Tag Archives: Sondheim

Sondheim Week, Day Five: “Everybody’s Got The Right”


Album Art

You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right

Original Broadway Cast

Assassins

Genre: Broadway

What I went through on Friday afternoon doesn’t qualify as “publishing another new blog post about a Sondheim song” but it did become a perfect illustration of why Stephen Sondheim is a rather special kind of Broadway composer.

I knew I was going to choose something from “Assassins.” I’d narrowed it down to two or three candidates and I suspected there might have been another solid choice lurking in the soundtrack.

So I listened to the whole thing, all the way through.

…While reading along with the lyrics and notes in “Look, I Made A Hat” to make sure I didn’t miss a single detail or piece of context.

…And after that, I was just too bummed out.

By a Broadway musical!

This is an unexpected result from a musical.

It’s not an entirely unexpected one from a Sondheim musical.

Actually, maybe it’s an easily-predictable reaction to a Sondheim musical that’s about people who’ve attempted to assassinate the President throughout American history.

Interesting Point One is the fact that a musical can leave me in a somber mood. Interesting Point Two: when I hear the phrase “A Broadway musical about Presidential assassins. Yes, John Wilkes Booth sings” I prepare to dismiss this as either complete idiocy, pretentious claptrap, or a lazy exercise in attention-grabbing bad taste…until I hear “…composed by Stephen Sondheim.” At which point I think “Oh. All right, then. Carry on.”

It’s not that I’m certain it’s going to be good. But I do know it won’t be lazy, and it won’t be anything less than “interesting.”

“Assassins” is both good and interesting. The show’s book (by John Weidman) presents us with nine men and women who tried to kill the President. Some successfully, some unsuccessfully; some famously, and some whose exploits have been completely forgotten by everyone except for the Secret Service and Presidential historians.

Samuel Byck (Nixon’s would-be assassin) was neither successful nor remembered. Doesn’t it seem incredible that one can die in an attempt to kill the President and yet be utterly, utterly unknown? I’d at least heard of Squeaky Fromme (who failed to kill Gerald Ford). But only because Laraine Newman played her in an SNL sketch (as a guest on a talk show entitled “Dangerous But Inept”).

Curiosity got the better to me and I read all about Byck on Friday night. I won’t tell you what Byck or Fromme got up to. Because something seemed clear to me after a moment’s thought: obscurity is among the worst punishments that Society can deliver to an assassin or a terrorist, isn’t it? If part of the killer’s motive is to prove that they matter, and to make the world pay attention to them, how can he or she fail any harder than “You didn’t achieve your objective and just a few years later, nobody knew or cared you ever existed”?

Go ahead and Google for Byck if you’re curious. I won’t judge you for that, but I also won’t help.

This clicks into a lifestyle decision that I made early this year. From now on, I’m going to try very, very hard to never learn about mass-murderers. I should know about these horrible events that become part of the national conversation, yes. But I don’t need to see their faces. I don’t need to recognize their names. I don’t need to know about their histories, see quotes taken from their last letters or social media activity, or hear about what they hoped to achieve by methodically killing innocent people.

I feel as though that information makes me into an unwilling accomplice. To what, I don’t know, but I do know it’s nothing good. Did the killer hope to transform themselves from insignificance to notoriety? Plant their flag in the national consciousness? Demonstrate that they have the ability to influence people and events? If any of these things are true, then the fact that a paunchy tech reporter in New England knows who they are becomes a Win for them.

I also worry that the saturation-coverage of these incidents is acting as an enzyme for other sick people. I worry that every time I click one of these links or tune in to one of these stories, I’m encouraging news outlets to stick with the story…and that we’re all encouraging the next horrible incident.

I don’t believe that coverage of a mass-shooting goads other potential shooters towards a terrible action. But I’m certain that exposure to this sort of news can have a desensitizing effect upon a mind that’s already sick.

Here’s what I mean. Should you ever reach out and dip your hands into molten metal?

Got your answer? All right. Now, watch this video of the Mythbusters dipping their hands into molten lead:

You’ve now seen somebody do precisely that. It seemed to work out just great for them. Look, they’re laughing and talking as if it were a highly-positive experience.

Has this influenced your thoughts about dipping your hands into molten metal?

The effect is subtle and it goes beyond “Jamie and Adam have explained a scientific principle and outlined specific conditions under which a positive outcome was possible.” That wasn’t the most powerful part of it. You saw another human being do something that you might have previously dismissed as insane.

You can extend this to the idea of jumping off of a low bridge while clutching a balled-up parachute in your right hand. It’s a bad idea. You definitely should not do that. If such a stupid and clearly self-destructive idea popped into your head, you might wonder “where the hell did that come from?” and worry about your mental health. It’s a crazy thought. You should dismiss it immediately.

But: when you learn that somebody else had that exact same idea, it somehow seems more normal. Not only are you not the only person who thinks that way, but hey, here, look: somebody did that.

(Aside: and now, BASE jumping is edging into the mainstream. But the early point still stands. Lots of people had to die stupidly before safety procedures — or more appropriately: “safety” procedures — were identified, developed, and improved.)

It’s still neither right nor normal. But to the wrong kind of mind, crazy things can suddenly seem more right and more normal once that person has seen it happen once already. To an unwell person who’s watching yet another news story about yet another horrible, unthinkable, and despicable tragedy, shooting up a public place isn’t an unprecedented act of desperate violence. It’s possible for such a mind to think of it as just “something that happens all the time, that other people also think about doing.”

And for “Jamie and Adam didn’t burn their hands” or “that guy parachuted safely at the bottom of the gorge and acted like it was the greatest thing he’d ever done,” substitute “that guy completely took over the national news for three solid days and everybody knew who he was.”

So that’s why I don’t know the name or the face of that guy who killed a TSA agent in LA last week, or any other mass-killer since the Boston Marathon bombings. I can’t prevent the news from covering these stories. I can only limit my own contribution to the problem, which is all that I can ask of myself.

“Assassins” can affect its audience deeply because it humanizes the killers and literally gives them a stage all to themselves to air their points of view and their frustrations. Despite what I’ve said about not wanting to know about killers’ backgrounds, I don’t believe that seeing these people as real human beings is a bad thing. It’s kind of our responsibility, actually. The inability to empathize and perceive people as human beings is the trait that makes these terrible crimes even possible.

Plus, denying the humanity of the killer is way too easy on the rest of us. It’s horrifying to recognize that the lifeforms who managed to hold two airplanes on a cold course towards the World Trade Center all the way to the points of impact were, in fact, the exact same type of organism as you or I. But it’s true.

And troubling. It’s scary to encounter a type of human behavior that we can’t understand in even the most remote academic sense. We try very, very hard to unravel a John Wilkes Booth or a Lee Harvey Oswald and understand why they did what they did.

If the shooting was the result of hopelessness, was there a way that we, as a Society, could have restored hope, and prevented this tragedy?

If the shooting was the result of a mental illness, were we, as a Society, derelict in our duty to protect each other? Were we complicit, in the way we maintain stigmas against the treatment of mental disorders? Did we collectively fail to serve these people? By identifying and treating this illness sooner, could we have saved the lives of both the victim and the assassin…two lives equally precious in the eyes of God or Nature?

Or: is it hopelessly naive to even pursue these questions in the first place?

The Humans are creatures of free will and America is a country that was largely founded on freedom. As such, a population of 300,000,000 people is statistically likely to contain thousands of people who are simply inclined towards committing horrifying acts on a national scale. We can, and should, try to understand these problems. We should also recognize that thinking and talking and collecting data is sometimes nothing more than a self-soothing behavior. We tell ourselves “This dragon is no longer any danger to us…for I have learned that its name is ‘Reggie’.”

We live in a world in which evil is quite possible. Sometimes, data is the cloth we drop over that statement so that we don’t have to look at it.

I’ve never seen “Assassins” onstage. I’ve only experienced it through the soundtrack. With the exception of a narrator (in the form of a balladeer), all of the characters are the assassins themselves, and they speak of their own experiences in the first person. They express their insane thoughts, the bulls*** that they use on themselves and on others, their self-pity, and sometimes they even express clear and rational (if disagreeable) lines of thought that don’t go off the rails until they end with “…and, so, I decided to take somebody’s life.”

It’s a wide range of people and motives. You’re likely to recognize one or two of these generic thoughts, these fears, this kind of anger, as something similar to what you’ve heard a friend or co-worker say. Which is why listening to this soundtrack can be a harrowing experience.

For some reason, an example from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” comes to my mind right now. It’s the semi-famous illustration of a series of faces in which there’s a simple four-line “happy face” at the far left, and a photorealistic drawing on the far right, with progressively more detailed faces in between. McCloud uses it to illustrate how the brain can form a subconscious emotional connection to a comic book character. The face that’s halfway between “happy face” and “photo,” is low on specific details. But looks just enough like your son that your brain fills in the blanks. You’re not even terribly aware of the similarity. And yet somehow, you care more about that character as a result.

The assassins in this musical can have the same effect. Perhaps you recognize the lament of baseless anger and blind entitlement as the sort of thing that a former classmate engages in on his Facebook page. Or maybe the generic dissatisfaction with the direction of the country reminds you of conversations around the family dinner table when you were a kid. You’re not thinking about Connie or Jeff or Kevin, but the subconscious familiarity causes you to feel an additional investment in some of these characters. That connection creates a building sense of anxiety at the knowledge of what they’re about to do.

Like I said at the very top: listening to this jaunty Broadway musical all the way through is a heavy, heavy experience. Oh, no, I wasn’t driven to the whiskey bottle by this soundtrack. Nonetheless, I did feel a need to leave the coffeeshop and watch a lot of “Parks And Recreation” on Netflix when I got home.

Did I describe this musical as “Jaunty”? Yup. Sondheim often keeps us off-balance in “Assassins” by writing a quite lovely and conventional Broadway musical tune that’s only off-putting because of its context.

Take, for example, this classical love song:

I am nothing,
You are wind and water and sky.
Jodie.
Tell me, Jodie, how I
Can earn your love.

I would swim oceans.
I would move mountains.
I would do anything for you.
What would you want me to do?

It wouldn’t be at all out of place in 1940s movie musical. Which suddenly makes me realize, retroactively, that the singers in most of the love songs of the past seventy years was expressing the thoughts of a dangerous psychopath.

Thanks, Sondheim, for ruining a great Cole Porter song:

I’d love to gain complete control of you
And handle even the heart and soul of you
So love at least a small percent of me do
For I love all of you

Another “Assassins” tune is a “cheer up and don’t lose hope” ditty…which also wouldn’t feel out of place in a Depression-era MGM picture:

Everybody’s got the right
To be happy.
Don’t stay mad,
Life’s not as bad
As it seems.
If you keep your goal in sight,
You can climb to any height.
Everybody’s got the right
To their dreams…

One of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of digital music distribution is that it allows a song to become discoverable outside of its original context. I like to imagine some newly-engaged young woman cutting together an iMovie of all of the precious photos and video clips of her and her fiancee, to publicly celebrate their timeless love story. And then she lays in a sweet love song she found online because “It’s just SO TOTALLY me and Ethan.” She won’t know it’s actually a song about an insane man’s murderous obsession with a woman he’d never met until the YouTube comments start arriving.

The only way to top that would be a businessman running for Congress on a platform of smaller government and the American Dream, who approves a campaign song that’s also the anthem of a bunch of men and women who tried, and succeeded, in murdering the President.

So after two days of rewriting and revisiting my original question (“But which track from the ‘Assassins’ soundtrack?”) I’ve settled on “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange.” It ends with a reprise of the number that kicked off the show: “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

The reprise is kind of amazing. There’s a major disorientation between what the song is and what it means. The combination of fantasy and entitlement is a heady brew and it’s dangerous when applied to a sick mind.

The fact that this is Sondheim Week prevented me from selecting the most powerful cut on the soundtrack: “November 22, 1963.” It’s not music. It’s the ten-minute-long dramatic scene that acts as the climax of the whole musical. John Wilkes Booth visits Lee Harvey Oswald on the morning of November 22 before he leaves for work.

Unlike the other characters, Oswald is making his first appearance in the show and he never gets to address the audience or sing. He’s clearly a mess and at this point in his breakdown, his self-consuming frustrations could find practically any kind of outlet. Booth walks him through the situation and is soon joined by the other assassins, forming a chorus that preys upon Oswald’s broken mind for their own ends.

This is probably the bit that sent me home to watch “Parks And Rec” instead of focusing on this blog post. (Also, the coffeeshop was closing in an hour and they were out of scones).

There was definitely a point at which Oswald was of a sound enough mind to choose not to kill JFK and send the nation into an extended period of mourning. What could have someone have said to him to sway him towards a path in which both Oswald and JFK got to enjoy their grandchildren?

There will always be that fantasy of identifying a moment before the first rock tumbled from the cliff and the landslide became inevitable. And “fantasy” might be the right word. Oswald, Mark David Chapman, the 9/11 terrorists…they didn’t just suddenly snap. Their lives up to that point had undergone a long process of steady abrasion which left them in a frame of mind that allowed them to do the unthinkable.

But assassination and terrorism are acts against an entire society. Even if your life isn’t directly affected by the killings of people you’d never met, it’s a form of injury to any man or woman with the basic gift and burden of empathy for strangers.

Getting in a car accident in which nobody was injured is an improvement over spending three days in a hospital and then seven months rehabbing your shattered arm. But given the choice, most people would prefer to have never had suffered such a shocking incident to begin with. And that’s why, when we find ourselves listening to a highly-agitated Oswald wondering what to do next, we keep hoping someone will tell him “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lee…you don’t have to do this!” And if it doesn’t happen soon, then this shout just might come from the audience.

As I say: “Assassins” is a hell of a musical.

Geez. I promise that next time I’ll write about something cheery, like a man and woman who murder and butcher people for the meat, which they then sell as pies to an unwitting public. You know, something danceable!

Preview “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon.com soon after clicking this link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of store credits. Which I will likely spend on more albums that will bum me out. Also: bathtub toys. It’ll even out, I promise.

Sondheim Week! Day Four: “Sooner Or Later”


Album Art

Sooner Or Later

Bernadette Peters

Sondheim (Etc.) Live At Carnegie Hall

Genre: Broadway

Today, let’s talk about a Sondheim song that works just fine as a standalone. I don’t know why it’s surprising to me that Stephen Sondheim has written plenty of one-off songs for movies and television. I guess his reputation as an iconic composer of musicals interferes with my ability to think of him as a regular creator, who finds all kinds of outlets for his creativity.

I mean, why am I writing about Sondheim music every day this week, when I have plenty of reviews and news to take care of?

(“Because the holiday season is coming up. You’re trying to capture as many Amazon credits as you possibly can from your readers’ gift-buying sessions.”)

Okay, yes, there’s that, But…

(“You were embarrassed because you had to abandon the Advent Calendar last year after only about a week. You really wanted to get a jump on it this year, because…”)

Right, right. You’ve made your point. You can shut up about that now.

What I would like to say is that it’s easy to forget that to me, he’s Steven Sondheim but Sondheim only thinks of himself as a composer. He has a set of skills that he can apply to any number of creative endeavors, and no shortage of interesting offers. Writing one or two songs that don’t need to support 90 minutes of narrative must give him a kind of pleasure that composing a whole musical doesn’t.

“Sooner Or Later” is one of five songs Sondheim wrote for the movie “Dick Tracy.” It’s a torch song sung by Breathless Mahoney, nightclub performer and moll/protege of the gangster that Tracy is pursuing in the film.

In the increasingly-indispensable “Look, I Made A Hat” (volume two of SS’s annotated lyrics), Sondheim describes his involvement with the movie thusly:

Not only was it for a movie based on a cartoon I had grown up with, it was set in the 1930s and thus invited pastiche, something I loved writing. Better yet, the songs were to decorate the plot rather than enhance it, which made them easy to write, and when Warren hired Madonna, no less, to play Breathless, I thought it might even be my chance to have a hit record. In the fullness of time, I didn’t get a hit, but I got an Academy Award and, more important, had another good time working with Warren.

Aside: There are times when I hear of some kind of achievement or credit and I think “No question: this person has earned the right to hit the Snooze button every morning for the rest of his or her life and get another 30 minutes of sleep, no matter what’s on the schedule that day.” I imagine Paul McCartney, for example, waking up, looking at the clock, and then throwing the blankets off of him in a panic before thinking “Wait, wait…I just remembered: I’m the guy who wrote ‘Hey Jude’!” And then he feels entitled to sleep until 8:00, minimum.

Chester Gould was the creator of “Dick Tracy.” It’s an iconic and important comic strip that’s earned the greatest honor possible for a work of fiction: the characters will remain part of the cultural lexicon long after the original work has been forgotten. But I would have been willing to award Gould his Snooze Bar privileges just for having come up with the name “Breathless Mahoney.” If I ever have a daughter, my second thought will be “No. I can’t name her ‘Breathless Mahoney Ihnatko’.” End aside.

What a song, what a set of lyrics.

I’m gonna love you
Like nothing you’ve known.
I’m gonna love you,
And you all alone.
Sooner is better than later,
But, lover,
I’ll hover,
I’ll plan:
This time I’m not only getting,
I’m holding
My man.

Cripes. “But lover/I’ll hover/I’ll plan” — that’s good for an extra 20 minutes on the snooze bar. I’m not in charge of such things but I’d be more than happy to launch a petition granting Sondheim that upgrade.

Nope, “Dick Tracy” isn’t a musical. “Sooner Or Later” serves as a great piece of music for the audience to listen to while watching a montage of Dick Tracy going after various organized crime operations. But it’s a perfect song for this character and her role in the story: as a source of temptation for Tracy, and competition for his long put-upon girlfriend. Mahoney has plans for Tracy, no doubt about that. We won’t know exactly what they are until the very end of the movie, maybe. This song underscores all of that. At the same time, it lifts straight out and works as a standalone torch song.

It’s a song that rewards your close attention. When you focus on the lyrics, and how precisely they interlock…I can’t say anything more sensible than just “wow.” Sondheim lyrics are like dovetailed furniture. It’s rock-solid without any mechanical adhesives or visible fasteners. The stability is a result of how precisely all of these lines and words were made to fit together and interlock. It’s as though they had grown together as parts of the same tree.

“Sooner Or Later” did indeed win Sondheim his Academy Award. If there was any possibility whatsoever that he wasn’t going to win, I think Madonna’s performance during the 1991 Oscars sealed the deal. The reaction among voting members of the Academy — the men and women who dig women, specifically — was certainly intense enough to warp the fabric of reality and send their votes for “Sooner Or Later” backward in time to push Sondheim over the top.

Why do I complain about modern Oscarcasts that don’t include performances of nominated songs? Because: I sometimes obsess over stupid TV shows that mean absolutely nothing.

Also: this performance. I concede that it’s not every year that there’s a nominated song that can be sung by the hottest pop singer in the world at that time. But look at that again and tell me that a six minute clip package of 100 Years Of Scenes In Which Characters Order Coffee is an improvement on what you just saw.

Madonna’s performance of “Sooner Or Later” is available on “I’m Breathless,” a pop album she released to take advantage of the publicity from the movie. But there’s something…not quite right about it, for some reason. I guess that version of it feels like a song sung from the safety of a recording booth. The Oscars performance was live, in front of Jack Nicholson and similar icons, and a worldwide audience of millions. This one sounds like the performance of someone who knew that (despite being Madonna and everything) she’d never have a crowd like this ever again.

So instead, my pick for this one is Bernadette Peters’ live performance at Carnegie Hall. I came to appreciate Bernadette Peters, as I did Sondheim, later in life. But I don’t blame myself for this one. I feel as though her voice acquired richer texture as she got older. It might just be my ear or my taste, but I always thought her earlier voice was a bit too glossy.

Preview “Sooner Or Later” on the Amazon MP3 Store. If you buy anything at all after you click one of these Amazon links, I’ll get a small kickback which I promise to spend on fun and foolish things.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

Sondheim Week! Day Three: “Send In The Clowns”


Album Art

Send In The Clowns

Original Broadway Cast

A Little Night Music (Original Cast Recording)

Genre: Broadway

I’m practically going to have to insist that you say — right out loud, and in a goopy voice — “Ladies and gentlemen…Welsh singing superstar Mister Tom JONES!” before you click the “play” button on this video:

You can go ahead and play this next one without any sort of buildup:

And sure, why not: here’s another version of “Send In The Clowns”:

I’m starting this one off with three videos because it’ll save us both a lot of time. By now, I’m sure you understand why, as a kid, this song inspired a display of eye-rolling that even a panel of contemporary teenage judges would have described as “excessive.”

Could you blame me? And can I blame you if you consider “Send In The Clowns” to be hopelessly cheesy and schmaltzy? Most of the performances we all get to see fell into one of these three categories:

  • The “Tom Jones,” in which the performer is just making their way from the green pin to the red pin, no matter how weird the mating of singing style and subject is, or
  • The “Muppet Show,” in which the director of this TV special or variety show glances at the title of the song and budgets $500 for rental of clown costumes or $300 for rental of actual clowns to flop around behind the singer. The show’s writers see this on the show rundown and they begin the numb process of developing some business for the clowns to perform behind the singer. “And then, the red clown is all like, ‘Where is the blue clown? I just loaned him fifty dollars. Green clown, let’s you and me go looking for him…'” And then there’s
  • The Krusty Option. The performer knows very, very well that this is an emotionally-punchy song. Holy cow does he know how emotionally-punchy it is. “I am going to sing the holy crap out of this one,” he declares to the director. “Push in close when you see me close my fist because that’ll be my signal that I’m going to make myself cry at the end of the next line.”

Remember, when I was a tiny tot, TV variety shows were still all the rage and “Send In The Clowns” was a legitimate hit song. I saw this song performed on TV a lot.

As I mentioned yesterday, I didn’t become a real Sondheim fan until I became an adult. I’ve already described my first obstacle: instead of listening to actual Sondheim, I was basing my opinion on what I thought Sondheim music was like.

My second obstacle to appreciating his work was the lack of context.

Many musicals are collections of tunes that happen to suit the moods of various scenes throughout a story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a song like that. It means that you can sing “Brotherhood Of Man” from “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and enjoy it as-is. You don’t even need to wonder if the sentiment being expressed in the song is meant to be taken sincerely or sarcastically.

Sondheim musicals are meant to exist in the air and gravity of their specific home planets. A pretty song is a pretty song no matter how you experience it. But when you hear one of Sondheim’s tunes as it was intended, with forty minutes of story and song in front of it and an act break and another hour of story and song after it, you get to experience its full impact and can appreciate its true purpose.

Outside of its rightful place in Act Two of “A Little Night Music,” “Send In The Clowns” is hard to parse. The sentimental nature of the lyrics and the musing tones come straight through. Fine, but what’s the cause? If these are the words of a teenager who’s been dumped after a second date, the sentiment is thin and drippy and overly-theatrical.

Is he or she singing it alone in a room? Is this an interior monologue? If so, it’s rather self-pitying, isn’t it?

It can easily be played for cheap, simple emotional manipulation…either on the part of the performer looking for love and approval from a live audience, or a character who just wants the world to know how how much they’re hurting, and is speaking out of a selfish desire for sympathy instead of a desire to express feelings sincerely and come closer to a larger awareness.

Let’s try this again.

“Send In The Clowns” is sung by Desiree, an actress whose success, fame, and glamor are distinctly on the wane. She sings it to Fredrik, an attorney. The two were lovers fourteen years ago. When her touring company performed in a theater near his home, they got together and reminisced about the old days. The two made love and considered getting back together, despite Fredrik’s wife and Desiree’s current lover (himself married).

This is the song that comes after Fredrik has told Desiree, with regret, that he’s too smitten with his teenaged wife to leave her for Desiree. He knows (I think) that he’s making a lame explanation but even so, he’s not leaving his wife.

The context transforms the song. They’re inside Desiree’s bedroom. The door is shut. This is a moment of intense emotional intimacy and the words that they exchange are for each other and each other alone.

She’s not moaning, she’s not pitying herself, she’s not trying to pull on anyone’s heartstrings, she isn’t even trying to get Fredrik to reconsider. She’s being honest about her reaction to the way their second affair has ended, in language that only he and she can appreciate, using the only opportunity she will ever have to be open with another human being about these thoughts. And she’s using theater analogies because she’s a woman who’s worked on the stage for two decades. This is just the way that her thoughts are expressing themselves.

So: no disrespect to Tom Jones (hell of a strong baritone) or The Muppets (to whom we all owe a debt that can only be repaid by passing the “Mahna Mahna” song along to succeeding generations until the heat death of the universe). But they couldn’t have possibly done “Send In The Clowns” justice.

Like most Sondheim songs, “Send In The Clowns” has an intrinsic beauty and dignity when it stands as a lone tree. But if you want to appreciate it in full, you need to feel the grass around it and hear the river behind it and sense the dappling shadows of the other trees surrounding it.

Did you notice the simplicity of this tune? According to ““Finishing The Hat”” it was written specifically for the actress playing Desiree in the original production. This role was written with a late-middle-aged actress with a talent for light comedy in mind. Sondheim knew that the chances of finding such an actress who could also sing was a longshot, so he didn’t write a solo for Desiree.

When he discovered that the actress they’d cast actually had a good voice (“small but silvery, musically and smokily pure”), and the director decided that, dramatically, this scene should belong to Desiree and not Fredrik as originally intended, Sondheim wrote this song to use the strengths of Glynis John’s voice. The smoky tone of her voice made it difficult for her to sustain a note for very long; thus, he wrote this song as a series of short phrases.

I eat details like that up. The idea of the artist flying free and unfettered is almost purely a romantic notion. More often than not, creators need to work their muscles against resistance, such as space limits or the fact that Papageno is a little bit tone-deaf and needs to hear the phrase he’s about to sing before he’s called upon to sing it, or the need to move a scene from a garden to a parlor because they can’t afford to shoot anything outdoors. Or, the creator needs to dial back a “brilliant” innovation because the audience just isn’t getting it.

The personal life lesson I take away from “Send In The Clowns” one is that I often tell myself I don’t like something and move on, without exploring why I don’t like it. I bet I miss out on a lot of great stuff for that reason. I still need to protect myself from bad versions of “Send In The Clowns” as seriously as a parent would protect an infant from werevampires, but I’m sorry that I shooed away awareness of Good Versions of this song for most of my adult life.

Preview “Send In The Clowns” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

All right, I’m aware that after encouraging you to hear a Sondheim tune within its original context, I’m actually contradicting myself by encouraging you to sample this one song. Go ahead and buy the whole Broadway cast album of “A Little Night Music.”

In my defense, I’m posting this link out of selfish interests. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking this link results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. “You know what would really tie this kitchen together? A xylophone.” I will think one morning. And before any sensible part of my brain can have any voice in the decision, I’ll go right ahead and one-click such a thing…all thanks to your clicking these links.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

Sondheim Week! Day Two: “Opening Doors”


Album Art

Opening Doors

Original Broadway Cast

Merrily We Roll Along (Original Cast Recording)

Genre: Broadway

If a movie flops, that’s that. If the movie was based on something else, maybe another team will take another crack at adapting the source material after enough years have passed and the floppage has been forgotten. There’s also an outside chance that the movie will have become such a landmark of failure that a squad of improv comics will do a sarcastic stage adaptation of it and (fingers crossed) they’ll get to make a sarcastic remake of the film (see: “The Brady Bunch Movie”).

(No, please, I’m definitely not telling you to see “The Brady Bunch Movie.” I meant “see” as in “I refer you to…” Though frankly, even looking at its IMDB page will make you very, very sad.)

Otherwise, a flop movie is damaged goods and nobody will ever touch it again. “Heaven’s Gate” was a legendary failure. In fact, this movie is credited with causing the collapse of United Artists. I’ve seen three different cuts of the film and I can certify that this is no maligned, hidden gem: it’s awful. It’s like a collection of subplots loitering around the set in search of a story to support. But I regard it as a tantalizing failure. The cinematography is often stunning. The performances are exceptional. The story…is incomprehensible. Yet I get a sense that the writing of the screenplay was going great until it derailed at point (X,Y) and if someone can locate those precise coordinates and apply some course corrections…wow, “Heaven’s Gate” could become great.

It’ll never happen, of course. It’s a movie. Dead is dead. Why remake a bad movie when there are so many bad unproduced screenplays waiting to be filmed?

Different rules apply to plays and musicals. Theater doesn’t attach stigma to failure; on the contrary, failure is a traditional part of the development process. Launching a theatrical production is like launching a paper airplane. You watch it fail and use that data to build something that will fly.

Some producers and directors look at a failed play and see an unsolved puzzle. It sticks with them…particularly if they’re the ones who created it in the first place. And, admirably, theater has no tradition of attaching stigma to failure. “Figure out what’s wrong and try to fix it” is an accepted part of the process.

“Merrily We Roll Along” closed on Broadway after 16 performances, bad reviews, and more audience walkouts than most creators like to see. It’s the story of a young, struggling Broadway composer who damages two close, lifelong friendships on his way to becoming a wildly-successful Hollywood producer.

It’s the last play that Sondheim includes in “Finishing The Hat” and he does a great job going through the black-box data on the failure. The structure of the musical used the same structure as the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play that served as the basis of the story: the curtain opens in the present-day and as the show progresses, we keep going further back in time. So it was tricky for the audience to follow, particularly as relationships between characters kept changing. A stopgap solution: have the characters wear tee shirts with a description of their current relationship with the main character (“Ex-Wife”) actually written out on them.

The characters are in their Forties at the start of the show and in their early Twenties and late teens by the end. The production had the idea of casting college-age actors and having them play younger over the course of the evening. The problem there (Sondheim writes) was that there aren’t many 20 year old actors who can play anything other than their 20-year-old selves. He described the audience reacting to the opening scenes of “young adults playing jaded grownups” as if they were watching a college production. Which, Sondheim says, was an intended effect but it didn’t play with the audience the way he thought it would.

The most interesting note that Sondheim makes is the “time moving backwards” structure of the show interferes with the audience’s sympathy for the main character. When they meet him, he’s rich, at the top of his profession, kind of a jerk and a shallow phony. It’s hard, then, to sympathize with him as they see him screwing over his friends and disconnecting from his creative passions in subsequent scenes. By the very end, when the audience sees the young and idealistic composer complimenting his friend’s play and suggesting that they work on a musical together…they’re supposed to compare and consider this likeable underdog and the jerk he became, and see the tragedy. It’s all there, but (never having seen the whole musical, myself) I can imagine how the overall effect requires more of a contribution from the audience than they might have been prepared for.

The book describes all of the problems that were identified and addressed over the decade of different productions that Sondheim worked on before he considered himself satisfied with “Merrily We Roll Along.” That’s an interesting relationship with a work, isn’t it? It feels like that scene in “Seinfeld” where George is humiliated by a co-worker during a meeting, and then he keeps trying to re-stage those exact circumstances so that he can use the devastating comeback that came to him later on. You don’t get to do this in real life but as a theater composer, when you later think “You know what that character should have done?” you can do something about it.

This “Seinfeld” reference also allows me to mention that Jason Alexander was part of “Merrily”‘s original cast. In fact, when Sondheim writes about the mistake of casting inexperienced young actors, he singles out Alexander as the only one capable of playing a 40-year-old. “It’s as though he had been born middle-aged,” he wrote.

Yup, another example of the Charles Nelson Reilly Effect. It blew my mind when I learned that he’d come to “Seinfeld” off of a successful Broadway career capped by a Tony award for Best Performance By A Leading Actor for his work in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”

The mind is good at forming retroactive connections. Every time I see Costanza do one of his rare little dances of joy (see: “The Puffy Shirt,” “The Trip, Part 2”) (yes, do see them) I can’t help but think he’s rocking some of the moves he used on stage while singing “If I Were A Rich Man.”

And damn, the man has a terrific voice. You’ll recognize him instantly in “Opening Doors” as the theatrical producer that the two composers audition for.

“Opening Doors” is practically an entire musical play in itself, with a beginning-middle-end arc and character development throughout. It’s also emblematic of why it took me a long time to warm to Sondheim.

I wish I had enough musical knowledge to articulate my early reactions. When I thought of a Sondheim song, I imagined a performer having to strut sharply from one separately-lit and dressed section of the stage to another as he went…”I’m singing, and I’m knocking on a door” “Heeeeere I AMMMMM at a blaaackbooAAARRRdddd, because nowww as I sing my next linnnneeee it’s three months later and I took that teeeeaching job…” “Whoops, here in the middle I have a different job cleaning the poooool filters in an aaaaaquacaaaaaade because the school burned DOWNNNNNNN!!!!”

You know what I mean? Lots of shifts in tone and melody and place, and characters who are clearly going through a lot over the course of a single song. Lots of stacatto declarations. Overall, Sondheim is the only composer who can get a character to commit adultery, confess to his wife, abandon the daughter his mistress gave birth to, and then wonder if he should accept his daughter’s invitation to her new gallery opening after thirty years of estrangement…all within the margins of a single nervous ballad.

(Side complaint: this types of songs also present frequent challenges and frustrations to a devoted shower singer such as myself. Right about the time when I’ve started to throw myself into the song, I’m forced to hold my position while a countess enters the bathroom, muses for eighteen bars about broken jewelry, and then moves off. Then I get to sing some more. But while I was en tableau all of my Irish Spring Body Wash dripped off and I need to reapply and lather.)

I’m not saying that this observation was off-base. In many cases, it’s spot-on. I guess what turned me off about these types of songs was that I heard them done so poorly by so many Sondheim pretenders and parodists that I wasn’t leaving my mind open to the solid features of the original.

Sinatra and Elvis Presley recordings have the same problem. It’s hard to lock your memories down on the originals any more.

And I know it’s kind of an ironic admission for me to make, given the nature of this song and “Merrily We Roll Along.” Here I am, complaining (or at least observing) that many of Sondheim’s songs have a beauty that require active comprehension. In “Opening Doors,” Jason Alexander’s theater producer character is rejecting the composer’s score and complaining

There’s not a tune you can hum
There’s not a tune that goes bum-bum-bum-di-bum
You need a tune that goes bum-bum-bum-di-bum
Give me a melody!

He has a point. I’ll still take Sondheim over Jerry Herman any day, though. “Penny In My Pocket” will take me nicely through the wetdown/soap/lather/scrub/rinse/shampoo/lather/rinse/conditioner/set/rinse cycle. But leaves me with a somewhat emptier feeling.

Preview “Opening Doors” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Yes, I know…you can also get it from iTunes and elsewhere. But anything you buy on Amazon after clicking this link results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits, which I assure you will be spent on foolish but fun things.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

Sondheim Week! Day One: “Getting Married Today”


Album Art

Getting Married Today

Original Broadway Cast

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Genre: Broadway

All morning long, I’ve been reading blog posts about everyone’s favorite childhood Sondheim Week memories. I’m sure I had the same reaction as you did:

“It’s that time of year? Again? But the stores have only just taken down their Jerry Herman decorations!”

It seems to come sooner every year, doesn’t it? And the crass commercialization of what was originally meant to be a spiritual reflection of the healing power of musical comedy can turn almost anybody cynical about the whole thing.

But a funny thing happens. You realize that your grumblings about the giant inflatable Hal Prince in front of the drugstore was mostly for show. You didn’t want to let on that the first time you saw the iconic “Follies” posters hanging in the shop windows, you were instantly transported back to that shiny day in second grade when Mandy Patinkin dropped in as a surprise during a school assembly and sang two numbers from “Sunday In The Park With George” and then one from “A Little Night Music” as an encore.

Oh, sure…now you realize that it was just the gym teacher in a Mandy Patinkin costume — a shabby rental version that circulated around all of the schools in the district during the week, at that — but I ask you: does that knowledge diminish the magic of the moment? Or prevent you from wanting to dress up as Mandy Patinkin or Elaine Stritch for your kids some day?

I’m just saying that you never get too old to be affected by the Spirit of Sondheim Week. I’m kind of ashamed to have never celebrated it publicly before now. I hope to make up for it this year by keeping Sondheim Week in my heart the whole week long, just like Greg Evigan promised at the end of that 1988 holiday special that ABC never seems to run any more.

I really wanted to embed a clip from that show. I still get chills every time I see him racing through the now-unfamiliar streets of his hometown, tearing down the omnipresent banners for “Gavin Macleod’s ‘Aqualung: A New Musical'” and desperately calling for the angel who’d granted him his hasty, angry wish that Stephen Sondheim had never been born.

Alas, Sony issues a takedown notice to YouTube three seconds after anyone posts anything from that show. So I’ll link to something else that’s relevant: this clip of a student singing the patter song from “Company” on a BBC television show.

Degree of difficulty: she’s performing in front of Sondheim himself, during a master class televised to all of England, in a venue where Sondheim will interrupt and correct you if you’re doing anything wrong at all.

Did you just have one of those Sympathy Vomits? I sure did.

I love everything about this clip. It’s obviously a terrific performance; not just well-sung, but well-acted. I love the shot of Sondheim leaning out to get a good look at her while she performs. He’s grinning like a composer who knows that his song is being performed right,. His eyes are narrowing like seasoned NASCAR spectator who knows exactly how dangerous this particular race is and is wondering if this next, tricky curve is where she finally buys it.

I also like to imagine her parents watching at home or in the audience. What a wonderful moment for her. I’ve no idea what became of her after this televised master class. Even if her passions led her somewhere other than musical theater, she has this glorious memory of doing something very tricky in front of the one person in the world who can give her a categorial pass/fail. This is like the Marshall McLuhan scene in “Annie Hall,” for real.

I have a new appreciation for this song thanks to Sondheim’s two-volume set of annotated lyrics: “Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made A Hat.” Sondheim goes through all of his music, show by show and song by song and his notes focus on the song- and show-making process.

It’s not as though I was blind to the fact that songwriting is work. It’s just that I figured, you know, he just sort of sits down and writes these things. But of course, the artist’s ideal is to reveal the art and obscure all of the technique.

The video gave you the context of “Getting Married Today.” The bride is having a panicky meltdown on her wedding day. Sondheim’s notes in the book break down her breakdown. For example: why do none of the lines rhyme, as the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs do? Because, he explains, her brain is going in a million directions; her thoughts aren’t orderly enough to form rhymes. Sondheim also talks about the need to help out the singer and string together words that can be sung rapid-fire. I feel foolish for thinking that he just wrote the words and left the rest as a problem for the performer.

There’s another thing I like about this song: the role was originated on Broadway by Beth Howland. The name might not be familiar to you. She went on to play the ditzy waitress Vera on the sitcom “Alice.” And if the sitcom “Alice” isn’t familiar to you, you’re probably over the age of forty. It aired from the mid-seventies to the mid-Eighties.

In my personal understanding of the real world, performers like Beth Howland are the closest thing to actual superheroes. I knew her in her secret identity, as a name I kind of could remember from a show I sort of watched when I was a little kid. But later on, I learned that “mild-mannered sitcom supporting actress” was merely her secret identity: in her superpowered guise, she originated a role in a Sondheim musical before she moved to LA and got into TV. To me, that’s as close as I’ll ever get to finding out that this reporter I know at the Sun-Times is actually Superman.

We can refer to this as The Charles Nelson Reilly Effect. On TV, he was far more mild-mannered than Beth Howland. As far as I knew, he was famous because he was on TV, he was on TV because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because the man in the suit who introduced him at the start of “Match Game” said he was. How on earth can a man have starring roles in the original casts of two of the most famous musicals from one of the most famous eras of Broadway history, and that doesn’t come up in the introduction?

That’s like being introduced to “a retired college professor” at a dinner party and then, a week later, the host asks you if you enjoyed spending two hours with Neil Armstrong.

You know how Twitter has “verified accounts” for people who (for whatever reason) satisfy some metric of high-profile-osity? I favor the formation of federal agency to create a “Verified Interesting” designation. Yes, I know…everybody has interesting experiences or stories. But I feel as though someone who has walked on the Moon or who has been directed by Sondheim or was on the original Macintosh hardware team should be issued a laminated card containing this piece of information (in three languages) and ought to be required to present it every time they’re introduced to someone.

To make it worth the hassle, perhaps the card would also be good for a 20% discount on any speed recorded by any member of law enforcement on any interstate highway. So: if you were part of the work crew that restored the Statue of Liberty in 1985, the cops can’t ticket you for doing 75 in a 65 mile per hour zone. Just hand over the card along with your license when the trooper pulls you over, and be prepared to tell at least one good story about what it’s like to rappel down Lady Liberty’s face.

Preview “Getting Married Today” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why aren’t I linking to the same track on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play?

Partly because Amazon is the most ecumenical and simple way to preview a track without linking to a bootleg on YouTube. And mmmostly because I have an Amazon Associates account and if you buy anything at all after clicking on one of these links, I get a small kickback. Which, I assure you, will be spend on foolish things for my personal enjoyment.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

“You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (from “Gypsy”) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 8

Album Art

You Gotta Get A Gimmick

Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, & Julie Halston

Gypsy (2003 Broadway Revival Cast)

Genre: Soundtrack

It’s another damn Monday. Let’s do another show tune, eh?

I saw the 2003 revival of “Gypsy” during its surprisingly brief run on Broadway. Shocked, I was, that I could get tickets for a classic musical in a big-budget revival with a big-name director and a big-name star…

(Note: a star of musical theater, not someone who made it into the Top 6 in season four of “American Idol”)

…for half-price on the day of the performance.

Clearly, the environment that had allowed this show to close early is populated by idiots because it was fantastic. The staging was creative and engaging and the whole experience underscored why I love live theater, and how deeply I wish I could see more shows.

Here’s an example. “Gypsy” follows Gypsy Rose Lee’s path through show business, from her beginnings as a child vaudeville performer to mainstream stardom as a burlesque performer. The real star of the show is Mama Rose. Denied acknowledgement of her own talent and potential, she drags her two daughters into show business just to prove to the world how wrong everybody was to deny Mama her rightful place in the spotlight.

The conceit of the show’s design was that the physical sets got bigger as the show progressed. At the very end of the show, when Gypsy’s a huge star, she strips on a glitzy stage set that fills the whole dimensions of the Schubert Theater’s actual stage. But the first time we see her perform as a little girl alongside her sister, it’s on a fake theater stage about two thirds that size, with its own proscenium arch. The rest of the Schubert stage is bare, all the way to the back wall.

Early in the show, we get to see the little girls’ whole stage act from start to finish. Meanwhile, you can see Mama Rose in the wings, through ambient lighting. She has no lines and no “business.” In fact, it’s not even set up to look like the wings of a stage. She’s just sort of stranded out there in Twilight Zone space after she makes her exit. You’re sort of wondering why Bernadette Peters even has to bother standing there when she could be relaxing offstage for five minutes.

Ah: but in the middle of the girls’ performance, one of the two little girls has a costume change. The girl dances off of the fake stage into the wings, where Mama Rose helps her do a quick-change in time for her re-entrance after the other girl’s solo. Again, there’s no special lighting, dialogue, or business. The audience’s attention is clearly supposed to be on the solo performance taking place on the mini-stage.

You see what I’m getting at? The director had this great idea of having the fake theaters get larger as the show progresses. But at some point in the planning, everyone’s faced with the fact that this real girl needs to do a real costume change…only now, she really has nowhere to go to do it.

There’s only one way out of the problem. Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, who’s being paid a hell of a lot of money, has to act as this little girl’s dresser. Sure, that makes sense from a dramatic point of view. Mama Rose would be standing just offstage, and she would be helping her kids change. But I’m certain that in six to eight performances a week, during those thirty seconds, Peters wasn’t playing the role of Mama Rose. It was way, way more important that she be a damned good dresser and made sure that a fellow castmember was in full costume by her next cue.

The second act is full of big, showstopping numbers. This is one of them. At this point, Mama Rose’s tyrannical obsession with success has driven away one of her two daughters and the manager who was this close to becoming Mama’s husband and allowing Mama and Gypsy to finally have normal lives. Now it’s driven her to this: she’s pushed her youngest daughter into stripping in burlesque. A few established — I suppose the adjective “weatherbeaten” wouldn’t be a stretch — pros help the newly-christened Gypsy Rose get ready for her first strip.

I loved the song and the performance. But I also loved the backstage — sorry, the “real backstage,” not the “fake backstage” — stuff. I didn’t spot any of these three women in the first act. They were probably understudying other roles. With their minimal onstage involvement in the rest of the show, I think these three performers would have summarized the story of “Gypsy” thusly:

  • (blah, blah, blah)
  • In a powerful scene that acts as the obvious emotional and dramatic center of the show, three wise women teach the young Gypsy Rose Lee everything she needs to know about dancing…and, about life; Gypsy leaves their tutelage with all of the tools she needs to finally assert herself and rise above the minor supporting castmember who plays her insane and domineering mother.
  • (blah, blah, blah…curtain.)

The theater is a bit like baseball, or at least Al Capone’s description of it. Yes, you’re out there playing as a team, but for most of the players theres also an opportunity for individual accomplishment.

(And then you beat your rival to death with a bat.)

I do like the fact that for a full four minutes and fifty seconds, not including ovations, the entire show is about these three women. And boy, do they perform the song that way.

If you own a +10 Sword of Dispersement of Broadway Magic, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” still holds valuable lessons. It’s pretty much everything you need to know about successful Internet marketing. “A blog about serialized graphical storytelling” won’t get much traction. But if you tell me “I make fun of ‘Mary Worth’ and other comic strips several times a week” within a few days, I’ll be buying tee shirts from your online store.

Listen to “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

My own gimmick is to somehow bamboozle you into clicking an Amazon Associates link, so that I can get a small kickback from all of your Amazon purchases. Because paying to have my own personal and private bouncy-house in my office would just be silly.

(Yes, it’s office equipment. How stupid would I look if I had an important briefing and a Google project director walked in and saw me writing inside a sofa-cushion fort? Use your head!)