every song.” Fairly often, the members of the group are quoted as having been inspired by a piece for their own creations. So I thought I’d put some of their songs, from the Please Please Me album, and related singles, up against the source material, with links to all.

I Saw Her Standing There”:

Paul explained…the bass riff was stolen from Chuck Berry’s 1961 song ‘I’m Talking About You’. “I played exactly the same notes and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me. Therefore, I maintain that a bass riff doesn’t have to be original.”

I’m listening for it, and I barely can hear it.

Misery:

The ‘la-la-la-la-la’ outro appears to allude to Pat Boone’s ‘Speedy Gonzalez’, a single that entered the British charts in July 1962 and didn’t leave until October.

Even as a kid, I HATED Speedy Gonzales as a terrible stereotype.

Please Please Me:

The song’s… chorus having been suggested by the 1932 Bing Crosby song ‘Please’, written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, which starts off by playing with the homophones ‘pleas’ and ‘please’.

Love Me Do:

During 1962, the American star Bruce Channel had enjoyed a British hit with ‘Hey Baby’ which featured a harmonica solo by Nashville session musician Delbert McClinton. When [John] met McClinton in June 1962…he asked him how he played it.

McClinton, who I was unfamiliar with until the late 1970s, tells his version of the story.

Do You Want To Know A Secret?:

[John’s] mother used to sing to him…’Wanna know a secret? Promise not to tell? We are standing by a wishing well’ (‘I’m Wishing’, words and music by Larry Morey and Frank Churchill)… from Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. George later revealed that the musical inspiration… came from ‘I Really Love You’, a 1961 hit for the Stereos.

George later covered I Really Love You.

There’s a Place:

Paul claimed the title was derived from the West Side Story song There’s a Place for Us (i.e., Somewhere) from 1957. Musically, John admitted it was his attempt at “sort of Motown, black thing.”

The Beatles, of course, covered several Motown songs, such as You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, Money, and Please Mr. Postman.

Ask Me Why:

Reminiscent of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1961 song What’s So Good about Goodbye.

And, of course, Motown covered many Beatles tunes.
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Bonus Beatles music: In Spite Of All The Danger

Happy birthday to Beatles fan Fred Hembeck.

Kennedy Center Honors 2015

I remember buying my copy of Tapestry somewhere in Binghamton, NY, along with Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones.

Rita Moreno bookAs I’ve noted over the years, I LOVE the Kennedy Center Honors. The event generally takes place in DC the first weekend in December and is broadcast on CBS-TV at the end of the month. The celebration of the honorees’ Lifetime Artistic Achievements took place on Sunday, December 6, and will be aired on CBS on Tuesday, December 29 at 9:00 p.m., ET/PT. This year’s honorees are Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa, and Cicely Tyson.

Rita Moreno – if she were in nothing but the movie West Side Story – a pivotal film in my life – I’d be a big fan, but she accomplished so much more and, as she indicated in this interview, had to fight the Latina actress stereotypes.

She’s won the EGOT:
OSCAR: Best Supporting Actress (1961) West Side Story (Anita del Carmen)
GRAMMY: Best Album for Children (1973) Electric Company
TONY: Best Featured Actress in a Play (1975) The Ritz
EMMY: Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program (1977) The Muppet Show; Outstanding Guest Actress – Drama Series (1978) The Rockford Files

Even though I was in college by then, I was a huge fan of The Electric Company, and she was a big reason.

WATCH:
West Side Story-America
Electric Company – STOP!
Muppet Show – Fever
Rockford Files
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George Lucas – the writer/producer/director made a bunch of movies I enjoyed tremendously. The first was American Graffiti; a couple of the movie’s actors ended up in 1950s-based sitcoms, Ron Howard (Richie on Happy Days), and Cindy Williams (Cindy on Laverne &…) The film also featured some carpenter-actor named Harrison Ford, who later starred in Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, and the Indiana Jones trilogy, all of which I enjoyed (except Indy 2, which I’ve never seen).

All that hate for Star Wars 1: I didn’t enjoy it, but it was just a movie. All that nerdy nuance about the films, some brought on by Lucas himself – Han shot first! – is beyond my interest. Oh and he likes Star Wars 7.

I see Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, on CBS News frequently.

WATCH:
American Graffiti (1973) – Original Trailer
Star Wars (1977) Original Trailer
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Theatrical Trailer
READ:
The Other Side of The Other Side of Midnight
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Cicely TysonI wrote about her at length only a couple of years ago.

WATCH:
The Bold Move That Left Cicely Tyson’s First TV Director Speechless And Sparked A National Movement
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Cicely Tyson on Roots, Grief and Strength
The Marva Collins Story (1981)
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Seiji Ozawa – Though he had been the conductor for the San Francisco Symphony early in his career, I know him best from him leading the Boston Symphony. I’d see him on TV fairly often, and as he got older I recognized him as much for his style, and his coif as anything.

WATCH:
What’s My Line? – Seiji Ozawa (1963, TV Show)
Tchaikovsky Overture 1812
Beethoven Symphony No 5
Seiji Ozawa’s 80th Birthday
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Carole King – Her life was so amazing that they turned it into a hit Broadway musical, Beautiful, which will be going on a national tour shortly. She is a songwriter, early on primarily with her then-husband, the late Gerry Goffin; they are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I found this list of 17 Popular Songs You Never Knew Were Written By Carole King, with links, but mostly, I DID know.

If you went to college in the US in the early 1970s, either you had a copy of her massively successful album Tapestry, or your roommate did; it may have been mandated by Congress. I remember buying my copy somewhere in Binghamton, NY, along with Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. Tapestry was number one on the Billboard 200 for 15 consecutive weeks, and on the charts for over five years in a row.

Her Jazzman was covered by Lisa Simpson in an early episode of the TV cartoon The Simpsons. Where You Lead was the theme song of the TV show Gilmore Girls, sung by one Louise Goffin, daughter of Carole and Gerry.

LISTEN to Carole King:
Jazzman
It’s Too Late
So Far Away
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, with the Mitchell-Taylor Boy-and-Girl Choir

The Everly Brothers -Crying In the Rain (1962)
KCH2015