Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Sondheim Of Music

I was recently discussing with a friend how prickly Stephen Sondheim can be. Yes, that's the sort of conversations I have.  Sondheim takes his work seriously, and doesn't appreciate it when others mess with it.  He's even had old friendships torn asunder when he criticized bad performances of his material.  He also will defend the work of other top Broadway composers when their work is done poorly.

One of the memorable moments of the recent Oscars was Lady Gaga's tribute to The Sound Of Music.  I thought she did a respectable job--not inspired, perhaps, but better than most pop singers would do.

Stephen Sondheim is less impressed

...she was a travesty.  It was ridiculous, as it would be from any singer who treats that music in semi-operatic style. She had no relationship to what she was singing. What people liked was her versatility.

He's not entirely wrong.  She doesn't fully connect with the songs, but then, she's just doing a tribute on a show that's about pageantry, she's not actually in The Sound Of Music.  And Gaga is certainly better than Carrie Underwood was a few years ago when she did the show live on TV, though that's setting the bar pretty low.  There are a number of Broadway singers who could have done a better job, I suppose, but let them perform at the Tonys where they belong, the Oscars are about big names.

The funny thing is I don't really like the tunes in The Sound Of Music that much, and I wonder how much Sondheim does.  He certainly recognizes the greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, though he's also been willing to attack them when he doesn't feel their work is up to a certain standard.

He's had relationships with both men.  Hammerstein was his mentor, the man who taught him the ropes.  Of course, by the time The Sound Of Music--the last show by R&H--was on Broadway, he was Hammerstein's professional contemporary, as his lyrics to Gypsy were being heard at a nearby theatre.  The Sound Of Music was and is a far bigger hit, but I think the score to Gypsy has held up considerably better. (Sondheim has mocked Hammerstein's attachment to birds--just what does "a lark that is learning to pray" mean, anyway?) After Hammerstein's death, Sondheim wrote a score with Rodgers--Do I Hear A Waltz?--that didn't make it, and the two didn't get along.

Anyway, even if he comes across as a grumpy old man, it's good to have people who are hard to please, people who want to maintain certain standards.  Though let's hope Sondheim's not around when some as-yet unborn singer tears into a medley of Into The Woods on its 50th anniversary.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Standards" A slippery concept at best. Implies a higher level of understanding and appreciation which may be undeserved.

In terms of professional opinions, I would style them "conceits" or "preferences."

I think the political types call it "values"

6:13 AM, March 18, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I thought standards was an interesting word choice, since a secondary meaning is classic Tin Pan Alley tunes.

In any case, I don't think it's meaningless, or even that slippery. There will always be differences of opinion, but that doesn't make it entirely subjective.

9:03 AM, March 18, 2015  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

One fairly objective criteria (not a sufficient one, but it might be a necessary one), is reliability, in the statistical sense. Which is to say, can it be reliably repeated?

That wouldn't answer A's validity objection, but it's a start.

3:43 PM, March 18, 2015  

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